Right and Wrong Ways To Find A Volunteer Research Position

Recently, I received an email from a student, which had been forwarded by one of the administrative assistants in the Psychology department (of which I am a faculty member). I wasn’t the only one to receive the message — it was also forwarded to several other professors. The message was a familiar one, but only because more than a few students have tried to reach me this way in the past. It was a form letter of sorts. Not addressed to anyone in particular, but instead, it was intended for all professors to read.

The student was looking for an opportunity to get some research experience, and he was offering to volunteer some of his time to help out in someone’s lab. He posted his message to a “request-info” page on one of the department webpages, and it was later read by an administrative assistant. Since the message was not addressed to any individual, but instead was asking if anyone reading it could help by providing an opportunity, she simply forwarded the message to the professors on one of her mailing lists. She did all she could do for the student.

Sadly, the student is unlikely to get any positive replies. This is not because there are no opportunities for volunteer research assistants in our department. In fact, there are many. There are about 45 full-time faculty members in the Psychology department, and all of us have ongoing programs of research. Along with graduate students, and undergraduate thesis students, most of us also have one or more undergraduate student volunteers helping out at any given time. Some of us provide valuable research experience to upwards of seven or eight, or more student volunteers, on average, per year.

There are a lot of volunteer opportunities, but one must go about finding them in the proper way. Few, if any, professors will respond to an email sent to a group. There is no shortage of undergraduate students in our department who want to get involved in research, and professors provide opportunities to students who take the trouble to get to know what their research is about, and who make a request either in person, or by sending a personal email.

In other words, you need to ask individual professors about working in their labs. Send your email directly to a professor, stating your interests in volunteering some of your time to help out with his or her research. Make sure you know what they do, first.

Making a proper email request for a volunteer-position does not guarantee that you will get a positive reply — or any reply at all — so you need to be patient and persistent. Remember, however, that if you contact too many people and try to convince each one that you are especially interested in his or her research, then it will be clear to all that you are just fishing for anything you can get. This will make a bad impression, suggesting that you have poor judgment, or that you are naive, or immature, insincere, or … the list could go on, but I think you get the point. You must target your requests, and you must be sincere.

The student’s email reminded me of something that occurred last week: I was speaking to a group of about 40 students about getting undergraduate research experience, and one of them asked whether it would be okay to seek these kinds of volunteer opportunities with professors at another university (Here in Montreal, there are four universities to choose from). I assured her that this is, in fact, a good idea, and that I have known many students who have done exactly that. Likewise, many students from other universities have spent time in my lab as a volunteer assistant, and the same is true for most of my colleagues who have been around for a while.

A young man then raised his hand, and told us that things are, in fact, different at McGill. He told us that ‘they’ only offer volunteer research opportunities to McGill students. He said he had been told so when he tried to contact people there. I suggested that he should ignore the person who told him that, as it is not likely to be part of any policy. I did not ask him whom he contacted, or how, and now I’m wondering if he contacted the right people at McGill.

If it is the case (and I don’t know if it is) that he called or emailed a secretary in the Psychology Department to ask about volunteer positions, then it is not surprising that he was told that being an outside student might be a problem. Secretaries and other administrative staff members are not directly involved in research activities, or in making decisions about who a professor will invite onto his or her research team. It might even make sense to a person in that position to suspect that students “from within” are preferred by professors who put students to work in their labs. Some professors might even think that way, but most do not. And it’s all up to the professors to decide whether you can work in their laboratories. Keep in mind that if you are accepted into a research lab, that is only the first step in making a good impression. Some students end up making the least of this opportunity and sabotage their hopes for grad school. Don’t end up in this position!

The message is the same: If you go outside of your own school to look for a volunteer research position, be sure to directly contact the individual researchers with whom you wish to work. There are actually some advantages to getting at least some volunteer research experience at a different institution than your own university. But, that topic is a long one, and better to leave for another time.

