Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How To Get Into An Animal Behavior Graduate Program: Getting Research Experience

You grew up watching nature documentary scientists travelling the world, covertly following and filming wild animals, learning all the secrets of the animal world first-hand with bewildering technology, and you have thought that should be me.

This could be you! Photo by Genny Kozak.

Conducting animal behavior research is incredibly satisfying and exciting, but it is also tedious and frustrating. It’s not for everyone… So how do you know if it’s for you unless you’ve tried it? And how do you try it if you’ve never done it before?

There are plenty of ways to get involved in research, even if you have no experience. And a good place to start is wherever you are.

If you are a college student or have a university in your area, chances are pretty good that there are people on your campus doing research that you would find interesting. Those people may be professors, research scientists, postdocs or graduate students. They may be in a biology, psychology or anthropology department. And their research interests are often listed either on their individual webpages or on departmental webpages. Poke around: They’re out there.

Another good place to look is your local zoo or aquarium. Many large and renowned zoos and aquariums have official research internship programs. But even smaller zoos that don’t advertise will accept volunteers if you make them the right pitch.

If you are interested in wildlife studies, your state DNR (the Department of Natural Resources) may have an internship program as well. Even if they don’t have an official program, there is a chance that they have researchers that can be persuaded to take on a dedicated mentee.

Once you have identified people that you would potentially like to work with, you need to contact them to assess whether they have something productive for you to do and to convince them that you are the one for the job. This first contact may seem intimidating, but the reality is that any researcher would love some help from an enthusiastic, dedicated, and intelligent volunteer (especially if you are willing to work for free or for college credit). However, the reality is also that researchers may not be in a place at the moment to have something productive for you to do. Furthermore, many researchers (particularly professors at large universities) are bombarded by e-mails from students interested in gaining research experience, and your interest can get lost in the chorus of applications. This is why your timing and your pitch are key.

This could be you too! Photo by Charity Juang.
As for timing, research tends to happen in fits and spurts that depend on the availability of research funding. Research can be slow when there’s no money to buy supplies and equipment, pay travel expenses, pay for animal care, and pay salaries. But when a grant does come through, the researcher is suddenly under intense pressure to collect and publish data as quickly as possible before the grant runs out. It’s hard to tell when a particular researcher may have funding, so one good strategy is to keep your eyes and ears open. Sometimes researchers post announcements around their departmental buildings when they're recruiting undergraduate research assistants. Positions and internships may be announced online. But more commonly, positions are filled before they're even announced. So how do you get a coveted position that isn’t even announced?

The best strategy is to contact researchers you are interested in working with as soon as you discover them and conveying your background and interests. They may not have an opening at the moment, but if you remind them of your availability and interest periodically (at the start of each semester, for example), you will likely be among the first to be informed when a position does open up.

What should you say when you contact a researcher you would like to work with? Generally, researchers want to know a few things when being approached by a prospective research assistant:

  1. If you are a student, what year are you? Training an assistant is usually a sizable time commitment. During an assistant’s first year, researchers spend as much or more time training the assistant than the assistant contributes to the project. For that reason, researchers usually prefer to hire someone who is likely to stay in the lab beyond a year. The more time you have before you graduate, the more desirable you are as an applicant.

  2. What are your research interests and how do they relate to the lab you are applying to? Researchers want assistants that are self-motivated. If you are genuinely interested in the project you will be working on, you are more likely to do a good job and get more out of the experience.

  3. What do you hope to gain out of such a research experience? Do you want experience with a particular technique or species? Are you hoping to work for pay or are you willing to work for college credit or just for the experience of it? Be honest here (especially if you need this to pay rent), but keep in mind that most labs don’t have money to pay assistants.

  4. What do you have to offer? If you are interested in field research, mention if you are an experienced outdoors enthusiast. If you are interested in learning wetlab techniques, mention your attention to detail. If you are willing to do menial tasks such as dishwashing and maintaining equipment, that could be a major selling point.

Your initial e-mail should be brief (a short paragraph is most effective). But you may want to attach a résumé as well. At the very least, your résumé should list any previous research experiences, classes you have you taken (biology, statistics, chemistry) that may be relevant to a project in this lab, and leadership/work positions you have held.

If you start early in your search and are persistent (but not pushy), you should be able to find a research position within a year. Good luck!

For more advice on applying to graduate programs, go here.

1 comment: