Here’s a short article by the Ubyssey Editorial Board that’s worth a read, meant for everyone but especially those of you who were stressed this final exam period: “Last Words: Your Wellbeing is Worth More than Your Grades“. Wishing you all the best this holiday season. <3
Step 2: Submitting an Application
Some labs will specify what they want in their application, but what all applications boil down to is pretty much this: your transcript (a screenshot of your grade summary off of SSC is fine, no need to pay that fee at Brock Hall), your C.V., and a cover letter.
Most labs require a minimum GPA for you to be an RA (usually 75 % or 80 % and above). If you don’t meet that GPA, you can always try to explain in your cover letter why you might still be an excellent candidate, but please, please don’t photoshop your transcript. You know why.
Unlike what your Planning 10 teacher might have told you in high school, a C.V. is not exactly like a resume. It’s more focused on your academic achievements, and you can get a sense of what I’m talking about by looking up the C.V.s of the PIs you’re thinking of contacting. Yours doesn’t have to be as extensive, though, especially as you don’t yet have your Masters and PhD, ha ha. Stick to the resume rule of being no longer than two pages, and you should be fine. Of course, try to tailor the experience you put on your C.V. to what you think might be relevant for the lab. Previous lab experience is great, but assuming you don’t have that, say, if the lab you’re applying for studies infants and you used to volunteer at a day camp for preschoolers, that’s a legitimate point to note down. At least the PI/lab manager(s) will know that you can interact with people just fine.
Most people forget a cover letter. Don’t! Sure, you can just email a PI/lab manager your transcript and C.V. saying, “Here’s my application, Please consider it. Byyyyeee!!!!”, but why not put in a tad more effort? For your cover letter, you don’t want to write a novel, but you do want to include enough information to convey who you are, what experience you might have that makes you a good candidate, and your reasons for wanting to join the lab. Most PIs should have a website that lists the papers they’ve published. It would be in your best interests to go over some of these papers, or at least the abstracts, and note one or two in your cover letter that you found particularly rad to show that you are actually keen on the research of the lab.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get an immediate reply, or even a rejection! I got every response from no replies (this also happened to my friend this summer, so perhaps this is not all that uncommon) to a kind reply about how the PI whose research I was really, really interested in was actually retired (!) and chilling in Papa New Guinea (!!) to a few requests for interviews. In fact, the first interview I was about to have I never got to go to, because later on I learned I needed a lab for PSYC 366, and the lab I wanted to work in couldn’t accommodate. The struggles of applying to be an RA are like the struggles of applying for a job: people get hired when they have past experience in the field, but how are you supposed to get to that point when you have no experience??? My friends, the tough answer is perseverance.
Step 3: Mastering the Interview
Interviews are conducted differently for each lab. Some questions you might be asked are: What are you planning to get out of being an RA? What experience do you have that’s relevant for XYZ, which is a common RA task in this lab? Are you planning to pursue research further after you graduate? My advice? Be honest, and if you really want to be a part of this lab, let your enthusiasm show! In my experience, this is just as much an opportunity for the interviewer to tell you more about the lab as it is for you to convey why you want to be in the lab. Labs need people to run, and it’s best to know from the get-go whether you and the lab are a good fit. Positive feelings have to be mutual.
Step 4: What Next?
There are two kinds of labs; wet labs and dry labs. Think micropipettes for the former and human participants for the latter. As an RA for either of these labs, you’re likely to start out doing administrative work: cleaning, preparing solutions, booking, data entry etc. Take this as an opportunity to explore the workings of your lab a little more, like the people and the research. Once you get a feel for this, if you’re still pretty enthusiastic about what you’re doing, consider asking the PI to take on more work. From my experience, there’s always room for growth as an RA, even if you are just an undergraduate student. I’ve known RAs who’ve taken on actual studies and had their names included in research papers and RAs who have presented in conferences from BC to Texas. If you’re just starting out, consider presenting for UBC undergraduate conferences like LSURC and MURC.
Being an volunteer RA allows you to move onto other positions in the lab that allow you to take on more responsibility. For Psychology/BNS students, you can apply to be a Directed Studies student through your undergraduate advisor. What this involves is taking on your own research project and writing a paper about it, either for one term or the full school year depending on what you and your PI work out. If you want to be more serious about it, consider becoming an Honours student. Conduct wicked science and earn school credit! If you’re more financially inclined, look into becoming a Work Learn student. Get paid to be an RA!
So that’s a wrap! Before I end off this series, I want to say a few things because I can never stop typing, ha ha. (1) It’s never too late or too early to get into research. PIs/lab managers deliberately seek out young RAs (read: first and second year students), because there is potential for these RAs to stick around. If you’re older, that’s not so bad either; you’ve likely accumulated a lot of experience to help you out with the application process. (2) Most labs seek out RAs at the beginning of a term, and some labs even operate over the summer if you want something to do and have less schoolwork to juggle. Keep this in mind when you send off your applications. (3) Some labs are huge and have as many as twenty RAs, and some are small. There are pros and cons to each of these situations. If one lab doesn’t work out because of the people or the research or whatever, you can always try finding another one. (4) You know, I didn’t expect how much I would enjoy being an RA, but it’s really been an eye-opening experience for me. I hope it is for you too if you decide this is what you want to do.
