How to Get Into Research Part 3: Getting Out There

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!!!

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How to Get Into Research Part 2: Resources

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.

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How to Get Into Research Part 1: Preamble

Last year on Imagine Day, I sat through one of those “Welcome to your major!” talks that my undergraduate advisor was giving to the newest cohort of Behavioural Neuroscience (BNS) students. One of the points I remember distinctly from his presentation was when he talked about his own experience as a UBC BNS student and how he had entered the program with absolutely no plans to go to grad school. He’s a professor now, so I guess you know what happened next.

“I highly recommend you take on a Directed Studies project,” he urged us several times throughout his presentation. “It will be a worthwhile experience.” For me, who still wasn’t so sure how I felt about this “Holy crap–I actually switched majors” thing, factoring a Directed Studies course into my immediate academic plans was just way too extreme. Other people, real BNS students who got their major right the first time around, got to have this mythical experience of working in labs, not me, the quasi-BNS student.

I forgot how doubtful I had felt about getting involved research until recently. A fellow research assistant (RA) in my lab had mentioned how pursuing a Directed Studies project had never seriously crossed her mind, because she had always thought Directed Studies students were too smart–smarter than she could ever be, at least. Which is totally false. She’s one of the best RAs of the team, I kid you not. But you know what I’m getting at, right? Oftentimes, the biggest obstacle standing in your way is yourself.

So if you’ve been thinking about getting into research (or whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to do, as I’m about to dole out some pretty general ~life advice~) and yet feel kind of nervous about it, just know that if you never put yourself out there, even if it’s at the risk of rejection, you’ll never get to where you want to be. Everyone has a beginning, and you shouldn’t compare yours with someone else’s middle. Try out new stuff! That’s part of the uni experience. If you don’t like it, move on. At least you know. And if you do happen to like what you got yourself into…Well, maybe some attentive students will be listening to your presentation on how you got to where you are in the near future. ????

Okay, so enough of my “You can do it!” spiel. Time for the good stuff. You’ve decided that something new you want to try out this year is to work in a lab. (Maybe you’re dead-set about going to grad school, maybe not. Maybe you’re just trying to figure out what you want to do with your degree, and this may be just the opportunity that will help you narrow down your goals.) What now? Obviously, you have to find a lab first. In the next post, I’ll go over what I learned applying to be an RA for different labs, and hopefully some of what I’ve written will help kickstart your dazzling new future in research!

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Choosing Your Major

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:

Biochemistry

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

Behavioural Neuroscience

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

English Literature

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! ????

Pursuing a Double Major

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:

Switching Your Major

Some people get into university knowing exactly what they want to do and get straight to doing it; they just cannot wait to just get on with the good upper level stuff already, because that’s pretty much going to be the rest of their life. Some people are a little unsure, and go about their academic career trying this and that until a good fit comes along. Some people think they know what it is they really want…until, that is, they’re trudging along that path and start to think, “Hm. You know, maybe there’s something better out there for me.” It’s okay to be any of these types of people. I happened to fall into the very last category.

Personally, I think Science requires you to declare your major too early. Other faculties like Arts have students declare their major after second year, but Science needs you to do it right after your first year is done. Sometimes majors look better on paper than IRL, and sometimes you won’t know enough yet to differentiate between the two. It’s true that second year courses are more or less all the same for Science students, regardless of the major, but having a major to your transcript feels kind of binding, you know? It’s like you’ve already chosen to shut some doors before you even had the chance to open them, take a peek at what’s in there.

It definitely felt that way when I was in Biochemistry. Biochemistry and Chemistry majors are kind of secluded from the other Science majors out there in that students have to take several core courses which are restricted only to that major (I’m looking at you, Organic Chemistry!). Students follow a timetable, too, so there is little you can do to play around with what courses you want to take and what you have to take. So if you’re switching out of Biochemistry (not that it’s a terrible major or anything, but just because that’s what you want to do), the process seems more than little daunting.

But last summer, I switched my major from Biochemistry to Biopsychology (or Behavioural Neuroscience, if you’re reading this in the future, since currently the major is undergoing a name change). I was in my first, actual Biochemistry course in the second term of the last school year when I knew absolutely–no ifs, ands or buts about it–that Biochemistry was just not right for me. I mean, here was my professor at the front of the class, so pumped about ATP, and there I was, hunched and disheveled in my seat, unable feel the same and knowing it. I really, really wanted to like Biochemistry like I thought I was going to. I really did! But the truth was, I dreaded each class knowing that there were yet more steps of whatever cycle we were on to memorize. I dreading going home to crack open my textbook to cover stuff I thought was–yes, I confess–boring. I dreaded the inflexibility of my course requirements and how pursuing a double major  would be that much harder. I could have finished my undergraduate years at UBC without a major change, but would those years of ennui and stress and no payoff (if I wasn’t going to continue with Biochemistry anyways) be worth it? Hell, I would be bummed and burnt out by the end.

