Step by step, advice for pursuing a career requiring a science PhD
This is an exciting time! Welcome to college. Some of you
may have been awesome enough to start doing research in
high school: major kudos to you, and I imagine you're
already in the swing of things! For those of you who
took more a typical path like I did, you probably don't
even know what research is, not even considering
how to get involved. Luckily, there's no pressure to start
doing research the minute you get to college; most people
start the beginning of their sophomore year, though the
earlier the better of course. What I recommend first-year
first-semester students do is settle into college. Do
well in your science classes and try to get to know your
professors; you can ask to join their lab at the end of the
semester if they have space. Meet with your academic advisor
and tell them about your interests; they can help too.
Make friends! Specifically
with regards to research, upperclass-people science
friends are excellent (they're probably going to be your
TAs), but really college is all about making friends and
settling in at this point. Research can be hard so you
want to be healthy, happy, getting good grades, and enjoying
yourself when you get started, which means establishing
a strong support system and enjoying meeting all of these
new people and having new experiences.
Though you have until the beginning of sophomore year when you definitely should be doing research, I started my first-year spring, and if you can you should take the opportunity. At this point, you haven't picked a major and you don't know what you're doing, so any lab that will take you will work. If one of your professors from last semester happens to have some space, definitely ask if you can join their lab (I have some articles about how to do that below), otherwise, email any professor whose work seems interesting! Professors know that at this stage undergrads are just exploring, and many of them will be happy to take on new students (because if you stay then you're likely to stay long-term :)). I started in a physical chemistry lab my first-year spring, and I ended up in neuroscience in the end.
This is also a good time to start thinking about summer research. It's hard to get REUs (summer research positions) and the more experience you have the easier they are to get. (... Bit of a catch-22 there. Unfortunately, in life the greatest evidence of future success is past success, so it's always good to get started early :)). Most people get their first summer research position at their home institution, and the easiest way to do this is to continue working in the lab you work in during the spring. So ask your lab if you can stay on, and then apply for the REU funding programs! You're also welcome to try to apply to REUs outside your home institution; don't be disappointed if you're not qualified enough yet, but applying is always a great exercise and it's excellent to have diverse research experience if you do get it.
Summer research :). While I heartily advocate doing research during the school year, you're probably only going to get in 10 hours per week or so in the beginning. In the SUMMER, however, you're working around 40-45 hours per week (unless you're an overachiever, in which case go for it!) which means you can get stuff done in a two weeks that would take you a whole semester during the school year. This is probably the most important time to do research, simply because it's a full-time job during the summer. So try living on your own (...and cooking on your own!) for a summer and hopefully you're enrolled in an REU program or associated with one. Most REU programs have activities for their students to do outside of their research-- ours had lectures, field trips, food events, and craft activities-- so it's a fun time, especially since you get to hang out with a whole bunch of other students who are enthusiastic about science.
All right, here we are! If you haven't gotten started doing research yet, now's the time. You don't technically need to start now, but if you want to be a position where you could apply to graduate school reasonably soon after you graduate, and be in a position where you KNOW whether you want to apply to graduate school (which only comes with time and experience), it's good to start now. When I was going through this process, this was the time in which I switched into my permanent lab. I'd be in a physical chemistry lab during my first-year spring, and an environmental science lab during my first-year summer, and now I entered the neuroscience lab that I'd stay with for the next three years. There's different opinions on whether to stay with one lab or switch around during your undergrad, and this comes down to: you'll get more done if you stay in one lab, but you'll have broader experiences if you switch around a little. Still, most people have one "home" lab that they usually work in, because you really do need to stay put to learn enough to accomplish anything.
Anyway, so you're working in a lab! Course credit / for pay / volunteer is all good. Be patient with yourself-- it takes a LONG time before you're going to be in a position where you can design experiments and run them effectively (I'm still not at that point yet-- that's what being a graduate student is about). So just learn as much as you can-- skills-wise and environment-wise. There are a lot of skills to learn (which I don't talk about in this website) and a lot to learn about how research is conducted.
Cool, you've got a semester of research under your belt! Carry on. Start applying for summer REU positions (yes, you'll be doing this every summer. It's how it goes). I stayed in my home lab during the summer, but this is a good time to apply to REU positions at other schools / labs if you're interested in doing that! You're still early enough in that you're not expected to do thesis-work over the summer, and it's a good opportunity to see what other labs and locations are like.
Update from the fantastic Michelle Brann: "Note that it's okay to switch labs while in undergrad and explore different interests (aka I took a break from my home lab for a semester to do research at a different institution.) Also, there are many other government sponsored research programs/DOE/NASA as well as positions within biotech companies. I high recommend this for exploring careers separate from just academia and getting a sense of what research / positions are like with various levels of degrees."
Summer research! I hope you have a good REU program; summer research is often a lot of fun :).
(If you're planning to go to graduate school right out of undergrad, by the way, I'd start thinking about taking your GREs. I took a year out of undergrad to do research before applying, so I talk more about this during Year 3 summer.)
Whohoo, you're a junior in college! Hopefully feeling on top of it. Classes are getting better, since you're settled into your major and starting to take upper-level classes, people are asking if you know what you want to do when you graduate... luckily that won't really kick in until your senior year. Hopefully you're pleased with the lab you're in! Research just continues on in a holding pattern at this point. Maybe you're starting to take on more responsibility in lab, maybe you're starting to train some newcomers.
