Natural Science and Engineering
The following is excerpted from the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science’s web site: “How to get started on research?”
The Advantages of Doing Research as an Undergraduate
Becoming involved in research while you are an undergraduate has many advantages. It allows you to put into practice what you have learned in the classroom; it complements upper-level coursework; it teaches you how to critically read a journal article; it allows you to become deeply engaged in a problem of current interest in your field and work on it over an extended time; it gives you an opportunity for independent learning and creativity; it gives you more experience with scientific writing; and it generally gives a significant advantage when applying to graduate school or industry, especially if you have generated a publication. Of course, laboratory research is not the only avenue to accomplish these goals. Doing an internship in industry or having a co-op experience in industry would be equally valuable for many purposes. Some students may be able to do both academic research and have industry experiences. It is often better to have a single solid experience extending over several quarters than several experiences of one quarter each, but there are no rules about this.
When to Begin Research
Some students may be able to get involved as early as freshman year, although the student's responsibilities may be limited. Having background coursework is definitely helpful but is sometimes not a necessary requirement, so do not feel intimidated. Therefore, we generally advise students to start research once they've developed a strong interest in a field and will have enough time to thoroughly commit to a lab. More commonly, students begin to think about doing research in the junior year by taking 399 independent study. Advisers may be more willing to take you on after you have had finished more of the relevant coursework. However, underclassmen may also be attractive candidates, as they could potentially commit two to three years of research.
How to Find a Lab that Suits Your Research Interests
Finding a lab that suits your research interests is often a difficult task, but we are in the process of making it easier. Many labs are now listed in our Undergrad ARCH searchable database. Each listing will inform you about to topic of the lab's research and how undergraduates get involved. It is a great first step.
If you don't find what you are looking for, then you should visit departmental websites in MCCormick or WCAS. The department’s Research page will often list broad research goals and the laboratories working within those fields. You could then visit individual laboratory websites, which would often provide understandable summaries of its research. To get the clearest idea of what is done in that particular lab, browse several of the most recent publications listed on the lab website (learn how to access and read journal articles). There are several other ways to learn about the different kinds of research. Begin paying attention to departmental news that focuses on research breakthroughs and accomplishments by faculty. In addition, the walls of Tech (and surrounding science buildings) are decorated with research posters. Take some time to browse them as you pass by. It’s always useful to have an idea of the research work conducted by your professors. Finally, you don’t have to limit your target labs within your department. Biomedical engineers often work in the medical school, and electrical engineers often work in biomedical labs.
How to Approach Professors for Research Opportunities
Once you have found several professors (i.e. principle investigators) you are interested in working for, send them personalized emails (no bulk emails) describing your objective and interest. Showing a clear understanding of their research often conveys that you have been reading up on their work and are very interested in joining the lab. Again, reading publications will drastically improve your understanding of the lab's research. Below are two guides to help students appropriately approach professors for research opportunities. The first guide, written by the Science Research Workshop (SRW) program, provides tips to writing emails and preparing for interviews. The second guide provides a professor's point of view on how students can successfully find research opportunities in the life sciences.
Frequently Asked Questions
What sorts of things will I do in research?
The answer depends entirely on the lab. Often undergraduates work closely with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Whether you are given a project that is entirely yours will depend on the time you spend in the lab, your capabilities, and the nature of research in a particular lab. Generally you should expect to produce a written document about what you have done, perhaps each quarter.
How much time will research take?
Research expands to fill the available time. You should discuss the time expectations with your regular academic advisor and with your research advisor. If you are taking 399, it will count as one unit, so you should plan to spend at least as much time on research as you spend on another course. Your department may allow you to take 399 as a technical elective or as an unrestricted electives. Check with your department for details. Be sure to check with your academic advisor if you are uncertain whether a 399 in a particular department will "count" as a credit towards your graduation. It is not unusual for a student to accumulate several quarters of 399 by the time of graduation. During the summer, research can easily be a full time job, and it is often the best time to get a lot done.
Will I get paid for research?
During the academic year, it is uncommon for students to be paid, unless they are work-study students. If you are registered for 399, you cannot be paid. You are not allowed to have a work-study job and also use this as a 399. During the summer, payment is more common, but it is not universal. You will have to discuss options with your advisor.
How does this work fit into departmental honors?
You will need to check with your department to see whether your research can contribute to part of an honors program.
Can I have an advisor outside my own department?
Yes. There are many opportunities in other departments, at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and even at the medical school. Depending on your major, you may be particularly valued by other labs because you have technical or quantitative expertise. When doing multiple terms of 399 work, however, be careful about meeting graduation requirements. Be sure to check with your academic advisor if you are uncertain whether a 399 in a particular department will "count" as a credit towards your graduation.
Is research only for those interested in becoming researchers or professors? Why should I do research if I want to go into industry?
It is in fact a myth that research is only for those interested in becoming researcher/professors in the future! Research provides you with the necessary skill sets that employers are often looking for in prospective employees. Being a good researcher implies you have strong analytical skills, problem solving skills, and patience and determination in finding answers to previously unexplored question. Besides, career and academic interest do evolve as you progress in life. You should certainly give research a try since no matter what career goals you're looking at, the research skills will only provide stronger credentials for you to argue your case wherever you go.
For further information about the Science Research Workshop program, click here