I don’t regret being a Biochemistry major for that one year, even if it does set me back a little for the major that I am currently pursuing. I had the support of many Science One friends, and I did enjoy a lot of the courses associated with the major–loved loved loved Genetics, Organic Chemistry (ha ha, can you believe it?), and even Math, which I thought was going to sink my GPA like what the iceberg did to the Titanic. Biochemistry taught me a lot, and it helped me establish my ground again after Science One. But I am glad that I switched. I might being going through a lot of stress with my assignments and midterms still, but at the very least, I can get excited about what I am learning, and I want to learn more.

Switching can be kind of trick and a whole lot scary, but have courage if you think that it truly might be the right thing for you. If you go along a path that you thought you should follow when you were X years younger and a whole different person, that path might not be the right one for the you of today. It’s hard to accept that, and it’s hard (for me, at least, who loves it when plans work out without a hitch) to become an active player in your life instead of just letting your past decisions define you, which might seem easier in the right now–but won’t be later on. There’s definitely a bunch of stuff you need to take into consideration if you are going to switch, like the if you meet the requirements for switching and the catch up later on, but if you’re willing, I think you should go for it, whatever you think will make you happiest.

Resources if you’re thinking of switching majors:

  • The UBC Academic Calendar. Please, please check this out. Remember what I said about some majors looking better on paper? You should go through all of the courses the major requires and see if you’ll like them or not. By now you should have enough experience to say for sure whether, for example, 4 hour Chemistry labs make you squeal in joy or terror.
  • The department website of the major you want to switch into, because there will be some deadlines that you need to note down. Still talk to the Undergraduate Advisor if you can, but it’s good to be prepared before you meet up with him/her. Speaking of which…
  • The Undergraduate Advisor who oversees the major you want to switch into. For example, last year when I was thinking of switching into Biopsychology, I had a chat with Dr. Barnes to see if I met the requirements for the switch and what courses I would look forward to taking were I in the major. You can find out the contact info of the Undergraduate Advisor by looking up the department website.
  • Your own Undergraduate Advisor if you’re feeling uncertain about staying or going. Who knows, you might just be hitting a rough patch right now, but it could be all downhill after this point and you might actually want to stay on, you just need the reassurance.
  • Academic Advisors for your faculty. They usually have drop-in hours, but you can schedule an appointment with them too. They can give you more details on who to contact. I went to them when I was having concerns on whether to break my timetable or not.

The Human Subject Pool (HSP)

If you’re a Psychology student, especially in the Arts stream, then you might have heard of the HSP system. Psychology follows rigours grading protocols, but if the professor allows it, a way to sometimes circumvent the scaling is to earn extra credit through HSP, which basically means that some additional percentage (up to 3 % in my last class) gets added onto your final grade after all the scaling has occurred. Of course, extra marks in your Psychology classes are great and all, but even if you professor doesn’t allow the extra credit or you aren’t in any Psychology class at the moment, I recommend participating in the HSP.

Through the HSP, you can become involved in the research that is conducted right here on campus. Professors need participants for their research, and in many studies, you’ll find that participants happen to be undergraduate students like yourself. By signing up for these studies, you get to do cool–if sometimes initially puzzling–activities from giving your input on hypothetical business scenarios to eating out with a group and later being surveyed about it. Some studies are able to be completed online, and others you’ll have to show up in person at a specific location, typically at the Kenny building (think UBC Psychology’s HQ).* Most studies you participate in last around 0.5-2 hours. Last term I participated in several studies, and in one of them I was in for a huge surprise!

The activities are usually quite engaging, but what I like equally well is the debriefing, which usually happens before the actual activity; that is, the researchers conducting the studies have to tell you what the study is about and how they are going to use the data collected from you. At the end of the activity, sometimes the researchers will go more in depth about what just happened, especially if any kind of deception was involved, and you’re free to ask them questions. This is a good time to get a snapshot of what kind of research goes on at UBC, and who knows–maybe it might even help you decide on what you want to do after your undergraduate degree, if you can imagine yourself running these studies as your career. At the very least, you can walk out of a study happy, because you just contributed to human knowledge. Go, you!

If you’re feeling hesitant, there are strict ethics rules and regulations which protect you as a participant. Obviously you don’t have to participate in every study listed in the HSP system, but even after, even when you’re right in the middle of the study’s activity, you can always refuse to continue. You don’t even have to explain why. You shouldn’t feel like your values are conflicted as a participant, and you shouldn’t be subjected to any physical or mental harm during the study, that much is guaranteed.

So what are you waiting for? Just log into the HSP system, fill out the pre-screening survey if you haven’t already done so–it asks you various demographic questions, nothing too heavy-handed or time-consuming–(for those of you eligible for extra credit, just completing this grants you an automatic 0.5 %!), and then look up the studies which you might be interested in, are available for, and/or are applicable to you.

Click here for more information about the HSP system.

Click here to go to the actual HSP system website.

* The Kenny building is like a maze, especially in the side wings where the offices are, so allow yourself ample enough time to find the right room! If you’re doing an HSP study for credit, you do get penalized for not showing up to a study, and some studies are time-sensitive.