Getting Started in Undergraduate Research
“There are few experiences better suited to prepare a student for lifelong learning than an active participation in research early in his or her education. The only ‘prerequisites’ are curiosity, the willingness to learn something not contained in the standard curriculum, and to work on questions to which the answers are not known yet.” —UCSB Professor Herb Kroemer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 2000
Why Do Research?
This is a perfect time to explore a variety of fields, approaches, working styles, career paths. Participating in research projects can provide the following benefits and opportunities:
- Gain confidence in your abilities as a scholar and a researcher
- Foster a network of faculty and graduate students who can help open doors to future opportunities
- Contribute to the creation of new knowledge
- Develop skills in time management, critical thinking, and problem solving
- Apply what you have learned in class outside the classroom
- Prepare for and clarify your goals for graduate study
Summer vs. School-year Research
Summer research programs are more intensive—you are generally expected to commit full-time to the research program without taking summer classes or working other jobs. Good summer projects are designed for you to get results quickly; you learn a lot in a short period of time. Application Deadlines for formal summer programs are generally February to March. You should plan to start searching for programs in JANUARY.
School-year research is part-time (typically 10 hours per week), with work hours arranged around your class schedule. Doing research during the school year requires time management, and progress can be slow. However, school year research may allow you to stay long-term on a project and is more likely to lead to senior thesis projects, publications and opportunities to attend professional meetings, as well as integration into a research group.
Arranging Your Own Research Project with Individual Faculty
Think about what interests you, then find out who does it:
- Check out faculty webpages
- Ask your course instructors and TA’s about research areas in their department
- Before contacting a faculty member, take a look at department/faculty webpages so that when you contact them you can mention the research you are particularly intrigued by and that you would like to talk with them about the potential for doing research in their lab.
- Send them an email describing your interest, and ask to make an appointment with them. Mention your prior experience and attach a CV if you have one prepared.
- Don’t be discouraged if they do not respond right away, send a follow up email after a week if you do not hear from them. They are busy but many are very happy to talk to students interested in research.
- Be clear about what you’re asking for! Do you want your own research project or do you want to assist others? Do you want credits? Do you want a senior thesis project? Will you volunteer or do you need to be paid? What time commitment can you make?
Identifying a Good Research Program
- Novice researchers should look for organized research programs which provide programmatic support such as arranged housing, weekly group meetings, social activities with other research interns, etc. Experienced researchers can be more adventurous about finding their own placements, not necessarily within the scope of a formal program.
- Think about your primary motivation for doing research. If you are interested in graduate school, then look to the institutions where you might go. If a particular research area gets you most excited, then find out where that work is being done. Professors are an excellent source of information about who does what and where.
- Interdisciplinary research can be very exciting and challenging, and is an excellent way to learn about a wide variety of career paths that you might take with a given background/degree.
- Use the web to go shopping. If want to go to a specific institution, then go to their website and hunt around the academic department and research center websites.