A Brief Guide to Finding Your First Research Lab

Congratulations! You have gone through polishing your application essay, asking professors for recommendations, undergoing the interview process, and have finally received the long-awaited offer letter. You may think that you have gone through the hard parts of seeking a research position; however, finding a research lab could just be equally challenging as applying for an internship. Listing down general interested areas, contacting professors, and making final commitment could all be intimidating. Therefore, I decided to base on my own experience to write a quick guide that I wish existed last year to help you find the most suitable lab for you.


     1. Identify a few personally interested areas

Without clear goals and directions, we would just be clueless flies that chase after lights for no reason. In my opinion, for your first research project, your personal interest in it should be the first priority. This research experience might be a critical experience that you base your decision on when deciding whether or not you are going to pursue a graduate degree. A more compelling project would much more likely make the experience enjoyable. And as a direct result you might be able to make greater progress in your project. Therefore, you want to identify a few interesting areas and set them as the general directions when finding potential research labs. The general areas could be as broad as green energy, or as specific as quantum metrology, as long as you are interested in the subject.


     2. Look into the research webpages of your department and a few institutes on campus

Assume that you are in a major that you are passionate about, it is always a good idea to start with your own department. For instance, I wanted to work on projects that involved optics or superconducting devices. I went on the condensed matter experimental physics research webpage and identified a few labs by searching for these key words.

I also recommend looking into webpages of CNSI, Institute for Energy Efficiency, and MRL. They are all very active research institutes and many novel and interesting research projects can be found here.


     3. Contact professors to set up appointments

Contacting professors could seem daunting. However, I found that professors generally are delighted when students show interests in their research. I sent emails to professors written in a general format:

I first briefly introduced myself the internship program that I was doing. It is important to mention that your program provides funding for you, as it is perhaps the best selling point for yourself at this stage of your career. Then I proceeded to talk about how their research interested me and how their lab would be an ideal place for me to explore certain subjects further.Finally, I closed the email by asking if the professor would like to meet in person to discuss any possible research project. Since you already have funding with you, from my own experience, many professors would agree to schedule appointments with you.

The bottom line is: try to contact all the professors that you would like to work with. If they think you are not suitable for their lab due to limited experience and knowledge, they would just email you back and tell you that you are not the best candidate for their research projects. It is always better to hear a polite rejection than wondering what could have been different if you had gotten in touch with the other lab when you are working on a project that you are less passionate about. Also note that professors are extremely busy. Please do not be too worried if the professors don’t reply within one week.


     4. Give thorough thoughts before committing

After you have met with all the professors, reexamine what each lab offers and what the projects could lead you to. It is important to pick a project that truly interests you and would allow you to gain the most relevant skills and knowledge to your own field.  Professors would not want someone that is not truly passionate about the project working in their lab. With that being said, don’t rush through your decision and talk to your program advisor or academic advisor when you are having trouble deciding which lab to commit to.


If you have been provided funding, you have proven that you are an intelligent hard worker that people are willing to invest federal grant in. So, why not pick a project that you would happily put in 100% of your effort into and gain the most from the experience? Remember that finding a lab is just as important as any aspect of the internship application process. I wish you luck to finding a project that you are truly excited about!