Small Pond Science

Better recruitment of undergrads for research

How do undergraduate students wind up in labs doing research? What’s the best way to identify students to bring into the lab?

There are a few ways that labs do this, and I think that the size of the lab and the size of the institution are associated with the approach.

In some shops, all positions are posted to a job board, involving a formal application. On the other end of the spectrum, it might be all by informal word of mouth. Perhaps there’s an application process that’s not well advertised. Or maybe it’s just left up to the devices of grad students. In a lot of circumstances, students are invited to join the lab on the basis of their performance in coursework.

Most of the students in my lab got there as the result of an invitation. I notice that a student is particularly engaged and curious. I ask if they’re interested in doing research. They say it sounds really cool but they have no experience or related abilities. And I say you don’t need experience and you’d be great at it. And so they start spending a bit of time in my lab, and if it works out, they end up spending a lot more time in my lab (for credit, or for pay if I happen to have the funding). When I’ve conducted a fully-funded mentored field experience (in Costa Rica or Australia), then I’ve advertised to all eligible majors to apply, and also chat it up with a variety of students before the deadline.

I think a lot of different approaches can work, depending on the context. What’s important is transparency — that the students involved in the process understand how decisions are made, and that the process is fair and reasonable.

I think one place where a lot of us fall short is how we identify potential research students in the first place. I think there are a lot of very talented students who never end up in our lab, because our mechanisms of recruitment leave them behind. Why is this? Two key points:

  1. A lot of students who would enjoy and excel at research aren’t even aware that this is an option for them. Research isn’t on their radar at all as a possibility.
  2. Some students have more unearned confidence than others. A lot of students feel that they won’t be considered competitive for a position in a research lab and are unlikely to approach a faculty member or fill out an application.

Why does this matter? Because it’s an equity issue. The students who are less likely to voluntarily step into your office and say, “I want to do research,” are disproportionately first-generation or come from from marginalized ethnic groups.

If we’re trying to build the best lab, then we need to actively seek out students who are great for research, but are not going to be approaching us for opportunities. This really matters because undergraduate research experiences are typically the launching point for research careers. If we want to build a diverse research community, this is one of many critical phases.

How can you do this? Yes, okay, advertise. But also, make a point to approach students and invite them in. And seek out student organizations (like a SACNAS chapter) that can help recruitment. If you’re posting a formal ad, be sure to specify that experience is not required of undergraduates, and that training comes with the position, and that motivation and curiosity are more important than GPA.

It’s not only okay to recruit through informal routes, it’s important — that way you’ll have the chance to invite students into your lab who think that it’s not a space that welcomes them.

And, I shouldn’t have to say this, but of course, be sure to make the distinction between lab techs and student researchers crystal clear. If you have someone there just to wash dishes and make solutions, then they’re not being trained in research. A lot of labs operate using undergrads as unpaid labor without offering actual mentorship towards a research career. Those folks need to bone up on their ethics.