Undergraduate Research... the first steps

by Fred Wood, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Advising

Recently, while presenting an evening program in the Residence Halls, several students asked me how they could get involved in undergraduate research. This is an important question and the topic of today's column.

I strongly encourage all students to participate in undergraduate research before they graduate. This is a chance to work directly with faculty researchers in the venture of discovery and pursuit of knowledge. An undergraduate research experience has wonderful advantages. You can delve more deeply into a specific area of interest, and you can learn first- hand about research to determine if you would like to pursue advanced study in a subject area. Many graduate and professional schools highly value undergraduate research experience in their admission processes. Participating in a research project also presents the opportunity to perhaps be a co-author of a published paper, to present your findings at our Undergraduate Research Conference or other symposia, and to obtain personalized letters of recommendation from the faculty with whom you have worked.

So, if you're interested, how do you get involved in undergraduate research? Most students begin participating in undergraduate research in their junior or senior year. However, some students start as early as their sophomore year and a few even in their freshman year. Not surprisingly, students most often become involved in research related to their major since this is the area in which they have the most interest and probably the greatest degree of interaction with faculty. Remember, though, you may do research with any member of the campus faculty.

The first step in finding an undergraduate research mentor is to identify faculty with whom you are interested in working. This may be based on an experience you've had in a course, through discussions with your major adviser, by becoming familiar with some of the research literature in a certain area, or by reviewing departmental materials describing faculty research interests and/or undergraduate research opportunities.

Once you've acquainted yourself with their research interests, you should meet briefly with the prospective faculty mentor to discuss their most recent projects and determine if they have an opening in their research program. You should recognize that some faculty may require that you have completed certain courses as preparation for participating in their research, but this will give you a chance to explore that with them. Even if that faculty member can't accommodate you into their research program, they will often recommend a colleague with whom you can talk. It is generally a good idea to arrange a research placement at least one quarter ahead of when you actually will begin the project. This gives the faculty sponsor time to fine-tune a project for you and allows you the opportunity to complete any additional preparation you will need for the research experience.

You will next have to determine whether you wish unit credit for the work you will be doing. If so, you might enroll for a "Special Study for Undergraduates" (99 or 199), "Special Study for Honors Students" (194H) or other departmentally-specified research course. Not all departments offer all of these options, and you must meet various criteria to participate in the Honors Program, so you should discuss this with your faculty research mentor. If you enroll for unit credit, you can expect to write a report or paper on your work at the end of the quarter or project.

Once you've decided on the type of course, you must determine the appropriate number of units. Generally, for every unit assigned you will be expected to work three hours per week. But, beware! Research can be extremely exciting and addicting! Many students find that they are so enjoying their research that they spend far more time than they originally thought. Also, some faculty require that students commit to a minimum number of units and perhaps even more than one quarter of work to ensure that they will be able to make significant progress on their project. You should make sure these expectations are clearly defined before you begin your research.

In conclusion, many students tell us that undergraduate research is the high-point of their academic experience here. There is truly no better way to directly participate in one of the defining characteristics of a great research university. It is a wonderful way to sharpen your perspectives and skills, to enlarge upon and apply what you learn in the classroom, and to personalize your education. I urge each of you to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity.

This article first appeared in the column "Ask the Dean" by Fred Wood, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Advising, College of Letters and Science. It was published in the California Aggie on Friday, May 9, 1997.