Undergraduate Research

One of the lessons you will quickly learn is that to be successful in undergraduate research, you must know much more than a large body of scientific facts. You will need a variety of both technical and non-technical skills including:

In this section, you will find some advice on how to successfully navigate some of the many technical and non-technical challenges you will no doubt experience during the course of your undergraduate research experience.

Topics on Undergraduate Research

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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Research Environments

Normally, undergraduate research is conducted in an academic setting but it may also take place in a private company, government laboratory, a medical school, a museum, or a field station. In this section, we will take a brief look at some of the more typical settings for undergraduate research opportunities as each has its own peculiarities. These include:

It is important to be appreciate the distinctive characteristics of each environment as these can significantly impact your research experience.


Community Colleges

Community colleges are two-year academic institutions of higher learning where the highest academic degree awarded is the associate of arts. The primary responsibility of faculty at community colleges is instruction. They typically teach higher course loads than do faculty at any other type of academic institution. Until fairly recently, faculty at community colleges did not run research groups. Today there are a growing number of community college faculty involved in the supervision of undergraduate research students usually in partnership with faculty at nearby colleges, comprehensive universities, and/or graduate research universities.

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Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUI)

Primarily undergraduate institutions is another name for college. These are non-profit, academic institutions of higher learning where the highest academic degree awarded is either a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science. Faculty at these institutions in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics may run active, research groups in their disciplines in addition to their normal teaching duties. They typically teach higher course loads than faculty at graduate research institutions. Their primary focus is usually on instruction of undergraduates and their teaching duties are usually fairly heavy and may include supervision of laboratory sections in addition to lecture and discussion sections.

Since the only students at a primarily undergraduate institution are undergraduates, research groups are generally made up entirely of undergraduates, sometimes from different academic majors, who may be at different points in their undergraduate degree program. Occasionally, you may find a postdoctoral student who is interested in ultimately pursuing an academic career at a primarily undergraduate research institution working with a faculty member at a primarily undergraduate institution. Since there are only undergraduates in the research groups at PUIs, this means that undergraduates carry out all aspects of the research projects being investigated by the faculty.

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Comprehensive Universities

Comprehensive universities are non-profit, academic institutions of higher learning where the highest academic degree awarded is usually a master's degree. Faculty at these institutions in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics often run active, externally funded research groups in their disciplines in addition to their normal teaching duties. Their research groups are often constituted from undergraduate majors and graduate students working on their master's degree. Faculty at comprehensive universities typically teach higher course loads than faculty at graduate research institutions - course loads that are similar to those of faculty teaching at primarily undergraduate institutions. Their teaching duties are often split between undergraduate and graduate (advanced) courses in their discipline and may include laboratory sections as well as lectures.

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Graduate Research Universities

Graduate research universities are non-profit, academic institutions of higher learning where the highest academic degree awarded is usually a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). Faculty at these institutions in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics are normally very active and interested in research in their discipline. Most run active, externally funded research programs in their disciplines in addition to their teaching duties. The personnel in research groups at graduate research universities are constituted from students with a wide range of academic experiences including postdoctoral students, graduate students (both masters and doctoral), undergraduates and technicians. Undergraduates involved in research at these institutions often work in partnership with an advanced graduate student or a postdoctoral student. Faculty at these institutions typically teach fewer classes than faculty at comprehensive universities or primarily undergraduate institutions and their teaching duties are often split between undergraduate and graduate (advanced) courses in their discipline. Faculty at graduate research universities normally teach only lecture sections of courses. First year graduate students typically receive financial support for their education in exchange for teaching the discussion and/or laboratory sections of the undergraduate courses. This support is often referred to as a teaching assistantship. Following the first year, many graduate students receive financial support in the form of a research assistantship. Research assistantships are usually made possible through grants to the faculty member and allow the graduate student to devote his or her time more fully to their research.

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Private Industry

The goal of private industry is to make a profit. This has great significance in terms of what scientists and engineers do in companies and how they work. Since companies exist to make a profit from products there are often fairly rigid deadlines for the accomplishment of projects. The structure of a typical workday may also be a bit more formal compared to that of a research group in academics. Scientific and technical resources such as instrumentation, equipment, and reagents in industry may be better than that found in some colleges and universities.

Most scientists and engineers working in companies today work as members of interdisciplinary teams that may include experts in business, law, advertising as well as technical experts representing a wide range of scientific and technical disciplines. Sometimes there may be only one scientist or engineer providing/representing the expertise of that particular discipline on the team. Consequently, strong oral and written communications skills and excellent people skills are very important in the industrial workplace. These teams typically work on targeted research projects of relatively short (six-months to a year) duration for which there are very firm deadlines.

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Structuring a UR Experience

There are a number of techniques that can be extremely useful in becoming an effective self-directed student researcher. In this section, we will discuss several of these techniques that your research advisor and research group may employ, specifically, research proposals, research learning contracts, standard operating protocols (SOPs), group meetings, journal clubs, and reflective journaling.

