Getting Started

Congratulations! You have made a wise decision in considering to undertake a research project as an undergraduate. Participation in undergraduate research is recognized to benefit undergraduates in a number of important ways. First, it will give you invaluable insight into the research process in your chosen career. In the process of carrying out an undergraduate research project you will learn a tremendous amount about who you are and what you want. You will cultivate a number of essential technical and non-technical skills that will benefit you now and throughout your career no matter your eventual career choice. Lastly, undergraduate research will literally give you a leg up on your competition when it comes to admission to the graduate or pre-professional program of your choice.

To get the most out of an undergraduate research experience, it is important to choose your experience wisely. In this section we offer some advice concerning how to get selected, questions to ask before accepting an undergraduate research position, how to select your advisor, and how to get a running start on a new project.

Articles on Getting Started

Questions to ask

Always look before you leap! While it is always exciting to be selected, there is great variability in the training environments from professor to professor within academic departments, between departments, academic institutions, private companies, summer programs, etc. Consequently, it is important to ask a number of questions before accepting an offer. There are three important elements to consider here:

If you are going to be part of a departmental program then the quality and climate of the program will be important considerations. Important questions to ask include:

  • What are the program’s expectations of you? Have the expectations been clearly stated to you? Are they achievable by you? Do you want to achieve them?
  • What is the quality of the research infrastructure? This includes the quality of the library, computers, research instrumentation, etc., in short all of the resources you will need in order to be successful working on your research problem.
  • What is the program’s past record in working with undergraduates?
  • On what kinds of projects did the participants work? Are these kinds of problems interesting/relevant to you and your intended career path?
  • How do the program’s participants select their research advisor and/or research problem? Are students and faculty hardwired to each other or can students switch research advisors and/or research problems if they wish?
  • Where did the participants go after the program ended?

Research Supervisor

  • What are the supervisor’s expectations of you? Have the expectations been clearly stated to you? Do you believe that you can meet these expectations? Do you want to meet them?
  • What is the supervisor’s past record in working with undergraduates – with how many students has he/she worked?
  • What did these students do? - A project?
  • What did these students learn?
  • How many undergraduate students have presented their research at professional meetings and/or saw technical papers published based on their work? Did these students receive credit in the form of authorship for their work?
  • Does the professor have funding to support his/her research program?

Research Group

  • Who are the current members of the research group?
  • What is their educational background and interests?
  • Do you respect them? - Intellectually, integrity, etc.?
  • Can you see yourself working with and learning from them, i.e., do you like them as people?

Lastly, you should consider consulting your mentors, family, and friends. Be sure to discuss your offer with others whose opinion you trust and respect before you make a decision. This is important because sometimes we get so caught up in the joy and pride of being selected for something that we become unable or perhaps simply forget to dispassionately consider whether or not the position/program will be good for us. Mentors, family and friends are often able to see things and ask questions that we are ourselves cannot.

Selecting an Advisor

This is perhaps one of the most important decisions you will make regarding your undergraduate research experience. Your advisor can not only serve as an invaluable resource on the technical aspects of your chosen research project but also provide you with invaluable career assistance and mentoring, and serve as a potential reference for future employment and/or advanced study. Consequently, it is important to make a thoughtful, informed decision when selecting your undergraduate research advisor. So be sure to take your time so you make a sound decision.

The best way to make a good decision is to become informed concerning your choices. Make a list of the available faculty whose research interests you and make an appointment to meet with each one and be sure to approach this meeting as an interview, which means you should go prepared with a list of questions and ready to answer any questions your prospective advisor may have. Ask your friends for recommendations regarding faculty who are known to be enthusiastic and good undergraduate research mentors. Also, remember that you are joining a research group, so consider dropping by the laboratory for an unscheduled visit and speak candidly with as many of your prospective group members as you can.

