Undergraduate Research: How to Get Started
Find Your Passion
Finding out what you are passionate about and what area of research you would enjoy pursuing is the first step to a successful research experience. Here are some tips on how to find your true calling.
Attend poster sessions and conferences
This is an excellent way to expose yourself to the world of research in all different areas. By attending these sessions, you will narrow down your potential field of research as you talk with presenters about common interests and what it's like to be doing research in a particular field of study. At these sessions, you could easily find someone in a lab in the bio department, for example, and after a quick chat, discover that this is where you could see yourself working for years to come.
Attend departmental seminars
There are many departments that organize weekly seminars or lectures featuring a guest speaker about research in progress. These seminars are usually open to all students and it is a great way to learn more about research in that particular field of study.
Communicate your interests to professors
Did you find a certain lecture particularly interesting? Go ask your professor more about the topic and share your enthusiasm with him/her. Professors will often be able to guide you to the right people who can help further develop your passion and provide research opportunities in that area.
Especially for first and second years, volunteering in a research laboratory for few months to even a semester may help in reaching a decision of if research is right for you or not.
Choose a Faculty Mentor
Choosing a faculty member is a critical process to a successful research experience. Although this process may be daunting at first, it is doable! Here are some tips on finding a mentor.
Visit the department homepage
Every department website has a link to faculty research, where you can find brief summaries of the current research by faculty members.
Create a list of professors who share similar research interests as you do. It is recommended that you make a list of "three-tiers":
First tier: You are absolutely enthusiastic about the research that the professor is conducting. You will be happy to be in his/her lab.
Second tier: You are interested in learning more about the research done in the lab but may not be so enthusiastic about it.
Third tier: Few faculty members who sounds interesting to work with.
Faculty members usually receive about ten e-mails a week about a student inquiring to join his or her lab. Therefore, it is very important to have an open list of faculty members you would be interested in working with since you may not end up with your "first choice" mentor.
Compose your e-mails!
E-mails may vary in length but most will start out by introducing yourself and requesting a time to meet personally to discuss about working in the lab. Often, professors are too busy and may not respond back to your e-mails. DO NOT LET THAT DETER YOU!
Be polite and persistent, follow up on your emails, and even try calling the professor or showing up at his/her office. Additionally, remember that you need not have prior research experience in order to get involved – everyone starts somewhere.
...On that note: plan ahead!
Some professors may want to have advanced notice before you begin research in their lab. This may be from few weeks to even up to six months. Planning ahead is critical for a successful mentor hunt. Remember that it may take MANY e-mails to find a faculty mentor that has an opening in his/her lab. Have a positive attitude and keep trying!
For more information, read the No-Nonsense Guide