Articles on Structuring a UR Experience

Standard Operating Protocols (SOPs)

Standard operating procedures or SOPs are written step-by-step procedures that quality control (QC), quality assurance (QA), and production units use in order to assure the accuracy and precision of the quantitative experimental results and materials that they generate and provide in support of other units such as Research and Development (R&D), manufacturing, etc. SOPs are generally used in support of experimental research whenever there is a need to document the handling of samples, the methods used in their analysis, and the quality of the results generated in the analysis of these samples. SOPs are used by the governmental agencies, private industry, and academic laboratories by scientists and engineers from all of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematical disciplines. Examples of their use include forensic analysis where they are used to establish the chain of custody of evidence and in private biotechnology industry where they are often used to validate new methods of bioanalysis. SOPs can also be extremely valuable in academic laboratories and can be employed anytime there is procedure that potentially more than one person will use in a research group. They can be written to:

  • outline sampling procedures, describe the proper procedures for the transportation of research materials;
  • standardize the methods of training for often used experimental methods and/or analytical instrumentation; and to
  • document the methods used in data handling and/or analysis.

To be effective, SOPs need to describe not only what needs to be, but who is qualified to carry it out, and under what conditions the procedure can be performed reliably.

How do you know if an SOP works? Test it. The best way is to have someone else in the lab unfamiliar with the technique try to follow the SOP to carry out the procedure. SOPs must be reviewed periodically for accuracy and completeness by other scientists who have experience doing the procedure. As such SOPs are invaluable in documenting that the experimental procedure was accomplished properly.

SOPs can be invaluable to students involved in undergraduate research in providing written guidelines detailing how to carry out new/unfamiliar methods reliably. The action of authoring an SOP can be beneficial in helping you to think through the procedures you use in a thoughtful step-by-step manner and document clearly and succinctly in writing your understanding. Thus, the SOP saves you, the author, and those using the SOP precious time and effort since it lays out exactly what must be done in order to achieve the desired results and it provides a timeless means of sharing that information with all who may need it both now and in the near future. Authoring SOPs provides undergraduate students an opportunity to document and showcase their understanding of the methods used in their research and of the quality of their written communication skills.

Example SOP

The following are the main sections you will find in most SOPs together with a brief description of the content of each suggested section. Note that not every SOP will have each of these sections. However, in general, the more information provided, the better the quality of the SOP and the more generally effective the protocol will be in the laboratory.

  1. Title – a clear, succinct title describing the purpose of the SOP and the conditions under which it can be reliably used.
  2. Date – date (including year) of authorship of the current SOP. If the SOP has been revised then a “Date of Revision” and the “Revision Number” should also be included here.
  3. Name of the Author of the SOP – self explanatory
  4. Purpose – Brief explanation of the purpose of this SOP
  5. Scope and Applicability – under what specific conditions can this protocol be used reliably; are there any known interferents or other limitations on the protocol’s effective use?
  6. Introduction – relevant background information on the system, methods, and instruments used.
  7. References - any relevant references to the peer-reviewed literature
  8. Materials and Supplies – list of any reagents including names of suppliers used in this procedure. If the suppliers are obscure sources, a list of addresses and contact information should be provided as well.
  9. Analytical Instrumentation – list of any analytical instruments including manufacturer and model numbers that have been used in this procedure.
  10. Cautions – are there any specific health and safety precautions that should be considered. For example, should gloves be worn? If so, what kind? How should spills, if they occur, be cleaned up? Are there any special procedures that should be followed in order to safely dispose of waste?
  11. Personnel Qualifications – what if anything must the user know or be able to do before being able to carry out this protocol, i.e., is any prior training required and if so what specific kind/form of training?
  12. Names of SOP Reviewers - names of those individuals who have reviewed and approved the SOP for use in the laboratory. Signatures and dates should be provided whenever possible as well.
  13. Actual Protocol – step-by-step set of instructions for accomplishing the procedure of interest reliably. If calculations are involved in analyzing the data, then an example of the calculation should be provided. Figures and tables showing laboratory apparatus, representative data, etc. can be included here.

You will find an example of an SOP here.

Example SOP

TITLE: Preparation of the Perfect Cup of Coffee by the Drip Method
Date of Preparation:

11/29/05

Date of Revision: N/A

Revision No.: N/A

Submitted by: Ay Dot Student

Approved by: Professor Ex

Purpose:Provide an example of a standard operating protocol or SOP that can be appreciated by undergraduate research students from all academic disciplines.

Scope and Applicability: The following protocol can be used wherever quality coffee beans, good drinking water, and a drip coffee maker are available.

Introduction: Coffee is the beverage of choice of many college students. Properly prepared the beverage provides an invigorating and revitalizing effect. One of the most frequently used methods of preparation is the drip method. In this method, water, heated to near boiling temperatures, is slowly added to finely ground coffee beans held in a filter unit. The coffee beverage is collected below the filter unit in a glass carafe. Today this procedure is frequently accomplished using a semi-automated process in an electronic coffee maker. The procedure below outlines a reliable method for preparing drip coffee using any commercially available drip coffee maker, high quality ground coffee beans, and filtered water.

References: For information on coffee beans, the standard methods of preparation of coffee, and recipes see:

Materials and Supplies: Freshly ground Starbucks® coffee (any flavor you prefer; medium grind works best with most commercial coffee makers), commercial 4-c drip coffee maker including filter (gold mesh preferred but high quality paper filter may be used), good quality drinking water (Polar Springs®, Brita®-filtered, or similar quality source recommended), coffee cup, and additives (as desired: sugar or sugar alterative, cream or milk).

Cautions: Hot coffee can scald and burn. Water is an electrical conductor. If spills occur during the brewing process, wait until the brewing process is complete, turn of the electricity, and disconnect the unit from the electricity before attempting to clean up any spills. Accidental spills may be cleaned up with a kitchen sponge and dish washing detergent such as Dawn®, Dove®, or Ajax®. Used coffee grounds can be disposed of in the regular trash. Be sure to carefully read the directions that accompanied your coffee maker unit before attempting to use it. In particular, it is important to find out if your unit has (1) a pause feature that will allow you to remove the carafe while the coffee is brewing; and (2) an auto-off feature that turns off the heater unit located beneath the carafe at a set time after the coffee has been brewed.

