Exploring Possibilities

Finding the Right Professor

Any CALS student may explore research opportunities by identifying research efforts they find intriguing and professors whose work they admire. Selecting the right research project and faculty mentor can be an arduous task requiring a fair amount of investigation, but there are many resources designed to assist students with their search:

  • The course descriptions provided by various academic departments can help students identify appealing subject matter that aligns with their interests. Contacting the professor(s) is a great first step in networking and finding potential research opportunities.
  • Most academic department web pages provide information regarding faculty research; many also include current research projects and interests, as well as a list of recent publications.  Students should explore faculty within their own major and in any others that interest them.
  • Students should read publications authored by professors whose work they find appealing. Such preparation shows initiative and makes a good impression.
  • Academic advisors are a great resource, especially with regard to research conducted within their own departments. Often, they can either direct students toward faculty whose research interests are complementary or enlighten them to previously unconsidered possibilities.
  • Departments routinely host symposia and seminars during which students and/or faculty present their research. Interested undergraduates should attend sessions that focus on their area(s) of interest and connect with researchers with whom they might want to work. Notices of such events are commonly found on bulletin boards in the various departments.
  • Students interested in biological research should visit the Biology Center in 216 Stimson Hall and review the notebooks containing faculty research statements and the possibilities for student involvement. Other helpful information includes: advice on the best way to set up an appointment, types of research activities available, and possibilities for summer research. Additionally, prospective research students often find helpful the notebook of comments from undergraduates who have done or are presently doing research.

Conferring with Faculty

Once some of the exploratory activities described above have been completed, the next step is to schedule a meeting with one or more faculty members identified as possible mentors.  Students should make the purpose of the meeting clear when they arrange the appointment. Students who are certain that they want to work on a particular professor’s research should view the meeting like a job interview, where they aim to make a great impression and convince the professor that they should be part of his or her team.  Other students may still be exploring possibilities and simply want to gather information such as: a description of the research, the possibility of undergraduate involvement, the likelihood of an available position, requirements, etc.  Students should be candid about nature of the meeting when the appointment is made.

When scheduling the appointment, students should respect and adhere to the professor's preferences; some may want a support staff person to arrange a day and time, others may prefer using e-mail, and still others may suggest a visit during office hours. Whatever the procedure, students should not feel reluctant to approach faculty; most enjoy having undergraduates involved in their research! Courtesy and polite persistence are keys to success.

The following are some additional suggestions to help lead to a productive meeting:

  • Students should bring a polished and up-to-date resume. The Career team in the CALS Student Services Office, 140 Roberts Hall, can assist in producing a well-written resume that conveys strengths and helps to make a good impression.
  • Initially, students should be pragmatic about the role they might serve on the research team; many students start by performing routine tasks, such as data entry, before working their way into more challenging roles. Specific prerequisite coursework or background knowledge may also be required.
  • Professors expect and accept that students explore many different research options; they appreciate students who are courteous and direct with their intentions. 
  • Students should not be discouraged by rejections or disappointments, as they are often part of the process. Persistence and creativity will lead to a fruitful research relationship.
  • Research teams are often composed of many individuals, including graduate and postdoctoral students.  Undergraduates may not always work directly with the faculty member, but the main goal is to gain experience by working on exciting research with a team of great people.
  • When considering a research position, students are encouraged to request a meeting with the person who will supervise their work and discuss the criteria upon which they will be evaluated. A comfortable relationship with the research supervisor is key to a productive experience.
  • For laboratory-based research, students are encouraged to visit the lab prior to accepting a position. Talking to student workers and asking questions will help to determine if the type of research and working environment are an appropriate match.
  • Not all research takes place in laboratories! Students may also want to consider field-based or social science research.