Tips for Getting Involved with Undergraduate Research
Today’s university experience has progressed to encompass a scope of opportunities that include various forms of research in a range of fields. Depending on your career plans or interests, research ranging from field to lab-based experience may be considered a crucial aspect of your undergraduate experience and play an important role in your résumé. This is because research can be beneficial to individuals by honing and developing critical-thinking skills, independent study, the process of experimentation, paper writing, reading-analysis techniques, and hands-on training in a specific field. However, getting involved or into a lab as an undergraduate can appear to be a challenging and daunting feat.
Those concerns and feelings of nervousness along with not knowing where to begin was my experience when attempting to get involved with research at my university. In order to help with getting started for anyone interested in research, here are some steps and tips from my personal experience:
What are you interested in?
Ask yourself this question to gauge your own interests about what you’d like to research. Perhaps begin with an academic subject or field (i.e. anthropology, neuroscience, art history, linguistics, biology) and then think about any specific topics within those fields that you are interested in.
Check out the university’s departmental websites.
This step is all about honing in on the specifics such as what research topics you’d like to explore (i.e. oil painting during the Baroque period or memory functions during developmental stages, etc.) or perhaps which professors you’d like to work with. Once you have chosen a field or fields, go onto your university’s departmental websites for those fields (i.e. art history, neuroscience, etc.) and look for any sections labeled “research” or “faculty.” Faculty members listed in the department often have summaries about what they teach and if they do research, what their research interests are. Another way to find more information or opportunities is to search for the university’s name followed by “undergraduate research opportunities” or any variation of that phrase on a general search engine. Select however many faculty members you would like to work with; I suggest selecting two-three faculty and research topics that you’re interested in.
Another method is to speak to the professor of a course that you’re interested in and see if they are involved in research or have any colleagues that are.
Once you have chosen faculty members who you’d like to work with, it’s time to research or read a little about the faculty member’s work. For example, search for any papers written by that faculty member, and read about their experiments or research questions. Make sure you understand the gist of the paper and are able to pinpoint any particular processes, information, or findings that are interesting to you. This is important because it’ll help you gauge whether you still want to continue pursuing research in that field or topic. One great way to find papers is to see if your university library has any of the papers on hand or access to databases that may contain those papers. If not, Google is a great place to begin your search for more information on the faculty member and their work.
Contact the faculty member.
Once you have read at least one paper from each faculty member about the research topic that you are interested in working with, it’s time to send some emails!
To begin, address the faculty member using “Dear Dr….” or “Dear Professor….” depending on their credentials. This information about whether they teach a course or have a Ph.D. is often listed in their biography or in their contact information.
Next, introduce yourself in one-two sentences such as stating your name, your grade level, what you are studying, or what you are intending to major in. This part is essential to provide a potential connection between your interests and the research topic.
This part of the email is extremely important because you need to justify your reason for contacting that faculty member and explicitly express your interest. Let them know that you are interested in undergraduate research opportunities in their lab or academic field. This is also an excellent opportunity to indicate that you’ve read about some of their work and state any questions or interesting points from the papers that you read.
Politely ask if they are available for a meeting to further discuss their research. Remember, you are only asking for an initial meeting, not a job or a guaranteed position in their lab. You should provide your availability and thank the faculty member for their time and consideration. Use a formal ending for the email and provide your name again. The key to these emails is to keep them brief and concise, so be straight to the point if possible. Many faculty members are quite busy and receive many emails on a daily basis. If they cannot figure out the purpose of your email in 30-60 seconds, they may not finish reading your email, much less respond to your request.
No response? No problem. Follow up!
It is a good idea to email more than one faculty member as some may not reply. If you do send more than one email, you should keep track of who you send emails to and whether they have replied. If a faculty member you’d like to work with has not replied, send them a follow-up email within the same email thread. State how you have contacted them about your interest in getting involved with their research and briefly re-iterate that you’d like to set up a meeting.
If you get a positive response, meet the faculty member.
Once the faculty member has responded and is able to meet with you, then you should prepare a little for the initial meeting. While it is not a job interview, you should still dress in attire that you feel is appropriate for a very casual but still professional meeting. Some faculty may be more lax while others may pay attention to attire. Before attending the meeting, it is important to refresh your memory with any information from the papers that you’ve read because they might be brought up during the conversation. Arrive prepared with a few questions for the faculty member whether it is about specifics from the paper, about their research group, the research process in that academic field, or anything in relation to the faculty member or research. You should use this meeting to see whether you can envision yourself working within this field or with the faculty member. If you are interested, you could also discuss what the initial steps would be to become involved in their lab or research group.
Send a thank you email.
After the initial meeting, send a brief email thanking the faculty member for their consideration and taking the time to meet you.
I took these steps when I got involved in research, and I’ve provided a general outline on how to contact faculty and/or look for research opportunities. However, keep in mind that these steps do not guarantee a research position, and there are many other ways or methods to get involved with research.