Personnel Qualifications: No special knowledge or training is required to make coffee. However, due to the potential risk of burns, it is recommended that anyone performing this procedure who is less than ten years old be actively supervised by an adult.

Protocol

1. Make sure that the coffee maker is off. Locate water reservoir unit on coffee maker and carefully add 4-cups of clean drinking water to the reservoir. Note that the outside or inside of most quality coffee makers’ water reservoir units are marked for the user’s convenience.

2. Locate the coffee filter assembly on the coffee unit. If you are preparing the standard 4-c carafe of coffee, carefully measure one coffee measure of ground coffee into your units coffee filter assembly. Note that one standard coffee measure is equivalent to 1/8-c of coffee. Close the coffee filter assembly.

3. Plug in the coffee maker and turn the unit on. Wait until the carafe located beneath the coffee filter unit is filled with coffee. Note that some units may have a “pause” feature that will allow you to temporarily remove the carafe and pour a cup of coffee while the unit is working. If you are unfamiliar with your unit, be sure to wait until the unit is done filtering before attempting to remove the carafe.

4. If coffee spills beneath the base of the carafe unit, be sure to turn off the unit and disconnect the electricity before attempting to clean up the spill.

5. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. Most coffee units will keep the carafe warm for a set period of time before turning off automatically. Some however, do not turn off automatically. Be sure to read your coffee maker’s instructions beforehand. If in doubt, be sure to turn off the electricity to your unit after the brewing process is complete.

Group Meetings

A standard element of the learning environment in most research groups at graduate research institutions is the so-called "group meeting." Group meetings are usually meetings of the research group, i.e., the research advisor or advisors, in the case of interdisciplinary research teams, and all of the members of their research groups including post doctoral students, graduate students, undergraduate students and technicians. The purpose of these meetings is usually to discuss research progress, problems, and new ideas. Some advisors however use group meetings as an opportunity to critically discuss articles from the current peer-reviewed literature (same thing as a Journal Club).

Group meetings are typically fairly informal but this depends on the personality of the research advisor. Some advisors like their students to give formal research presentations (PowerPoint-style) using laptops and projectors. Others prefer that their students be able to discuss their recent results in the form of so-called "chalk talks." These are informal presentations made on the fly without the aid of handouts, slides, transparencies or other pre-prepared visual aids. Group meetings are often held weekly. These meetings have no set length as a rule and may be as short as an hour or as long as a day depending on the research advisor.

If you lab doesn't have group meetings, consider suggesting that the group start having regular meetings. If you offer to make the first group meeting presentation, your advisor is even more likely to take you up on your suggestion. So consider making the offer if you are serious about doing this.

Rules of Etiquette for Group Meetings

  • Attend all group meetings. If you are unable to attend, it is important to notify your research advisor well in advance of the meeting and to provide appropriate justification for your absence.
  • Show up on time, prepared and ready to participate. Bring a pen/pencil and a notebook in which to take notes.
  • Be sure that you turn your cell phone off before entering the meeting room. If you forget to turn it off and your cell phone rings, attend to it immediately (don't let the ringer keep ringing) and take your conversation outside the meeting room.
  • If you are late, apologize and settle in as quietly as possible so you don't disturb the flow of the meeting already in progress.
  • Participate actively in group meetings. Ask questions. Volunteer to help out if requests are made for assistance with group related activities.
  • Inquire in advance of the meeting concerning whether or not it is acceptable to eat and/or drink at group meetings. If food and drink are permitted, be sure to clean up after yourself when you are finished.

Journal Clubs

In graduate school, it is a common practice for groups of students with a common interest get together to read and discuss articles in a particular field or subject. These meetings are frequently identified as "journal clubs." Reading and discussing articles with others who share your interests and background will really help you get the most out of the articles that you read and the community aspect will also help keep you motivated and at the same time provide a useful degree of personal accountability. If you are working at a graduate research or comprehensive university there may already be some active journal clubs in your department. If not, there are any ways to organize and run journal clubs. No matter how you choose to do it, you will find it works best when:

  • The group meets regularly in the same location at the same time - a weekly frequency is probably best as this gives everyone some breathing room;
  • Responsibility for leading the discussion of articles is rotated among all of the regular participants;
  • Articles selected for reading and discussion are of interest to the majority of the group; and
  • Everyone participates actively in the discussion of the articles.

Useful Questions for Guiding Journal Club Discussion

Here are some useful general questions you may find it to consider when reading and discussing articles from the current peer-reviewed technical literature in your Journal Club:

  • What type of article is this?
  • What is your evaluation of the presentation of the science in this paper? Possible areas for consideration include:
  • What if any personal biases are you bringing to this evaluation?
  • What, if anything, do you know about the authors of this paper? What is their field of expertise? What other papers have they published in this area recently? How is that work related to the present paper?
  • What is the quality of this journal?
  • Is the paper well written? Grammar? Style? Clarity of the presentation? Is the language vague or unclear?
  • What is your evaluation of the quality of the work described in this paper?
  • What is the quality of the materials, methods, and instrumentation used to carry out this study? How were data analyzed? What is the quality of the interpretation of the data?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the chosen experimental design?
  • For quantitative work, what if anything has been done to evaluate the validity and reliability of the results?
  • Are there any errors that the authors may have missed? What do you believe may be the impact of these errors on the authors' data, interpretations, and/or conclusions?
  • What is the overall significance of this work to your field of study?

