Getting started in research as an undergraduate can be overwhelming, especially at a large university like the University of Minnesota. The following steps are presented as a preliminary source of information and guidance toward research. Thinking through your answers to these questions can be a great starting point to a meeting with faculty.
The roadmap to research steps include:
- Step one - Identify approach
- Step two - Identify interests
- Step three - Identify a faculty member
- Step four - Make contact
- Step five - Success
The first step is to determine what you’re looking to gain from participating in undergraduate research. Think about the following questions:
- Do you need to be paid? Are you looking to get course credit through directed research, or writing intensive directed research?
- Are you looking for a summer opportunity, or something during the academic year?
- How many semesters can you commit? How many hours per week will you be able to commit to the lab? Are these large spans of time a couple of times per week (e.g. 4 hours on Tuesdays/Thursdays), or short spans of time multiple times per week (e.g. 1 ½ hours, 5 days a week)?
- What are your plans for after college? How will participating in undergraduate research aid you in these goals?
There are many ways to get involved with research at the U of M. Keep in mind your answers to the previous questions when thinking about which approach makes the most sense for you.
- Paid positions – Working hourly in a lab can be a great way to get initial exposure, training, and experience. Even starting as a dishwasher lets you see how the lab functions and gives you exposure to the work and people of a lab. These opportunities are often posted on the UMN Office of Human Resources site. Search for Student jobs.
- Volunteering – Most students start out volunteering in a lab. More information about volunteering opportunities and requirements can be found here.
- Course credit – Students work with a faculty mentor to develop a project and submit a Directed Research or Directed Studies contract for course credit. See the Directed Research page for detailed information.
- UROP Scholarships – The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program provides students with semester-long funding for research projects. Applications are accepted twice per year, once near the beginning of Fall semester, and once near the beginning of Spring semester.
- Summer REUs – Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) can be a great opportunity to engage with labs locally, or nationally. Most opportunities are full-time programs that last approximately 10 weeks, with applications due between December-February.
- Internships – Internships can help students gain experience in a particular field. These internships are often off-campus, and can be research-based or focus on careers skills beyond research. Students can search for opportunities on GoldPass, and, once an internships has been identified, can earn credit for an internship experience by registering for BIOL 3610.
Once you have an idea of what you’re looking to get out of your research experience, and the particular format you’d like this research experience to take, you’re next step is to narrow down your particular research interests. Think about the following questions:
- What are some of your favorite science classes? What did you like about these classes? A certain topic? Learning about the technique? The teacher? Be as specific as possible.
- Do you want to do research in a wet lab (e.g. in a lab coat working with chemical or biological samples), a dry lab (e.g. computational work on a computer), in the field (e.g. measuring and sampling things outside), or something else (e.g. studying teaching techniques in a classroom)?
- Are there specific model systems (mice, flies, worms, human cells, plants, proteins, etc.) you are excited to work with? Or model systems that you are not interested in working with?
- Are you looking to dive deeper into a topic of interest within your major, or are you hoping to explore something new?
For additional ideas, you can also check out previous student projects from the Undergraduate Research Symposium to see topics that other students have studied.
Be thoughtful about what types of research you are interested in (see Step two), and therefore which faculty members you decide to contact. You do not have to work with a CBS faculty member, but your project should be related to the biological sciences.
Start by generating a list of 10-15 faculty members that you are genuinely interested in doing research with, then begin doing some research on the work that they do. Check out faculty member profiles from department directories, and search for faculty using keywords at Experts@Minnesota.
Other common places students find faculty they are interested in working with:
It is beneficial to do your homework and make a good first impression. Once you choose the faculty you want to contact, read a couple of their most recent publications. You may not understand everything in the paper, but you will understand some of it. This will help you determine that you want to work in someone’s lab, or may eliminate particular choices. After you read some papers, email the faculty member and ask to set up an appointment to discuss their research and undergraduate opportunities in their lab. Keep in mind the following tips:
- Be courteous. Address the faculty member as “Dr.” or “Professor.”
- State the type of research opportunity you are seeking, how many hours a week you can work, and why you are interested in their research. Be sure to articulate how your interests match with their research.
- Attaching an unofficial transcript and/or resume is acceptable, but not always required.
- If a faculty member does not respond within a week, it is appropriate to send a reminder email.
- Be professional, but don’t be afraid to show you’re enthusiastic.
See additional email tips at https://neurosci.umn.edu/education/tips-contacting-faculty.
Success in research is not always easy. Sometimes you can work hard and nothing turns out the way you want. Other times, you can make a mistake and it turns out to be a gold mine. Go into your research experience with an open mind and a willingness to learn and you will do great!
It’s also never too early to begin thinking about your next steps. Are you applying for a job, internship, gap year experience, or graduate or professional school? Schedule an appointment for a resume review, personal statement review, or practice interview, and learn strategies for talking about the skills you’ve gained through your research experience.