Many students who seek out research positions will quickly realize the catch-22 of undergraduate research: you need lab experience in order to get lab experience. This can be frustrating to encounter this roadblock, especially when you want to try lab work in order to decide if grad school or a career in academia is for you. However, once you get that first research opportunity, doors will start to open for you. You just need to get through the hard part.
I’ve been involved quite a bit with research over my years at UBC. Last week, I started my first co-op term at the UBC Life Sciences Institute. My project over the next eight months is going to involve characterizing genes newly implicated in pancreatic beta cell development (although for the past week, as expected, I’ve mainly been doing reading on pancreas organogenesis). This is my third research position so far in my undergrad – the summer after first year I had a summer studentship in a stem cell research lab at the University of Toronto, and last summer I had a part-time UBC Work Learn position at the Child and Family Research Institute (CFRI). All of them have been excellent learning experiences and I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to get some research experience throughout my degree!
Below are a few ways to get research positions at UBC. Keep in mind I am by no means an expert on UBC research, and there are definitely more opportunities available out there. Also, this post is mainly geared towards undergraduate life sciences students – research opportunities in other disciplines may vary.
What it is: Work Learn jobs are paid, part-time positions (~10-20 hours per week) available to current UBC students. If you are a Work Learn student, especially in a biomedical lab, you should expect to be doing a lot of laboratory maintenance work – cleaning glassware, defrosting fridges, making dilutions, etc. Many supervisors will also have you work on a small project on the size. For example, when I was a Work Learn student at CFRI I looked at the epigenetics of neural tube defects as a part of a PhD student’s thesis project.
How to apply:Look for jobs postings on the UBC Careers website. Work Learn positions usually come out before the start of each Winter and Summer session.
What it is: Many different universities and research institutes offer summer studentships for undergrads, allowing students to spend the summer working on a specific, pre-determined project. These tend to be extremely competitive, as most are open to applicants from universities across Canada, and some require you to have a supervisor chosen prior to application. That being said, if you have prior experience working in a lab and strong grades, you can potentially be a good candidate for one of these placements.
How to apply: There are a ton of different studentships out there, all of which have their own application process. A couple examples are the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum summer program (which I was a part of in 2012) and the CFRI Summer Studentship. Do a little bit of digging around on various university websites and see if you can find one that interests you! Applications and decisions usually happen early (by January most positions have been filled) so start looking into it early.
What it is: Co-op is paid work experience in your field of study. For up to 4 four-month academic terms, you work a job full time, almost like a real adult, but with all the perks of still being a student (like a U-Pass). The co-op office maintains an online database of jobs to which students are able to apply. Although they do not guarantee that you will get a job through the co-op program, their advisors provide a lot of guidance and resources to help make you the strongest applicant possible. Life science co-op students tend to work either in research or in industry. If you have no prior research experience you probably won’t be able to get your dream placement right off the bat, but your second or third placement will give you more selection. Also, keep in mind that co-op will extend your degree by one year.
How to apply: The timeline for co-op applications varies depending on your program. In order to apply, you must meet minimum academic requirements and submit a resume and cover letter. Co-op also is not available for every major. For more information on the timelines and specific requirements, see the Science Co-op website (or the co-op website for your faculty).
What it is: Gain three academic credits by taking on a research project under a UBC professor. It is a course, so you get assigned a grade, typically based on a paper you submit summarizing your research. Directed Studies is an unpaid position – in fact, you’ll actually be paying for it, since you . This is a great way to get some initial lab experience, or just take on more ownership over a particular project. You will also get some experience in scientific writing when you submit your final paper.
How to apply: You need to find a supervisor to take you on (usually through personal connections or some Googling), then complete the Directed Studies application form for your specific major. You also need to register in the Directed Studies course on the SSC.
What is it: As an honours student, you take on six-credit senior thesis project in your area of study. This usually happens in your final year of study, and it is generally up to you to find your own supervisor. You will need to write a thesis and defend your thesis to a committee of UBC academics.
How to apply: In order to be in an Honours program in the Faculty of Science, you must take a full course load each year and maintain a minimum of 75% standing. You can usually apply to the Honours program following your second year of study. To view all the degree requirements for Honours, see the UBC Calendar.
These are only a few ways of getting involved with research in the biological sciences. If you are looking to find out more, there are many great resources such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunities club, SciTeam’s annual Get Into Research event, and the Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference (MURC). If you know of any other ways to get involved with research, particularly in other disciplines, please post them in the comments below!