Reflective Journaling

Doing research is very different from carrying out a traditional course-related lab experiment. The solutions to research problems are not normally known at the outset and often the outcomes are very different from those envisioned at the outset. Each research problem is unique. In addition, each researcher brings with him/herself his own unique set of skills, understanding, and experience with which they will approach their research. Thus, it is essential to be able to effectively leverage one's professional skills and experience in an autonomous and competent manner in the real-world workplace.

Reflective journaling can be an extremely useful tool in this regard. If you are not familiar with this technique, you are not alone. Not often used in the science and engineering fields but a standard practice in clinical training and the field of education, reflective journaling is regarded as an extremely useful and powerful technique for affecting self-discovery and personal and professional growth. The act of journaling involves the regular practice of recording activities and/or situations on paper or electronically with the goal of reflecting on those experiences in order to learn from them and grow personally and professionally.

Journaling is useful in providing insight into self-awareness - what you do (behaviors), why you do it (values, assumptions, aspirations) how you feel (emotions), and how you think. Journaling can expose contradictions, misconceptions, and conflict. In short, it helps you turn every incident into a new potential learning experience.

It is important to understand though that journaling isn't merely the act of chronicling one's experiences. Writing about one's experiences can be useful as it helps to make explicit knowledge that one may have learned and practiced implicitly for better or worse. It also helps to provide perspective and structure to daily events that sometimes appear chaotic and random. However, educational research suggests that active reflection is needed if true transformational learning is to be realized.

In this section we will discuss:

Paper-Based or Electronic?

Journals can be either paper-based or electronic. You can keep a journal on sheets of paper which you can organize in a three-ring binder or write in any small bound notebook. Electronic journals can be maintained on a computer, laptop, or personal digital assistant (PDA). There are a growing number of software packages available for electronic journaling such as Life Journal but any word processing program like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect or even Notepad will serve as well, too.

Paper journals have the advantage of portability and availability though with the increasing multi-functionality of PDA's and similar devices, these are no longer clear advantages. Electronic journals have the advantage of superior readability and indexing and cross indexing functionality. However, electronic journals may be irretrievably lost if accidentally deleted or if the electronic device catastrophically fails. Electronic journals also afford the user confidentiality as these can be password protected in case the electronic device is lost.

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General Guidelines for Reflective Journaling

Journals work best when entries are:

  • Regular made on a consistent periodic schedule;
  • Reflective not merely descriptive chronicles of events but critical assessments/analysis of the situation and/or behavior; and
  • Transformational meaning that specific, doable strategies for change are identified and subsequently implemented.

Entries need not be lengthy to be meaningful.

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Examples of Useful Questions for Reflection

Depending on your goals and individual nature, your journal can be either more or less structured in format and style. One important thing that is known about journaling is that for it to be effective the journal must be more than merely a written record. A set of guiding questions can be useful in facilitating critical reflection if the questions motivate you to reflect. For this reason the following questions are offered as useful starting points in facilitating meaningful reflection.

  • Briefly describe a situation that occurred in lab this week that affected you as an individual or your team (if relevant) as a whole.
  • Why are you describing this incident - did you experience challenges in meeting it? Did you exhibit strengths? Did you learn something?
  • Is there an overarching issue or problem here? What is the potential value here?
  • What were you feeling at the time of the incident?
  • What were you thinking at the time of the incident? Did you have any preconceived ideas? New insights?
  • What was good or bad about the situation?
  • (How) Has this experience challenged your assumptions, prejudices, or biases?
  • What specific possible solutions have you been able to identify to the problem?
  • (How) will this experience alter your future behavior, attitudes, or career?

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Research Learning Contracts

One pedagogical technique that you and your advisor can use to structure and assess your undergraduate research learning experience is a research learning contract. The research learning contract has long been used in adult education where the learning experiences are often highly self-directed as in the undergraduate research experience. Research learning contracts provide form and structure to what is a relatively unstructured learning environment (the research laboratory) while at the same time ensuring maximal flexibility which ultimately puts you, the student, in control of your own learning. Research learning contracts do this by allowing you to define the learning objectives, learning activities, your rate of progress, and the method(s) of assessment that will be used to evaluate your eventual success or failure which helps ensure that you will be successful.

The research learning contract is a contract in that it is a formal written agreement between two parties, you, the student, and your research mentor, defining what is to be learned, how it will be learned, and the terms whereby learning will be demonstrated/assessed. However, it defines the process of learning rather than the content. So, it is not a syllabus. In this way, it allows each student learner to structure his/her learning environment to meet his/her unique needs. It is also unlike a formal contract in that research learning contracts are intended to be periodically revisited and renegotiated in order to ensure that all parties are deriving maximal benefit from the learning arrangement defined by the contract. Research learning contracts are also not research proposals. They emphasize process rather than content and should contain the minimum amount of information needed in order to define the process as their purpose is to provide a modicum of structure while at the same time providing maximal flexibility. In this section we will offer specific information and advice on how to create and use your own research learning contract in support of your undergraduate research experience.