Before you meet with any prospective advisor you should consider what exactly it is that you want from your undergraduate research experience. Everyone has different reasons for participating undergraduate research. There are no right or wrong reasons. However, if you don't know what you want from your undergraduate research experience, it isn't likely that you are going to get as much as you could from the experience. The following is a list of some questions you might consider in determining what you want out of your undergraduate research experience:

  • recommendation for graduate or pre-professional study;
  • mentoring;
  • work experience;
  • money;
  • technical knowledge;
  • laboratory skills;
  • presentation skills;
  • technical writing skills;
  • opportunity to work independently;
  • opportunity to do cutting-edge research;
  • opportunity to use sophisticated instrumentation;
  • opportunity to figure out if you want to pursue this discipline as a career; and/or
  • self-confidence

Having this information will help you figure out what exactly it is that you want from your research advisor. The following is a list of some questions you might consider in choosing a research advisor:

  • How old is your advisor? Is he/she likely to be able to provide you with a reference letter in five or more years?
  • What is your advisor's educational background?
  • What research experience does your advisor have in the area of interest to you?
  • What is your advisor's position at the university? Does he/she have tenure?
  • What is your research advisor's reputation at the university and in the greater academic community in scholarship, teaching, and mentoring?
  • Has your advisor worked with undergraduates in the past?
  • What is your advisor's preferred communications style? Is it attractive to you? Are you comfortable with it?
  • How often does your advisor expect you to communicate with him/her on a weekly basis?
  • Will your advisor be available on a regular basis to provide advice and assistance?
  • Does this person seem genuinely interested in you as a student?
  • What space, equipment, and instrumentation does he/she have available for your projects?
  • What is your advisor's publication record with undergraduates?
  • Does your advisor take undergraduates to meetings to present their work? Does he/she provide support for these experiences?

Starting a New Project

As when learning anything new, you derive the greatest satisfaction in the long term if you make a strong effort to master the basics at the outset. Key elements determining your ultimate success will include:

  • your understanding of what specifically the project entails;
  • your understanding of your advisor's expectations;
  • your knowledge of the relevant technical literature;
  • your mastery of the requisite fundamental lab skills, method, techniques, and instrumentation; and
  • your ability to work with and through the other individuals on your research team

A good way to make a strong start is to make it a point to meet with your advisor at the outset to discuss the project and to learn specifically what his/her expectations are regarding your research project. You may find it helpful to craft a research learning contract in this regard. Crafting a research learning contract will help you clarify the purpose of your work, the criteria for success, help you identify the resources you need for success, etc.

Even if your advisor does not require it, you should plan to take some time at the outset of your work to get to know the other members of your research group - what their educational backgrounds are, what projects they are working on, and what skills/techniques they possess - as your teammates' knowledge and experience can be invaluable to you in accomplishing your research objectives.

Lastly, it is a wise idea to spend some time on-line or in the library and carry out a thoughtful and thorough literature search in order to determine what is already known, what has already been done (by your research group and others), and to learn about the skills, techniques, and any instrumentation that you may need in order to accomplish your objectives. This will give you the knowledge you need in order to decide whether this project is indeed a good match for your interests, skills, and abilities, and help you identify what materials, resources, and assistance, if any, you will require in order to be successful.

Getting Selected

In this section we will consider how you go about getting selected for participation in an undergraduate research program by:


By an Individual Faculty Member

The answer is that the same characteristics that will ultimately make you attractive as a job applicant when you are graduated from college are likely to be the same characteristics that will make you attractive to a potential undergraduate research mentor. As an undergraduate, your mentor is not likely to expect you at the outset to possess the skills that a fully trained researcher in the field would have. He or she however will be interested in whether you are responsible, interested, and willing to learn. Your mentor will likely be interested in knowing what your future career plans are, what (if any work experience) you have had in the field, and he/she will likely be interested in knowing how your undergraduate research participation relates to your career plans. This person may also ask you about your academic background - what courses you have already taken in his/her field and what grades you have earned in those courses. Of course, it is important for you to answer these questions as completely and honestly as you can. If you have a weak academic record, be prepared to address this with your faculty mentor. At this meeting be sure to ask any questions you may have regarding compensation (is this a volunteer position, salaried, or research for academic credit), work schedule, etc. A list of some useful questions you may wish to ask your prospective mentor during your interview follows:

  • How many hours each week will you expect me to work in the laboratory?
  • How many weeks or months will you expect me to work?
  • What form of compensation are you able to offer me for my participation in this project?
  • If the position is salaried, what is the source of funding (industrial, federal, etc.)?
  • What will my specific role be on the project?
  • Who will be my immediate supervisor on the project?
  • What training can I expect to receive?
  • What skills can I expect to develop over the course of my participation in this project? With what instrumentation will I gain experience?
  • How will you measure my progress on the project?
  • Are there any regular group activities that you will expect me to attend?
  • Will my research be likely to result in publication and/or presentation of this work? If so, what are your rules for authorship?