(In case anyone is wondering, I did respond to the student’s message. I did not offer him a volunteer position in my laboratory, but I did tell him about the importance of contacting professors directly, after first finding out what their research is about).

[ By the way, if graduate school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives for this blog, as well as the most recent posts. I can give you all the best information and advice about what it takes to get into the graduate program that’s right for you.
There are many other sites out there, but they all provide the same basic and generic information and advice about applying to graduate school, and therefore, none of them offer anything that is uniquely helpful. In fact, following too closely the advice of other so-called grad-school experts can be harmful to your chances of getting in. If you want to see what I mean by that, and learn about the biggest myth there is about getting into graduate school in any of the sciences or social sciences, then please check out this blog post from August, 2012 — What if the Guru is Wrong About That? ]


  1. Dear Dr. Mumby,

    Thank you so much for the very helpful article! I was wondering if research labs accept people still in their first year of CEGEP?

    Thank you!


  2. First of all I would like to say wonderful blog!
    I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing.
    I’ve had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Kudos!


    1. I wish I could give you some good and helpful advice on this one. The truth is, however, I don’t have any good habits when it comes to writing! To me, it doesn’t seem so bad that you need to spend 10 or 15 minutes deciding how to begin something. But, I don’t sit down to write until I already know how i’m going to begin, and that is something I usually come up with while I’m thinking about the writing project while doing something else (for example, working in the garden while I go through different potential beginnings in my head). If you want excellent advice on writing, check out some of the resources available from the Thesis Whisperer. – Dave


  3. Dear Dr. Mumby,

    I really appreciate this article you have written for those who are interested in applying for volunteer research positions.

    I graduated from medical school abroad and am having difficulty landing a residency spot. I am seriously considering research but I have no research background. I did not do research during medical school.

    My question is, when I apply for volunteer research positions should I also have a research statement written and ready to send off along with my CV? I have heard differing views on this. Since I have no actual research experience, I would provide details in my research statement about what research I am interested in?

    I greatly appreciate any information you could provide. Thank you so much.

    – V


    1. You don’t need to include a research statement for this, and I would advise against it. Without any research experience, there is a good chance your statement would come across as a bit naive. You should indicate in your initial email that you’re interested in this particular person’s area of research, using a few key words or phrases to show that you know what his or her research is about. You should indicate that you’re hoping to pursue a career in research, and you see this potential opportunity as a key part of your training and preparation. You don’t need to provide any details about the research you’re interested in, because anyone you contact will assume that you read his or her research profile, and the reason you’re asking for a volunteer research position is because this is the kind of research that interests you. – Dave


  4. Dr. Mumby,
    Thank you so much for your advice and taking the time to answer questions from students. I have taken a lot of valuable advice. I am currently in my last year at McGill and trying to find research opporunities.My question is this, I have no experience of working in a lab, and i am aware that many people do. How can I make myself stand out in this process?


    1. Mary-Ann, the good news is that most professors who provide opportunities for volunteer research assistants won’t discriminate based on how much research experience a volunteer already has. Some might do so, but most will not. More important to the majority of professors are: 1) a student’s reasons for wanting to get involved (which must be sound, and based primarily on an interest in research training and this professors general area of research, 2) whether there is something for the student to actually do to be potentially helpful over a period of a few months (or more), 3) whether the student will be able to dedicate enough time to be helpful, or 4) the apparent social skills of the student (who will probably have to work with others on a research team). Your interpersonal skills will come across in your email and when you meet the professor for an interview. Do your homework so you know about their research area before you make that first contact. Come with the right attitude and present a strong work ethic, and if there is an ‘opening’ in the lab, you are highly likely to win at least a ‘tryout’ with most professors. Then, to make it all pay off, you have to deliver! If you haven’t already, please check out this other post I wrote on making a strong impression as a volunteer research assistant. – Dave


  5. Dr. Mumby,

    I am extremely happy to have met you through my advising session Thursday morning. I have been reading through your blog all day today, and am still overwhelmed by its helpfulness. I am starting my first semester as an undergrad student this coming January, and all of your posts seem to calm my insecurities.

    I am really interested in getting involved as a volunteer at a research lab since I believe it will prepare me for the research I will have to conduct through the Science College as well as for my Honors’ thesis. I also believe first-hand scientific experience is a must if one wants to pursue a career in research later on. The earlier, the better; right?

    I have been reading through the Concordia Behavioural Neuroscience Faculty members’ research interests, and have selected four researches for which I would want to volunteer. These different researches interest me for different reasons, but could all ultimately guide me to a specific area of work in neuropsychology, which is the field in which I wish to pursue a career.

    I am wondering:

    1) Since the semester starts only in 3 weeks, should I wait before contacting the professors?

    2) If emailing all four professors would be too much and lead to a bad impression? The emails would obviously be personal since I am interested in their researches for different reasons.

    3) If I should email the one that interests me the most, and if I get no reply, then I email my second preference, etc.

    4) Would it be wiser to simply get involved in the participant pool as it is my first semester, and apply as a research assistant this summer?

    Thank you!



    1. Thank-you for the comments and questions, Esthelle. Please accept my apologies for the long delay in replying — I was completely disconnected from the blog during the holiday period (which, for me, ended last night).

      I’ll do my best with your questions:

      1) Since the semester starts only in 3 weeks, should I wait before contacting the professors?

      No need to wait before contacting professors for an opportunity as a volunteer research assistant. There is a very good chance that you will have to ask a few professors before you find someone who has something to offer you during the current semester. Your comment was posted mid-December, which is not the best time to be making these types of requests, because most professors are distracted by other things an less responsive to students’ email during the holiday period, and the weeks just before. But, now that the winter semester has begun, you should start contacting professors with whom you wish to connect.

      2) If emailing all four professors would be too much and lead to a bad impression? The emails would obviously be personal since I am interested in their researches for different reasons.

      I would send your request to these four professors in a serial fashion, beginning with the one who appeals to you the most. I don’t think sending an email to all four at the same time would create any kind of negative impression, but it might create a complication for you if two of them invite you to get involved, and you’re left having to backtrack with one of them. That could possibly create a bad impression. So, one at a time, is best. If you can tell after a week or two that the first professor on your list won’t be coming through with anything, then move on to the next on your list.

      3) If I should email the one that interests me the most, and if I get no reply, then I email my second preference, etc.

      Yes, but keep in mind that many professors are notoriously slow when it comes to answering emails that aren’t urgent. So, expect that you might not even get a reply to that first email you send someone. Don’t take it personally! Give them the benefit of the doubt — assume that they just left replying to your email until a later time, and then lost track of it. The point here is that if you don’t get a reply from the first person on your list, send the email again in a week. If you happen to be taking a class with that professor, consider approaching them after class or during office hours to ask about a volunteer research opportunity. Move on to your second prospect only if you’re certain the first one has heard your request and is unable to help you.

      4) Would it be wiser to simply get involved in the participant pool as it is my first semester, and apply as a research assistant this summer?

      I normally tell students that it’s not essential to get involved in undergraduate research during the first year, but they should definitely start getting involved as early as they can, after those first semesters are over. So, in your case, waiting until the summer to hook up with a professor and his or her research would not be a bad idea. It depends on how much time you can spare during the current academic semester, without it distracting from your course work and having a negative effect on your grades.

      The participant pool you refer to in your question is something quite different from a volunteer research position. It is a way to get extra credit, in some courses, by serving as a participant in some study or another that is being currently being conducted. You’re not doing the research, but instead are a human participant, and will therefore contribute to the researcher’s data.

      I hope these answers are helpful, Esthelle. thanks again for your comments and questions. I appreciate that you posted them here instead of just asking me in person. This way you’re helping others who may have the same or similar questions. – Dave


      1. Dr. Mumby,

        Thank you for your insight! I will definitely consider all of your suggestions and advice before deciding whether or not to apply for a position as a research assistant right now.

        Have a great semester!



  6. Dr. Mumby,

    I have my BFA but am looking to get into a master’s program for clinical psychology. I see there is a research requirement for one program I’m looking into, however I have no research experience. What do you suggest for someone in my case who is not an enrolled student, but in order to even apply to an MA program I need research experience?

    Thank you!



    1. I’m afraid I don’t have any suggestions for shortcuts to getting the research experience you need. The vast majority of master’s programs in clinical psychology involve a research thesis, and it is usually expected that students who enter one of these master’s programs will continue on to the Ph.D. This is a reasonable assumption, since one must have a doctorate in order to be a licensed clinical psychology practitioner. All Ph.D.s are research degrees (regardless of the discipline), so students who are interested in pursuing graduate studies in clinical psychology need to be able to demonstrate that they are prepared to undertake graduate research. As I have discussed in many other places on this blog, Psychology professors choose their own graduate students, and they tend to decide about whether or not to accept a student based primarily on the student’s promise as a researcher. If it is really clinical psychology that you’re interested in, there is no way to get around the standard requirement of previous research experience. You could get that experience by committing to several months of volunteering as a research assistant for some professor.
      It’s important to keep in mind that, while graduate programs in clinical or nonclinical psychology typically require a research thesis (note: this is true for Ph.D. but not Psy.D), things are somewhat different if it is a graduate program in one of Psychology’s allied fields, such as Counselling Psychology, Social Work, or Educational Psychology. Master’s programs in the latter fields typically do not involve a research thesis (although some master’s programs will have both a thesis option and a non-thesis option). Thus, students don’t normally need to have previous research experience to get into one of those master’s programs.


      1. Dr. Mumby, thank you so much for your reply. I’ve looked into other programs as well (including all 3 that you mentioned) so perhaps I will look more closely at those options. I really appreciate your insight. Thank you!


  7. I wish I read your blog back in second year. Its very informative and gives a good sense of how one should go about volunteering and pursuing grad studies.

    I hope you could give me a bit of advice.

    I’m a fourth year, going to finish my undergraduate this April, and I’m just now taking a serious look at getting into research. Yes, I know, it’s pretty late. I was considering other venues like doing accounting diplomas after, etc.

    I figure, I’m here, I might as well give research a shot. Do you have any advice for someone who’s trying to quickly get into labs and gain invaluable experience? I would appreciate any tips you could offer.



    1. sorry to keep you waiting so long for this reply… Thank-you for the question and for your nice comments on about my blog!
      I don’t have any special advice or shortcuts for someone looking to get into labs and gain research experience and to get themselves known. I suppose that, depending on how busy other aspects of your life happen to be, you could accelerate things a bit by getting involved in two labs at the same time. I have known many students who did this and who managed to put in enough time and concerted effort in each lab to make a really strong impression on both professors. I don’t think any of those students were in two labs for the sake of getting invaluable experience more quickly — just to get more of it — and they were able to find the time to do it right. The only risk is spreading oneself too thinly between the two labs, and not making a strong impression in either one. Wether or not its feasible to be an effective volunteer assistant in two labs at the same time will depend a lot on the nature of the research being done in the two labs. Some research requires that critical activities are conducted at specific times on specific days, and there is no room for flexibility, so a volunteer might need to be able to make himself or herself available to help according to some kind of fixed schedule. Other research is less regimented, and a volunteer assistant might be able to help effectively with flexible time commitments. Working in two labs at the same time is a bad idea if an obligation you have in one lab makes it impossible for you to make or keep an important obligation with the other lab. Best to get established in one lab, before adding on some involvement in another lab. – Dave


  8. Dear Dr Mumby

    Thank you so much. Your article is very informative and encouraging. I hope to ask you a question though. I haven’t been able to ascertain the length of such a communication with a faculty member. Sending a short email with a resume’ does not seem likely to make an impression or convey my interests and a longer email (with resume’) mentioning my experiences may cast a clearer impression of me but may simply be ignored by a busy faculty. It has been difficult for me to find a middle path.

