Why You Should Try Undergraduate Research
Research and university come hand in hand for graduate students and faculty members, but did you know undergraduates of all disciplines from music to genetics to literature can conduct their own meaningful research project? Undergraduate research goes beyond the stereotypical science laboratory and can include fields such as public health policy, archeology, physics, and engineering. Even if you do not plan on furthering your research career with a Master’s or PhD, there are several reasons why you should try undergraduate research. There are countless benefits including experiential learning, having a paid job with flexible hours, networking, numerous research scholarships available, and presents opportunities to travel on the university’s dime.
The most evident benefit of participating in research is the opportunity to apply what you learn in lecture to a project. By witnessing how certain theories or principles are harnessed to explain an observed phenomenon, those seemingly dry concepts can be transformed into a fascinating application.
More importantly, research is the opportunity to develop a systematic, meticulous way of thinking. In addition, research provides a unique opportunity to showcase creative thinking, which is often neglected in courses. Systematic thinking or creativity not your strengths? Do not fret; professors and graduate students are there to guide you and give helpful hints. If you have questions or are stuck with your research, ask other people in your lab for advice. It is highly recommended to ask a senior graduate student or post-doc to review your methodology prior to collecting your data.
In a research group, there are countless opportunities to interact with older students and faculty members who have insight into various jobs that you might be interested in. Take the time to get to know these people who have been in your shoes, for they are excellent resources. With the large international representation and experience found in research groups, take this opportunity to learn about life in a different country and the work environment in different universities, research groups, and research companies.
In addition to networking within your university, there are often opportunities to travel as a researcher, by attending research conferences or working at a collaborating university. Travelling as part of your job is a great perk to being an undergraduate researcher.
After my second year, I was invited to McGill University for a summer research position. Hailing from University of British Columbia (UBC), the opportunity to visit the other side of Canada and conduct research was a real eye-opener. Besides being exposed to more French, I noticed subtle differences between different research institutions especially in the context of research ethics, which I took back to UBC upon my return. In addition, it was a great chance to meet different professors and to learn more about their research groups. Overall, I found it extremely valuable to work at a different university, and l highly suggest that other undergraduates travel either as an exchange or co-op student, or as a summer student holding a research award like the NSERC USRA.
Interested in diving into research, but unsure how to start?
First, find ten professors whose research might interest you. Go to various department websites and look at past papers they have published. Just by reading the abstracts, you should be able to get a brief idea of what they study.
Second, write a brief email to each professor that you potentially want to work with. Explain who you are and why you want to be an undergraduate research with their research group. Be sure to include your resume and double check for spelling errors. Do not get discouraged if professors do not answer your email; they often get numerous emails and do not have time to reply. Simply follow up your first email if they do not reply in a couple weeks. If the professor is giving a lecture or seminar, try to attend the talk and speak with the professor afterwards. Professors love talking about their research to interested students, and they are often much more amicable to replying to your email once they know who you are.
If you are interested in undergraduate research, here are three things to keep in mind:
1) Start early. From getting involved in first year to applying to funding, the earlier you start the bigger the advantage you have. Talk to your advising professor regarding any summer research awards available. Since a lot of these award deadlines are in January/February, planning ahead is required.
2) Dedication. In order to excel, you must be dedicated and committed to your project. If you promise to deliver something, make sure you follow through or ask for help when you are stuck. A general rule is to wait at least 8 months before switching research groups because it often takes 4 months just to learn the techniques and the group’s research practices.
3) Ask questions. Often undergraduates are intimidated and do not ask questions. It is better to ask questions than to not understand what is going on.
If you have any further questions, I’d be happy to answer your questions, if you schedule a chat. Good luck with your search for a research position!
Photo Credit: McmScience Mediterranean Center of Medical Sciences via Flickr