How to get your foot in the research lab door…

Are you interested in research and want to know more, or have you already determined that this could be the career path for you? You need to start somewhere to gain experience in a lab…but how do you get your foot in the door? One idea could be to join a lab for the summer. Below you’ll find some wise advice from Senior Lab Manager Tobias Karlsson, based on a lecture arranged by Studenter i Forskning (transl. Students in Research).

First, you must think about a few “WHYs”…
Obviously, gaining experience is the goal here, but you must ask yourself WHY you would like to spend the summer in a lab NOW?  Is this the right time? If so, do you know what to expect? How can you make the most of a short experience?

One summer is not long enough to generate any great discoveries, so you must focus on other reasons than contributing to scientific advancement. Do you just want to get your feet wet? Do you want to learn a certain method? Is it a research field in particular that fascinates you? Do you want to confirm that academic research is the right track for you?

WHY lab groups take in summer students:

  • They enjoy teaching and having students in the lab – curious students bring energy!
  • They view you as a talent worth investing in – labs always welcome great minds!
  • They have simple but time-consuming tasks that are ideal for a curious student.
  • They have space in the lab during the summer when group members take vacation.

Reasons vary from lab to lab. So figure out how the lab you are interested in works and why they could use a student for the summer. That will give you a head start.

Why does the WHY matter? A student is a great investment both in time and money for any lab. It will take time before you are independent, so you will need supervision to start. Thus, the group must be convinced you are worth it.

If you know your own WHY, it will be easier for you to build your case and make the initial contact. You’ll feel more confident if you know what to say and if your own expectations are clear.

How can you increase your chances? Well, the best answer is to do your homework. A lot of information about a research group is accessible on ki.se and Researchgate, and with the help of Google. Read the lab’s research articles and, when you contact the supervisor, highlight that you have read the group’s publications. Asking a few well-thought out questions shows that you have a genuine interest. You do not have to understand everything to the smallest molecular detail, but with a little effort, you will stick out compared to others who are not so well prepared. Remember also that no answer at the beginning is not a “NO”, people are just busy, so try again. Even an initial “NO” could become a maybe, or even a YES. Be persistent! Situations in research labs change, researchers and projects come and go, and the perfect opportunity for you may suddenly appear. And besides, researchers admire persistence. Do not be shy…and do not give up!

So how do you reach out? The group leader is often very busy, but junior researchers and postdocs usually need a pair of helping hands. Lecturers are also good people to contact, but they often meet a lot of students, so you might not be the only student asking for help. If you happen to know other students already involved in research, they might be a good first point of contact. Use your network and be aware of what is happening at KI- like who has received grants recently, who is leading cutting-edge research, and who might be expanding soon…

When the “YES” comes – be prepared and have your references ready. With your completed homework in mind, be ready to present your own ideas and goals for a summer research opportunity. In the best case, familiarize yourself with experimental methods used in the lab during the semester. Be humble, as you will be there to learn. A lab likes a student who is helpful, curious, thorough and goal-oriented, but also ready to ask questions when in doubt and be open to admit your mistakes.

Note – After a summer research job, take some time to evaluate the experience. Were your expectations met? Do you need to test another field or lab? Has this time confirmed that research really is your dream career path? Then check out the pages on Doctoral education at ki.se for more information.

4 thoughts on “How to get your foot in the research lab door…

  1. Hi, my name is Giulia; I’m a Phd student in Italy. I’ve read the post ‘How to get your foot in the research lab door…’ and I found it very inspiring. I’m at the first year of my Phd experience and one of my goal is to do an experience in another lab, out of Italy and the KI would be a kind of dream!!! Are these summer periods also for Phd students or only for undergraduates one? Who should I contact for more information?
    Thank’s in advance
    Giulia

    1. Deer Giulia, I am happy to hear that you liked the post. You are free to contact the labs directly at the departments. All contact details are on the website. Under each department you will find the group leaders. https://ki.se/en/about/departments Good luck! For a summer period you might want to look into the opportunity at you own university to go on Erasmus+ Traineeship which is also open to PhD students. https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/opportunities/traineeships-students_en /Emma, Career Service

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