Afterward, be sure to follow up with a telephone call or e-mail "thank you." This is also a good time to address any questions you feel you may not have adequately addressed and to raise any concerns you might not have mentioned during your original interview. No matter what happens, be sure to thank the faculty member for his/her time as you never know what opportunities may arise at a later date.

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By a Summer Undergraduate Research Program

The purpose of most summer undergraduate research programs is to provide undergraduates with an opportunity to participate in ongoing research programs in the students' field of study thereby hopefully inculcating in the participants an interest in pursuing advanced study and thereby increasing the nation's student talent pool in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Graduate research universities often host summer undergraduate research programs in order to attract talented prospective students to apply to their graduate programs. However, summer undergraduate research programs can be found at all types of academic institutions (community colleges, four year colleges, comprehensive universities, and graduate research universities).

Applications

Applications often include the following elements:

Short answer application form

Most forms request the standard personal (gender, ethnicity, etc.), background (academic major, year of study, GPA, anticipated year of graduation, etc.), and contact information from each applicant. You may also be asked if you have had any past undergraduate research experiences. If the program uses an on-line application, print out the application form and compose your answers to each question. Proof read your answers for grammatical and spelling mistakes. When you are ready to complete the form on-line copy and paste your answers into the appropriate fields.

Official transcript

The list of the courses you have taken and the grades you have earned in those courses at your academic institution will be used to determine if you have completed sufficient coursework and have demonstrated satisfactory aptitude to successfully participate in the research programs available at the summer undergraduate research program.

Essay

Essays can potentially provide program directors with insight into your interests, background, and motivation for participating in the summer program. Essays also provide useful information on how well you write so be sure to proofread your essay before submitting it. Sometimes applicants are asked to describe their future career goals in order to learn how the applicant's participation in an undergraduate research experience relates to those career goals. If you have a mixed or weak academic record, the essay is a good place to describe any extenuating circumstances. In addition, it is useful to remember that summer programs like to have diversity among their participants. While likely you immediately think of ethnicity and gender, there are other characteristics that summer programs look for as well. For example, if you are enrolled at an institution where there are limited opportunities for participation in undergraduate research this can also be an important consideration affecting your acceptance into a summer research program. Again, the essay is a good place to mention anything that makes you and your application unique.

Letter(s) of recommendation

One or more letters of recommendation may be required. Program directors generally use these letters of recommendation to determine whether or not you have the intellect, aptitude, maturity, independence, self-confidence, and motivation to do research. So, be sure to identify recommenders who know you and who are likely to be able to speak well of your abilities and capabilities in these areas.

Telephone interview

From a programmatic standpoint they are a useful, cost effective mechanism for ensuring a good match between the student and the summer program; Program directors are often interested in learning something about the maturity and personality of the applicant. Be enthusiastic, personable, and most of all be yourself.

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Finding an UR Opportunity

Opportunities for undergraduate research are available in a surprisingly wide range of places including:

  • Your own campus
  • Other college and university campuses
  • Private industry
  • Museums
  • Government laboratories.

Think expansively – these opportunities are available not only locally or even regionally but across the globe. In today’s global marketplace, international experience may be invaluable to your career development and success so think broadly.

In this section, we will discuss answers to some of the questions you likely have including:


How to Find Undergraduate Research Opportunities

The most important thing to realize is that most students involved in an undergraduate research experience had to seek out the opportunity. In other words, don’t wait expecting someone to ask you if you want to become involved but rather you need to reach out and find an opportunity and this means:

  • Ask friends and other students in your classes and dormitory
  • Talk to the faculty who teach you
  • Search your college or university website; and
  • Check out the WebGURU program listings where you will find many undergraduate research programs listed.

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Possible Mechanisms for Support of a UR Experience

Research groups

In the sciences, technology, engineering, and related fields many academic faculty lead research groups. Faculty support these groups through extramural grant support usually obtained from the federal government, private industry and/or private foundations. Research groups often are made up of postdoctoral students, graduate students and undergraduates.