    And as you mention there seems to be an excessive number of ‘no replies’, which is disheartening but understandable.

    Thanks again.


    1. I recommend that you keep it fairly brief. Just a few sentences, saying who you are and stating your interest in their work and your eagerness to volunteer some of your time to help out. It can be a good idea to indicate that you plan to pursue a graduate school, or a research career, because that will make you seem like someone looking for an opportunity for the right reasons, rather than someone who is just curious about getting involved in research. (Believe me, I occasionally meet students who want to volunteer to work in my lab, apparently because they think it might be cool or interesting. Of course, I don’t give them any serious consideration).

      The resumé is not necessary, but you can include it if you have a notable amount of previous research experience. If you don’t have that experience, the resumé is not going to be of much interest. Far more important to most would be your character and personality, and work ethic. Attaching documents to your initial email request for a volunteer opportunity might strike some professors as a bit presumptuous (as though you expect them to actually open an attachment and take time to look at it). Rather than attaching a CV or resumé, you can just close your email by stating that you would be happy to provide one, if they want to see it.

      Good luck!

      – Dave Mumby


  9. Dr Mumby,

    I’m glad you mentioned that it is okay for students to seek volunteer research experience at other institutions but I was hoping you could clear something else up for me. I have my undergrad degree from a US institution but was hoping to find a volunteer research position in Canada in order to gain experience and strengthen my application for graduate programs. Since I am no longer a student will this pose a problem for me when seeking volunteer experience?

    Many thanks,


    1. Thank-you for the excellent question, Stephanie.

      I have met a lot of people in situations similar to the one you describe. That’s not surprising, given that so many people aren’t sure what career path to follow until some time after they graduate college or a university undergraduate program. For this good reason, they decide to enter the workforce for a year or two, so they can take time to consider their options for the longer term. A year or two can easily turn into a few more years before some former students will eventually decide to pursue a career that requires postgraduate training (ie., master’s or doctorate). I think a lot of people in this situation mistakenly assume it’s too late to get all the credentials, experience, and letters of recommendations that are needed to get into graduate school. It’s seldom true, however.

      I am constantly telling students that getting lots of research experience as an undergraduate is the most important thing they need to do to prepare for a successful grad-school application. This is especially true in the natural sciences and socials sciences. But the truth is, this essential experience does not have to be acquired while one is actually enrolled as an undergraduate student. And most professors don’t care much whether or not their “volunteer” research assistants are currently enrolled in a formal program of study.

      What is more likely to matter to a professor is the person’s reasons for wanting the experience, and how it fits into his or her overall career plans. If the person is intending to apply to graduate school within the next several months, most professors will view that as a sufficient justification.

      During my career, several “former” students (ie., already graduated and not in grad school) have spent time working in my lab on a volunteer basis. As well as I can remember, they were all there for the purpose of getting the research experience and letters of recommendation they needed to get into graduate school. I did not think of these volunteers any differently than the many others who have worked in my lab while actually registered as students. I don’t think many of my peers would discriminate against former students in favour of current students, either — so long as the person is a future student.


  10. Thank you so much professor for clearing that up. It not only encourages me to go and search for opportunities but also teaches me the importances of patiences, sincerity and persistances. I will take your advice and hopefully one day i can work in a research lab and research about the things i am passionate about.


  11. Thanks for the it definitley clear up the fact that theres nothing wrong with asking for a volunteer postion its the way you ask which I think is so true im currently looking for volunteer work myself and I’ve had to remind myself not to contact to many at a time Its sort of a one company or person at a time thing.


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