It is never too early or too late to start research.
From high school to a senior in college, you can be involved in research! I knew of multiple highschoolers who luckily lived close enough to a university to be able to work with faculty. Their science fair projects definitely blew ours out of the water. Are you a junior or senior in college? If you have the time after upperclassman coursework, you can still be involved in research for a year or semester! It is never too early or too late to try something new.
Be realistic with the time demands of other commitments.
If you want to be serious about involvement in research, you need to be able to dedicate a serious time block each week. Unlike volunteering, which can be jumped in and out for a few hours every month, research investigators often expect involved students to dedicate a set number of hours within a week or a month. Due to security reasons, ethical training, and their laboratory time management, research investigators want to make sure new members have a serious commitment prior to spending a significant amount of time or funds. This is not stated to scare any potential undergraduate researchers into a 20 hour a week commitment, but you need to be aware of what you can commit before disrespecting a research investigator’s time. Be realistic with your commitments elsewhere (especially your school work!) Communicate any changes to your initial commitment to your research investigator. Remember, you always want to under-promise and over-deliver!
Be aware of what you can commit before disrespecting an investigator’s time!
Find a research investigator.
When I earned my first research position, I was sitting in the hallway prior to my general chemistry class. I looked up to see a research poster about synthesizing hydroxyapatite, a main component of bone. Due to my interest in biomaterials, I took note of the research investigator at the top of the poster, looked up their university email, and emailed them asking if I could learn more about the poster and current work associated with it. A few emails later, the research investigator asked if I’d be willing to complete research with her forensic chemistry laboratory over the summer.
Though it felt like the research fell into my lap at the time, I now know it was a happy coincidence of my recognition that my university was researching my interests at the same time as my research investigator needing volunteer researchers. In other research experiences, my first step was looking at seeking professors researching my interests and reviewing their CVs, recent publications, and new grants.
In the simplest form, make sure that you are realistic with your expectations and interests. Be sure to properly communicate those to your potential research investigator! If you are serious and committed they will want to tap into your potential as a research assistant.
Be realistic with your expectations and interests when seeking research.
Get on a project you care about.
For the good majority of all my research experience, I was told what to research due to my lack of experience in the topic. However, learning from my classmates that did research, they were able to communicate their interest to their research investigator. Thankfully, their investigator was supportive and able to accommodate! If you have a certain interest do not be afraid to communicate it!
As a new researcher, you will likely be asked to help with scut work like cleaning glassware or bleaching workbenches, but your group mates will want you to be happy. You will be most productive if you’re working on a project you’re passionate about. Communicate that passion! Don’t forget to push for it as you work on your assigned projects.
After communicating a realistic schedule with your investigator, you will likely be paired with a graduate student or post-doc. Be sure to start a conversation about their expectations of you as well as your expectations of them. Do not be afraid to get started after communicating those expectations! Ask questions throughout your work. There are no stupid questions, especially for newbies. Ask for links to recent publications related to your work. Reviewing relevant research literature will provide a deeper understanding of your assignment.
There are no stupid questions.
Lastly, do not forget safety!
Often, there are techniques in a new laboratory that can be daunting, even to a professional researcher. If your lab is using chemicals, electricity, or any other dangerous tools, do not hesitate to ask for help before completing any task requiring these tools. Remember, there are no stupid questions and you do not want to be the reason why your laboratory has to fill out liability paperwork. Be sure to science safely, and enjoy your time as an undergraduate researcher!