In this section, we will discuss:

Content And Form

There is no set content or specific required form for a research learning contract. However, research learning contracts usually contain the following types of information:

  • Brief descriptive project title
  • Names and contact information (office address, cell phone, email) for the faculty advisor, student, and whomever will be providing daily supervision, if the faculty advisor will not be serving in this role
  • Projected start and end dates for the project
  • Specification of student’s role on the project – volunteer, salaried, for academic credit, etc.
  • Goal(s) of the project – the long term purpose of the project
  • Objective(s) of the project – these should be short term, bite-size achievable aims with realistic target dates for their accomplishment
  • Identification of any significant safety considerations
  • List of any needed resources (bibliographic, training, materials, equipment and/or instrumentation) – this identifies the commitment and responsibilities to be provided by the faculty research mentor; and
  • Anticipated Outcome(s) of Project such as term paper, oral presentation, thesis, etc.

It is totally up to you and your advisor what you choose to include or exclude from your research learning contract.

From an instructor’s vantage point, research learning contracts are attractive because they facilitate student ownership of and therefore commitment to the project and the research plan by allowing the student learner to define the learning objectives, learning activities, and assessment methods. So, it makes explicit for both the student and the research mentor the project’s objectives and process and ensures mutual agreement by both parties.

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Examples of Research Learning Contracts

The following are two examples of research learning contract for undergraduate research experiences in the field of chemistry.

Research Learning Contract 1

[Date]
[Student Name]
[Faculty Mentor’s Name]

Objective: The objective of my research will be to obtain spectroscopic evidence through resonance Raman of the effect that potassium chloride has on the catalytic activity of horseradish peroxidase in different organic solvents.

Research Purpose: …The resonance Raman study will help to elucidate the mechanism of salt-induced enzyme activation in non-aqueous media, specifically, the effect of potassium chloride on horseradish peroxidase in acetone and acetonitrile.

Methods: Horseradish peroxidase will be co-lyophilized with varying concentrations of potassium chloride, dissolved in aqueous potassium phosphate buffer or suspended in acetone and acetonitrile, followed by spectroscopic study of the sample by Raman.

Personal Goals:

  • To increase my understanding and proficiency in Raman
  • To learn freeze drying while increasing my experience with UV-vis
  • To learn to keep a reliable record of my work in the lab while increasing my confidence working in a laboratory setting
  • To obtain results that warrant publication, whether as a paper or poster with the option of presenting the paper or publication at a conference
  • To be a sponge and absorb everything or as much as is humanly possible in an academic quarter

Lab-Time: I will devote 4 hours on Tuesday and Thursday throughout the spring quarter for a minimum of eight hours each week. If needed and if my schedule allows it, I will increase the lab time.

Signatures
[Advisor]
[Student]

Research Learning Contract 2

To: [Faculty Advisor Name]
From: [Student Name]
Date
Subject: Work Contract and Tentative Schedule

UV-vis spectroscopy revealed a correlation between the electronic structure of polypyrrole and solvent polarity. I would like to pursue additional characterization of supercritical carbon dioxide synthesized polypyrrole films by examining their structure with UV-vis, Raman, and FTIR methods during my work-study this quarter. My objectives are:

  • To learn and understand Raman and develop my experimental expertise in this technique
  • To learn and understand FTIR and develop my experimental expertise in this technique
  • To expand my understanding of UV-vis spectroscopy
  • To characterize aqueous (sulfuric acid), non-aqueous (acetonitrile), and supercritical carbon dioxide synthesized polypyrrole films with the above methods
  • To analyze my data and compare the results to my previous UV-vis findings
Time Week Planned Tasks
8 hours 1 Synthesize polypyrrole films*
8 hours 2 UV-vis and Raman characterization of polypyrrole films
8 hours 3 Continue Raman and prepare summary of mechanism, instrumentation and information obtained from Raman technique
8 hours 4 FTIR characterization of polypyrrole films
8 hours 5 Continue FTIR and prepare summary of mechanism, instrumentation and information obtained from FTIR technique
8 hours 6 Analyze all data and summarize results

*Note: Synthesis may take longer or I may need to make more polypyrrole films throughout the quarter. I will need to synthesize at least two films (preferably 3) with each method in order to ensure repeatability.

Signatures
[Student]
[Faculty Mentor]

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Do's and Don'ts

Research learning contracts are most effective when:

  • Student authored, i.e., written in the student’s own words. Don’t let your research mentor even if they are well meaning write the learning contract. If there is some idea that you can’t seem to express in writing. Likely this means that you don’t really understand it. If there is something that you don’t understand about the project, explain that to your advisor and ask him/her to explain that concept or aspect again so that you understand and can write about it yourself using your own words.
  • Short rather than lengthy. They should be no longer than two pages in length and contain a minimum of information in order to be maximally effective as their purpose is to provide a modicum of structure while at the same time providing maximal flexibility.
  • Created at the outset of an undergraduate research experience. This ensures that you and your advisor are in agreement from the outset concerning the nature of the problem you will investigate, the methods you will use, the time you will commit, and the methods that will be used to evaluate your success; and when
  • Signed by both the faculty mentor and student during the first or second week of the undergraduate research experience. Signatures are evidence of your and your advisor’s buy-in to the project, the specifics outlined, and your new working relationship.

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First Steps

If this is your first exposure to the idea of a research learning contract, you may find it useful to use a template in constructing your own. Simply complete each section here and click on the “Submit” button at the bottom of the form to generate your own research learning contract. Alternatively you might wish to examine some of the learning contract forms used at other institutions. The following are examples of several good learning contracts:

  • North Carolina Wesleyan College (Criminal Justice internships)
  • Macalester College

Links

Coming soon.

Learning Contract Generator Form

Coming soon.

