Research: it’s what earns you the title of PhD. Whether it’s a physicist in the lab, a historian studying ancient texts, or a political scientist running focus groups, research is the cornerstone of both academia and industrial innovation. And you can join, too! It may seem like you need to have extensive experience in your field and years of graduate education under your belt. In reality, there are thousands of opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in research.
Why Do Research as an Undergraduate?
Your grad school application will stand out
If you’re thinking about attending graduate school after college, then getting involved in research should be a high priority. Graduate admissions is competitive, so having research experience can set you apart from other applicants.
Discover potential mentors
If you’ve done research with a professor, they’ll be able to write you a recommendation letter. They can also put you in touch with people in the field you might be interested in. Getting to know faculty members personally can be incredibly valuable as they can provide academic guidance and career opportunities; doing research with them is one of the best ways to develop a relationship. Furthermore, you’ll probably be working closely with graduate students and postdocs. They can be some of the best people to talk to about pursuing graduate studies since they’re currently going through it, and were recently in the same position as you.
Explore your thoughts on grad school
If you’re unsure or curious about pursuing a graduate degree, research experience can be a great way to find out if it’s for you. After all, many graduate degrees have a large research component, especially if you’re thinking about going into academia.
Gain valuable skills
You will learn much more than just academic skills. You have to learn to collaborate with others, manipulate data, find relevant literature, manage deadlines, and set goals. These are valuable skills in all walks of life, and the non-academic skills you learn by doing research might end up being some of the most valuable things you learn in college.
Obtain credits toward your degree
Finally, check if your college offers any opportunities to have research count for course credit. Many colleges have an option for honors students to write a thesis, and even outside of that course credit is often available, especially if you’re doing research related to your major. Research can be a great way to do something a little different and break up the monotony of just class after class.
How Do You Get Involved?
Find the right time to participate
There are two main times to get involved: during the school year and during the summer. Make sure you plan ahead when deciding which one to do: are you thinking about a job or internship over the summer? Do you have enough time to dedicate to research during the school year? Also consider expenses: summer research programs will usually have some kind of stipend or pay, but you might still have to cover the cost of housing and food. Research during the school year probably won’t cause any extra expenses, but you might not be paid, especially if it’s for course credit.
Explore your options
Once you know when you might want to do research, your first port of call should be the faculty at your university. Go on the website of the department you’d like to work with, and try and find out what kind of professors are involved in. Don’t worry too much about whether you have all the specific background knowledge; as long as you have some foundational knowledge in the field, you can fill in the gaps. Look for projects you’d be excited to work on and professors you’d be keen to work with.
Many colleges also have an office or website dedicated to undergraduate research. Search online or talk directly to someone from the office. They’ll usually have a catalog of research opportunities both locally and at other universities, and the people working there can help guide you towards subjects you might be interested in.
Another place to look for research opportunities, especially summer programs, is online. The National Science Foundation sponsors summer research programs for undergraduates (REUs) at universities all over the country that usually last 8-10 weeks and include a stipend to help cover expenses. The National Science and Engineering Research Council also provides funding for undergraduate research projects.
Prepare in advance
If you’re interested in doing research, don’t wait to look around! Most of the national programs have deadlines for summer research applications in February or March. If there’s a professor you want to work with, email them before the semester starts. This gives them time to figure out how you can be involved. It will also give you a chance to get up to speed on any extra knowledge they require.
Be tactful when communicating with professors
When contacting professors about research opportunities, the key is to demonstrate interest and knowledge of their specific area of study. Don’t send out mass emails to whole departments asking for any research opportunity at all; you probably won’t get any replies. Instead, single out a few professors you might want to work with. Identify why their research is interesting to you, and consider the skills you have that are relevant to their work. You’ll be much more likely to get a response.
When emailing professors or going to their office hours to discuss a research opportunity, make sure you have a research-specific CV. At a minimum, it should include your GPA, course of study, relevant courses you have taken, and any relevant research or work experience. Don’t worry if you don’t have any experience that’s directly related; they know you’re just getting started. If you have experience that demonstrates your ability to work on projects, collaborate with others, and meet deadlines. That can be valuable, too.
Don’t give up
If it doesn’t work out, don’t lose faith. Not every professor will have an opening for undergraduate involvement in their research. Know that national research programs can be very competitive. There’s a good chance you won’t find something on your first try. Keep looking, and ask your professors to point you towards others who might be looking for undergraduate help.