As always, if you have any questions–or even tips of your own, if you’ve been through this–leave a comment! Best of luck!!!
Hunting for labs is always fun. There’s so much cool stuff that gets done at UBC, you shouldn’t bother with applying for labs doing research that doesn’t interest you. Something’s bound to come at you with that “Ooohhh” factor.
Now, being an RA is a huge time commitment. Most labs require 6-10 hours a week and either a full-term or full-school year commitment. You should be confident that you can balance this along with your schoolwork. That said, although some labs may require fewer hours out of your schedule, it’s as the saying goes: “You get what you put in”: a lab that requires more commitment might be the better determinant in what you choose to do in the future. I speak from personal experience here.
Just something to keep in mind.
Step 1: Finding the Right Lab
If you major in Psychology or BNS, you might have already received emails from UBC IT SSPA about RA calls for psych labs. (It really is a good idea to pay attention to your emails, folks!) These emails direct you to the Department of Psychology’s Get Involved in Research page, which is a good place to start hunting for labs, since there’s at least some guarantee that the principle investigator/lab manager is looking for new RAs.
Another resource to take advantage of would be the bulletin board on the main floor of the Kenny Building. Lots of labs that don’t always know how to connect with UBC IT post RA calls there. I recommend taking photos of the postings so you can research their respective labs further at home. (Side note: this is also where you might find info about other volunteering opportunities, clubs, and PAID (!) studies that you can participate in.)
If you’re planning to participate in any HSP studies, ask for the contact information of the researcher. The grad student in charge of an HSP study I once supervised let me give out her email address to participants who were interested in joining the lab.
Also, talk to your prof! I know a lot of these resources concern psych labs, but this advice applies to anyone looking to get involved in science. One of my peers became an RA in her first year through this method. Over the summer, a friend of mine sent out emails to profs who had taught courses she enjoyed, and she eventually scored a lab to work with for her Honours thesis. You know how profs are like, “Come to my office hours! I’m down to talking about anything!”? This is your chance, my friends!
Lastly, if you already have an idea of what branch of research you would like to contribute to, you’re in the best position. Snoop around some UBC departmental websites to get a sense of which labs best align with your interests, then politely email the PI listed. For Psychology/BNS research conducted at UBC, check out the Department of Psychology’s Labs page.
And so the search begins! Keep an eye out for my next post in which I go over how to apply to labs and what you might expect once you become an RA.
For all you first/second years out there, I’m guessing it’s nearing the time when you got to officially declare your major. First off, congrats on finishing your year at UBC. You’ve taken a range of courses that you were either required to do or you picked for fun (while also, hopefully, fulfilling those credit requirements), and now you have to think long and hard about what you enjoyed out of those courses and what you might be okay with never seeing again.
My advice? The latter part can be both the easiest thing and the trickiest. It’s easiest when you know you hate a subject. You can’t like them all, and that’s fine. Don’t kid yourself that you love, for example, labs when they make your palms sweaty and your heart palpitate just thinking about them but you think that the Chemistry designation would look cool. If you like two subjects too much, you might want to consider combining them into some kind of Integrated major if your faculty allows it, or if that’s not an option, there’s always the opportunity to double major or minor.
I’ve had one full year of being a Biochemistry major and another full year of being a Behavioural Neuroscience major. I also double major in English. If you’re thinking about going into any of these, you’re welcome to leave a comment, and I’ll get back to you on what I can answer! And so, my personal rundown on the majors:
Pros: You get to mingle with the Chemistry kids, you get to experience a nice array of science courses (genetics, mathematics, cell biology, etc.) before even touching the biochemistry material, you have a lot of lab work
Cons: Lots of memorization (which is okay if you’re interested in glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, ATP, etc. but, like my prof once said, will be like a march through Siberia if you aren’t), course load is pretty heavy (even in second year, there is a timetable you’ll have to pick from, and some of the courses seem only vaguely related to your major (e.g. calculus III)), you have a lot of lab work
Pros: The program is small and you have a lot of opportunity to work in groups; the program is flexible in its course requirements, meaning that you can take some pretty wacky electives and still graduate in 4 years; there’s a lot of opportunities to get into research, both in the micro-pipetting sense and the interacting with humans sense.
