University admissions committees have started looking for academic research as part of a competitive admissions portfolio, probably because it demonstrates critical reasoning, teamwork, and technical communications skills.
No matter what the reason, this criterion has put pressure on high school students to seek out in-person lab positions with senior professors, only to discover that these positions are scarce and highly sought after. So, how do you help a high school student find an academic research position? There are seven steps to success.
1. Drive with Passion
Success depends on a compatibility between the lab’s projects and the student’s passion. To determine if the student’s interest is a passion, and to facilitate later steps, ask them to write down 20 things they wish they knew about their passion area. If they can’t identify 20 questions or if the questions are easily answered, they need to dig deeper.
2. Develop a List
Who might they ask for a lab job? Start by combing university and company websites for lab directors, professors, and researchers. Include local community colleges, research universities, established companies, or start-ups. The broader the search, the better. If they get multiple offers, they can always choose the one that seems best. Students should ask their parents, parents’ friends, high school teachers, club supervisors, and science fair judges. The goal is to generate a list of 100 potential contacts.
3. The Email
Once your student has a long enough list, they are ready to write a short, two-paragraph email requesting a meeting. The first paragraph should describe the student’s passion, not their accomplishments. Why are they interested in this area of inquiry? How does that passion relate to the lab? Ideally, they should mention a specific, recent publication or success from the target lab. The second paragraph should be focused on requesting a face-to-face meeting. The best second paragraph states that the student will be on-site on a particular day and would like to meet during a particular time window.
4. Email Follow-up
Almost all the student’s emails will be ignored. Of the 100 emails sent, perhaps 10 will get a response. This might be disheartening but it is the reality of job search, even for a high school lab position. It is important that the student take every one of the 10 responses very seriously. In most cases, no matter what the response says, the question is “Are you mature enough and passionate enough in this area to succeed in my lab?” The student should spend time crafting a one-paragraph, professional response, with your counsel, that more deeply explains why they think this lab would be a great experience. Don’t focus on how the high school student will be a great asset for the lab. This can appear arrogant.
5. The Interview
The goal of the 10 responses is to get three interviews. Be sure to help prepare your student for these interviews. Even if they are highly professional and mature with an easy conversational manner, they may be inexperienced at speaking with academics.
The interview will likely begin with small talk. The student should prepare answers to the most common questions about school, their favorite subject, the weather, or the local sports team. Academics can be quite awkward at small talk, making this an uncomfortable start. Some practice can help the student drive through any rough patches.
The next part of the interview will often be an opportunity for the student to share their passion statement, something like “Tell me about yourself and your interest in my lab.” The student should describe why they are interested in the topic, perhaps any work they have already done in the area and, importantly, should culminate with a reference to some recent work from the lab and how they found that specific work interesting.
Finally, the student MUST prepare several good questions about the lab’s work. In some cases, an academic will start here and simply open with “What can I tell you about our lab?” No matter when it comes up, this is the most important part of the interview. All lab directors value good questions more than good answers. The student can ask basic questions like “Describe current projects,” but in order to land the job, they must follow up with insightful, scientific questions. They can lean heavily on those 20 questions they generated in step one.
6. Follow Up
In some rare cases, the principal investigator (PI) may make an offer on the spot. If they do offer a position, coach your student to take as many notes as possible but not to accept the job right then. It is probably better to complete all the interviews and speak with you and their parents before jumping in. In most cases, the interview will end with an agreement to check back in a couple of days, even ending abruptly as the interviewer realizes they are late for their next meeting.
No matter how the interview went, the student should send a follow-up note thanking the interviewer for their time and directly asking if there would be a lab opening for them, ideally mentioning a specific project that was discussed in the interview.
7. Negotiate the Offer
Finally, the lab director may respond with an offer to work on a specific project. They did it! Your high school student got an offer.
It is still not time to accept. Coach your student to ask enough questions to be sure they can meet the lab’s expectations (e.g., hours per week, special skills needed, remote work). It is also reasonable to ask about the student’s interests, e.g., letters of recommendation, first-authored publications, will the student interact with the PI.
It can be a lot of work to find an in-person lab position, but the rewards of meeting students, researchers, and faculty who share a deep passion with your high school student can be immeasurable, and might just help their college admissions portfolio.
By Robert Malkin, PhD, Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering and Global Health, Emeritus, Duke University, and Academic Director, International Research Institute of North Carolina