A Guide to Getting Started in Undergrad Research

By Guest Blogger

This post was contributed by guest blogger Eleanor Wang, a Research Specialist in Patrick Hsu's lab at UC Berkeley.

Most of the scientists I’ve met began doing research in their undergraduate years. We each have a unique “origin story,” but taking the first step into the world of academic research can be quite daunting. During my first year of college, I knew I wanted to try research, but had no idea what to expect. I had a lot of help from my peers, professors, and other mentors, and four years after I started college, I will be entering a PhD program to continue my scientific endeavors. I hope that this post can provide some perspective and advice to any undergraduate interested in getting a taste of the role of a scientist.

What is research?

I grew up knowing little to no biological or biomedical scientists and had no idea what the daily life of a scientist was like. The word “scientist” conjured up images of men like Albert Einstein and Bill Nye in their lab coats handling glassware with brightly colored hazardous liquids. Working in a lab is nothing like a typical part-time or 9-to-5 job. I had to ask to find out what a “postdoc” is, and that “PI” stood for principal investigator.

In basic science (as opposed to translational, biomedical, or applied sciences), people conduct research to answer questions about how the world works. As scientists, we probe beyond the realm of established theory. Realizing that textbooks don’t tell us everything there is to know is a strange and exciting revelation. Science in any field can generally be applied to improve our lives and solve global problems. Biomedical research, for instance, contributes heavily to medical practice, and understanding the scientific process can help us understand how new therapies can be developed and applied. The current pandemic serves as a striking example of the applicability and importance of research in basic biology, medicine, epidemiology, public health, and more.

The different positions in the lab depicted by hats piled on mascot Blugene's head. The many hats in the lab include: principle investigator (PI), undergraduate student, graduate student, postdoctoral researcher (postdoc), lab technician or research assistant, lab manager, administrative assistant, staff scientist, and visiting scholar or student.



A few of the most common roles that you’ll see in a lab.
Position Common tasks
Principle investigator (PI)
  • Runs the lab
  • Writes a lot of grants
  • Varying degrees of engagement with what happens in the lab
  • Official title is typically Professor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor
  • Sometimes teaches graduate and/or undergraduate classes
Postdoctoral researcher (postdoc)
  • Getting more scientific and professional training after earning a doctorate
  • Considered a "stepping stone" position to become a professor, or other scientific profession
Graduate student
  • Master's or PhD student
  • Works on a thesis project to earn a degree
  • "Rotation student" - some PhD programs have students rotate through a few labs, ~10 weeks per lab, before choosing one as their official thesis lab
Undergraduate student
  • Roles and responsibilities can vary
  • "Lab assistants" usually wash glassware, prep media, etc.
  • "Research assistants" are more involved in the science, experimental design, and execution. Can lead to an independent project.
Lab technician / Research assistant
  • Typically has a Master's or Bachelor's degree
  • Generally a short-term position (1-2 years)
  • Often a gap-year position taken to transition to the next career stage (ex: grad school, med school, industry)
Other roles you might see
  • Lab manager: managerial duties ex: order materials, lab maintenance
  • Administrative assistant: assists PI with admin duties
  • Staff scientist: similar role to a postdoc but more permanent
  • Visiting scholar/student: visiting from another university to perform research


Why should I try research?

Personally, I have always been a pretty curious person. I like to ask questions and think about the best way to answer those questions. I’ve met graduate students who enjoy the thrill of acquiring a piece of knowledge before anyone else in the world knows it—to be the first person to make a discovery. I can’t tell anyone else what the “correct” motivation to do science is, but I think reflecting on why it is we enjoy, or in some cases, don’t enjoy, is worthwhile and can help us make decisions about what we want to do in the future.

How do I get started with research?

I had no idea what my scientific interests were or what I wanted to do with myself when I was 18. I just knew I was interested in trying research, and if that’s where you’re at too, it’s a perfectly great place to begin. Here’s my advice:

Reflect on your personal interests

While it’s perfectly fine to be unsure, it helps to have a vague sense of what kind of research you would be excited about. I know quite a few friends who opted to join labs in cancer biology or neurodegenerative disease because they had close relatives suffering from similar diseases. Others were inspired by the imminent threat of climate change to study plant and marine biology, environmental microbiology, or biofuel production. There’s a lot out there worth exploring! Being excited about the science allows you to ask more interesting questions and your excitement will in turn inspire the people around you.

Be proactive

Rather than applying only to posted job offerings, the best research experiences typically come when people actively seek out science that genuinely excites them, and reach out to the PI to get involved. It not only demonstrates initiative and drive, but also makes for an experience more tailored to personal interests.

Talk to people, ask questions, and dig deep

Talk to your professors about their research, and learn about what makes them excited to do what they do. I would also highly recommend talking to other undergraduate researchers, as well as graduate students (your teaching assistants), about their experiences. Research requires dedication and effort, so building a strong understanding of what you’re getting yourself into is really important. 

As you’re talking to people, though, try to be conscious of who has your best interests at heart. A great piece of advice I’ve gotten is that not all advice is good advice, and it is ultimately up to us to decide whether we want to take it or not.

Choose wisely

This point ties into the previous one too. I would recommend applying for multiple positions—don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There are many factors that can make or break a lab experience. Previous Addgene blogs have discussed the process that goes into choosing a good scientific mentor and choosing the right lab. Remember that your time is valuable! Don’t jump on the first opportunity that comes your way. Think critically about whether it’s something you want to dedicate your time and energy to.

