academia advice career research lab work

How to Join a Lab

You want to join a lab. Where do you look? How do you express interest? What do you say?

“I think I might be interested in research but I can’t know until I have experience trying it.”

“The research that this lab conducts is so cool! How can I get involved?”

“I know I’m interested in science, but I don’t know if I want to be a doctor.”


Figure 1. This could be you! Source:

These are just some of the thoughts that lead individuals to join research laboratories. And these thoughts can come to you at any stage of life! I started thinking about research in high school and I also have very accomplished peers who began this thought process after establishing successful careers in completely unrelated fields. Everyone comes to research in their own way.

This goes for any career, really. Nobody is born with experience, so there’s always going to be a position that you get despite having no prior experience doing that kind of work. If you are high school or college age, nobody expects you to have experience. Often, in this circumstance youth is on your side. This is the perfect time to reach out to potential employers. You have a good chance of gaining a lab position with only your enthusiasm and work ethic in hand. On the other hand, gaining experience in a related field for a few years is often informative for what kind of research you might be interested in conducting. If you spend those years gaining experience in other ways and learning about yourself, you will not be behind your peers. Whether inside or outside the lab, these early experiences are great for developing and demonstrating soft skills.

So, how do you broaden your experiences to see if that’s really what you’re interested in? How do you get your foot in the door if you don’t even know where the door is, or sometimes that the door exists in the first place?

Tips and tricks:

1. Start early if you can. It’s so demoralizing to begin a job search feeling that you’re behind already. Getting an early start allows you to enjoy the experience of imagining yourself in various labs working on different experiments. Aim to send inquiries several months before you’d like to start working.

2. Google. Look up the institute(s) you’d like to work at. Start with nearby universities, non-governmental organizations like pharmaceutical companies, or governmental institutions that conduct research like the DoD, NIH, etc. Navigate to the department you’re most interested in (you can explore more than one) and look through the bios of different investigators to see how many people are in the lab, what kind of questions they’re interested in answering, what kinds of methods they use, etc.

3. Go to the source. Once you’ve found a lab you’re interested in, send an email to the head of the lab (the Primary Investigator or PI). It can be intimidating, but rest assured that people always like hearing that others think their work is valuable and cool.

4. Be concise. Your email needs to look short when it’s first opened so that the reader knows they have the time to read it in their busy schedules.

5. Personalize the email. However, it can’t be so short that you don’t sell yourself. Nobody wants to read a form email. Make sure to include why you’re specifically interested in working with this group. This shows them that you have given considerable thought about joining their lab.

6. Send many emails. Not to the same person…that’s annoying. Send emails to many different labs, with the knowledge that some labs don’t have the space, money, or time to take on new researchers right now. On top of that, some labs seem like they’ll be a great fit online, but when you speak with them it’s just not right for you. This could be due to a mismatch of personality or interest. The online searches that you do in preparation for this email will show you what the lab has done. But by the time you join the lab, they might have moved on to a completely different research topic. Updating the lab website is not a top priority of many groups. Give yourself options so that any one of these let downs doesn’t derail your search to join a lab.

The email might look something like this:

Hello Dr. Vazey,

My name is Emma Dauster and I am a Junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. I am in the process of applying for Summer research programs and am reaching out to professors with whom I share research interests. I have taken every advanced science course offered at my school and am excited to build on the knowledge I have gained in class with laboratory experience.

As a dedicated student and researcher, I would go into the lab every day to conduct meaningful research such as that conducted in your laboratory. I am excited to devote more of my time and energy to neurosciences and learn more in the process. Your study on sex differences in attention regulation is particularly exciting! I love science and plan for a future of one day becoming a researcher myself.

Today I am writing to ask if you predict to have a student position available in your lab for the upcoming Summer. If so, I hope you find me to be a suitable applicant. I have attached my CV to this email. Thank you so much for your time and consideration! I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Have a wonderful day,
Emma Dauster

For more research guidance check out my website:

For further reading on this topic:

-What I wish I had known: advice about graduate school (and life) to my younger self

-Five Sentence Emails

More From Thats Life [Science]

Dialogue & Discussion