Undergraduate Research: The Basics
University of Virginia is an institution which fosters an environment to promote research at an undergraduate level to better prepare students for the modern world and society. UVa and its affiliated departments actively engage with undergraduate students to further the learning experience outside of the teachings in the classroom.
Most departments at UVa currently have very active undergraduate research programs and are designed to be flexible for both students and faculty mentors.
Below are some of the basic information about undergraduate research at UVa in a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) format.
How are undergrads involved?
Undergraduate researchers are usually either "lab technicians" (paid) or "research assistants" (paid, volunteer, or for-credit). A lab tech is an employee with routine tasks. More common, a research assistant is a team member working on an independent project that supports ongoing faculty research.
Does every UVa undergrad (mainly science majors) work in a lab?
No. Laboratory experience is often an extra-curricular academic activity pursued by students with interest in a particular field. Lab work is only one of many ways to get hands-on experience.
So what are some other ways to get hands-on experience?
There are industry/corporate internships, sponsored summer programs (examples: NSF, NIH, etc.), volunteer medical service programs, and many other programs and internships outside of UVa.
Is research for every undergrad?
It is important to keep in mind that research is not for everyone.
However, undergrads interested in research should at least give a semester or two of research a try. By then, most undergrads figure out if doing research is right for them or not.
But wait! It will look nice on my resume...
Yes. Research experience MAY boost your resume. However, keep in mind that research requires a lot of patience and time. Also note that doing research in addition to your classes will take significant amount of time away from studying, social life, and even sleeping.
*Just because you are pre-med DOES NOT mean that you MUST have research experience!
Is research the same as an "internship"?
No. Internships are paid work situations at a corporate sponsored program.
Is there funding for undergrad research?
Yes. Some students earn wages, mostly during the summer.
Also, there are UVa research grants in the $2,000 to $5,000 range, such as Harrison Grant awards and DoubleHoo grants.
Does that mean I have to provide the funds for my research?
Not necessarily. In most cases, students in a lab will take on a project that a faculty mentor has already designed (and approved to have funds available to move forward with the project). The mentioned grants above will probably serve to add more funds for supplies and misc. costs to a project.
However, there are certain cases where a truly-student generated idea will become a project under a faculty member. In that case, the above grants may be used to fund the new project.
Can I receive credit for undergrad research?
Absolutely! Most departments have a procedure in place for a student to receive 1 to even up to 3 credits toward the degree. However, rules regarding how the credits are awarded vary depending on the department.
Can I just do one semester?
Yes. There are some faculty members who ask students to commit to a full year in their labs. However, there are many who are willing to work with undergrads for just a semester - especially if your intention is to try out the whole "laboratory environment".
What's the time commitment?
It varies. However, the usual expectation is around 8 to 12 hours a week in the lab. Most students end up spending more than that.
What else is involved?
If you are doing research for-credit, you must satisfy the requirements of that department to receive credit. This may be writing a short research proposal at the beginning and a comprehensive final report at the end of the semester.
Otherwise, it is important that you meet your mentor's requirements.These may include reading and reporting on background literature, attending weekly lab meetings, writing progress reports, and meeting one-on-one.
Wow. That's a lot. Is it worth it?
The advice 4th years give younger students is to get involved in a lab and get involved early! In addition to its inherent value as an intellectual pursuit, undergrad researchers have published their work in peer-reviewed journals, funded their work via competitive funding opportunities, and won prizes at Research Symposia, poster sessions, etc. Plus, they provide themselves a launching pad for internships, graduate school, medical school, and the job market.