I’ve heard it said that if you send the same email more than a couple of times, you might want to turn it into a blog post. So here is some advice I’ve given to several people over the past few years, on how to get a job as a research assistant (RA) after college. They’ve all been successful (2 are currently RAs and 4 are now enrolled in PhD/MD-PhD programs after working as RAs), so I think there are probably some useful tidbits here.
I think it’s also clear that a lot of people don’t know how to go about getting this sort of job. When I was applying (I was an RA at the NIH – more on that below) there was a lot of trial-and-error, despite all of the advantages that I’ve had – many members of my immediate family are scientists, and I was lucky enough to count three PIs as my mentors in undergrad. Now, as a mentor of undergrads myself, many of my students really have no idea how to even start finding or applying for these jobs. And if these students, who are privileged to attend one of the top universities in the country, don’t know, I can only imagine that there are many more who would find this advice useful.
What is an RA position like?
RA positions are usually 1-2 year contracts, though sometimes they can extend into 3 years. I think 2 years is probably the most common, because it takes at least a couple months to train someone enough to be useful in a lab. The position entails working in a scientist’s lab, though the kind of work will depend on the lab itself. Most of the work will be grunt work of some sort, though. This might look like running participants/mice/gels, study recruitment, data pre-processing and cleaning, etc – basically any kind of repetitive task that takes time and attention, but not 5+ yrs of training. A good position will also give you freedom to do some more independent work, and the lab you’re working in should plan on this work resulting in at least a poster or two at a conference, if not a co-authorship on a paper (it’s a huge red flag if the lab never mentions this during your interview). RAs are full-time, you should expect to make a living wage (about as much as a graduate student), and the position should include healthcare benefits.
Why work as an RA?
Working as an RA is a good way to spend a couple years between undergrad and whatever science/healthcare profession you might want to pursue after. I worked as an RA because I didn’t get into graduate school the first time I applied, and I decided I needed more research experience (I also needed a job…). Working as an RA can give you the time and space to figure out what you actually want to do after undergrad. If that happens to be graduate or medical school, it can give you the time to take the your exams and apply (labs should expect you to be busy applying, and should be accommodating). Many universities have post-baccalaureate programs, through which you can enroll in night-classes and complete your prerequisites while working full-time. You also learn a ton working in a science lab for a couple years. I learned all the essentials for what became my PhD research as an RA. Finally, being an RA is fun. You’re young, probably living in a city, and you don’t have homework for the first time since you were 7.
How to find a position to apply for?
This is probably the hardest step. I found my position through the NIH IRTA program, which was an extremely positive experience for me – my mentor, Joe Callicott, was excellent, I got a co-authorship on a paper, and I went from 6/6 grad school rejections to 8/10 acceptances. The website also makes applying very straightforward, which I appreciated.
Other ways to find positions:
- Ask professors who you know – maybe they’re hiring, or know someone who is? Many scientists subscribe to professional listservs, and people will post on these that they’re hiring.
- Jobs will also be posted to websites like LinkedIn and Glassdoor. Ads will also sometimes be posted to lab websites, so it never hurts to Google.
- Some universities, like NYU, have programs similar to the NIH IRTA program.
- Some people will post on twitter that they’re looking to hire an RA. You could also post and ask if anyone has any leads.
- Universities often require that job ads be posted for a certain period of time. Look at the job listings for schools in your area.
- If you have a field you know you’re focused on, you can cold-email people as well.
Parts of an application – Resume/CV
Your resume/CV is a time to highlight courses and research experiences you’ve had that will make you a useful addition to the lab. This includes courses relevant to the field the specific lab is in, lab-work courses, and any time you spent working in actual science labs, no matter what field they were in. This might also include non-science extracurriculars. Maybe you volunteered with the campus suicide hotline? Maybe you know some programming (even non-academic)? Maybe you had a leadership role in a campus group? And obviously, prior employment, which shows that you’ll be a responsible member of the group, should be listed as well. Anything that might be relevant to the work you’ll be doing as an RA, or that would be memorable to a reader, is worth considering. But, don’t list every single thing! A resume is only 1 page, and your CV should be 3 pages at most (as an undergrad, and that is long). Bring it to your school’s Career Center if you need help with formatting or figuring out what to cut.
