Monday, November 14, 2011

The best job is one that didn't exist before- Undergraduate Research

My previous post talked about how awesome  undergraduate research is.  Now, here are a few ways to obtain a research position.  It's tough work, but if you are motivated and excited, you'll definitely learn a ton!

1. Figure out what you like, or at least, what you think you like. If you like materials, go with materials.  If you think you like systems, go with systems.  Pick a general area.

2. Study your department's website.  There will be a listing of faculty and their research interests.  Their interests are likely to be very broad (or specific).  If you are unsure about what it means, look it up! There's a reason Google was invented.

3. Identify which professor's research interests sound cool/interesting to you. Do this by looking at faculty members' websites.  Look at their papers/ publications (many of them are out there on the web!).  Usually, you should be able to get a gist from the abstract.  If it's super interesting, go ahead-read the paper!

4. Read the Bio of the professor.  Sure, it sounds kinda creepy, but that's why it's posted! It's just like when someone posts something on Facebook; they expect you to read it! Get to know their Alma Maters, potential graduation dates (give an estimate to their age when they graduated with their Phd- it'll give you an idea if to ask "Did you work before graduate school?").  Some professors are very impressed. Like I read about a professor being a Student Adviser during his undergraduate and related it to a summer job of mine.  He knew I did my research and was not taking research lightly.

5.  Email 2 or 3 professors.  Dr. Louie at UC Davis has written up a blog post about it.  Make sure you take a look at her helpful hints.  Serena's Helpful Tip #1: Don't email all professors on the same day; they may want you to meet at conflicting times.  And you may find you like one lab more than another.  Serena's Helpful Tip #2: Say, "Below is my availability for an appointment."  Then, list all available times for the next week. Be flexible.  I usually post times between 8am-5pm.  I know you're a college student, but a successful college student doesn't sleep in until 11 or noon.

6. Wait for response, but check your email often. Sometimes won't get back to you on purpose; they want to see how motivated  you are.  Usually I give them about a week. One week later, shoot an email (with the original message below), and say "Dear Professor ___, I sent you an email about 1 week ago regarding your research and my potential involvement.  Would you be able to set up an appointment with me? Below are my available times." And list your available times.

Sometimes, they will send you an email back immediately! Don't dilly dally! If you said you were available at 10, you better be available at 10.  Stick to your said commitment.  This is your first chance to impress them, and you don't want to mess it up by changing your mind.

7. Meet with the professor.  Say, "I read your stuff about ____.  Although I don't know much about ___, I would love to learn more and get involved."  Ask them about their current research projects.  Would you be working under a graduate student or directly with the professor? Both are good! What kind of qualifications do you need to work in their lab? Some professors want some upper division coursework, but if you show you are motivated and excited (and have done your research), they are often willing to make exceptions.

Serena's Helpful Tip #3: It's okay to get rejected. Some want upper division coursework.  Some just don't have room or the time! Usually, the reason you get rejected is not because they dislike you.  This is why you have multiple professors in mind. 

8. Be ready to start almost immediately.  Again, this depends on the professor.  They may never contact you again.  It's up to you to maintain the relationship. They may also set you up with a graduate student almost immediately.  Be ready for an increased work load.  It might be a lot of stress quickly, but don't worry, you're smart!

Serena's Helpful Tip #4: Be willing to devote about 10 hours per week for at least 2 quarters. If you don't have this much time to devote, don't even start your search.  You know your coursework.  You know your graduation plan.  Don't waste your time or the professor's by dropping out because you were "too busy."  This excuse does not make for very good letters of recommendation.  

9. Work Hard.   At first, you won't know anything!!! It's okay; just be willing to learn and do research on the side (look at papers, publications, wikipedia pages- often a good resource for general information).  After you get the gist of it,  don't be lazy and sleep in until 11.  After I got my initial training, I would often show up before ALL of the graduate students in the lab.  Some told me that I worked too hard.  If you are surpassing the expectations of the graduate students, THIS IS A GOOD THING and keep doing it! 

10. Have the goal of publishing or presenting your work. Ask your adviser (he/she is no longer your  professor to you- however you should still address them as so) about doing this.  It shows your motivation to have an individual project and willingness to take on new challenges.

Serena's Helpful Tip #5: Don't expect to get paid until you've put in enough "time".  It's okay to ask, but the professor doesn't know anything about you; would you pay someone you didn't know? After a few months, you can ask.  But again, don't expect anything.

I hope this list is extensive enough.  Again, research is tough work.  But don't let other people dissuade you if you really want to get involved. If I didn't answer all of your questions, feel free to comment.

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