- Decide on a research area (e.g molecular biology, materials science, nanotechnology, plasma physics, analytical chemistry, computer architecture, etc.). If you’re not sure what research area interests you, then start by doing a general review of faculty research in the academic department in which you are majoring. But, don’t be afraid to think broadly and explore research outside of your academic department, too!
- Do a search of campus websites (see below) to identify faculty working in your area of interest. Search through academic program listings, department web sites, student job sites, and undergraduate research databases if they are available.
- Talk to people. Talk to friends who are already doing research to get their advice about potential mentors. You may want to discuss this with your academic advisor or a professor or TA in one of your courses. Often they can give you ideas about faculty who are working within your area of interest.
- Read faculty research descriptions and generate a ranked list of potential mentors. Identify at least one thing about each person’s research that is interesting to you and that you would like to know more about.
Useful Web Pages
- The UW-Madison Graduate School's listing of MS and PhD training programs cuts across departmental boundaries and links to the individual program web sites where "Faculty Research" descriptions are listed. Just click on the name at the top of the page to get to the program web site with the research descriptions.
- CALS Mentored Research and Independent Study
- http://www.webguru.neu.edu/index.php A Web Guide to Undergraduate Research
Email is a good way to make initial contact with potential mentors—it gives the mentor a chance to review your materials before responding. It is like the first step in an interview, so be sure it reflects your best effort (no spelling or grammatical errors!). If you are comfortable, it is also OK to phone or stop by a potential mentor’s office to ask about a research experience.
Some things to consider when composing emails
- Keep it short and to the point (approximately 1 paragraph). These are busy people.
- Address the email using the mentor’s official title (e.g. Professor, Dr.)
- Specifically refer to the mentor’s research, and what you find interesting about it. Use your own words and don't copy text from the research description on their web site.
- Be clear that you are looking for a research experience (vs. a dishwashing job) and what your main goal will be (e.g. shadowing someone in the lab to get exposed to research vs. doing an honors thesis research project).
- Highlight what you have to offer; what distinguishes you from other students (e.g. hard worker, experience, eager to learn, willing to stay more than one semester, persistent, specific courses you’ve completed that are relevant to the research).
- Show enthusiasm for learning how to do research!
- Finally, request that if the mentor is not able to take an undergraduate researcher, that s/he recommend a colleague who might be able to.
Additional information you could include in an attached letter:
- Give an estimate of the number of hours/credits you can be available to do research, and when you would like to begin, but leave room for negotiation..
- Give a brief overview of your academic credentials (e.g. GPA and relevant courses taken), or attach an electronic transcript.
- Provide your complete contact information (email, phone, mail).
- It can be challenging to connect with faculty research mentors, so be persistent, yet polite. Ideally, give potential mentors a week to respond to your email before you follow up.
- Research groups have limited space, so it may be difficult to find a group that is looking for, or willing to take, another student. Do not take it personally if they decline your request. You may go through all 10 (or more) potential mentors before you find a match. Stick with it! You will find someone.
- Be on time.
- Be yourself. But it will help if you come across as enthusiastic and motivated. Smile!
- Be ready to discuss why you want to do research in general (What are your academic and career goals?), and why you want to do research with this mentor specifically (What is it about his/her research that is interesting to you? Is there a particular project on which you would like to work?).
- Read about the research BEFORE you go to the interview. There is usually a research overview on the web with references/links to the group’s published papers. Try to read one or two of these papers, and prepare some questions about them. Generally, mentors won’t expect you to fully understand the research, but making the effort to learn about it on your own shows independence and motivation.
- Ask about the expectations of undergraduate researchers in the group (time commitment, credits, type of work). In general, three to five hours of research per week is worth one academic credit. However, this varies and you should ask how many hours the mentor expects per week per credit.
- Ask about who would be your direct mentor in the group (professor, post-doc, graduate student).
- Bring a copy of your transcript if you haven’t already submitted one.
How research funding affects everything
Faculty have research opportunities for undergraduates because they have been successful in getting funding for their research. This affects the way faculty members do business, so it pays to understand it.
- To get research funding researchers write proposals to a funding agency (e.g. National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture) in which they present their case for funding.
- Funders want to give money to scientists who have an important and interesting scientific problem and who demonstrate that they can carry the project out successfully and actually learn something important (despite the fact that not all hypotheses will pan out). There has to be a good research plan, and there has to be a history of success and getting science done (which is measured by the production of quality publications in peer-reviewed journals).
- Research lasts longer than any single 2-5 year grant funding cycle because it just takes longer to understand things. If things go well with one project, new questions arise that become the basis of the next funding proposal. Renewals are crucial, and the success of future proposals depends on what happens now—there's a lot riding on it.
- If there's no funding, it's not just the faculty member who's affected—it's the whole research group. Research dollars support undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars (people who have received their Ph.D. degrees and are getting more experience and broadening their backgrounds for application to jobs in academics and industry), and staff scientists (and their families).
- When you do get funded, it's not free money you can do whatever you want with. You've promised to do a specific project and you've submitted a budget that you have to stick to. Any funding carries restrictions, and the funder determines what you can and can't do with the money they give you. If it's federal government funding, there are whole books of rules and regulations that apply.
Put yourself in the shoes of a faculty member...
You have a research group with one or a few funded projects. You don't have piles of "extra" money lying around, and you and the people in your lab are working as hard as you can to get as much good science done as possible, because all your careers depend on it.
Now a bright young undergraduate approaches you and asks to join the lab. What that undergraduate is really saying is, “Will you and the students and staff in your lab, who are trained to do science and whose careers and even livelihood depend on the continued production of good science, take the time to teach me to do some science, too?” Seen from a faculty point of view, that can be a lot to ask, but there are several important reasons a faculty member might say yes:
The only way any of us got into science is because, at some point in our lives, someone said “yes” to us. Most faculty still remember that.
- This IS a university, and part of the enterprise is to teach research skills.
- Good undergraduate researchers are fun to have around. It is energizing to see their interest and excitement at things that others have long since taken for granted.
- Very good undergraduates, with the right mentoring, become very valuable members of the research group.
What needs to be in place to get a yes?
- There must be a group member with time to mentor.
- There must be physical space available.
- The faculty member has to see that it is likely that the undergraduate will “pay back” the research group, as well as the individual who spends time training them—by getting things done.
- The undergrad must be able to learn to do some things and then do them carefully and reliably so that others in the group can trust the results.
- The faculty member will look for students who are motivated and interested. A student shows motivation by knowing something about the research when they knock on the door and by displaying enthusiasm. If someone is not enthusiastic about getting in the door, they will probably not be enthusiastic about doing the work.
- The student must have enough time to spend in the lab. As for “time to spend”, there are a couple factors: the amount of time the student can commit per week and the number of semesters they are likely to be around. In both cases, the longer the better, as it becomes ever more likely that they will become a valuable, trained member of the group. The earlier in your undergraduate career that you join a group, the better, especially if you can spend a summer or two, which is absolutely terrific for providing the extended time periods necessary to learn the process of doing science.