Think Outside of the Box When it Comes to Getting into Research

by Janet Wilson

The benefits of doing undergraduate research are extensive. It can teach you how to deal with failure, build key transferable skills and help you form an academic network. Understandably, undergraduate research positions are coveted by many. But truth be told, it is tough to know where and how to begin as a student-researcher and it can be intimidating to seek out a research position for the first time. But fear not, MSURJ is here! You may think that the only way to get involved as an undergrad is in a lab at your university, but that is far from true. There are many other research opportunities that you may not be aware of that can serve as an excellent way to begin as a student-researcher.

First off, I began as a student researcher in a hospital, administering surveys to patients, collecting and analyzing data. I was able to learn from diverse mentors at the top of their field of research, acquired valuable clinical and research skills, and was able to actively participate in all aspects of my project. Although it was very different from a traditional student research position in a university lab, I don’t think I missed out in the slightest.

Sometimes it can be challenging to obtain a paid research position in a hospital right away, especially if you don’t have connections. Therefore, it may be necessary to start by volunteering, in order to network and show your supervisors that you are a good fit for their position. If you are highly motivated to make money, there are many funding opportunities to seek out such as the Canada Summer Jobs program which your employer can use to subsidize your pay. When contacting professors/employers that you are interested in researching with, tell them about such funding sources. Often taking on an undergraduate student can be extra work for the lab, therefore it can be beneficial to let them know of funding sources.

Apart from a position in a hospital, another non-traditional research opportunity is in the private sector. Many companies look for student interns, particularly in the fields of mathematics, computer science and the physical sciences. Opportunities in the private sector are not only great for building your resume, but they also teach you key industry-specific skills, many of which cannot be taught in the lecture hall. They will also help you when you begin the inevitable post-university job search!

If you are passionate about a specific research topic, don’t be shy to expand your search outside of only the labs of McGill professors. Other universities in Montreal such as UdeM and Concordia are great resources. Also, research institutes such as the Computer Research Institute of Montreal (CRIM), the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) and the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) are all great institutions within our hometown to look into.

Finally, some faculty-specific research awards can serve to kick start your research career. These include the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering award (SURE), which provides a 16-week, full-time paid internship position in an engineering lab at McGill. The Science Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) and NSERC Undergraduate Research Student Awards (USRA) also provide funding for aspiring researchers in the Faculty of Science.

In summary, don’t be shy to pursue non-traditional research opportunities and good luck with your search!

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