Undergraduate Research: How it sets you apart and how to get started

by: Rishi R. Masalia, Pre-Professional Advice Editor

“In the competitive field of biology, how do you recommend undergraduates set themselves apart? How do we get involved in things like undergraduate research?”

WhyDoResearch_AdviceAs an undergraduate student at a large university (like UGA) it’s pretty easy to get lost in the shuffle. College enrollment for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) related fields is at the highest it has ever been; with a large proportion of STEM graduates go onto secondary schooling (i.e., medical, veterinary, graduate, dentistry, etc) making the admissions process for those schools very competitive. So how do YOU set yourself apart?

*Research*

In my opinion, the single greatest advantage a STEM undergraduate has at a large university is access to countless research labs across campus.

Basic research is very unique in that it spawns discovery. It’s one of the few fields where you’re the first person, in all of recorded history, to know something.

But Rishi, why participate in research over something like the “physiology club” or “shadowing a person in my field of interest?” Now I’m not saying those aren’t beneficial, in fact the more well rounded you are as a student and individual, the better your chances for admission. However, research offers quite a lot of benefits in one fell swoop: faculty guidance and mentorship, coveted letters of recommendation, the development of independent scientific and critical thinking, and finally a laundry list of interview talking points. Plus, research is very unique in that it spawns discovery. It’s one of the few fields where you’re the first person, in all of recorded history, to know something.

So now we’ve covered a bit about WHY to become involved in undergraduate research, now time for the HOW.  It’s not as difficult or daunting as you may think. Bear in mind, this advice is directly applicable to STEM students at the University of Georgia, as it’s the system I’m most familiar with, though this advice is general enough to be applied to students across the country.

The Masalia Method

  1. Decide you want to become involved in research
  2. Scour the interwebs to narrow down  your favorite on-campus labs
  3. Read some papers to get familiar with the research
  4. Make a Research Resume
  5. Email a professor 

My method may not be the perfect method to get you involved in research, but it’s worked for roughly the 30 students who have asked me for help, so try it out! I honestly feel that research is one of the greatest activities college students can pursue, plus it’s pretty fun. So get out there and start researching!

Decide to what degree you want to get involved

The first step is to actually build up the motivation to become involved in research and consider a few things: (1) What type of research do you want, (2) What type of worker do you want to be, and (3) When do you want to work?

  • What type of research do you want to do? Some people are ethically against research or animals, others insist on working outdoors. Listed below, are a few broad options that everyone should consider. If you view these as a Yes/No checklist of what you’re willing to work on, these can help you filter labs later on.
    • Handling Animals? Plants? Fieldwork / Outdoor? Molecular benchwork? Computational?
  • Type of worker? At most universities there are three options here for undergraduates to get involved.
    • Volunteer – the most common starting option and exactly what it sounds like. A good place to start, this is the best option for a flexible schedule and commitment.
      1. Benefit: you’re only testing the research waters, if you find it’s not something you’re enjoying you can walk away easily.
    • Research Credit – most universities will count a semester of research as upper division course credit. Think of this as a one-on-one class where you develop some skills relevant to the lab and get some research credit. A great way to start (or continue) research if you can get it.
      1. Benefit: Aside from the benefit of class credit, this option is more hands on and will lead to better letters of recommendation and more in-depth talking points for future interviews. If you’re considering graduate school in your career path, this is a must.
    • Paid – something you can work for in most labs, depending on dedication and skill. Unless the lab is rolling in grant dollars, most only hire students with some experience in the lab, so they effectively require students to volunteer or work for credit before paying students to work.
      1. Benefit: Money
  • When? This is crucial for getting into a lab. Each university lab has a certain allotment of undergraduate spots, and if you apply when there are no available spots, you’re out of luck.
    • Summer is a great time to start in a lab, most students aren’t in town making competition scarce. Faculty are also less busy with teaching commitments and ready to get back into backlogged projects. If you live in your university town year round, you should consider applying for a summer.
    • If you’re applying to work during the school year, be prepared for setbacks. However, don’t be discouraged, these setbacks are not insurmountable.

