Recruiting undergrads for research

Feb 25 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

One of the things that made an enormous difference to me as an undergraduate was getting involved in research. Honestly, had I not done that my decent-but-not-spectacular grades would not have gotten me where I am today. Research got me going and that propelled me into a position to take off on this career path. As such, I like to try and get undergrads into my lab. Yeah, it's a lot of work getting them trained up, but if you can get a student early enough, the pay-off can be big.

With the lab resources dwindling and no clear safety net in play, I'm concerned about paying an undergraduate over the summer when that money might be critical down the road. However, there are programs at the university that students can apply for to get stipends for the summer and naturally I have been encouraging students who seem promising to do so. My classes have been fertile ground to identify students who might work well in my lab and the deadline nears.

But that leaves me in an awkward spot. I can't give these kids anything other than a letter of support to try and get them a position. However, if they get a fellowship, they are free to chose from a huge number of labs to pursue the research that most interests them. There are not many labs that will turn down a summer student with a stipend. So, I can encourage them to apply and let them know I think they are strong candidates, but I'm find it exceedingly difficult to figure out how to nudge them towards my lab.

With money in hand I can tell them "If you're interested, I would like to have you in the lab", but when they have to apply to get money I kinda feel like a jerk pitching my lab when there are a lot of options. I want these students to get the experience, in my lab or elsewhere, and that fine line between encouraging them and actively recruiting them (without knowing their real interests, while not sitting in a prof's office) has been hard to navigate.

I'm not sure why I am finding this difficult, it shouldn't be, but I've talked to two students so far and only managed to convince them to apply to the program. Suggesting specifically that the should consider my lab has just seemed awkward. As someone who typically has no problem working a conversation to my intended goal, I don't know what my problem is on this front. Maybe I just don't want them to feel like I'm trying to push them into something they don't want to do, I don't know. At the same time, since I'm not curing cancer or working with familiar organisms, I generally have to recruit if I want to get good people.

I think it's time to rethink my approach and find a better way to reel these kids in.

19 responses so far

  • Katharine says:

    Coming at it from the viewpoint of an undergrad:

    What if you're a student who gets responses like "You'd be a good fit for the lab, but we have no money"? Are people hesitant to accept people who'd just work for a line on a CV and a recommendation?

    Moreover, are there any programs out there that will offer a research stipend that's not attached to an institution or an obligation to go abroad or something else?

  • I think its totally fair to pump up your lab and tell them you want them, but they need to get a fellowship. Thats how science works AND in the long run, the sooner they start getting fellowships the better off they are. Money gets money.

  • Jen says:

    Are you able to take on undergrads during the school year? My PI has three undergrads who are all doing research for course credit (two independent study, one honors thesis). Because they all aspire to med/grad school, motivation hasn't been an issue - they spend many more hours in the lab than required. Each student has their own mentor in the lab (two grad students and a postdoc), so the benefit goes each way. Two students have applied for and were awarded summer research funding from the university, in part on the strength of their preliminary data.

    There are also several private foundations that provide money for summer research directly to PIs (such as the Murdock Foundation, for schools in the northwestern US). Some programs have stipulations (for example, some are open only to faculty from primarily undergrad institutions, and others are open to PIs at R1 universities, but funds can be used only for students from underrepresented groups). However, this would be another way to entice good students to your lab.

    A final alternative would be to partner with a nearby university. There are several primarily-undergrad state schools around here that don't have research facilities to support undergrad research, but have funds to pay students to do summer research elsewhere (the NIH-funded RISE program is one such mechanism). You provide the mentoring, the partner school puts up the money. In our case, many of these schools are minority-serving institutions, with a tangible broader impact for NSF grants, etc.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I have undergrads in the lab year-round, but they are most effective if you can get them for a summer and then through the next academic year. I have funded several in the past myself and have taken advantage of state and federal opportunities to pay for students over the summer.

    The difference this year is that A) I haven't had students approach me directly about working in the lab prior to this deadline coming up very soon, so I have been spreading the word about the program to student I could see in (a) my lab; and B) I don't have the funds to offer as a fall back if they don't get the fellowship. Well, I do, but it may not be the smartest allocation of resources right now.

    I don't take students for nothing. I either pay them or get them academic credit.

  • Heavy says:

    Don't feel weird about it. Just tell them that you'd love to take them if they get funding. You can offer to support them in future years if grant money comes through. Then explain why your lab is the best. If they go somewhere else to work on monkeys then so be it.

  • Dr. O says:

    Is the academic credit not an option during the summer? That way you don't need to compete with other labs for those students that do get a fellowship. My grad mentor never paid undergrads that did research with money...they always received course credit instead. And most of them got into very well-regarded grad programs as a result of their work, publications, and her recommendation letter.

    Also, I think actively recruiting them to your lab is perfectly acceptable. Focus on what you can offer them that another lab maybe can't - more one-on-one mentoring, fresh perspective from a younger PI, more publications since you're trying to get grants, etc. When I was an undergrad, the research spots were hard to come by, and students took what they could get.

