Finding Undergraduate Research

Preparing Yourself for Undergraduate Training

Talk to lots of people and listen to their advice:

  • Other undergraduates that do research
  • Your Faculty advisor and/or student advisors
  • Professors in classes
  • Grad and Undergrad TA’s

Wait until you find your passion

  • Your courses may clarify the correct research field for you
  • Good grades, enthusiasm and a true interest in research will help you get into a lab!
  • Take related classes to learn the theory behind the research
  • Make sure you have ample time in your schedule to spend 12-20 hours/week on your project – many seniors dedicate over 20 hours/week in the lab

Options to perform biology-related research

  • C3500 is an independent research course for credit, which requires the student to find a mentor/laboratory
  • SURF is independent research during the summer for which the students are paid a stipend. Once you apply to SURF, the mentors you select when you apply to the SURF program review your application and select students. You can only participate in the surf program once.
  • Work as a paid technician in a lab
  • Work Study

Generate a list of professors whose work you are interested in.

  • Comments like “I am interested in molecular biology” or “I want to do clinical research” won’t get you too far. These comments are way too general. The faculty are interested in one thing - what they work on!
  • Go to the surf website to check out the research interests of Columbia faculty. Read some of the reference from their lab. Look at their web pages.
  • Find out what it is like to work in the lab:
    • Check with your friends for undergrad comments about the lab
    • Ask the professor to let you visit the lab or get email addresses of undergrads that work with her/him.

Contact the professors on your list

  • Many labs are popular places so start early. It can’t hurt to contact the professor the semester before you want to do research.
  • In most cases, send the professors an email telling them something about yourself and why their research is interesting to you. You have to sell yourself to the faculty and encourage them to talk to you. Items to mention:
    • Excellent grades
    • Interest in attending graduate school
    • Previous lab experience, especially if it is in their area
  • Faculty will be thrilled to talk to you about that topic if you have some passion and enthusiasm about it.

Ask to make an appointment to talk with them about their research.

  • Be politely persistent! It will show that you have the commitment and energy to work hard on their research

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Research experience will not make up for poor grades when you apply to medical school or graduate school.
  • Research is essential if you are applying for graduate schools, but again you will need good grades to be considered. Research will give you something to talk about in your interview, but only if you can talk intelligently about your project.
  • A letter from a PI is worth a lot, especially if you are planning to go into research.  The letter is frequently more important than a grade and may be more important than the pay (depending on your financial situation).
  • The term “independent research” is confusing to both students and faculty. At Columbia University, the term independent means that a student has their own project to work on and think about in collaboration with a faculty member, graduate student, post-doc, technician, or other undergraduates. It does not mean that you have to have an idea in mind to approach a faculty member.
  • Few undergraduates at Columbia University get paid to do research. In most cases, paid positions are assistant or lab support positions.