Finding an Undergraduate Research Opportunity
Advice for undergraduates looking to engage in research
N.B. Written primarily for students at Penn SEAS, but most
suggestions are likely valuable anywhere.
- Opportunities are there The faculty at Penn generally feel
like the students are not exploiting the opportunities that exist.
I hear more faculty complaints that
students aren't getting engaged than I hear about students not being
able to find opportunities. So, don't sit around and assume the
opportunities are scarce.
- Take initiative The research opportunities are there, but
you need to do the legwork of looking. Rarely will the faculty come
looking for you. Not because you're not wonderful and capable, but
because the faculty just don't have enough information to know that
you are interested and committed. Taking initiative is part of how
you differentiate yourself by demonstrating interest and commitment.
- Do your homework Read web page and papers both to find out
what faculty and labs you might be interested in working for
and to prepare yourself to knowledgeably talk with the faculty and
students in the lab. You won't understand everything (and perhaps,
you'll understand little). Some level of homework avoids you
wasting your time and theirs---weeding out the things that really
aren't of interest to you. Having some knowledge of the research
further helps demonstrate interest, commitment, and initiative---you
bothered to do some work on your own.
- Follow your passion Personally, I'm much more interested in
students that have some interest in my area rather than students who want a
generic research experience. I generally won't list a set of projects
a student can select from up front, nor will I post ``opportunities'' to
University-level lists. I'm not looking for someone to do a specific
job as much as a passionate apprentice who can use specific things
we're both interested in as a stepping stone.
- You don't have to know it all You do not need to already be
an expert in the area. The things we do in my lab (and in most labs
around Penn) are beyond what you will see in your classes, even
graduate classes. So, I don't expect anyone to come in knowing
everything. There will be quite a bit of learning-as-you-go. This
is part of why interest and commitment are essential. Quite often
what you'll do is build on something you know while learning more
about the current specialty and focus of the lab.
- Start early For the most meaningful experiences, you will
want to engage with a lab over multiple years. That means the summer
between your junior and senior is not the optimal time. If you start
earlier, you can potentially engage for multiple summers and during
the term. ...and, if you find out the first area you tried isn't for
you, you have time to try something else.
- Freshmen, too Freshman year is not, necessarily, too early.
Freshmen will, necessarily, have few formal courses behind them.
Nonetheless, you can find opportunities as a freshman. It does help to trade on
some skill. For many cases, basic programming skills are sufficient.
If you can program, then you can implement an application or analysis or
develop an interface for a lab and learn about the work of the lab in
the process---a classic win-win scenario.
- Acing the Professors course doesn't hurt Standing out
for excellence in related courses is a way to distinguish yourself.
Nonetheless, you will likely still need to express your interest.
- When to look If you are looking to engage in research during
the summer, you should be making initial contact with faculty in
December or January. Most will be making commitments to summer students
around February, and there are programs with deadlines in January,
February, and March. Even for the later ones, it's beneficial to have
time to go back-and-forth with faculty to refine a research proposal.
Waiting to March or April means you're only getting
the left-overs, and it sends the message that doing research wasn't your
first choice for the summer. This also gives you time during the
Spring to read up the work in the lab.
- The Hump There is always a ``hump'' of basic knowledge and
strategy to assimilate before you can make steady progress. It is very
hard to get over this hump if you only put in a few hours a week.
Consequently, I've seen very few students who could start into
research during the term while also dealing with the demands of courses.
Once over the hump, it is possible for students to make steady progress
and contributions when allocating time to the research like a course
(8--12 hours a week). Due to this ``hump'' effect, I've seen students
succeed most by starting during a summer with no distractions from courses.
- Making Contact Colloquially, I'd say you need to ``knock on
doors''. That said, my days are so tightly scheduled that
randomly showing up at my office is not likely to yield success (or find
me with time and desire to chat), so it works better to send me email
for an appointment. Most faculty have posted office hours when they expect
students to come by and ask questions.
As a starter, and to gather information, you can also talk to students,
graduate students and undergraduates, who are already in the lab.
Perhaps you know some from classes? Worst case, you can wander in or
knock on the lab door.
You might also want to see How to
be a winner: advice for students starting into research for what to do
once you find a position.