Getting a Research Gig: A Guide
Advice to get an awesome undergraduate research opportunity!!!
Well, hi! This is my guide to undergraduate research opportunities. Throughout my undergraduate career I have participated in four research experiences: two at my home institution, a summer fellowship program at/through Washington University in St. Louis, and one REU at the University of California at Berkeley. However, last year I had great success in my applications - I got accepted into every research program I applied, which included some competitive programs at MIT, UMass Amherst, Oregon State University, etc...
You can do this too! You're here, which is great. Keep moving up!
Disclaimer #1: My advice does not replace the advice of a faculty member, professor, academic advisor, fellowship advisor, all-powerful sorcerer, genie with cosmic powers, a ghost of Robin Williams, etc. Also, this is by no means a recipe for guaranteed admission - but more on that later. Mostly, this is my own reflection on what made my own applications successful this past year.
Disclaimer #2: My advice mostly relates to opportunities in STEM fields, however you can probably easily identify and choose what is relevant to you and what is not.
Is Research Right for You?
Short answer: I have no idea. It depends.
Long answer: I have no idea. It depends. All I can say is that in my own very limited experience, I have been aware of research that resembles a lot of things: research that looks like doing math and proving theorems, research that looks like software engineering, research that looks like survey collection, research that looks like what you did in high school chemistry or physics lab, research that looks like writing a paper in a history or English class.
When I give prospective student tours at my university, my suggestion is always this: try doing an industry internship in your chosen field one summer, and try conducting research during the next. Then, for your last summer of college (or for your career, whatever, depending on where you are), do what you liked most!
An important realization that I had during my sophomore year was this: the problem you are solving and the work you are doing are not the same, and you might enjoy them differently. An example of this is my current research. Currently, I am working on a problem, that if solved, would have applications in phylogenetics (the field that studies the evolutionary relationships between species). I haven't taken a biology class since my freshman year of high school, when it was required... With all due respect to phylogeneticists, the application fo my work sounds boring.
BUT. I enjoy the work that is required to solve the problem. I enjoy thinking about combinatorial problems, probabilities, graph data structures, and programming. I enjoy reading beautiful theorems.
I have also worked on problems where I was motivated to do some boring work because the end result would be interesting. It goes both ways, and it seems to me that the best of both worlds is to find a problem that you care about and enjoy the techniques required to solve the problem. As I have not quite found this balance, I suspect it takes time to do so. (Hooray for extrapolating from one data point!) Keep this in mind though, when considering your research interests and opportunities.
Here are some ideas I have for you to figure out whether or not you might enjoy research:
- Think about your favorite classes. Go to that professor's website and read the summarized description of their research. Does it intrigue you?
- Talk to graduate students! They will give you unfiltered, candid answers about what it is like to do research. (In general, I highly recommend befriending graduate students and asking them for advice on courses to take, professors to work with, opportunities to pursue, etc.)
- Read publications in areas that interest you. It's likely that reading entire papers on a topic will be challenging, but you can get a good idea about the nature of the work from the abstract or any slides/powerpoint that are posted with the paper. You can also look up paper titles on Youtube to see if an author of a work has a recorded presentation, which might be easier to digest than a paper.
- Talk to your academic advisors or professors. Share with them why you are interested in doing research, but also share your concerns.
- Network with those who have done research and chose not to pursue it. It is always worth getting multiple opinions.
Debunking Common Myths & Fears
"You have to be a genius to do research."
There exists a notion that in order to meaningfully contribute to research as an undergraduate, one must be a kid-genius. This is not true. Yes - the kid-geniuses definitely exist, but I hypothesize (someone else can collect the data!) that they are in the minority.
Remember: a professor, lab, program, or group will not take you on if they do not believe you will make a meaningful contribution to the project or that you are capable of advancing your field of study. You are there to gain experience, and in doing so, you will contribute. Sometimes, a lack of experience in an area can even translate to fresh, new perspectives on a problem. Just be your regularly scheduled you and utilize those problem solving skills and knowledge you've picked up in your coursework and other experiences, and be willing to persevere through challenging or frustrating problems. You'll be awesome.
"I don't know anything about the topic I might do research in."
This is a similar fear as above. In the same way that you do not have to be a genius to do research, you also do not have to be an expert. Yes, prerequisite knowledge is helpful, and sometimes programs/professors/etc prefer students with coursework or prior projects in their area to join their groups. But as an undergraduate, most programs/professors/people-who-have-the-power-to-admit-you know that you likely do not have any experience in a specific area and are rather seeking to gain experience. Everyone starts somewhere, your first machine learning experience might be through research or through a course. You might have to be flexible on this first experience - but you also might not have to be!
