Where are the guides for Undergraduates in STEM?

I am told that an important part of deciding whether to pursue graduate study is by arranging an internship by contacting a lab group’s principle investigator. But how do you approach a PI? How do you convince the PI to take you on?

As an undergraduate student, I feel like I will not be taken seriously and will not have much to contribute or offer to the group. I am told that to arrange for such placements, you need to sell yourself well and be able to bring something to the table. But having never done any sort of lab placement before, I have no experience of “real” science. It seems to me that in order to get experience, you need to have some experience, which makes arranging work experience extremely difficult!

In addition to this, when should I approach a PI? What kind of time scale should I be looking at? Should I do it months before I intent to do the placement so that they have time to make the necessary arrangements, or does approaching them months before make me look too eager? Do I email them with a cover letter and my CV or do I first check to see if they are willing to take on another student?

Another concern as an undergraduate student are seminars and conferences. I would love to attend seminars, however, I’m afraid that they might be too difficult to understand and that none of the undergraduates attend them, which would make me feel out of place.

If I want to do a PhD after my current degree, what are the kind of things I need to be doing? What sort of preparations should I be making? What is the skill set required and how can I build that up in order to apply for a PhD?

Finally, college is supposed to be the best days of one’s life, how do you strike a balance between fun and work?

Note: This is supposed to be a growing guide. Can you help our author answering those questions? Please comment or write to contact@thefemalescientist.com!

Here are some experiences of women in academia that commented on the original post of this article and were willing to share their experiences here:

Professor Julie M. Harris from University of St Andrews offers this advice:

I am a long-standing female PI.  PI’s, including me, very much welcome approaches from UG students. We really do to know when you might be interested in our work, and that you would like to explore opportunities to get involved.  Many students are too shy to express interest during lectures or other teaching activities. PI’s are often really pleased if their work, or their teaching, has interested you in any way. We like feedback too!

I suggest sending a short email, just a paragraph, explaining why you are interested in the research area, what inspired you (even if a tweet, a lecture, a web page), and how/when you might like to get involved.  Start by thinking about what areas interest you…look up Dept websites, all PI’s have a web page….if you can demonstrate just a little knowledge and interest, this should be enough to get a conversation going.

Thinking a few weeks or months ahead of funding deadlines is always a good idea. PI’s time is limited — they may have welcomed other students into their lab already if you leave it until later.