“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.”~Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
I wanted to present to you what I hope to become the “super duper guide to all that is undergrad research”! I know that before I entered college, I had absolutely no idea that undergrad research was even a possibility. I thought college would be four years of going to class, joining clubs and making a desperate attempt at being social. However, once I discovered this whole other aspect to undergrad, my eyes were then opened to a whole new array of endless opportunity! In fact, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if I had never participated in undergrad research! But, more on the benefits later.
Anyway, to those of you who have many questions but few answers to the mysteries of undergrad research, I hope this post can be the guide that I wish I had when I was in your shoes. I also want this post to evolve as I get a better idea of additional questions people may have. So, if you think of anything that should be added, please let me know in the comments below or by any means on my contact page.
Anyways, onto the post! It’s divided into three sections so if you want to skip to any of the sections, click the three links below! Enjoy!
What is undergraduate research?
According to the Council of Undergraduate Research, undergraduate research is “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate that makes an original or creative contribution to the discipline.” In other words, undergraduate students perform hands-on work (under the guidance of a faculty member) in order to explore a topic in their field with the goal of uncovering something new that contributes to the knowledge of their discipline.
What are the benefits?
There are many benefits to participating in undergraduate research! For one, a research experience allows an undergrad to think deeply and critically about the knowledge they come across in their classes. They learn where this knowledge comes from and what work is put into making new discoveries that may eventually end up in their textbooks. Additionally, through a deeper exposure to their field through research, students have the opportunity to discover if they are passionate to pursue this as a career choice. Lastly, an undergrad that chooses to participate in research has the opportunity to greatly build their resume with the skills they gain as well as start developing the network skills that will be very beneficial as their post-graduate job searches begin.
Do I have to do research in my major?
Not at all! In fact, I was a chemistry major and ended up doing undergrad research in both the bioengineering department and the environmental science department! In most schools, as long as you can find a faculty that is willing to work with you, there should be no problem!
Do I have to be an upperclassmen?
Of course not! Though most people start looking for research opportunities during their 3rd year of university, I have met plenty of people who started earlier. In fact, I began my first undergrad research opportunity towards the end of my 1st year! Of course, some faculty members require you take a specific class before joining their particular research group, but in general as long as a professor believes you are capable, hard-working and willing to learn, they should have no problem considering you for the position.
Do I need to come up with my own research project?
If you can, that’s fantastic and I think you are absolutely amazing! Why? Because even graduate students have troubles thinking up their own research ideas! However, in my experience, undergrad research begins by either continuing a project that had been started by a former (graduate) student, helping a current student complete their project or tackling a research question that the professor already had in mind.
Talk to your Professors
This is probably the easiest and most direct way to find research opportunities. After all, it is a professor you will eventually be working with. Unfortunately, this is also the most nerve-wracking and potentially awkward method as well. However, there are usually three ways that students go about talking to their professor.
- Email! A nice email saying that you’re interested in their research and listing some of your qualifications is always a nice and simple way to reach out to a professor. Unfortunately, a lot of professors have a tendency to overlook these types of emails or ignore them completely! So, this may be a hit or miss. (No, seriously, I was emailing a professor about something unrelated and then decided to ask if he had any open research positions and he ignored that part of the email completely! D:)
- Take a class with them! If you take a class with them, there is always the opportunity to get to know them better through office hours (and by extension, allow them to get to know you). Simply come in for a homework question and then follow up by asking them about their research projects. Then, whenever you feel ready you can pop the question and ask if they would be willing to take you on as an undergrad researcher! No, seriously, it’s as simple as that. Just be sure not to slack of in their classes or get poor grades. The probability of getting a yes usually is proportional to your midterm grades and overall ability to do well in their class.
- Talk to a random professor! Another option is to look at each professor’s website until you find one that is doing something you find interesting! Then, figure out where their office is and either pop by or send an email to set up a meeting. Just be sure to be prepared to talk about your qualifications and experiences.
Check your major’s department website
Another method you can try is to check the website of your major (or field of interest). Most schools have an “undergraduate” section somewhere in their website that should list research opportunities on-campus, as well as affiliated programs that offer research off-campus. This may be a little less useful if your school has a tendency to have unnavigable websites or don’t update their information frequently, so your mileage may vary.
Find your Undergrad Research/Education Department
Now, I’m not sure about smaller schools, but bigger, R1 Universities tend to have a whole department dedicated to undergraduate research. These departments are a major asset because the website to these departments tend to have great resources on how to find undergraduate research opportunities and even how to fund the projects you’ll be taking part in through research grants and scholarships. If your school has one of these, I would suggest taking full advantage of it!