Some of the best advice I've ever received is "don't even read the qualifications, just apply!" Let someone else tell you no or that you do not have enough experience to do the thing you want to do. If you want to do research, then apply to REUs, talk to professors in the area, make friends with graduate students, read related publications. Doing research is scary, but the thing is... you can do it.
So now that you've decided you want to spend your summer doing undergraduate research, where do you start? Well, you have multiple options. They are:
Your Home Institution
Look up research opportunities at your home institution. Check out professor websites, talk with graduate students, do your homework on internal fellowships and grants. Doing research at your home institution is great because you can do it during the school year, often for pay or for credit, and if you enjoy your project, you can do it for an extended period of time.
NSF REUs are probably the best known research experience for undergraduates (aka REU). They usually occur over the summer months, are fully funded (so you get paid, and generally receive either room/board as a part of your fellowship or you receive a living stipend for your grocery bill, rent, etc), and you have to apply. They are funded by the National Science Foundation (so are generally intended for STEM majors, including the social sciences, STEM education, and some entrepreneurial projects), are highly regarded, and generally have an interest in exposing underrepresented populations to careers in research.
You can find out more about NSF REUs here: https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.jsp
Institution-Sponsored Research Programs
Some institutions host their own research experiences for undergraduates. So if you have an interest in a specific school or program, you might check to see if that institution hosts their own program. Two I am aware of are:
- MIT MSRP
- Washignton University in St. Louis Summer Engineering Fellowship(I did this! I loved it! 10/10 would recommend.)
Through Your Network
Another way you might find a research experience is through your network. As you build relationships with your professors, you should keep them updated with your current research interests. When appropriate, you might ask one of your academic advisors or course instructors to introduce you to their peers or colleagues at other institutions (or even your own).
Research also happens outside of colleges and universities! Consider checking out opportunities at National Labs or even industry organizations. Here are some relevant links:
(There are many more of these!)
A Note About Admissions
Keep in mind that some of these programs can be extremely competitive. This is not a reason not to apply! There are many reasons for a student not to get admitted, and some of them can be entirely unrelated to you and your own qualifications. For example, you might apply to a program to work with Professor Z, and Professor Z might be traveling throughout the summer to conferences and not take on a student. Or, the department you applied to might have gotten an extra grant to take students on for a specific project and your interests differ slightly than that new grant.
The bottom line is that these admission systems likely skew heavily towards false negatives: more qualified students apply than can be accepted. So do not get discouraged if you don't get accepted into your favorite program - a lot is dependent on being the right applicant at the right time. Rejection is neither a judgement on your technical, academic, or even personal merit. You are awesome and will be an asset wherever you go. Remember that!
Each application will be slightly different. However, I address the most common parts of the application below. Again, these are mostly tailored to NSF REU applications, but you can pick and choose what advice is relevant to your own goals.
By the time you apply, you either already have research experience or you don't. Some programs target students who have no research experience, while other programs favor students with experience. Either way, you should convince the admissions panel that you are knowledgeable about what it means to do research (however, you might not know if you want to pursue it as a career or not) and are capable of contributing to a large research project (either by having prerequisite knowledge/skills in the area of research, being able to work well on a team, motivation and curiosity, etc).
Your Letters of Recommendation
Most programs require 2-3 letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are probably the most important part of your application. The best indicator of your ability to do research to the admissions committee will be by their peers - other professional researchers. Thus, your letters should be from professors or those who have careers in research, such as researchers at National Labs, industry, etc. (Letters should NOT be from high school teachers. Also, they generally should not be from graduate students or postdocs either. Again, keep in mind that professional researchers are best qualified to evaluate your potential or abilities in doing research.)
The best letters of recommendations will be from those you have worked with previously on research, a large project in a related field, have been a teaching assistant with, etc. Generally you want to avoid the "Did Well in Class" letters (also known as a DWIC letter), or letters from professors who only know you from class. One letter like this might be okay, but take time to meet with professors outside of class to discuss your career goals, possible research interests, their research and advice for conducting research, etc. One step better than a DWIC letter will be a letter from a professor where the course you took required a large project or where the course was an advanced topic.
When asking for a letter of recommendation, you should:
- Ask in plenty of time, especially if this is the first letter of recommendation you are asking for from your letter writer. Four weeks of notice is my recommendation.
- Ask in person!
- Ask if they feel like they can write you a strong letter of recommendation. This gives them a polite out if they do not believe they can write you a good letter.
- Remind your letter writer about your deadlines politely (and frequently).
Give your letter writers the following:
- A spreadsheet of everywhere you are applying: program name, deadline, who to address the letter to (if possible), address for the letterhead, any additional information (like professors you want to work with, topics you are interested in, etc). I like to use Google Sheets for this so that I can update information as it changes.
- A brief history of your relationship (how did you meet? how long have you known him/her? what grades did you make in their class? etc).