Continue on. Apply for REUs, though likely that's going to be in your home institution or in a lab affiliated with your home institution. If you can get funding to work in a lab that collaborates with yours-- so you'll still be doing work related to your lab's but you get to travel-- that's always a fun opportunity. I have friends who did this, but it depends on your school, and most of my friends (and I) just buckled down in our home labs during the summer.
Note that this is also a good time to plan out and cement relationships with professors who you want to write your recommendation letters for graduate school (if you're planning to go that route, of course, but I assume you are since that's what this website is aimed at :)). This happens organically, which is why I haven't mentioned it before now, but if you have a chance to do an independent research project or take another interesting class with a professor who you have a good relationship with, take it!
Finally, the real world's setting in, and now's the time when you need to start thinking about what you're going to do after you graduate (...I know, the earliness of this sucks). If you're applying to graduate school right out of undergrad (i.e., in the fall) you can start prepping for that process. If you're not, but you're applying for the big national research fellowships (.e.g. Marshall, Churchill) you need to get in touch with whoever does fellowship advising at your school, because you should start getting in contact with potential PIs during this spring.
All right! So this is when you're going to do most of your thesis work. Wait, thesis? Yes! Not everyone has to do an undergraduate thesis, which is a long essay describing the research you've done, but it's required at a lot of schools and usually lets you graduate with honors. You don't want to be doing the majority of your thesis work during the school year-- senior year is a busy time. You want to have most of your lab work done by the time you start in the fall, so that you'll have time for all of the inevitable extra experiments, doing data analysis, doing literature review, and writing up. This is the summer to collect all of your data!
Also, this is the summer to study for and take your GREs if you're thinking about graduate school a year or two out of undergrad. GREs are the standardized tests required for graduate school, and they come in two varieties: the general test, and subject tests. Just like high-school SATs, the general test isn't too terrible (math, reading, writing) and the subject tests are hard. I luckily only had to take the general GRE, so I studied for two months and then took it in August. If you have to take the subject GREs, you might need more time to study. Also, you have to book GRE slots pretty far in advance-- the weekend slots fill up 2 months ahead, I think, especially if you want one in your area. Ah, all the other things besides research that you need for graduate school... (research, grades, GRE, and rec letters!)
Top of the school, people, congrats! Senior year is FUN because you're completely settled in where you are. You're also taking the coolest classes that you've hand-picked since who-knows-when, you're with all of your friends, and you actually know what you're doing with your research. It's also crazy-busy because you're applying for jobs AND taking classes AND devoting an insane amount of time to research AND having a social life. Plus everyone keeps asking you what you're going to do next year. But carry on! You're doing your thesis work (or writing up a paper, if your data is good!) so you definitely know what you're doing research-wise. Retake the GREs if you didn't do well, or save that for winter break.
Most importantly, this is the time when you're applying for EVERYTHING. If you're heading to graduate school right out of undergrad, you're doing your grad school applications... and do NOT underestimate how long this process takes. (Though I know people who have done it over Thanksgiving Break, I started in August and finished just in time for them to be due on November / December.)
If you're not applying to graduate school right now, then you're still applying for everything, because you're applying to all of the fellowship positions which are due in the fall. The international ones especially have internal and external review processes that mean you need to be on top of it. My senior fall was my hardest semester because I basically had six full-time classes: research, applications, and my normal four classes, which were amazing but challenging.
Again, BUSY TIME. You have classes that you still need to pass and your thesis / research. But right now it's all about the applications. If you've applied to graduate school, Jan / Feb is when you hear back about whether you've been invited to interview or not. If you've been invited to interview, you need to prep for and schedule those visits (in Feb / March) and make up your classes. If you didn't apply to graduate school-- or if you did and didn't get interview invitations-- you need to apply for 2-year research assistant positions, which really open up in February. Check professors' websites, your institution's opportunities, and ask your professor for recommendations. You need to be qualified to get these positions, and they usually have interviews attached to them, so apply well. (I did a weird thing and went to do a 1-year research-only (not taught) Masters degree, but I don't know anyone else who did it this way. The key point is to get some research experience, and to get paid to do it (...which I failed to do. Loans :P!)) (I have more details on this process in a post below.)
Life is good. You've graduated. You know what you're doing next year. Most people either start their new research positions, or get funding to wrap up their work at their home lab and then start their positions in the fall. Life's good.
(And if you're applying to graduate school now, now's the time to start thinking about it!)
It's quite a change to not be a student all the time! People apply to graduate school when the grad school cycle comes around again (applications are always due in Nov / Jan for enrolment in the following year) but in the meantime are doing research full-time, which most people enjoy. (If you don't enjoy it, you need to stop applying for graduate school, since this is basically what graduate school is like :)). It's a good life and a taste of what it'll be like in the future.
Who knows? That's my next grand adventure :).
Update Oct 2016: Graduate school is tremendously awesome and is filled with cool people and research. Also, for those who don't know this: science PhDs are paid for in the US! You get a stipend that pays for food and housing with a very little bit left over, and you teach undergraduates to cover this stipend. You work constantly but on fascinating ideas, and it can be a great life.
Update March 2021: This writing isn't at all optimized for career advice, but here's a quickly-done, but very long (~15k words) writeup of my PhD experience :). (Blog post)
...So what does a professor do, anyway? And posts to answer other questions.