Before we start -- we just want to emphasize that this information is not just for students interested in science. Research is simply the process of discovering new trends, ideas, or phenomenon, and this type of discovery can be made in any field, from engineering to history to art to political science. This may be good news for many of our readers, but the question still remains: how do you get involved with research, especially as a high schooler?
There are two main ways through which high schoolers can seek out research positions. You can either apply to a designated research program, or you can reach out to researchers and/or faculty of academic institutions on your own.
Many universities, government think tanks, and other laboratories or academic institutions have established summer research and volunteer programs for high school students. These programs often require applications that are due by January or February, for programs that start in June of that year. The applications often involve essays and recommendation letters, which the program administrators will use to match you to a particular research faculty upon acceptance. Examples of some research programs include RSI hosted by MIT for students interested in mathematics, science, and computer science, SIMR hosted by Stanford for students interested in the biomedical sciences, and a program hosted by the Baker Institute at Rice University for students interested in political science.
Venturing Out on Your Own:
Unlike in the established programs described above, you have more flexibility and freedom to choose which faculty you work with when finding research opportunities on your own. Here is a game plan you can follow:
- Define areas of research that you find interesting. We recommend that you keep your interests relatively broad (e.g. Renaissance literature or synthetic biology)
- Identify institutions that supports research in the fields you defined above. You can reach out to universities, hospitals, government think tanks/institutions, and even companies, to name a few.
- Create a generic cover letter addressed to the head of a laboratory or research group, including template sentences that allow you to fill in specifics about the specific research that a particular group does (e.g. "Your research on ______ intrigues me because ______, and I would love to contribute to ______ project")
- Update your CV/Resume, making sure that it states your credentials and any relevant coursework or previous experiences.
- Send emails to researchers and labs - cast a wide net! Researchers are very busy, and they get requests from college and graduate students as well, so a high schooler may not be on the top of their priority list. Attach the cover letter tailored to their particular research, as well as your resume. Include a concise introduction in the email that demonstrates your interest in the field and a bit about your academic background.
- 1. Emphasizing that you will work on a voluntary basis (or in other words, for free/without pay) can often help you!
- 2. Email as many researchers as you can, because the yield rate for high school students is often low (again, researchers are very busy)
- 3. If you don't hear back in two weeks, you can send a follow-up email by replying to your original email. If they still do not respond, move on and email other labs.
If you receive offers from multiple labs or research groups, you can consider the following factors to help you make a final decision:
- Interesting Project -- talk to the researcher about the project you will be working on, and make sure that it is one that is exciting to you and that you can give your full commitment to. The researcher took a chance on you by offering you the position, so you want to give your 100 percent!
- Interpersonal Dynamic -- go meet members of the lab and research group, and make sure that you feel comfortable with them. Remember, you will be needing their help and the more questions you ask, the better your work will be. If you don't feel comfortable with the lab, it will not be a good learning experience for you and your work can suffer.
- Funding and Publication Record -- research grants and publication records are often public information that can be found in online databases. Check to see if the lab or research group publishes in high-quality journals, as this reflects the quality of the work that they do. Similarly, make sure that the lab is sufficiently funded, as this can impact the overall work environment and the amount of resources you will have at your disposal.