Cons: Grades are scaled, but this can be problematic because the program is so small and competitive to get in (although the prof does have some power with the averages, and most profs I’ve had are pretty reasonable about where they set the average to be); lots of Psychology courses seem to follow a 2-midterms-and-a-final format, so there’s the possibility of burnout if you’re taking a lot of Psychology courses in one term and you’re halfway through midterm season; the major is rather research-oriented
Pros: You get to read super awesome texts you may have never picked up on your own, you get to analyze texts through interesting lens brought up in class or recommended to you by the prof, passing and failing doesn’t rely on memorizing a lot of obscure facts but rather your ability to engage with the material you’ve been presented throughout the term
Cons: You will forever be behind in your readings, what you get out of the class can really depend on the prof, you might not love all the readings but have to get through them anyways
That’s was pretty brief and in no way sums up accurately all of the cool and uncool things of each major, but maybe it will get you thinking in the right direction about what you want to pursue in your time here at UBC. You’ll notice that I repeat some things (e.g. lab work) in both the pros and cons section of a major, and that’s because it’s really dependent on you how you’ll take that info.
Declaring your major can feel pretty binding, and sometimes you might not feel 100% ready even when UBC says that you should. You should think carefully about what you want to do and choose wisely, but remember that your decision doesn’t mean the end of anything. You can switch, you can pursue extracurricular activities, you can take electives…tuum est, right? Best of luck with wherever your university years take you!
So in the midst of April when my exams were underway, I actually got some good news in my inbox. It started out like this:
You have been approved for the Double Major in Science and Arts, Science Major in Psychology and Arts Major in English Literature. The specialization for the Arts major in English Literature will be added to your academic record.
That’s right! In addition to studying Behavioural Neuroscience, I also study English! Waahhhh! I’ve had this goal in mind for a while now, it just took some time for me to actually get off my butt and put it into action. But now that it’s finally in place, I feel much happier. It’s one thing to tell everyone you’re planning on pursuing a double major, but another thing altogether when you actually are.
Now, taking a minor or double major can be a lot of work. You’ll have less room for electives if you have a set deadline for when you want to graduate and a limited trove of cash at your disposal, but if you’re really passionate about what you’re studying outside of your major, I think it can be quite worthwhile. Depending on what you double major/minor in, the courses you take can even count towards your breadth requirements, so you wouldn’t need to worry too much there. If I wasn’t going to double major in English, I probably would have taken English courses as my electives anyways. Either that or creative writing.
But how do you get a double major–or even minor–you ask? Easy! Well, the paperwork portion, that is. (The courses you take may not be too easy, but they can be eye-opening in terms of your learning at UBC. Bu you already know that.) You need to declare your double major/minor through a form that’s available here if you’re in Science. (If you’re in Arts or some other faculty…well, I’m not too sure if the process is exactly the same, but I imagine it shouldn’t be too different, and Google is really our best friend, folks.)
The form basically asks you to list down the courses you’ll be taking and the general term and session that you will be taking them in. By doing this, you’re basically adding more course requisites that you need to take before you can graduate. Make sure you check the website of your intended double major. For English, I looked up what the requirements of the typical English major here and here. After you have the important courses listed on your form, go wild with whatever courses interests you!
It doesn’t really matter when you take the course, even though you might have written that you’ll take it in first term but then decided later on that second term would indeed be better. It just matters that you’ve completed the course. What DOES matter, however, is that if you decide you want to change a course, provided, I suppose, that it is not essential for all students majoring in what you want to do. (Say this is the only course that’s preventing you from graduating this year, but you can’t take it because of a scheduling clash. Sucks, right?) Not to fear! You simply need to fill out a course change form, which can also be found in the link above.
When you’re done filling out the form, which is the easier part, you have to find the Undergraduate Advisor of your faculty and an Undergraduate Advisor of the faculty you’re trying to major/minor in. For me, that was Dr. Barnes and one of these cool people. They sign your sheet, and then you’re free to drop it into the Science Advising office (which by the way, due to renovations, has temporarily moved to Ponderosa G, 2044 Lower Mall; there’s a huge sign near it). They’ll sign the “Faculty of Science” part, and you’ll receive an email sometime over the next few weeks confirming that you’ll be majoring/minoring in XYZ. The time from hand-in to email took abnormally long, but I was told in advance that it was because the person who processed these forms would be gone for a month. You might have a speedier response time. And unless you aren’t in good academic standing at UBC (i.e. you have a failing GPA), you should face no problems whatsoever getting this process done.
Some caveats: You have until the end of your third year (according to what’s on your Proof of Enrolment) to declare a double major/minor. You can double major/minor in two Science specializations or Science and Arts, with some limitations. For instance, if you are in Behavioural Neuroscience, you can’t double major/minor in Psychology. But that’s kind of a given.
Also, I’d like to note that a double major and a dual degree are NOT the same. It surprised me a little when I told people that I was double majoring, they thought that I was actually getting a dual degree. A dual degree requires at least 5 years of schoolwork, but you come out of it with two Bachelor’s, a BSc and a BA. A double major just gets you one major (so for me, a BSc) with some recognition that you did other work. If you play your cards right with a double major, you could finish up your undergrad in the standard 4 year timeline. If you wanted to, that is.