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!!!


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.


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!


Goodbye, Summer

Taken at UBC at the start of the summer. Can you guess where it is?

This summer has been so different from the other summers I’ve had.

I didn’t enrol in a course this time, which logically makes a lot of sense but is still a point of insecurity for me. I hate the idea that I’m slacking, but I know there are limitations to my abilities to excel in a course and devote my time to other just as important means of gaining experience. (Yeeeaaaah, I’m a course fiend–there, I’ve said it.)

I did some of my usual stuff: volunteered a the hospital, went to festivals, visited the typical cool spots in Vancouver, chilled at the library (ha ha, yeeeeaaaah, I’m that kind of nerd)…

But I also took on a bunch of new responsibilities that challenged me and made me reconsider what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go in the next few weeks, the next few months, maybe even the next few years.

This summer, I interned for an online magazine, I volunteered for some labs and a program that seeks to educate kids in science, I got hired at a bookstore, I went to China for the first time with my family. I met new people, and some of them, as this summer draws to a close, I might never see again.

I also lost a few opportunities taking on too much beforehand, and at times still regret it. I dealt with some devastating news concerning friends and personal health scares. My fears on how I am an utter moron (because yeeeaaaah, I have low self-esteem sometimes) couldn’t be trampled despite everything, and I went through a couple of bad days. I noticed a bitterness in me that came with the sunshine I always pine for come winter, and for once I missed the calm that comes with the rain.

And of course, there was always the occasional lazy day in which I did nothing at all. And that was nice.

It has been a long and eventful four months. I don’t have any epiphanies to share, because now more than ever learning has become a gradual and tumultuous experience for me rather than an earth-shattering “Eureka!” moment (although I wish, heh heh), but I appreciate the challenges that I took on and overcame and even those I’m still in the process of overcoming.

As a student, the start of September is more like New Year’s than actual New Year’s. I am fearful and excited as always for what’s going to come next, wondering how I might be able to sustain this feeling into the school year of trying to be someone worthwhile.

How was your summer, folks, and how do you feel about this upcoming winter session? ????

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.