Advice for Students and their Advisors
Questions are encouraged from undergraduates, graduate students, research advisors, and administrators on topics related to mentoring, education, and broadening participation. Responses are formulated and reviewed by a panel of faculty and administrators experienced in the education and mentoring of students from diverse backgrounds, and are posted each month.
I’m a Freshman at a large university and plan to major in Biology. I have a high school GPA of 3.6, and my long-term goal is to either go to medical school or become a scientist. I’m thinking about getting involved in undergraduate research. Is this likely to help me get into a good graduate program or medical school? How do I get started, and when is a good time to join a lab?
I strongly encourage undergraduates who think they may be interested in science research or professional school to get involved in undergraduate research. This is a great way to develop a one-on-one relationship with a faculty mentor, and to experience first-hand the excitement that accompanies new scientific discovery. You are also likely to get a much more effective recommendation letter from a faculty member that you have worked with over a period of time. It is important, however, that you join a research laboratory at an appropriate time, when you will be able to devote the effort necessary to have an impact in the lab without affecting your grades. Your GPA is the first thing people will look at when reviewing your application for graduate or professional school, so you will want to join a lab after you are certain that your coursework and study skills are under control. The worst possible thing you can do is commit to working in a laboratory on a given schedule, and then cut back due to troubles with coursework.
For most students, I recommend that they spend their first semester focusing exclusively on their coursework. Earning an A in college requires much more effort than earning an A in high school, and you don’t want to have too many activities competing with the time you will need to devote to your studies. If your grades after your first semester are strong, you should arrange meetings with selected faculty to discuss potential research opportunities. Speak with faculty members who taught you in your first semester or are currently teaching you, and seek out others whose research described on their web sites sounds interesting. The best time to join a research lab is during the summer after your Freshman year, which will allow you to devote 40 hrs a week to your research project without being distracted by outside jobs, classes, etc. By the end of the summer, you should be well trained and capable of continuing your studies during the academic year on a schedule compatible with your classes. During the academic year, it is generally a good idea to spend at least three hours per day, three days per week, in the laboratory, to keep the project moving at a good pace and to stay in regular contact with your mentor and lab partners.