8 Steps to Get Involved in Undergraduate Research

Welcome, UAlberta students!  As the fall term gets underway, you might be thinking about how you want to be involved on campus this year, and there is no end of student groups, clubs, volunteer and work experiences available for you to explore. But have you thought about undergraduate research?

Undergraduate research is a great way to get involved on campus, pursue your curiosity, make connections with faculty and other students, develop technical and transferrable skills, clarify your career goals, and in many cases, improve your academic performance. Sounds pretty awesome, right?

But how do you get started?

Here are 8 steps you can take to get involved in undergraduate research:

1. Visit the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI)

Not sure what kind of research opportunity is right for you, where to look, or how to start? The URI is here to help with all your undergraduate research-related questions. We can advise students about various research opportunities and resources based on your interests, help you plan your first steps, and support you as you move through the research process.

2. Enrol in the Undergraduate Research Portal

The URI hosts an online Portal in eClass that lists undergraduate research opportunities. Although many undergraduate research opportunities are not formally advertised (more on that later!), you’ll find some opportunities posted on the Portal, along with a whole host of links and resources related to undergraduate research. 

3. Start early

If you are interested in summer research next year, now is already the time to start exploring your options. Many professors start recruiting potential summer students in the fall semester (e.g. October-November), and most deadlines for undergraduate research funding (for summer research) are in January-February.  If you wait until Winter to start your summer work search, you’ll likely have fewer options to choose from, and fewer funding opportunities.

4. Talk to your profs

One of the most common questions we get at URI is “where are all the research postings?” The truth is, although there are some sites (including the URI Portal) that host undergraduate research postings, the majority of opportunities are unadvertised. Professors often recruit students from within their classes, or respond directly to inquiries from students who express interest in their research. The best way to find out about these “hidden” opportunities is to engage your professors in a conversation about their research. Ask about the work they do, and what opportunities or advice they have for students who want to get involved. 

5. Do your research

What if you’re not taking a class with a prof whose research piques your interest?  Fear not! Most faculties and departments have a research page or staff directory where you can find a list of all the researchers in that department. The directory will usually link to individual profiles of each faculty member, including their contact information, research interests, recent publications, and sometimes even a link to their own website, where you can learn even more about their research. Use these profiles to help identify researchers who align with your interests, then check out their research website or recent publications to get more detail about their current work.

6. Reach out

Once you’ve found a professor whose research interests you, it’s time to reach out. Send a brief email to introduce yourself and express your interest in getting involved in research. Be sure to explain why you are contacting this person specifically. For example, what is it about their research that interests you? Avoid vague, generic, or mass emails – professors are smart enough to know when you’ve likely sent the same email to dozens of people, and will simply ignore them. Make a strong first impression by taking the time to craft a personalized, professional email that clearly communicates your interest and motivation for undertaking research.

Nervous about contacting a prof, or need more help with your email?  Check out this URI tip sheet for more advice about how to approach a professor. 

7. Be patient

You may find that you have to contact more than one professor before you land a research opportunity. Professors may decline taking you on for a research project for many reasons – they may be too busy, have commitments to other students, prefer to recruit students who have a specific academic background, or feel your interests may be align better with a different professor. Sometimes, they will offer advice about what steps you could take next, or refer you to other researchers. Try not to get discouraged!  Remember that professors also want you to be successful in research, and so they may say no if they don’t feel they can provide the right support for your research. Be courteous and professional, thank them for their advice, and try, try again!

8. Expand your possibilities

Although most of the steps above focus on mentored research opportunities, such as summer research, there are many other ways you can get involved. Check out your course listings for courses that include a research component. Find out if your faculty or department offers an honours or specialization program, internship opportunities, or a research certificate. Consider joining student groups or clubs orientated toward research –AlbertaSat, for example, is a multi-disciplinary student group that recently launched Alberta’s first student-built satellite into space! Explore UAlberta museums and libraries, attend research seminars and events, volunteer as a research participant, or consider doing research abroad.

In short…keep your mind and your eyes open! There are many different paths students can take into research, and URI is here to help you find yours.

A question can take you anywhere…so, where do you want to go?