How to Find Undergraduate Research and What You Can Learn From It
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
PHHS '17, Stony Brook University '21
No matter what your major is, undergraduate research can be a really rewarding experience. There are tons of different fields that you can research in: engineering, computer science, political science, psychology, anthropology, and so much more! It can allow you to explore an interest of yours, and it teaches you some really valuable skills. Over the past few years, I’ve learned different ways to find research opportunities; all it takes is a little courage and a refusal to give up!
As a part of research, you’ll learn some invaluable skills, the first of which is how to fail. I’ve spent two full years on an independent project, dealing with setback after setback, the most recent of which would be a global pandemic. It’s frustrating, infuriating, humbling, and is enough to make you want to quit. But that’s what research teaches you; how NOT to quit. Be prepared for this if you want to go for it, but you’ll learn so much that in the end, it’s absolutely worth it.
Ways to Find Research:
You can’t go wrong with an email. It’s a little bold, but you need a little courage to put yourself out there like this. I sent out eight emails to microbiology professors and received one answer. I’ve been working in that research lab for 2 full years, and it’s been an amazing experience. However, only email labs you are genuinely interested in- that email needs to show how you would be interested and committed to their research, and you need to sincerely be interested in the topic for an email to work. Make sure you read their papers and their research and talk about what you read in the email you send. And if you are interested in one department specifically, stagger those emails. Professors talk, and you don’t want all of them to realize that you’ve emailed all of them at once.
If this is a long-term commitment, find out what your environment will be like. If you are going to have options in terms of what lab you can work in, make sure to get a good idea as to how your PI (principal investigator) works as well as the environment and dynamics of the lab. You always want an opportunity where you are treated properly, and you don’t want to be an extra pair of hands doing inconsequential work. Make sure you have a supportive environment because that’s what makes the experience. And especially make sure that your professor is supportive of the time commitments you can put in.
If you enjoy a class, look into what the professor researches. Professors on college campuses often do research of their own, and if you are enjoying a professor’s class, this may be a golden opportunity to find a new mentor. Attending a professor’s office hours and talking to them about their research may lead to an offer, as well as a new mentor that could be extremely helpful to you.
Take advantage of campus resources, and I don’t just mean the usual ones. My position as an RA and as a researcher has allowed me to be of huge help to my residents, especially when finding research labs because I’m ideally placed to be an intermediary. You wouldn’t necessarily think of an RA as the best resource but look in unusual places. Ask other students, other professors, even your advisors. There are tons of people on campus willing to help, so look outside the standard research fairs and career centers. While those are valuable resources, there might be an opportunity right under your nose. One of my more foolproof tips is to attend undergraduate research fairs/presentations, and if you’re interested in a topic presented by a senior, have that student introduce you to their mentor, because their spot will need to be filled the following year.
And lastly, along the lines of that last point, feel free to reach out to the connections on this website! If you find former PTHSD students who are doing research at the school you attend in your field of interest, ask us for help. Good luck finding your perfect research lab, and feel free to reach out to me if you want more advice!