Opportunities for undergraduate research are available in a surprisingly wide range of places including:
- Your own campus
- Other college and university campuses
- Private industry
- 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
- How to support an undergraduate research opportunity
- Timing considerations
- Eligibility for participation
- The research topic
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.
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 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 are a form of experiential learning in which students work off-campus in traditional workplace settings with supervision.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.