Want To Stand Out? Consider Undergraduate Research

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Anirudh Kumar
Anirudh Kumar

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Plenty of resources and opportunities are available once at a university. Therefore, picking the right ones can help you shine amongst your peers. One such opportunity is undergraduate research. The concept may be new to students starting out: research projects available to undergraduate students. But in truth, it’s getting access to participating in these projects that’s the hard part. Read on to find out more about why undergraduate research is worth it, and how you can best position yourself for this great opportunity!

What is undergraduate research?

In high school, most teachers only aim to teach their students during class time, and ideally have a full life outside of their classroom. University professors often dedicate many hours to academic work with students outside of classroom instruction. Perhaps the biggest “side project” professors engage in is research, usually related to the field in which they teach. These professors spend months if not years constructing highly professional and complex research reports. The topics range from optimal business practices and proposed legislation for cities to understanding the effects of various chemical compounds and studying global warming. In other words, they research “real-world” concepts that have high stakes. With their findings, there are no easy answers (and as such, they have the potential to be both revolutionary and informative).

Where do the students come in?

In a lot of cases, professors like to take in research assistants (students) for additional help. The roles may require simple data entry, data collection, setting up experiments, or collecting information in the real world at the beginner level; but as you progress, you may find yourself taking on more professional and difficult roles. Due to their complexity, many of these research projects are only available to juniors and seniors. This is because the professors want students with significant experiences and specific classes under their belts. Even so, there are chances available for freshman and sophomores; they just require a little more digging.

If you want a concrete example of what these research projects and their requirements look like, click [here] to explore UC Berkeley’s webpage for undergraduate research. Here you’ll find things such as project listings, information sessions, and the kinds of things professors look for in applicants. Obviously this varies from college to college, so feel free to explore your own institute’s research programs! Get a better idea of what’s available to you and browse topics.

Why do I care?

Research at the university level is a great opportunity for developing real-world skills. This won’t only look great on your resume. You are gaining valuable experience that correlates directly into things you can expect to do in actual careers! This is especially true if you’re leaning toward something research-heavy such as economics or political science. In terms of social aspects, you’ll forge connections with like-minded students while also gaining a valuable contact in the professor you’re working with (something great for future references).

Of course, you’re not just working for free! Some research assistants can expect to be paid on an hourly basis for their work, and at the very minimum, you should be receiving course credit for your time.

How do I get a professor to take me in?

This is the hard part. One way to participate in a research project is to find your school’s online listings and submit an application. If your application requires you to tell more about yourself and your academics, it always helps to be a well-rounded student with good grades and meaningful extracurricular activities. When applying, don’t forget to narrow in on how your skills and experiences relate to the research position; it’s important to show that you’re the right candidate and not just a good student (there’s already plenty of those). The problem with this method lies with online listings. They tend to be highly competitive, given how many students choose to apply through them; so you may find yourself struggling against dozens and perhaps hundreds of your peers.

Get to know your professors

This is also a great way to open up some doors. If you develop a personal relationship and show that you’re a hardworking student with a demonstrated passion in research, you may be able to ask your professor for any unlisted opportunities they may have available for you; or if you’re feeling brave, you could consider proposing an entire research project.

Too late for that?

If this doesn’t work out either, there’s always the brute force method. It may seem a little awkward, but plenty of students do this. Once you’ve decided the type of research you want to do, or which industry/concept you want to study, start digging. You can usually sift through your college’s various web pages to find out which professors do which types of research. Once that’s done, draft a general email to send to all the professors that match up with your interests. If you’re lucky or show the right amount of passion, out of the dozens of people you reach out to, a few might reciprocate.

Conclusion

Overall, undergraduate research is a great opportunity to pursue while at a university, and should be something exiting high school students keep in mind while getting used to their new universities. Obtaining real-world skills while getting paid (or receiving academic units) and establishing valuable connections will do you a lot of good in the future. Although it can be a little tough getting an initial position, you’ll find that in the end it was certainly worth it. Even when you’re not explicitly looking for research, make good connections with your professors while continuing excellent academic and extracurricular performance in the event that you one day plan to engage in university-level research.

Questions? Let us know!