How can I make the most of my experience in the lab?

Ask your questions—especially if it’s scary.

I’ve been afraid to ask “dumb questions” and to make mistakes. Ultimately, though, scientists are all just people. I’ve found that in the right environment and with supportive mentors, being open and vulnerable about my struggles and what I don’t know yet has helped me cultivate stronger relationships with my labmates. Sometimes what I thought was a dumb and very basic question was actually a great one. Further, even if a question is a very basic one, making sure that you have a good fundamental understanding of what you’re working on is important! Better than leaving yourself in the dark, but if you never ask, you’ll never know. (Google is a great resource too.)

Connect with your labmates and mentors

  • Many of the grad students and postdocs I’ve met have done things that I never even imagined before I set foot in the lab. They’re also more than eager to help you along your path. Learning about their career paths and goals helped me reflect on what I wanted for my own future. Informational interviews with people who have taken career paths that you would be interested in can also help you clarify your goals and define next steps!
  • More than serving as resources for career advice and advancement, my labmates have been some of my closest friends and have often provided me with much-needed emotional support during my journey. When you are hunting for labs to join, one of the vital things to look for is a supportive environment—it makes all the difference in a lab experience.
  • Mentorship” was a bit of a foreign concept to me when I was in high school, but I’ve learned the value in finding mentors wherever I go. This story by Dr. Erika Moore in Science Careers discusses the importance of building a network of mentors.

Explore available resources!

  • Many online resources and articles about careers in science are geared towards grad students and postdocs—people who are a little ahead along their scientific career. I’ve found that the advice in these resources is still valuable for anyone in the lab though, including undergrads.
  • I found a lot of career resources on Science Twitter. I started by making an account, following interesting people, and just lurked online for a while and observed.
  • Apply for those scholarships that you don’t think you’re qualified for. Wayne Gretzky’s “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take” quote is definitely overused, but very true. I’ve found, in my own experience, that those who did not grow up with role models in science often feel less confident in their abilities and qualifications. Studies on imposter syndrome have also found that it is more common among first generation students, women, BIPOC, and other minoritized populations.
    • Research universities often have scholarships and funds dedicated for undergraduates interested in doing research and attending research conferences. The Barry Goldwater scholarship is also a national scholarship that supports students interested in pursuing a career in research. I applied, hoping that the experience would improve my scientific and application writing skills, and ended up with the award. We are often more qualified and capable than we know or believe we are.
    • Funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) and other summer research opportunities are also fantastic for broadening your experiences! These applications can be highly competitive, so asking for help from mentors and other students who have successfully applied to programs like these can be highly beneficial. I’ve made several close friends and found incredible mentors through my own summer experience.
  • Also look into presenting your research at conferences such as SACNAS and ABRCMS. These conferences have a lot of programming specifically dedicated for career advancement, and for students who hope to apply for graduate programs, recruiters will attend these conferences to answer questions and offer application fee waivers.
  • One of the blog posts that helped me quite early on was Christine Liu’s “How to Become a Scientist While Poor

Keep an open mind as you explore opportunities

  • The world of science is vast and ever-expanding. While it can be tempting to try to plan out a very distinct and certain path, embracing uncertainty can help you both in your career and while doing scientific research.
  • It’s okay to change your mind about what exactly you want to do—I started college thinking that I had to pick a few things to do and just stick with them for the next four years. But college, and science, are places for learning and growth! As you learn more about yourself and the world around you, it’s perfectly normal to realize that you have new interests and that you want to travel in new directions. During my grad school interviews, one of the professors I met told me, “you can’t be interested in something you don’t know about”. I’m going to be doing my PhD in Microbiology, but didn’t realize I was interested in microbes until the end of my second year!

Conclusion and other pieces of advice

Give yourself permission to pursue your own desired path. Careers in science are also not limited to working at a bench in academia or industry, so feel free to explore! Addgene has an entire page dedicated to different career options from science policy to science communication and much more.

I hope that these pieces of advice can help guide you towards a better understanding of what it’s like to work in science, and what it takes to build a fulfilling scientific career. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions about my experience, applying for graduate school, career options in science, STEM conferences for undergrads, or anything else you can think of to ask! You can DM me on Twitter @EleanorWang. I will do my best to answer or connect you with people I know who can help!

Download Addgene's science career guide

Thank you to our guest blogger!

Photo of Eleanor WangEleanor Wang is currently a Research Specialist in Patrick Hsu’s lab at UC Berkeley. She will be starting her PhD at UC Berkeley in Microbiology in fall 2021. She likes microbes, art, and activism, and some other things too. You can follow her on Twitter @EleanorWang.



References and resources


Canning EA, LaCosse J, Kroeper KM, Murphy MC (2019) Feeling Like an Imposter: The Effect of Perceived Classroom Competition on the Daily Psychological Experiences of First-Generation College Students. Social Psychological and Personality Science 11:647–657 . https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550619882032

Chrousos GP, Mentis A-FA (2020) Imposter syndrome threatens diversity. Science 367:749.2-750 . https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aba8039

Cordova FA (2016) Embrace uncertainty. Science 351:994–994 . https://doi.org/10.1126/science.351.6276.994

Moore E (2021) One mentor isn’t enough. Here’s how I built a network of mentors. Science. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.caredit.abi6939

Additional resources on the Addgene blog

Topics: Science Careers, Early Career Researcher

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