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Research Funding

Having a good idea is only one part of the equation in science and engineering. Having the funds to carry out the work is another very important element of the equation. In this section, we will discuss:

Articles on Research Funding

Possible Funding Sources

There are four basic types of funding sources:

  • Government
  • Private industry
  • Foundations
  • Professional organizations

Many government agencies provide funding to individuals and teams of researchers to work on specific types of research projects. Examples of government agencies that provide financial support include:

Many private companies provide grants and/or materials and supplies in support of research. Examples of companies that provide targeted support include:

  • Honda (e.g., fuel cells and robotics);
  • DuPont; (e.g., polymer science broadly defined); and
  • L’Oreal (personal care products)

Privately funded foundations are another good source of funding for research. Examples of foundations that provide financial support to researchers include:

Finally, professional organizations represent still another possible source of funding for your research project. Examples of professional organizations that provide support for research include:

There are a number of useful tools that you can use to identify possible funding sources. A number of these can be freely accessed via the world-wide-web:

However, the majority of the above provide support to scientists and engineers who have completed advanced degrees. That said, there are a number of associations and agencies that provide support for undergraduate research. To this end, Web-GURU has Program Listings that will assist you in identifying possible funding sources specifically targeted to undergraduate researchers.

Research Proposals

In this section, we will discuss the following:


Types of Research Proposals

In all sectors (academe, government, and the private sector), research scientists typically seek and obtain competitive funding for their research projects by writing and submitting research proposals for consideration by the funding source. There are two kinds of research proposals:

Solicited

Solicited proposals are those that are written and submitted in response to the issuance of a "Request for Proposals" (RFP), a document that identifies a specific research problem of interest to the funding agency for which they are specifically seeking a solution. Interested investigator then submits a “concept” or "white paper" briefly outlining their proposed solution to the problem. If the funding agency or company is interested, they may then request that the investigator submit a full proposal for consideration of funding.

Unsolicited

Unsolicited proposals are those proposals that are submitted by an investigator in response to a "general call" for proposals that is issued by a funding agency or company in a field or area of study.

The majority of funding agencies issue calls for proposals which have firmly established deadlines and for which the format of the proposals is fairly well defined. Thus, it is vitally important at the outset after you have identified a funding source that you obtain all of the relevant information on the specific grant program and its requirements. Today most funding agencies have searchable websites where they post detailed information concerning their grant programs.

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Purpose of a Research Proposal

The purpose of a proposal is to sell your idea to the funding agency. This means that the investigator must convince the funding agency that:

  • The problem is significant and worthy of study
  • The technical approach is novel and likely to yield results
  • The investigator and his/her research team is/are the right group of individuals to carry out and accomplish the work described in the research proposal.

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Typical Proposal Format

Title

The title of your proposal should be short, accurate, and clear. A single sentence containing ten or fewer words is best. Don’t use acronyms and technical jargon as your reviewers may not come from your technical specialty. For example, "Web-GURU: Web-based Guide to Research for Undergraduates."

Abstract

As in a technical paper, the proposal abstract should "abstract" the project for the reader. It should be a brief (100 - 200 words), tightly worded summary of the project, its objectives, the problem's significance, the project's scope, the methods that will be employed, the identity and relevant technical expertise of the research team, and the results that are expected to result. Be sure to write this section last so that its content indeed abstracts your proposal.

Introduction

The introduction section should introduce the research problem, its significance, and the technical approach your work will take to investigate/solve the problem. It should introduce the research team that will carry out the work.

Background

This section should present a concise review of the primary literature relevant to your proposed research efforts. As such it should:

  • Cite the key literature sources
  • Be up to date
  • Critically appraise the literature

The background section should be constructed to inform the reader concerning where your study fits in? It should clearly state why your project should be done? Does your work:

  • Take science in a bold new direction?
  • Build on the prior work of others (whose?) in the field
  • Address flaws in previous work (again, whose?)
  • Develop infrastructure (instrumentation, methodology, collaborations) that will take science in exciting new directions

Preliminary Studies

If the project builds on past studies from your laboratory, then you should include a brief section outlining what you have already accomplished and explain how these results relate to the work outlined in the present proposal. If the ideas you are proposing are novel, then it is especially important to include this section and to present evidence supporting the probable success of your project.

Research Methodology

This section should outline your plan of attack. Specific information that should be contained in this section includes information on the research team and its technical expertise as it relates to the project, a realistic timeline, description of the specific experiments that will be accomplished together with alternate plans in case of potential difficulties/challenges. If more than one person will do the work described in the proposal then a division of labor should be provided together with an explanation of why each person is best qualified to do the work described. The timeline should define the length of the project and provide a schedule of who will do what specific tasks approximately when during the project period. Problems always arise in research. Things never go as anticipated. So, it is important to provide the reviewer with enough information to give them confidence that when problems arise, as they inevitably will, that you will be able to handle them in such a way that meaningful science results.

Budget

The budget should identify the anticipated cost for everything (salaries, materials, instrumentation, travel costs, etc.) that will be required in order to accomplish the research project. Usually budgets are prepared and submitted as tables with prescribed format. A budget justification typically accompanies the budget request. The budget justification is simply an explanation, item-by-item, stating why you must spend the money requested in order to carry out the experiments planned.

