Approaching a PI – a Guide for Undergraduates in STEM!

Response from a PhD Student…

As a young woman who has gone through the UK school system, 4 years at university to get in integrated masters, and is now well into the second year of a STEM PhD, I feel I have some anecdotal advice I can share! But in the end, researchers are people and all people are different. So take every situation as it come.  But here are some of my key findings from my 8 year quest for experience and connection in the academic world…

Q1. How do you approach a PI for a placement to get experience, if you don’t have any experience? What do you do if you feel you have nothing to offer?

Firstly, you don\’t have to approach a PI.  You could approach anyone, a PhD student, PostDoc, any kind of researcher.  You do not have to go straight to the head of a lab or research group.  Working with a PhD student can be great because they may have more time for you and will be heavily invested in your success!

Do not underestimate the experience you have and the opportunities you are given to do independent work during your undergraduate degree.  Done a 2000 word essay on a topic of your choice? This is a chance to to show you can work independently and get used to reading papers, and looking for patterns in those papers. Transferable skills are real. You’ve been trained to learn fast and work consistently to a high standard – that’s very valuable.

Do your homework on the research you are claiming to be interested in. For your own good. The practical work involved in lots of research is not very obvious on the surface. Do you really want to spend 3 weeks of summer counting sand grains?  My answer was yes, totally!

\”I love sand too!\”

Have a plan B. You may notice lots of papers from the same research area have the same people listed as authors, but in different orders. Look at where those authors are based: this might give you an idea of which universities are doing similar research.  So if one turns you down, you could ask them if they think their collaborator might take you on…

Your inexperience can be a huge asset. You have a lot of questions to ask. These questions may never have been asked before! You have fresh curiosity on your side. You are not influenced by the status quo or ‘established’ way of thinking or doing things.  Academia can be tribal about ideas so the more objective and unbiased about the work you can be, the better.

You’re cheap labor. Taking you on for a placement is a great way for a PI to get a load of data collected which will potentially be publishable. For a relatively small investment on their part, the PI could get some great outputs from you in return. 

You’re an investment for the future.  Research groups are always on the look-out for new people at all levels, and probably have a game plan thinking about 5 years ahead.  A PI might be working on a grant application which includes money for a PhD studentship, so taking you on for a couple of weeks would be a great way to do an extended interview without you even knowing.

It’s flattering and exciting to be approached by someone who is just as interested in the tiny part of the science world as you are! Especially lecturers work very hard to make their material engaging and accessible. So if someone actually gets it AND is still interested, that is such a good thing to hear.  

Q2. When and how should I approach a PI.

To get my undergraduate summer placement I approached a lecturer at the end of the final lecture of the term and asked if I could do a placement. For my masters dissertation I first emailed a researcher, then had a meeting in their office, then a week later changed my mind and turned them down. A week later I went on group fieldwork, got chatting to a lecturer on the fieldwork and realised his dissertation topics sounded perfect. I didn’t say anything in that moment. But after the fieldwork I sent and email and they were delighted to accept me after the conversation we had already had.  

I turned it down.

For my PhD I sent a speculative email to a researcher I had never met at an institution on the other side of the country. In my email I detail my experience, and quoted specific papers which made me interested in their work. I got a one line email reply saying “Yes – that sounds great. When should we meet?”. So there are many ways to do it. I don’t think a conventional way exists. You have to go for it sometimes. However, I have sent probably hundreds of emails to academics and got a stiff ignoring, or a polite email saying no, we already have someone, or I have realised it was the wrong thing for me anyway. It is not luck, it’s persistence.   

Respect their time.

In terms of ‘when’, I would say approach them as soon as you have decided it is a good idea.  No need to be too hasty. Make sure you really want it. Then go for it. I would always include my CV in the first email so they can see it immediately without having to ask for it. It cuts out one more email for your day and theirs. Respect their time. If you can look up funding deadlines for your relevant society or university, even better.  Spend a few hours searching the web and you will find something to apply for.

Q3. How can you prepare for a PhD?

Learn to use a reference manager!

I don’t think there can be rules for this. A PhD is very personal. PhD topics are so different. The most important things about the PhD are: you, the supervisor and the topic. If you don’t like working independently – it won’t work.  If you don’t work hard on a solid supervisor relationship – it won’t work. If you don’t like the topic – it won’t work. So learn from your dissertation relationships and actively think about your working/learning style.

Otherwise, some quick tips:

  • Learn to use a reference manager!
  • Learn that good enough is good enough, stop putting yourself down and be your own best friend.  
  • Mediocre words are better than no words – you can redraft again and again.
  • Be aware of impostor syndrome.
  • Work like it’s your job.  You can run your own schedule (which is amazing), but this does not mean working all the time. You may have to unlearn some bad habits picked up from UG deadlines.
  • Start saving your work properly – like, right now.
  • Keep a work diary. When you work alone you soon forget what you’ve already achieved and what you need to get done.
  • Ask questions. I was terrified to ask questions for most of my UG. Even when I knew this was holding me back. Find the strength, one question at a time.
  • Find a mentor.  You will always need someone to advise you and advocate for you. They are golden.  
  • Save some money – if you can.  You may not find the right PhD for 6 months after you finish your UG course and many PhD start in January.  You will be thankful for any help you can give yourself.
  • Start looking for PhDs early. There are many different way to find a PhD and they all work on different time scale which are not always transparent. Many deadlines are in January.  

Good luck!

Ultimately, you should be very honest about your abilities, interests and goals.  This includes explaining your strengths and pointing out what you do not know. There is nothing worse than being left in a lab or an office for a day with no clue what you’re doing. That will waste everyone’s time.  Do not be afraid to explain this is part of a long term goal to go into research. This will probably strengthen your case that this is an important stepping stone.

Finally, if you do approach a PI and they are keen for you to work with them, but you no longer feel like it’s a good fit/ you’re no longer happy with the arrangement/ something else comes up, do not be afraid to change the plans. They do not own you. Providing you say this early enough in the process and this is especially okay if you are not being paid.  As in any situation, honesty with a big helping of politeness goes a long way.