Is there a subject that really excites you in school? Can’t get information about cell division or astrophysics out of your head? If lectures aren’t doing enough for you, a great way to explore these interests is through research. Not only will research fuel your intellectual curiosity, it will also look great on your college application. So how do you actually go about getting these opportunities? Well, a good first step is deciding on what sort of research experience you actually want.
There are two main ways to do research: find a research position through direct outreach to researchers or apply to a structured research program. Both have unique pros and cons–let’s take a look!
Approach #1: Reach out and ask for a research position (informal)
Sometimes the job you want is a position that doesn’t exist yet! If an opportunity doesn’t present itself to you, you gotta make one on your own. In this approach, you reach out directly to a faculty member or PhD student to work with them on their research. This usually involves cold outreach (more on that below) and usually means you will be an assistant, instead of working on your own project. At the high school level, this probably means meticulous menial labor or data collection. (I once spent an entire summer preparing tiny little chips of silicon!) But this work is essential to all the research being done further up, so be prepared for what you’re getting into and bring your full effort to the task!
Shows initiative, resourcefulness, and a wide variety of other positive traits to colleges
Able to self-select the research you want to participate in
Potential 1-on-1 training by the mentor you want to learn from
Requires extensive networking or cold-emailing to arrange a position
No guarantee on quality of experience or teaching (a good researcher is not necessarily a good mentor!)
Lack of student cohort can be isolating
How to find a research position through outreach
First, figure out what type of research you’re interested in and look for a possible mentor or project to join. Check out the websites of local universities to see if there’s any nearby labs that spark your interest, then do more investigation on the project and its people. Don’t limit your search by only looking for EXISTING or HIGH-SCHOOL LEVEL positions–if a lab doesn’t specify, it doesn’t hurt you to ask!
Now would also be a good time to polish your resume: make sure to include things like relevant coursework near the top. (That way, it will be one of the first things they see when reading to gauge your qualifications.) It also helps to start earlier in the year–the further in advance, the better! It’s never too early to start planning, so reach out early and start building those connections. Even if an opportunity isn’t available yet, by keeping in contact with these researchers, you’ll be one of the first people in mind when one does.
Before you go cold-calling labs and asking for a job, try checking to see if you know anyone who already works in a lab! Ask your parents, teachers, and alumni if they can put you in touch with someone who currently works in (or has worked in) a lab. You never know who people are friends with. Sometimes it turns out your artsy friend has an uncle that works in robotics–be creative with who you reach out to! Chances are, you know someone who knows someone. Don’t be afraid to ask around–everyone in the professional world already does this. It may feel awkward and scary at first, but you’re really practicing developing a good skill that you’ll use for the rest of your life.
Here’s an example of a cold-email you could customize to fit a situation. One tactic you could potentially use is asking them for general advice about getting into research while also casually dropping the fact that you’re applying for that program. Just make sure you keep the conversation more about them and their research.
Dear Professor X,
My name is Powerpuff Girl, and I am a sophomore at Example High School. I’m extremely passionate about marine biology, so when I encountered your research on lobster immortality I immediately knew I had to speak to you. Would you be willing to talk more with me about your project, and on becoming a researcher in general?
I’ve completed AP Bio and Chemistry, and will be taking the AP Capstone courses starting next year. I’m especially skilled at data analysis, so if there’s any way I could help out there please let me know! Even general career advice for high school students interested in this sort of thing would be helpful.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope to hear back from you soon!
If you end up cold-calling institutions, be prepared for a lot of rejections. We estimate that around 5% of people will respond given our experience with outreach to professors! Without a personal connection to a lab or applying through a program, chances are you might not get your first choice. Some colleges might not have the resources to take on another student, others might ban highschoolers entirely. There are plenty of factors for why someone wouldn’t get a position, and none of them are reflections of your worth as a person.
It takes a lot of tenacity and luck to obtain any sort of opportunity like this, so the most important thing is to reach out to a broad number of people! Every job search process you have in the future will be just like this: the process of getting rejected is extremely important to learning how to succeed. It’s a numbers game. Keep trying, and you’ll have already gotten further than the students who gave up.
Approach #2: Apply for a research position in a formal program
A structured research program is exactly what it sounds like. You and ten to seventy other students (the sizes on these programs can range a lot) get to spend the entire summer working on some project or in a specific lab. Often these programs will try to match you to the subject you’re most interested in, but be sure to read the programs carefully to figure out what they offer! Don’t apply to a biology program expecting to do astrophysics, you know?
Can have more prestige associated with them, and a guaranteed level of academic instructional quality
Usually part of a cohort of fellow students and connected to larger learning community
Application process more clear and straightforward than searching for something on your own
Applications can be challenging and long
May not get the same dedicated level of attention depending on program
Often highly competitive and/or expensive to participate in
A proper research program will probably be more structured than an independent research mentorship. They can also be more fun–some are like a combination between summer school and summer camp! Others are more serious; it really depends on the vibe of the program. Just remember that these programs are going to be more competitive, since every other high school student will probably encounter them in their own search for research opportunities. Apply to several to maximize your chances; this is going to be just like college admissions. Think of this as great practice for when application season rolls around!
If you’re applying for a pre-existing research program, make sure you do some research of your own to make sure it’s legit. There are plenty of scam organizations out there that are trying to take advantage of students like you. Here are some red flags to avoid:
Short duration; high price point - A two week program should not cost two thousand dollars. In fact, stay away from short programs in general. What can you possibly learn in that short an amount of time? I would say 6 weeks is a good minimum for a summer research program.
Little-to-no application - If the program just wants your name, number, and credit card information, that’s a pretty sure sign it’s pay-to-play. A good program is going to be competitive, and competition means needing a detailed application to find the best students.
Fake accreditation - If a program is labeled “#1 for High School Students in Colleges-R-Us Magazine,” look up that organization! Don’t take anything they say for granted: fact check every name. It’s easy to lie on the internet: here, I’ll do it right now! “My brother’s homemade barbecue food truck was ranked #1 by Morristown Eats.” I don’t even live in Morristown, or have a brother!
Bad reviews - If former students aren’t coming away from the program with good things to say, that’s not a good sign. Trust the people who actually went through the program, not the website’s “student” reviews. And make sure you get multiple opinions! Maybe one student had a not so great time, and another had a blast: talk to them to figure out if a program is right for you.
Some schools have pre-established programs or partnerships with universities that are designed for students seeking this exact sort of experience. You can save yourself a lot of time and energy by checking to see if your school already offers an opportunity like this. Check with your teachers and administrators to see what options you already have available. (Oftentimes, this will mean filling out an application, which we will cover in more detail further down the list!) If it turns out that there is a pre-existing program, you can get more information about it by talking to students who already participated. Ask your school if there are any alumni that you could speak to. This will both let you know what you’re getting into and boost your chances of being accepted into the program altogether. You could also try cold-emailing the faculty members who are running the program to express your interest. Reaching out first will make them keep an eye out for your application, but be sure not to spam them!
We would also personally recommend our Lumiere Research Scholar Program.
Founded by Harvard and Oxford researchers, Lumiere offers its own structured virtual research programs in which ambitious high school students work 1-1 with top PhDs and develop and independent research paper. The program is fully virtual!
Last year, we had over 2100 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.
Also check out the Lumiere Research inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students.
Julianna is a senior at Harvard. She is majoring in English and vividly remembers the college admissions process. You got this guys!