Getting Involved in Pre-Phd Research

Neerja Thakkar graduated from Dartmouth in 2019 with a BA in Computer Science and Mathematics. For the past year, she was doing computational photography research in Spain on a Fulbright research scholarship, and in Fall 2020 she will be starting her PhD in EECS at UC Berkeley.

Research experience is extremely important for anyone considering a PhD (or for anyone who simply wants to explore an academic field, connect with a professor and learn valuable skills). However, for many students, getting involved in research isn’t straightforward, so in this post I’m going to break down how I got involved in my various research experiences throughout high school and college, and some additional advice for undergraduates.

My first research experience was the summer after my junior year of high school, when I worked at an immunology research lab at a local university, assisting a PhD student with wet lab research. This experience helped me both in the college application process and in getting involved in research at college. I continued with this kind of bench research when I started college, assisting an immunology professor at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. I soon realized that I wasn’t as interested in bench research, but wanted to do computational research, so I switched to computational biology research, utilizing my immunology knowledge and newfound computer science skills. As I went through college and took more courses, I realized I was more interested in other areas of computer science, so I started research in visual computing, a field which I then continued in during my Fulbright and into my PhD.

Getting involved as a high schooler

Getting involved in any kind of research as a high schooler is extremely difficult - professors have their PhD students and plenty of undergrads who already want to work with them, and as a high schooler you have much less experience and coursework. I would recommend cold emailing several (by several, I mean many) professors in an area that you’re interested in, describing the STEM courses you have taken and any relevant extracurriculars, and expressing a willingness to learn and be helpful in any possible way. Also, if your high school has any connections with professors at a local university, try to use those - ask your science teachers. If you hear back that there are no positions in the lab you contacted, ask if the PI could recommend another lab.

My experience: I cold emailed several (more than a dozen) professors at a local university. I think I ended up hearing back from only about three of them, and two of them were emails indicating that they didn’t take high schoolers, but one of them did let me into their lab and it ended up being an invaluable experience!

Getting involved as a college student

There are a few ways I would recommend trying to get involved in undergrad research. I have done the following:

  • Reach out to a professor who taught a class that you enjoyed. Introduce yourself, remind them of the class you took with them and anything special about your performance in it (ex. a final project), and tell them about your other relevant experience in their area. Express interest in doing research with them and ask if they would be open to meeting with you to discuss their research and the possibility of you working with them
  • Cold email a professor who you have never met and send them a similar email as above
  • Use connections - if there is a professor you are already close with, see if they can introduce you to another professor and vouch for you

Here are some other ways you can get involved that I didn’t utilize personally, but many friends have:

  • When you start college, look for programs for freshman and sophomore students to get involved in research - these often exist especially for women, underrepresented minority and first gen students.
  • Look for summer research programs (ex. UROP) at your institution or others. While it can be tempting to only look for internships in industry, research is the single most important thing if you are seriously considering a PhD, so consider spending a summer doing research.
  • Also keep your eye out for other opportunities! Professors often ask for people to apply for research positions or contribute to databases of available research projects

My experience: I was lucky to go to a college with a huge undergraduate focus, where it was relatively easy to get involved in research, so a disclaimer that I didn’t have to try very hard to get involved in research. Here’s how I got involved in my 3 undergraduate research experiences:

  • First research position: immunology research with a professor at DHMC. When I told the PI of the lab I worked at in high school that I was going to go to Dartmouth and intended to continue immunology research, she offered to introduce me to a few of her colleagues. This ended up with me working with an immunology professor at DHMC starting my freshman fall.
  • Second research position: computational immunology research with Professor Chris Bailey-Kellogg. By the middle of my freshman year, I realized I wanted to pursue research more closely related to computer science (but didn’t completely want to abandon biology yet). I decided to leverage my immunology experince and reach out to a professor doing computational immunology research. I cold emailed him, introducing myself and describing my immunology research experience/the computer science courses I had taken. Our conversation went well, and he was happy to have me join his group.
  • Third research position: undergraduate senior thesis in visual computing with Professor Wojciech Jarosz. I took Professor Jarosz’s Computational Photography class my junior winter and loved it. A few weeks into spring term, I emailed him to ask about the possibility of being advised by him on my senior thesis. He ended up having the capacity to take me on, and I started brainstormining topics with him over the summer.

Of course, getting a research position is far from the hardest part of research, but definitely a crucial one. For my thoughts on acquiring research positions pre-PhD but post-undergrad, read this post.

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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