Read your emails
If a professor has a big project to take on, he or she may resort to reaching out to your university’s fellow organizations to recruit undergrads to help out. These organization then tend to send out mass emails to the student communities in order to spread the word. Unfortunately, mass emails are the ones that are most likely to be deleted without anyone bother to read them. This means that a lot of possible research jobs go unnoticed. Therefore, I always recommend at least skimming every email before you delete it, especially if you’re actively searching for possible research opportunities to participate in. You never know what may be hiding amongst the spam!
Go to your career center
The goal of any school’s career center is to connect students with professional experiences that will improve their resumes/CVs. Therefore, there’s a very good chance that your school’s career center will actively search out undergrad research opportunities and list them somewhere in their website. I’ve never personally used this method, but this is definitely a resource you should check out if you’re having time finding possible research gigs.
Apply for summer internships (REUs)
If you can’t find something on campus and all other methods seem to be falling short, I highly recommend applying for summer internships! In fact, regardless of if you have an on-campus research opportunity, you should still apply for summer internships in order to broaden your horizon, introduce you to new ideas and create new networking opportunities! However, finding those can be a pain as well, which is why I have this blog post that is right up your alley. 🙂
Does my GPA matter when trying to get a research opportunity?
I’m not going to lie to you. It definitely helps. I had a pretty high GPA and never had a problem with professors taking me on as a student. This seemed to be the case with other high GPA students that I knew. After all, as an undergrad you don’t have much else to show experience and work ethic aside from GPA and non-class activities (in most cases). Therefore, some professors can use GPA as a way to determine who they should accept and reject for open undergrad positions. Additionally, research takes a lot of time. It requires a lot of time management. If a professor sees that you can’t manage your course load without research, there is a fear that grades can slip further when research begins.
None of this is written to discourage anyone, though! These are not hard and fast rules! It certainly varies by professor and school. However, I want to be honest and let everyone know that though you can still get research with a poor GPA, you may also have a harder time. In the end, persistence is key. Don’t stop trying. You just have to find that one faculty member that will give you a chance.
This sounds really scary. What if I have no experience? What if I mess up? What if I end up not knowing anything? What if what if what if?
Well, first, calm down. I totally understand how you must be feeling right now because I asked myself all those questions when I first started research. It is important to realize that when a professor decides to accept you as a research assistant, though they expect you to be competent and hard-working, they also realize that you will come in with very little actual experience in a research setting. This means that they will expect mistakes and expect you to not know much at first. Remember, undergraduate research is meant to be a learning experience and I guarantee you that those feelings will subside with time as you learn, grow and develop all the skills you need.
How do I get started with research and prepare to talk to the professors? I try to read some of their journal articles first, but a lot of the time I’m still too scientifically illiterate to make much sense of them. Do you have any suggestions? I don’t want to go into a meeting and seem unprepared.
Well, there are two ways that this can go. Are the journal articles difficult just because there’s too much information and it’s overwhelming to understand? If that’s the case, I have a blog post that discusses how to break down an scientific/academic article and which sections to focus on in order to gain a more general idea of the research topic. However, if the journal article is difficult because the material just kind of goes over your head, I would recommend skimming through the introduction and find some key words that you don’t really understand. Google these words and try and find a less formal piece of writing that explains the topic. Just remember that you don’t need to know every single detail about their research. As long as you understand the main idea and the impact this research can have on their academic communities, you’re golden.
If you still feel like journal articles are not getting you anywhere, an alternative is to read their research summaries, usually found on their faculty page or research group website. These research summaries are typically written for people less familiar with their work, so they should be much easier to understand then a journal article!
Oh my gosh! I’m a sophomore/junior/senior and I don’t have undergrad research yet? I feel like I’m running out of time and I don’t know what to do?!
Most people that I’ve come across start research in their junior year of college. Even if you’re a senior, it’s never too late to ask a professor to join a lab. However, as you approach graduation it’s important to ask yourself why you haven’t looked for an research opportunity yet. Remember that undergrad research isn’t for everyone. Some students decide to skip research all together, opting to focus on more outreach, volunteering, off-campus jobs or even study abroad opportunities! It all depends on what you want to do after graduation. (Disclaimer: If you’re planning on attending a STEM graduate program, I recommend you at least have an research internship or similar experience that can show you’ve been in a research-type setting as this can greatly influence the admission’s committee. I am unsure on how this weights in graduate admissions for other disciplines).
What if I end up not liking the lab/group I’m in or find a better opportunity?
Switch groups! It’s really that simple. Professors are aware that you may not stay in their lab for the remainder of your undergrad career. After all, undergrad is the time when most students start discovering things they like and dislike, as well as the types of people who they work best with. This means that your first lab experience may not be your last. For me personally, I had two separate research opportunities and no one seemed to have a problem with me switching labs!
Just be sure that when you do officially decide to work with a different research group, you don’t burn any bridges. Be professional. Don’t just disappear one day without letting anyone know. After all, the professors you worked under are all possible recommendation letters and network opportunities.