In a time of increasingly competitive college admissions, good grades and strong test scores on their own just aren’t enough to set yourself apart from a pool of qualified candidates. These days, extracurriculars, strong recommendations, service projects, and real world experiences all play a role in college admissions.

If you’re considering a path in the sciences, a research assistant position is an invaluable real world experience. Working in an actual science lab and gaining experience working with real data and participating in authentic experiments lends insight that can’t be found through regular coursework or reading a textbook.

Research assistant positions can be hard to come by and competitive to secure in their own right, so your experience as a research assistant is also indicative of your dedication, ambition, and ability to succeed at a high level in the field of sciences.

In this post, we’ll outline what to expect in a research assistant position, where to find research assistant positions, and how to secure a research assistant position. If you’re interested in getting a research assistant position in high school, read on to learn more.

Should I Get a Research Assistant Position in High School?

Holding down a job or internship in high school is not something to be taken lightly. With any additional commitment comes increased responsibility. You need to know yourself to know how much you can take on at once.

A job can provide financial benefits, exemplify your ability to juggle multiple commitments, and show your dedication to the field. But if doing so comes at the expense of your grades, existing commitments, or relationships with friends and family, it may ultimately not be good choice for you. To learn more, read CollegeVine’s Should I Get a Job Or Do An Unpaid Internship? 

Research positions typically require a significant, prolonged time commitment. Although you may be able to limit your weekly hours to as few as five, you typically won’t be able to get a position that lasts for fewer than six weeks, and many programs that are shorter in duration require substantially more hours per week.

Be sure to consider the extent of the commitment carefully before you commit. Even worse than not getting a research assistant position at all would be getting one and then having to leave it prematurely due to overextending yourself.

What Is a Research Assistant?

A research assistant is typically a low-level lab assistant who works for either minimal pay or through an unpaid internship. Responsibilities range depending on the program and the specific lab in which you’re working.

Some lead scientists will limit an assistant’s roles to things like sweeping the floor and entering long lists of data into computer spreadsheets. Typically, if your work is limited to responsibilities such as these, you can expect to be paid a stipend for your duties.

On the other hand, some scientists will allow you to be involved in the actual experimentation, will let you contribute to experimental design, and will even mentor you during your time at the lab. In cases such as this, you will typically work as an unpaid intern, since you receive much more out of the experience.

Most formal research assistant programs are competitive and take place as residential or day-student programs offered during summer months.

The alternative is finding a research assistant position outside of a formal program. These positions can be difficult to find and are generally less organized or established, so you will need to be clear about your expectations and find out exactly what is expected of you in advance.

Where to Find Research Assistant Positions

There are a number of different sources to consider when trying to find a research assistant position. To begin your search, you will need to identify exactly what type of research assistant position you’re interested in pursuing.

Formal Research Assistant Programs

If you’re interested in a well-established program and you’re available during the summer months, you should consider a formal, residential research assistant program at a college. Some well-respected examples include MIT’s Research Science Institute and Stanford’s Office of Science Outreach Programs. Some of these programs have significant scholarships available and MIT’s Research Science Institute is completely free for the 70 students it accepts each year.

   

If you live within commuting distance of a college or a scientific research center, you might also be able to find summer programs offered to day students. For example, Princeton’s Laboratory Learning Program primarily attracts students from central New Jersey who gather five days a week for approximately seven weeks each summer to participate in rigorous scientific research projects.  The University of Washington also offers several similar programs, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts is a prime example of a professional scientific research center that offers mentorships to local students. 

If you live within commuting distance of a college or scientific research center, check their website or contact the head of the science department in which you’re interested to see if any research programs exist for high school students. Some may even be available year-round.

Informal Research Assistant Positions

If you are not interested in or are not able to participate in a formal research assistant program, you can still find research assistant positions, but the process will involve a lot more initiative on your part. It won’t be as simple as filling out an online application.

The easiest way to get started is to do some networking. Ask your parents or other mentors if they have any contacts at local universities or scientific laboratories who might be able to point you in the right direction. Also check with teachers at your school. Having a personal contact won’t necessarily get you a position, but it can at least get you in touch with the right person to discuss any opportunities that might exist.

Keep in mind, though, that if a college or lab offers a formal research assistant program, you should NOT try to circumvent the application process and arrange your own research position. Doing so shows disregard for the existing process and will likely result in your exclusion from any available positions. Instead, be sure to follow whatever application processes are already in place.

If there are no formal programs established and you do not have a connection to help you get started, begin to arrange your own research assistant position by browsing the website of local colleges or research labs and identifying between six and eight scientists with whom you’d be interested in working. Narrow your search based on their specific area of focus and what you’re genuinely interested in learning about through your potential position.    

Once you have created a list of six to eight possible mentors, send an email to each of them. It’s best to email rather than calling, since an unsolicited phone call to their place of work might seem intrusive or at least more time consuming than they’d prefer.

In your emails, address them professionally with their appropriate titles, such as Professor or Doctor. State what type of project you’re looking for, specifying what research area, why you’re interested in it, and some possible research questions you’ve considered in that field.

Express your eagerness to learn and your flexibility to fill whatever roles are available. Then, outline your availability including daily hours and state the time period you’re interested in working, be it summer only, part-time during the semester, or the entire school year.

As you outline your availability, remember that some labs will not consider an intern who can’t commit to working at least six weeks. It is sometimes not worth the time in training if a project cannot be seen through from beginning to end.

Attach a resume to your email. It should include your work experience, relevant courses with grades, overall GPA, summer programs you’ve participated in, any awards or skills, and of course your phone number and email address. If aren’t sure how write a resume, check out our post 5 Steps to a Rad Resume.

After you send your email, keep in mind that most scientists are very busy people. It is not uncommon to ignore this type of request, especially if the scientist either receives a large number of them or has no interest in hosting a research assistant. Don’t be offended; it is nothing personal.

If you don’t hear back from any scientists after two or three weeks, it is okay to follow up regarding your email once, but absolutely do not do so more than once.

If you send your email to six to eight scientists, hopefully at least one will get back to you, and even if he or she cannot host you, hopefully he or she will be able to point you in the right direction. If not, don’t be discouraged. You can start again from scratch by sending your email to another six to eight individuals.

Remember, this process might be lengthy and seem burdensome at first, but the experience of securing and participating in a research assistant position is an invaluable one on multiple levels. The real world experiences and insights it provides are unparalleled for an aspiring scientist or engineer, and the positive impression it adds to your college application is an additional perk.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in STEM fields but want some more guidance and insight into the process, consider CollegeVine’s Mentoring Program, which provides practical advice on topics from high school activities and college applications to career aspirations, all from successful college students who have been in your shoes.

Also, be sure to check out these CollegeVine posts to learn more extracurriculars and academics for students intending to pursue a career in science or engineering:

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist

Latest posts by Kate Sundquist (see all)