- What the criteria are listed for program participants (and how you fit these, give examples. So if a program wants participants who are knowledgeable in X, give an example to your letter writer of how you gained knowledge in X).
- Any essays you are required to submit with the application (for example, your statement of objectives). If these essays are long, or if the application requires multiple essays, I like to write a 2-4 sentence summary of these essays for my letter writers to quickly access.
- Your résumé/CV.
- Your transcript (and any explanations that might be necessary with this, for example, if you took a graduate course, took a course pass/fail, had low grade(s) for a good reason, etc).
After all letters are submitted, be sure to write your letter writers a handwritten thank you note.
Your essays are probably the second most important aspect of your application. Most programs require a statement of purpose/objectives, and some require additional essays.
Statement of Purpose/Objectives
Your statement of purpose (SOP) is your chance to say (a) what your research interests are and (b) what previous experience you have and how it enables you to contribute to your area of interest.
When talking about your area of interest, I recommend:
- Mention specific professors you are interested in working with. ("I am interested in Prof. A. Somebody...")
- Mention specific ongoing projects/papers that you are interested in ("... on her project related to X...")
- Mention any reasons why you might be interested in this area (did you read a paper? take a class? see a talk?)
If you have previous research experience, I suggest writing about your previous experience by breaking it down into four parts:
- The purpose of your research: Give both the technical jargon definition and layperson description of your research. (The technical jargon version shows your expertise, but most people who read your description will not experts in that specific area, so a layperson definition shows why your previous work was important.)
- Your contribution to the project: State what your role on the project was. Did you run experiments? Design the experiment? Write a paper or report? Conduct data analysis?
- What you learned: Mention both overarching research skills as well as skills specific to your field. Did you learn a specific programming language or data analysis technique? Did you learn to communicate scientific results or work on a team?
- The project's results: If your project had results, state what they were and how they relate to the project's motivation or description. If you presented at any conferences or published, be absolutely sure to mention this as well.
If you do not have previous research experience, I suggest:
- Talking about a class project/project in general, your process in completing it, how it relates to doing research.
- Showcasing skills/traits you probably have: related technical skills, knowledge on a topic, working in a team, oral/written communication, curiosity, problem solving, reframing problems/thinking about them from an alternate perspective, time management, etc. Give anecdotes! It's age old writing advice, but it's good: show don't tell.
In general, I recommend incorporating words or themes from the program's website. Or, even better, if you can locate the grant which funds the program, use wording from the grant! The program is funded to accomplish certain goals and if you can show that your participation meets those goals, all the better!
The Diversity Essay
Some programs might ask you to write an essay related to diversity. A lack of diversity in higher education and research is a persistent issue, and many summer research programs seek to introduce underrepresented populations to careers in research. No matter your status, you should show that you understand why diversity is important, emphasize that you bring diversity of thought to the program, and show that you will be a champion or advocate for diversity.
Most programs also ask for your résumé or CV. You can find a lot of information about this elsewhere, but here are my tips for academic résumés:
- Above all, make it easy to read! It should not be a treasure hunt. Put your name, undergraduate institution, major, and GPA at the top of the page. I then section my résumé the following way: research experience (previous research experience), technical experience (other projects, not research, in my field. You could put internship experience here!), teaching, and service (this could also be a leadership/extracurriculars section).
- Your experience descriptions should cover any specific technical skills you have (specific lab equipment, programming languages or software, etc) and any transferable research skills (communications, teamwork, literature reviews, etc).
- Don't worry about sticking to one page unless the program requests it. This isn't a career fair and if an admissions panel gets to your résumé after reading your letters of rec and your SOP, they will probably take time on it. List all of your experience!
- Emphasize the following: any publications, academic scholarships or awards (provide explanations if they are not well known), or any academic presentations/posters you might have given.
- List your specific upper level or elective courses by name NOT course number.
Here are some general tips for your application writing adventures!
- Get started early: It can't be said enough, but seriously, try not to procrastinate. At least on behalf of your letter writers.
- Don't apply to your favorite program first: The more SOPs you write, the better they will get. You'll find better ways to word things and better ways to tailor your application to each individual program. So I suggest waiting to apply to your favorite program after you have written a few other applications first.
- Have professors, graduate students, friends read your application: Have professors in your field read your essays and get their expertise feedback. But remember, not everyone who will read your application will be an expert in your field, so have others read your application as well to see if you motivate your interests/explain your previous experience in a way that is understandable (or at least mostly understandable) to all.
You got accepted! Hooray! What are your next steps? Here is what I suggest:
- Party! You did the thing! Celebrate your achievements!