For an example, I dug up the Resume and CV I used while applying. I’m still happy with how the Resume looks, but my CV is too long (3 pages!) and could be better formatted. Note that the majority of the space in both is taken up by the science I did during only a couple of years as an undergrad, because that’s what a scientist who would be hiring me cares about. I added in the time I lived in France, and a couple of the jobs I worked, for flavor and to show I knew how to be a responsible employee.
Parts of an application – Cover Letter
Most applications ask you to submit a cover letter. And if not, it’s still a good idea to send one to the labs you’re applying to. Remember, your cover letter is not a college application letter, nor is it a graduate school application. A cover letter should let the reader know who you are, why you’re looking for a job, why you’re interested in that lab, and should discuss your scientific background and experience.
If you have any experience doing actual science, make sure to convey that you understand what you found, not just what you did. If you know that you want to go on to a PhD program afterwards, or medical school, you should definitely say so.
If you’re applying to a specific lab your cover letter should talk about the research done in that lab. If it’s a program like the IRTA program, it’s expected that the letter will be more general. You don’t need to justify your interest in science beyond stating that you are, but you should be clear on what it is that interests you. “I’m very interested in your work on neuropsychiatry” is not enough, but “I’m very interested in your research of reward processing and decision making in anxiety and depression” is. It’s funny, but taking the extra 20 minutes to google the lab and read a couple abstracts actually matters.
Parts of an application – Email
This might be a bit more controversial, but I would definitely recommend it for anyone applying to the IRTA program. Email the PI, and tell them you’re interested and applied. Attach your cover letter and CV. Keep it short and to the point. I’m fairly positive that the only reason why anyone paid attention to my application was because I emailed all the PIs.
Dear Dr. X,
My name is David Baranger and I am an undergraduate Neuroscience major at Wesleyan University. I am writing to inquire about any openings you might have for a Postbaccalaureate IRTA fellow in your lab. I learned of your research through browsing the NIH website and am particularly interested in your research on X. I feel I have the knowledge and technical skills to make a meaningful contribution in this area of research.
I recently performed the fMRI neuroimaging analysis for a study of decision making and reward processing in smokers, and have experience coordinating research studies as well.
My cover letter and CV are attached, and my recommendations are available through the IRTA database. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.
Parts of an application – Recommendations/References
It should be no surprise that you’ll be asked to supply 2-3 references. If you did research with someone, it will be expected that they write one of your letters. Have a scientist or two, people who can say more than “Megan attended 95% of lectures and scored in the top 5% of the class.” I had a scientist I did research with, my academic adviser (also a scientist, and someone who I took a couple courses from), and a humanities professor who I took three seminars with.
When to apply?
NOW! Well, there’s no real deadline, so if you know you’re going to apply for RA positions, you should get going. I applied extremely late – Spring Break – and was the last interview at most labs. I was honestly quite lucky. One lab called me the day after I applied, and asked if I could make it to DC (from Connecticut), by the next morning. Let me tell you, interviewing on only 4 hrs of sleep (I can’t sleep on trains) is not easy. Most labs told me that I was too late, many had made their decisions in December or January.
One final piece of advice
This advice worked for me. As I noted earlier, I’ve been quite privileged (I had already worked in a couple labs, I’m related to several scientists who were all full of advice, I went to small private liberal-arts university, I wasn’t financially or geographically constrained, etc). This advice, or parts of it, has also worked for at least a few other people, not all of whom are as privileged as me. So I have reason to believe it is at least somewhat partially generalizable. But your mileage may vary. My last piece of advice – utilize your own networks! Don’t be afraid to ask people for help, especially if you’re asking about how to do something they already did – people love talking about themselves. And if you don’t know who to ask, use social media! There are some excellent groups on Facebook, and there are so many extremely accomplished people on Twitter, all of whom are happy to give advice.
I hope this is somewhat helpful to some people. If anyone has any questions, you can feel free to contact me by email, twitter, or the comments section.