Research centers and department-based programs

At many academic institutions, research groups sharing common research interests will work collaboratively to investigate significant research problems that require diverse technical skills and expertise. Grants to these research centers often provide support for undergraduate training. A common type of federally-funded undergraduate research program in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines at academic institutions in the United States is the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF REU) program.

Cooperative education

Cooperative education is a form of experiential education available at select institutions including Northeastern University, Drexel University, University of Cincinnati, Antioch College, and the University of Waterloo, that allows students to alternate between the classroom and the workplace for extended (6-mos) periods of time while pursuing an undergraduate education. Co-operative educational experiences are usually salaried and supervised.

Internships

Internships are a form of experiential learning in which students work off-campus in traditional workplace settings with supervision.

Courses

Most colleges and universities create course listings with titles such as “independent study” or “directed study” to allow qualified, interested students the opportunity to pursue undergraduate research under faculty supervision while earning academic credit. Students electing a course-work based-option should expect to pay for their experience. That said, the advantage of a course work-based experience is that the credits will likely count toward your undergraduate degree and may count toward your academic major. Be sure to consult your academic advisor in advance to determine whether and how your academic institution will count undergraduate research course credits. Other coursework based undergraduate opportunities include “Thesis” and “Honors Thesis.” These coursework opportunities are normally available by invitation only to select students and may have very narrowly defined pre-requisites including GPA and year of academic study.

Work study

This type of opportunity is available to students being supported on financial aid and may not be available at all colleges and universities. Work study positions for undergraduate research may have titles such as “professor’s assistant.”

Volunteering

If you find a laboratory where you would like to work but can’t find a way to support yourself consider volunteering! This approach may be useful for international students studying in the United States depending on your visa status who may not be eligible for some salary-based positions.

If you pursue a undergraduate research opportunity as a volunteer, be careful though to count the cost up-front; if you choose this route while you may not be paid in money or academic credit for your time, your faculty advisor will no doubt expect a significant time commitment and research productivity from you. Faculty view their time, lab facilities, instrumentation, and materials and supplies as precious resources that they are willing to offer gratis to students in return for seeing their research ideas come to life in the laboratory. So, if you aren’t planning on taking your volunteer position as seriously as you would a paid position, don’t volunteer.

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Timing Considerations

Undergraduate research can be done during the academic year and/or in the summer and at any point in time while you are working toward your undergraduate degree. If you choose to work with an individual faculty member, you and your undergraduate research should negotiate in terms of when you will be able to work. Depending on your faculty advisor’s external funding and his/her availability, you may be able to participate during the academic year. If you decide to participate in UR through a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, these programs normally run in the summer.

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Eligibility for Participation

There are no hard and fast rules here. As a general rule, there are no formal standard course pre-requisites for participation in undergraduate research. Depending on the type of research in which you would like to engage, you may be able to initiate a UR experience as early as your freshman year. The earlier you become involved, the better. In some cases depending on the complexity of the research, a certain technical knowledge and/or laboratory skill may preclude early participation in UR. Many students elect to participate during their junior and/or senior year(s).

Some faculty may prefer to take upperclassmen/women and/or students with strong GPA’s. The imposition of GPA requirements is usually intended to insure that participation in undergraduate research, viewed as an extracurricular activity, doesn’t deleteriously affect a student’s academic performance in the classroom.

International students may not be able to participate in some undergraduate research opportunities. Faculties in the U.S. with federally supported grant programs must hire U.S. citizens or students who have permanent resident status in the U.S. In general National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs have this requirement.

If you are interested in exploring UR in a particular area, it is best to talk to peers and/or potential faculty research mentors and find out exactly what, if anything, you need to know or be able to do in the laboratory in order to get started. Don’t ever be afraid to ask!

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The Research Topic

Depending on where you are in your academic program - what courses you have taken and what kinds of lab experiences you have had - it may be very challenging to select a particular area of research. Ask yourself what fields of research interest you? Are there any particular experimental techniques you want to learn? In choosing an area, it is wise to consider your interest in the topic, your academic background (course work completed, grades in relevant courses), and the relevance of the topic to your ultimate career goals. Be careful however not to equate your lack of experience with an inability to participate in a specific area of research. Ultimately, it will be your advisor's responsibility to decide whether or not you have enough background to carry out a project in his/her laboratory.

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