How to Get a Research Position

Last updated on November 15, 2017

For graduate students, getting a research position is the end-all, be-all of success in the academic world. A research position is a metaphorical foot in the door, which can lead to job opportunities and network connections that will help you out a lot in your future.

But when you’re first coming into the graduate school world, the task of finding and obtaining a research position can be daunting. That’s why we’ve created this easy, step-by-step guide to help you on your way.

Step One: Beautify

We don’t mean put on some make up and your best dancing heels – save that for your free time. You have to make yourself attractive to any potential employers or professors who might hire you for research.

There are a number of things that hiring professionals look for in a candidate, though the actual criteria will change from person to person and from position to position.

Make sure you have the necessary skills.

This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s amazing how often people forget it. If you aren’t qualified for the position, no amount of hand-shaking and smiling will make up for it.

There are tons of skills that you might need, depending on what sort of research you want to go in to, but here are a few universals: experiment design, statistics, and computers.

  • If you can successfully design an experiment, it shows that you understand how experiments work, and can thus properly execute and part of the ones you are assigned.
  • If you understand statistics, then you will be able to interpret and extrapolate the data, without making rookie mistakes.
  • Finally, not being able to use a computer is a death sentence in modern society – this is a skill you should master, regardless of what you want to do with your life.

Make friends.

This might sound like the advice your mother gave you on your first day of kindergarten, but you should learn to listen to her more often.

People are your greatest resource, period.

They can introduce you to future employers, point you toward job opportunities, write recommendations, and provide moral support when the going gets tough. There are a few people in particular who you should make an effort to befriend: administrative personnel, and professors in your field.

Every chance you get, go to the building that organizes research for your department and have a conversation with the secretary. She might not have the most prestigious job, but she knows everything going on in the research department, and she’s on a first-name basis with everybody – which means she could be the break you’re looking for.

Similarly, make an effort to get to know your professors when you’re an undergrad, especially those teaching your specialty classes. Even if you don’t want to go to graduate school in the area, or you don’t want to do research in their field, it’s more than likely that they know somebody you would love to work for.

Plus, you’re going to need some letters of recommendation anyway.

Do undergraduate research.

You don’t have to wait until graduate school to start collecting experience.

Look for opportunities to join a lab as an undergraduate, even if it’s only as a volunteer. Even better, look into grants for undergraduate research, and pursue your own project, maybe in lieu of a senior thesis.

Showing that you can plan, organize, and execute a research project entirely on your own is a huge resume booster.

If you can pull this off, you might find yourself beating offers away with a stick.

Polish your resume.

Work on it until you can’t stand to look at it anymore. Then give it to a friend and let them tear it apart. Then work on it some more.

Your resume is the only way you can show who you are, so make sure you represent yourself well.

Step Two: Do Your Homework

There are tons of research opportunities out there, and it’s your job to find all of them – any position you’re even slightly interested in. The more you apply for, the better your luck will be in finding one.

To figure out where the best positions are, look back over your academic career.

  • Which classes did you enjoy the most?

Seek out the professors of those classes and ask for their advice. Even if they don’t have an opportunity available for you, they may know someone who does.

And while you’re digging through your notes, pull out the articles and projects that you enjoyed the most – the ones that stuck with you long after your grades were in.

  • Who wrote those articles?
  • Who designed those projects?

Write to these people. It may be a long shot, but even the most prestigious professors and researchers are just people. They like to be flattered, and they like to work with people who share their interests.

Then, go through the rest of your address book.

  • Who do you know?
  • Who might they know?

Ask your professors, your friends, your tutors and TAs, administrators like the secretary mentioned before – anybody who might know where job opportunities are.

Look through university websites, and email professors in other schools working in your field.

Check job postings at those schools.

You can never beat the bushes too much, and every new lead you dig up might be the one that gets you where you want to be.

Apply for everything. You can turn offers down once you’ve actually gotten them.

Step Three: Show Off

Congratulations. You have a research position. Now what do you do?

This is a question that people often forget to ask themselves. It’s easy to forget that the journey doesn’t end with getting the job – it’s all an experience, and you should share it.

Be sure to write to all of the people who helped you get there, and thank them for their advice and help. Offer your own help to people who are now in the position you were in before.

Don’t be stingy with your advice: even the tiniest tip or trick might make a huge difference for someone else.

If the research you’re doing is meaningful, take every opportunity to share that, too.

  • Ask your boss if you can present your findings at a conference, either on a regional or national level, or even just at an undergraduate conference.
  • If it’s okay with your adviser, try to publish.

Getting your name out into the field will open doors for you later, so the next time you find yourself hunting, the process will be far less arduous and stressful.

Who knows? If you play it right, you may not need to go looking – the jobs might come to you unasked.