The most important point in preparing a budget is to make sure that you ask for what you really need. Some people underestimate the importance of working through a budget in advance of writing the actual grant proposal. This is really important because most grant programs provide grants with a certain set monetary value. It is critical to ask for the amount you really need because if you don’t ask for what you need you simply won’t be able to do the work and if you can’t carry out your project, it is highly unlikely that you will ever be able to obtain funding from that funding agency again in the near future. At the same time, it is important not to go overboard in padding your budgetary request. A thoughtful budget demonstrates that your project is well conceived and likely to yield quality results. If the reviewers feel that your budget is naïve or over-inflated, that can work against you – your project could be funded at a lower rate or certain items requested might simply be eliminated from the budget by the funding agency - so be sure to think through your budget requests carefully and make sure that all requests are thoughtfully justified.

There are two major components in a budget:

Direct costs are the costs that you incur that are directly attributable to the project. Examples of direct costs include personnel salary, fringe benefits, materials and supplies, major instrumentation, and travel costs. We will briefly examine each of these:

Personnel Salary

An important budget request in most grants is the salary for the personnel who will carry out the research on the project. Salary is usually requested for the principal investigator, postdoctoral students, graduate and undergraduate students. Some funding agencies will provide secretarial support. Academic faculty, who usually receive academic year ( 9-mos typically) salary from their institutions, often supplement their salary (summer salary) by carrying out external research programs.

Fringe Benefits

Fringe benefits refers to the costs incurred by your institution/employer in providing group health insurance, retirement, unemployment, workers compensation, FICA (Medicare), etc. Undergraduate salaries are not normally assessed fringe benefits when the student is supported during the academic year.

Materials and Supplies

Materials and supplies include a wide range of items such as laboratory supplies, chemical reagents, research animals, computer software and supplies, etc.

Major Instrumentation

A purchase is typically identified as major instrumentation rather than materials and supplies when the cost of the instrument exceeds a thousand dollars and when the device has an anticipated lifespan of more than a year. Examples of major instrumentation purchases include laptops (cost typically $2k), UV-vis instruments, desktop centrifuges, etc. When requesting major instrumentation it is important to specify the manufacturer and model of the specific instrument that you wish to purchase and to indicate what if any features this model has that make it uniquely required in order to accomplish your proposed work. If you do require a specific instrument, it is wise to obtain a quotation from the manufacturer. Since it may be six months or more before you begin your project be sure to inquire what the anticipated cost of the instrument will be at the time you anticipate purchasing it (i.e., allow for inflation).

Travel Costs

If you intend to attend a professional meeting in order to present the results of your research, you may include the anticipated cost of traveling to and attending the meeting in your budget request. You may include the cost of a round-trip coach class fare airplane ticket, meeting registration, hotel, ground transportation (taxi, car rental, etc.), and food. Many funding sources place strict limitations on travel so be sure to research this carefully before making your request.

Subcontractor Costs

If you are working on a collaborative project with an investigator at another institution, then you will need to include the costs that they will incur in carrying out the proposed work. Your collaborator is viewed as a subcontractor in terms of the grant proposal. Their institution may assess its own indirect costs and those will also need to be included in your budget request to the funding agency.

Indirect

Indirect costs on the other hand are the facilities and administrative costs that are incurred by your institution/employer in support of your research activities. These include These are typically assessed as a percentage of the direct costs for the project. Indirect costs are often assessed on either a modified total direct costs basis (MTDC) or a total direct costs basis (TDC). MTDC rates do not include the costs of major instrumentation, student tuition, or subcontractors in the total for the direct costs on which the indirect costs are assessed while TDC includes all costs when assessing the indirect costs for the project. The MTDC and TDC rates are set by your institution so be sure to check with them to determine what the current rates are.

Curriculum Vitae for Principal Investigators

Most funding agencies require the principal investigator(s) to include some form of curriculum vitae. Curriculum vitae are the academic-version (extended) of a resume. They provide useful information on the education, technical expertise, and research productivity of the principal investigator. In an effort to ensure the brevity and uniformity of the information provided, many funding agencies require that this information be provided according to a specific format. Be sure to include only the information requested. Do not embellish your accomplishments.

Appendix

This ancillary section should be used only to provide secondary information that is relevant to the research project. For example, if you are collaborating with another investigator, it is appropriate to obtain a letter from him/her indicating his/her willingness to collaborate and detailing what specific support (personnel, equipment, research materials, results, etc.) they are willing to provide for the research project. Some funding programs do not allow investigators to submit appendices so be sure to find out in advance whether or not you can submit supporting materials and what if any limitations there may be concerning these materials (content, page limits, etc.).

Human Subjects

If your project involves experimentation on either animals or people, you will need to obtain approval for your project through your institution’s office of Institutional Compliance.