  • grad student says:

    I know this is program/university/department specific, but when I was an undergrad it was incredibly rare to be paid; you got class credit and experience, maybe even the opportunity to get on a publication resulting from your work. Just tell them you'd be happy to have them in your lab, you just don't have money to pay a stipend and this program is a potential means to that. I think you should also consider that undergrads are shy around profs and can find it hard to ask you themselves- you offering makes it easier.

  • GMP says:

    Is the academic credit not an option during the summer?

    In my experience, students don't like to register for credits over the summer as then they have to pay tuition over the summer too.

  • Natalie says:

    Do you speak about the perks of your particular research in a class setting? It might be casting the net too wide, but if you tell them the neat things they'd be doing as a researcher in your field and throw out an approachable "If you are interested in this research come talk to me", you could rope in several students. The next step would be to tell them to apply to this program for funding (where the best and brightest are selected, presumably), then follow up with you.

    Keep your fingers crossed that the Venn diagram of interested vs. capable students snags some of the favorites you had already selected in advance.

  • Cherish says:

    Just looking at it from my experience as an undergrad: if you act like you want them, they will come. Doing research is terrifying, and if you are genuinely interested in getting them involved, they will want to work for you because you're a) actively recruiting them and b) more likely to be supportive once you've recruited them, meaning they will get more out of it.

    I would talk to them about options, such as work-study or grants. If you are going to write a letter for them, talk with them first about what they'd like to do in your lab. I would think that having a place for them where they know what they will be doing and are in agreement with it will make for a stronger letter. Also, chances are they don't want to move around tons as that results in learning all new stuff. If they're already working for you, chances are they'll keep wanting to work for you if you've got a project for them.

  • Um...

    Go ahead and tell them “If you’re interested, I would like to have you in the lab.” Even if you then have to explain the funding situation. Otherwise, they may not realise YOU'RE interested.

  • thehermitage says:

    If a PI had been interested enough to approach me, and help to guide me through the fellowship application process, I would have been perfectly happy to work for hir if I received it. The young'uns have egos too, ya know ^^.

  • Rxnh says:

    Undergrads as a rule don't understand how this "research
    game" works until they've worked in a lab, or have done their
    homework on the system. I don't know, if you're writing letters of
    support, it might be good to sit with them and talk about what they
    think they want to do AND the awesomeness of what you do. From your
    post, it sounds like you're selling yourself short. Besides, they
    are getting an awesome mentor, which is beyond important.

  • Lab Rockstar says:

    I don't think you should be shy about letting the little
    fellers know that you think they have potential and that you are
    specifically interested in having them in your lab. They have the
    rest of their lives to figure out what kind of science is gonna
    rock their world. As an undergrad, I was specifically asked by a
    super-famous researcher whom I worshipped from afar to join their
    lab (for credit). Instead I freaked out and decided I needed to
    work off campus for money, so I wouldn't have time. I see now I
    needed someone to spell things out for me and a swift kick in the
    pants. Please kick your undergrads in the pants. They will thank
    you later.

  • I agree with many of the previous commenters--many undergrads are extremely clueless about science outside the classroom and research in specific. I don't think you are pushing them into something they don't want to do as much as opening up a potential opportunity they may not be aware of.

    I admire your consideration for your students--I can't afford to pay undergrads anymore either, so I can only offer credit (or space to people with money). I also consider taking volunteers, depending on what they are looking for. Last summer, I took a volunteer who really wanted a strong recommendation letter for school applications. I have to say that worked out better than I expected--the student was really into the work, and did a great job. At a large school like Prodigal U, it can be really hard to get 3 meaningful letters from faculty, so the student was thrilled with the opportunity to get a strong letter. Just something to think about.

  • Principle Investigator says:

    I agree, you should at least suggest the possibility and tell them how cool your research is. As an undergrad, I was very shy, and when I approached my intro bio professor for a letter of recommendation for a research fellowship, he asked if I would consider doing research in his lab. I was thrilled (even though I had no idea what he was working on at the time), and getting that training with him as an undergrad totally set me up for grad school and eventually a faculty position.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I suppose I wanted to avoid come off as a hard sell to the students, but I suppose that certainly there is no harm in letting them know what we are up to and expressing interest in these particular students. If they want to work with us, that's up to them.

  • In my previous labs where I worked as a summer student I did not get paid but did it for the experience and potentially a letter later down the road. However, as a PhD student I realized the professor recruits many summer students with the idea that if you work hard on a project over the summer you will be an author on a paper. In my first real lab in science as an undergrad this eventually became true. I was third or fourth author on a really great piece of work. Most people when they finish their undergrad they might only have a decent GPA, some references from some professors but having a paper means a lot more than that I suppose. I know it helped me.

    Also offering beer is not a bad idea either.

  • [...] a Ph.D. student and a postdoc, with good results. Nevertheless, it has taken me some time, not only to recruit the students, but to find the right projects for them. With multiple very different projects happening in the [...]

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