Getting started with research

How does one get a research position at UC Berkeley?

If you’re young and impressionable as I was, you might be led to believe that a coveted research position is near-impossible to get. Perhaps you think the 4.0 students are going to sweep the field before you get a shot, or that no professor is going to want an inexperienced undergraduate in their lab. I, too, had these misconceptions that kept me from putting myself out there until second semester of sophomore year. That being said, I now have an undergraduate research position in a chemistry lab, and I want to share life advice that I’ve acquired among my own triumphs and setbacks. While my experience is not representative of all, hopefully some of this information is helpful as you’re just getting started.

First off, let’s clear out some of the misconceptions.

Research is not just for straight A students- heck, no one has ever asked me for grades or transcripts! I’ve never been at the top of my classes, but one professor once scared me to thinking that no one would take me unless I was at the top of the class. I do it all now, and my grades did not help me get my position nor do they influence me staying in my position.

You really are not expected to know much. Do you really think undergraduates understand half the jargon that expert postdocs have been researching for years and years? You are there to learn, and if your mentor expects you to know so much already, you’re probably not in the right fit and should keep looking for a more supportive environment. Everyone has to start somewhere.

You have to email every single professor at Berkeley. I strongly advise against spamming everybody in your department. Rather, craft 5-10 thoughtful emails, demonstrating your interest in that person’s past research and your skillset, and go from there. I found that it didn’t take long to get a response via this method, however, timing is probably the most difficult factor. Many grad students might not be in the position to take an undergraduate, soit doesn’t work out. Don’t give up hope, because I find success every third time after no luck on the first two attempts.

Personally, I now am in a research lab but my path to here was certainly nontraditional. I went from a research mentorship program, to an undergraduate research program, to an internship at a national lab, to where I am now. But my exposure started in a research seminar course which I took my first semester and introduced me to the faculty’s research in the Berkeley chemistry department.

Thanks to a supportive network of GSIs, I became a paid intern at Sandia National Labs doing research.

My professor told us a golden line that I carry with me: you should start looking for research when you are willing to make the time to commit to research. Researchers often spend longer hours than they anticipate, all part of the process of discovery, and so you should pursue a research position when you are going to prioritize that in your schedule.

With that, I encourage you to seize even small opportunities and take advantage of your GSIs’ mentorship to connect you to resources, as I probably never would have gotten as prestigious an internship without their guidance. If you’re dying to start research, it’s all in your hands! Challenge yourself to send a few emails per week or apply to one of many summer research or internship opportunities circulating around campus. Best of luck, golden bears.


Author: Katia Gibson

Hello! I'm Katia, a senior chemistry major and Cal Teach minor, and you'll either find me in the 24 hour library studying or out chasing sunsets on my long runs. I'm a Bay Area native and I also do work in the environmental community, research in an organic chemistry lab, and dance with Ballet Folklorico Reflejos de Mexico. Hoping that I can share a little bit of Berkeley's magic with you all, go bears!