How did I join 5 labs in 2 years?

The title may appear to be an impossible feat, but it is achievable. Let’s start from an email.

Writing an email:

Two years ago, in U1, I emailed multiple professors to forage an available lab. However, I got ignored. It turned out the titles of the emails I had sent, such as “Volunteering in a lab” and “Paid research assistant position”, had a problem.

If I could go back, I would title the emails as such: “BIOL396 Research Course Supervisor”.

To start off, the chance of getting paid as an undergraduate student is essentially nil unless you could code proficiently. So, let’s forget about the money.

A research course such as BIOL396 spans across multiple departments to tailor to whatever the department your supervisor is affiliated. For example, if your supervisor is in the Pharmacology Department, take PHAR396. For a professor, instead of pointlessly having students volunteering in a lab once a week, offering students a project is more sensible. A project could require students to commit 20-40 hours a week in a lab. McGill has designed research courses to confer undergraduate students an independent research project, which reciprocally grants a professor a complete control over a student’s grade. This leaves students with no choice but to commit to their projects. Taking a research course during the summer is also allowed. Most people get A- or A from a research course.

Here is a link: http://www.mcgill.ca/science/research/ours/researchcourses

The email itself should contain 4-5 sentences (6 maximum), your CV and transcript (unofficial is fine).

 

Which email would you swipe if you were a professor?

Here is my past successful email, albeit slightly modified:
“I am going be a U3 Anatomy and Cell Biology student who is interested in the hearing capacity of humans. As a competitive clarinetist, I appreciate the process of auditory sensation; It would be wonderful if I could pursue my interest in pathology of ears by working in your lab as a part of X-credits research course such as XXXX. Also, I love your concise writing style; I have seen many researchers writing convoluted sentences but I really appreciate how your sentences are short and simple! 

The attached files are my CV and transcript. Unfortunately, I will not be in Montreal until late August.”

I bolded the important parts. You should do the same. The bolding shows that you respect professor’s time. Invest one sentence each to introduce yourself, express your interest in their research and compliment the professor (writing style, fanciful lab techniques, etc.). So, when did I get a reply from the professor I had emailed? Within two hours. Once you get a reply, the professor might ask you to meet in person in his/her office or accept you immediately. The email above brought about the latter result. Professors oftentimes interview students to meet them in person and assess their interest in their research speciality.

 

It is okay to switch your lab:

Graduate or medical schools could appear to value involvement longevity from applicants, but knowing this, I have hopped across labs in different departments to explore my interest. For example, I joined a Facial Recognition lab in the Ophthalmology Department during last summer as an Anatomy student after I had finished a pharmacology project (surprise, surprise). By poring over papers, I picked up psychophysics and the visual neuroscience from scratch. During this summer, I will be attending international conferences presenting my disparate works ranging from pharmacology to the visual system. In fact, exploring different scientific realms would be impossible as a graduate student as one would have to sign to a letter of agreement that delineates one’s future long-lasting commitment to a supervisor. So, take this ephemeral opportunity as an undergraduate student to be venturous.

 

If you have any question, please shoot me an email: seung.min@mail.mcgill.ca

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