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General Suggestions

  • Don’t be afraid to ask your advisor or other scientists if you can read copies of their successfully funded proposals.
  • There is no substitute for a good idea. This means the idea should be important and technically sound. If the idea is of interest to you, it is likely going to be of interest to others. Your job is to clearly make the case that this is work worth funding by the particular funding agency and program to which you have applied. In terms of the work being technically sound, make sure that you research it before you begin writing. This may mean doing some preliminary experiments in order to obtain data that clearly demonstrate that your ideas will work. This is particularly important if your ideas are truly novel.
  • Before you begin writing, map out your project. Identify the key experiments you will need to do. Determine who and what you will need in order to carry out these experiments and figure out how much it will cost to do the actual work (i.e., work out the budget). Be sure that the anticipated cost of your project fits the scope of the funding agency’s program.
  • Read the application instructions thoroughly and follow them carefully. If you have any questions telephone or e-mail and ask. Don’t make any implicit assumptions about your reviewers including their technical expertise, what they know about you and your work, the conditions under which they will read your proposal, etc. If you don’t follow the directions, don’t be surprised if your proposal is returned to you un-reviewed.
  • Write your proposal to address all of the review criteria of the grant program.
  • Start writing your proposal well in advance of the deadline for submission.
  • Presentation and written expression count. Think about the reviewer’s workload (see “The Review Process”) Don’t use a lot of technical jargon. Write simply and clearly. Use the spell checker and grammar checker. Don’t fault the reviewer’s for equating a poorly written and poorly proofed proposal with evidence of a sloppy scientist likely incapable of carrying out a quality project if funded.
  • Ask your advisor, a friend, and/or colleague to review your proposal (be sure to provide them with a copy of the funding agency’s review criteria) before submitting it and when you receive their feedback modify your proposal accordingly.
  • If your proposal is not funded, seek feedback. Don’t take the rejection of your proposal personally. Learn from it! Modify your proposal accordingly, and resubmit it. Perseverance is everything when it comes to research funding – just about everyone has at some point submitted a proposal that didn’t get funded.

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The Review Process

It is critically important to understand the review process before you apply for funding. Every funding agency has a process that is a bit different. However, the majority use a peer-review system to evaluate proposal quality. This means that your research proposal will be read and evaluated by your scientists in your field of study. Most agencies have well established review criteria whereby their reviewers must evaluate proposals. For example, the National Science Foundation, which provides funding to scientists and engineers whose efforts are primarily in fundamental research, bases its peer review around two review criteria:

Criterion 1: What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?

Under this criterion, reviewers are asked to evaluate the significance of the proposed work, the qualifications of the research team, the adequacy of the research facilities including instrumentation, the creativity and originality of the project, and the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of the research design articulated in the proposal.

Criterion 2: What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

Specific issues here include the benefits of the project to society, the likelihood that funding will enhance the infrastructure for research and education in terms of personnel, facilities, instrumentation, and/or dissemination of findings, and the quality of the training and training environment afforded student participants.

Individual grant programs at NSF often have additional specific review criteria that applicants must address in their proposals. These additional criteria are identified in the published announcement for that grant program. Wise applicants read these announcements before beginning to write their proposal and address these criteria in their grant application.

NIH uses a set of five review criteria to evaluate its proposals:

  • Significance;
  • Approach;
  • Innovation
  • Investigator; and
  • Environment.

Note, however, that these are very similar to those criteria used by NSF (discussed above).

Examples of Different Review Mechanisms

A significant number of academic researchers receive their external funding from either the NIH or the NSF. In this section, we’ll look at the review process at these two federal agencies to better understand the importance of preparing a concise, clearly written and articulated grant proposal when seeking funding for your research efforts.

NIH

The NIH evaluates research proposals uses priority scores, a quantitative assessment, to determine the relative funding priority for individual proposals. Anonymous assessments are provided by panels of a dozen or more reviewers, called study sections. Study section panelists are scientists, engineers, and clinicians who have been selected on the basis of their specific scientific expertise. Panelists typically serve for a period of four years or more on a study section. The rosters of the 100 or so regular study sections at NIH are published on the world-wide-web. NIH panels meet regularly for two-to-three days at a stretch near NIH throughout the year to review proposals. Study sections may review as many as one hundred proposals at a study section meeting. This is not to suggest however that all members of the study section read and evaluate each and every proposal. In fact, study section members are assigned to review a finite subset of the proposals under review as either primary or secondary reviewers. Both primary and secondary reviewers are expected to read and evaluate the proposal in advance of the study section meeting and to be prepared to discuss their evaluation of the proposal at the section meeting. However, primary reviewers are expected to prepare and submit a written report as well. At the section meeting, primary reviewers initiate the discussion of the proposal, followed by the secondary reviewers. Afterward, based on the discussion, all panelists then by secret ballot score the application on a 5 point scale ranging from excellent (1.0) to poor (5.0). Expressed on a percentage basis, the average numerical rating (taken to three significant figures) given by the panel, referred to as its “priority score” is used to rank proposals for funding. Ultimately, funding of a proposal at NIH is determined by the Institute’s National Advisory Council based on the priority score, the specific program needs/funding priorities, and the availability of funds.

NSF

NSF uses a more qualitative assessment in which proposals are scored by reviewers as: excellent, very good, good, fair or poor. Different programs at NSF use a mixture of panels and/or reviews solicited from single investigators reading the proposal at their home institution. NSF does not use a standing panel system. Panelists are invited to serve on a panel. They may or may not serve again on that panel next year. Panels are typically much smaller than NIH study sections both in their composition and their work load. NSF panels typically consist of anywhere from five to twelve scientists and engineers who may read and review between ten and twenty grant proposals. Panels meet for a period of one to three days depending on the grant program. Unlike NIH, NSF does not publish the rosters of its panels in order to preserve the anonymity of the reviewers and the integrity of the peer review process. Another important difference is that depending on the program, panelists may or may not receive copies of the grant applications in advance of the actual review meeting. This is a very important point as panelists may have a very limited amount of time in which to read and evaluate each proposal. Consequently, a poorly written and poorly organized proposal may be at a significant disadvantage. NSF panelists reviewing a proposal are not required to reach any kind of consensus nor do they rank proposals as a general rule during their evaluations. Funding of a proposal at NSF is ultimately determined by the Division based in part on the reviews, the specific program needs/funding priorities, and the availability of funds to support the project.