- Negotiate. So, it is most likely that you will not be able to negotiate pay or benefits for a research experience in the same way that you would an internship or job. What I really mean when I say "negotiate" is make sure this is the research experience you want. Before accepting an offer, I recommend that you ask your program coordinator to put you in touch with your research advisor/PI (principal investigator). Then, you should ask your PI the following questions:
- Who else is working on the project? Other professors, graduate student(s), undergrad(s)?
- Who will I likely be interacting with the most?
- Will you (or anyone on the project) be traveling for long periods of time?
- What will my project be? Or, if the specific project is still undefined, what are some possible projects/areas/topics I could be working on?
- What skills, tools, or techniques will I be using/learning?
- Are there relevant papers I can read in advance?
- Can we talk on the phone or Skype about the project?
- Will there be an opportunity to publish?
If any of the answers to these questions raise a red flag, trust your instinct and contact your program coordinator. The best time to switch projects or PIs is before the program even starts. That way, you haven't wasted your time (or the PI's summer). It's totally reasonable to say that your research interests have changed in some way. Now, your program coordinator may or may not be able to make this change happen, but you should always (politely) ask for what you want.
3. Decide. Once you have some approximate information about what your summer will look like - what your area of research will be, who you will be working with, what you will learn along the way - it is time to decide whether or not that research program is for you! Hindsight is 20/20, so here are some things I would weigh heavily in my own decision:
- Is this a research area I can see myself wanting to pursue in the future? You may or may not know the answer to this, and that's OK! But if you get accepted into a robotics program and you see yourself as being a roboticist in the future, then this might be a better choice than, say, a bioinformatics program.
- Is there a potential to publish? Whether you decide you want to pursue research beyond your undergraduate education or not, publishing is a big deal. If your advisor says there is a potential to write a paper/present at a conference, then you will gain valuable experience (and, um, prestige).
- Are the skills, tools, and technologies I will be using/learning relevant/popular/in demand? While research experience in itself is valuable, so are the tools you learn while doing research. When possible, choose experiences where the techniques you are using are cutting-edge and in demand in industry as well as academia.
- Do the people seem cool? If you are able to interact at all with the people you will be working with, this is an important question to consider! Who you work with almost always matters more than what you are working on when it comes to having an enjoyable experience.
- Does the location of the program seem fun? Safe? Affordable? All important questions to be answered. I spent a summer in St. Louis and absolutely loved it because there were so many free things to do when I wasn't working. However, at Berkeley, I did not always feel safe in the evenings and it severely limited how much I enjoyed my summer. Remember, this is an opportunity to learn and grow as an academic, but it's your summer too!
Now you're on your way!
How many programs should I apply to?
REU programs are competitive. I would suggest applying somewhere between 8-12 if you are serious about going to another institution to do research or if your home institution does not conduct research in your area of interest.But this is totally up to you! If you only want to do research in a specific area or in a specific location, apply to just the programs that interest you. Do what works for you. Keep in mind that your applications will likely improve as you gain experience in applying, and eventually you will hit the point of diminishing returns. Use your time wisely.
What if I am rejected everywhere I apply?
If you're a planner like me, you want to account for this possibility. Here is my advice:
- Don't panic or get discouraged. Remember that competitive programs typically yield false negatives and that a lot is dependent on timing and other variables totally out of your control. But you can still do great research this summer and learn a lot.
- Reach out to professors at your local institution and investigate opportunities at home.
- Apply to other internships, fellowships, volunteer positions - anything that will give you additional related skillsets, broaden your network, or potentially give you another letter of recommendation.
- Work on personal projects. Build something, pick up a textbook on a topic you are interested in and work through it, take a course through Coursera or MOOCs, do something to show you are invested in your area of interest when you apply again next year.
What if one program accepts me and needs me to respond before another program I am more interested in notifies me?
This is a likely event as most programs do not adhere to the same admissions timeline. If a program accepts you and you are still waiting to hear on others, I recommend first asking for a reasonable extension from the program that accepted you (this is a good time to ask all those questions about your potential project... see the "Your Offers" section above!). A week or two is generally a reasonable extension. Second, email the programs that you are most interested in and ask what their admissions timeline is (When might you send out admissions notifications?) as you have an offer but would like to make a decision with full information. The program that admitted you might decline your extension, and other programs might not know for sure what their timelines look like, but it does not hurt to seek more information. Then, after all this, you have to decide whether or not you will accept. Hopefully your interactions with the programs will help you in this decision!
A lot of work goes into finding good-fit research opportunities. I know it can seem overwhelming (and truth be told, sometimes it is). But the process is a great opportunity to reflect on yourself, your interests, what you want in a career, and to build relationships with your professors and academic advisors.
One of my favorite quotes is from Ze Frank, "Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else, and if it is, let me become fascinated with the shape of the stone." Be fascinated with the shape of this stone. You got this.