By Douglas Fehlen
An Opportunity with Many Benefits
College students get involved in undergraduate research for many reasons. Research projects provide individuals with an opportunity to develop in-depth knowledge in a particular discipline while learning how to use sophisticated equipment and working with professors who can become academic mentors. Students can also hone their research skills and become independent, self-motivated scholars. At the same time, they can grow into team roles, developing effective communication and management abilities along the way.
Tangible benefits of undergraduate research do not end there. Those who participate often have the opportunity to earn college credit or be paid for their work. The experience is a great addition to anyone's resume and is seen as particularly crucial for those who plan to attend graduate school. And while a particular project may not necessarily be tied to one's desired career field, potential employers view research responsibilities very favorably as they consider job applicants. Organizations often put a premium on experiences that enable students to utilize real-world critical thinking and problem solving abilities.
While there are high-value benefits to doing research as an undergraduate, deciding whether or not to participate merits careful consideration. Research projects can demand a significant commitment. Students who do not account for this time factor may find that their involvement on a project causes their grades to suffer. That's not to mention how a project might affect one's social life on campus. It might seem there isn't opportunity to hang out with anyone outside a research group. While bringing students closer to those in their academic discipline, finding balance in life might become a real challenge.
Finding Opportunities That Are a Fit
The good news: You don't have to jump headfirst into a huge, all-consuming research project. Instead, you can test the waters in a lower commitment capacity. If you're an underclassman in the sciences, for example, you could start off by volunteering in a lab. You might perform some basic but essential function while learning about research initiatives within a department. Perhaps requiring only a few hours per week, a volunteer position can allow you to plan for a more substantive future role while getting foundational lab knowledge and gauging what kind of engagement your course load will allow.
After scouting projects available at your school, you'll recognize there are all kinds of opportunities to participate in undergraduate research - each requiring its own level of commitment. Some groups may demand only limited participation while credit-based or paid research positions often require more than 20 hours a week. When it comes to identifying roles that are workable for you, keep your eyes and ears open. Check your school's online job bank, departmental websites and other sources that post research assistant opportunities. Ask around when spending time with your network of lab contacts. Grad school students typically have the lay of the land when it comes to available research opportunities.
Another route to take is to directly contact any professors who are completing research in a field that is of interest to you. Talk with those instructors you have come to know - or those whose research you admire - scheduling an appointment or visiting during office hours. Before signing on to a project, make sure you are aware of, and okay with, the level of commitment a project will require. Professors who take you on as an assistant are relying on you, and bailing on responsibilities could potentially endanger research projects.
Students completing undergraduate research often have a goal of attending grad school. Find out whether graduate school is right for you.