The scoop on securing research positions as an undergraduate student
Here’s how undergraduate students searched for and secured positions in McMaster research labs
McMaster University is known for its expansive graduate and undergraduate research and innovation opportunities. Considered Canada’s most research-intensive institution, McMaster’s thriving research labs attract students with a variety of interests and backgrounds.
Research experience allows one to develop relationships with mentors, explore career or graduate education pathways and develop confidence in lab environments among several other transferable skills. However, with the undergraduate population growing each year, available research positions can feel hard to find.
“It was very much a game of chance. Realistically, no one from my year had any previous lab experience due to COVID-19, so it more came down to who showed the most interest in what that professor was studying,” said Lynn Hussayn, a third year psychology, neuroscience and behaviour student.
Hussayn worked as a summer research student in an epilepsy research lab at the University of Toronto. Like many students, Hussayn faced difficulty finding a research position at McMaster.
“The biggest piece of advice I would give [other students] is to search for things that you enjoy and actually have questions about. Research is meant to answer questions, so the best way of being at the forefront of something you’re interested in doing is to seek out people who are already doing it,” said Hussayn.
Jack Rosenbaum, a third year biology psychology student, also shared his own strategies for reaching out to labs from his experience as a research student in the McMaster PNB Dukas lab. He explained how he targeted his emails to graduate students from labs he was interested in instead of professors, as he thought they would be more likely to respond, which proved to be an effective strategy.
Rosenbaum also emphasized the importance of seeking out research projects that you connect with.
“If you’re really passionate about something and you show interest in a professor’s work, then I think you have a pretty good chance in working and volunteering in their lab down the road. But if you’re just doing it for your resume, I feel like professors can see through that,” said Rosenbaum.
Sarah Arnold, a third-year chemical and biomedical engineering student and the co-president of the McMaster Society for Engineering Research (Mac SER), explained how resources available through student services, such as resume and cover letter editing, are accessible and effective methods of upping your application game. Along with these services, Arnold noted Mac SER also offers helpful guidance on finding research positions.
“Throughout the year we did a bunch of different events that are aimed towards essentially helping students find [research] positions. We have different recordings on our YouTube channel of past events we’ve done where we go over in detail how we approach professors and how you can breach the idea of research,” said Arnold.
Arnold suggested using these available resources to ensure emails are formatted professionally and to make sure all documents are organized and concise. Arnold also acknowledged searching for a research position can be competitive and difficult regardless of the amount of effort you put in.
“One tip I usually give to people starting off this process is don’t be too hard on yourself. Similar to applying to competitive programs at university, or specific scholarships; it won’t always work out, and that’s okay,” said Arnold.
Arnold emphasized the importance of recognizing the paths we are on are unique and while we should continue to seek out guidance and insight from others, every individual experience is distinctive. Finding a balance in this dichotomy is key to getting involved with research you find meaningful while also fostering independence as an undergraduate student.