Picking a lab

Once you broadly decide type of research you’re into, I tell my students to find their top 5 faculty / research labs on campus. The easiest way to do this is through a “research portal.” Most universities have one, UGA’s is the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities portal, which links to science departments across campus.

When you’re looking at departments, you should also consider what career you’re shooting for. Some of these are obvious, if you’re interested in veterinary medicine, you should probably look at the college of veterinary medicine. Some however are not that obvious. Human medicine for instance can fall into a plethora of departments. For those of you in this category, I suggest applying for overlooked departments like Plant Biology, Genetics, and Entomology, which can offer the same research experiences as strictly medical lab, with half the competition.

Finally, each department will have a faculty page which features a quick blurb on what each faculty member researches. Get a list of 10-15 you like, and Google them. Each should have a more detailed independent website, read a bit more and narrow your list to the top 5.

Read a few recent papers from each of your top 5 faculty.

Here, you want to familiarize yourself with current research of each faculty member. Most faculty members these days post the titles or links to recent papers on their website. Find these papers and learn as much as you can about what sorts of questions the lab is working on, and what approach they take to answering them. Papers can be skimmed, and it’s OK to not understand everything. The point is to find something that looks interesting to work on. Though tedious, reading their papers is far more informative than their website alone. Further, when you compose your email, or go for an interview, if you can refer to the studies you found interesting, it’ll go a long, long way in setting you apart from other potential undergraduate workers.

Making a Research Resume

I recommend to all my students that they have (or create) a 1 page resume before emailing professors. Again, this is to set you apart during the application process. A polished resume will make you look dedicated and professional while giving a faculty member succinct information about yourself. There are many websites outlining resumes, but here is my science oriented pitch:

  • Research goal: this is short and sweet (3 sentences max), and should talk about why you want to become involved in research. These are general, don’t pair their with a faculty member.
  • Relevant SCIENCE courses you’ve taken (don’t put grades – just list the name of the course).
  • Leadership roles (resident assistant, volunteer positions, tutoring, past jobs…etc).
  • Past scientific research experience, if any (science fairs, high school, and university research)

The EMAIL!

Finally! It’s time for the email, all of your work is building to this moment. Quick tips: (1) send these emails from your university email or a professional-sounding account. No xXCatLoverXx@hotmail.com here. (2) Proofread and spellcheck! (3) These emails should be specific to each professor, and should be short – one jam packed paragraph. Below is a breakdown by sentence, followed by an example.

  • (1) State your name, year, major, your intention to become involved in research, and when you would like to start.
  • (2/3) State that you’ve read a few of their lab’s recent papers, and are interested in __< favorite topic from their papers > __. Due to your fascination in their work, you were wondering if they have any undergrad openings in their lab.
  • (4) State that they can consult your resume (attached) or contact you if they have questions about your experience.
  • (5) End with the phrase, “I would love to discuss this with you further, and thank you for your time.” or something related.
Hello Dr. Whomever,

My name is Rishi Masalia and I’m a sophomore in the plant biology major here at UGA interested in getting involved in scientific research for this upcoming semester. Recently, I’ve read a few of your lab’s papers on drought resistance in sunflowers, specifically regarding genetic mapping and find them very interesting.

I’m inquiring to see if you have any openings for undergraduate workers in your lab to work either as volunteers or for research credit, as I would love to apply. If you have any questions about my credentials or previous course work please refer to my attached CV or email me directly. I would love to discuss this with you further, and thank you for your time.

Rishi Masalia

About the Author

Picture MeRishi R. Masalia is a PhD candidate in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Georgia studying the genetics of drought resistance in sunflower. Rishi has taught six semesters of undergraduate classes at UGA, and advised numerous grad and undergrad students through the rigors of professional development, teaching, and work-life balance. Currently he serves as the Pre-Professional Advice Editor for the Athens Science Observer. He can be reached at masalia@uga.edu, or followed on Twitter @RishiMasalia. More from Rishi Masalia.