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I've been working as a research student at a biochemistry wet lab since my final years of high school (as a result of cold-emailing a professor). I'm entering the same university as that of this lab soon, and I plan to continue working here.

My direct supervisor (an incredibly hard-working graduate student and mentor) recommended me to try to work at several different labs throughout my undergrad. She said this would help diversify my skillset and expose me to potential environments I might enjoy working in even more.

However, my current plan is to spend most of my time continuing to work at this same lab as I'm more likely to have the opportunity to produce publishable results. I don't believe working at two labs concurrently would be a wise use of time (based on Working in two research lab at the same time – unethical?).

I do think it's feasible to take on short-term positions with different labs to gain insight into other fields and expand my skillset. I intend to be completely upfront about a short-term interest when applying, but I'm unsure how short this interest should be.

For an undergrad looking to volunteer in a short-term position at a lab, what would be an appropriate length of time to both learn some basic skills and truly bring some value to a PI's lab or a graduate student's project?

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I would refer to the way university offers undergrad research courses.

For example, at my university, students can work in lab in summer (12-16 weeks, full time, 40-45hrs/week).

Often, assuming both parties like the work, the student continues as a research course student for the next school term. In this arrangement, nothing changes except the compensation - in summer the work is paid, during the school year it is for credit.

Now, from what I have done and seen, people don't stick in the same lab longer than that ESPECIALLY if you are looking at grad school or medical school. This is because you need 2-3 PIs giving you a glowing reference.

That been said, I have taken a summer research project which I didn't continue (I.e. the length was 12 weeks). And I've done one research project which is 2 years (and still on-going). My third project was summer + school term in length.


In short, you should diversify your research experience in different labs. You can work as long as 12 months, and as short as 3 months in the same lab.

Though I don't know much about other universities, I expect this to be same or very similar at other universities. The time to learn basic skills will vary but 3 months should be a good start, of course as you do something longer you will get even better. But doing work in different setting will definitely help person get better with basic skills because different labs operate differently.

  • In my experience, 3 months (of during-school work) would be almost useless as you've only just then learned enough to be a decently productive member of the lab. – Azor Ahai Nov 21 '17 at 0:35

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