One of the best things you can do while you are in college is to get involved in research. You might think that you can only do this at a large university, where there is an active graduate program. However, it is likely the case that most full-time faculty members, even at four-year colleges with only undergraduates, are conducting some kind of research. It may even be the case that community college faculty are active researchers.
Keep in mind that faculty and undergraduate student research on campus go hand-in-hand. This research is highly encouraged and undergraduates (from freshmen to seniors) across all subject areas take advantage of this opportunity. Moreover, faculty members want undergraduates to be involved in what they are investigating.
There are at least four advantages for getting involved with faculty research, all of which will positively impact your experience while in college and well-beyond graduation. First, you will have the chance to be part of exciting discoveries and to learn new ideas outside of a classroom. When you work with a faculty member you are really involved with the “nuts and bolts” of research. You’re not just reading about the research, you are actually conducting in-depth inquiry and exploration. Second, when it comes time to graduate you will be well beyond your peers in terms of career and academic preparedness. Third, working directly with a professor will help build a professional network for your field of interest. If graduate or professional school is a personal goal of yours, undergraduate research participation and connections with faculty will aid in that pursuit. Research experience will show your dedication and motivation. Finally, related to the previous point you will be able to get a letter of recommendation from your mentor. These letters are extremely important, whether you are applying to graduate or professional school or you are applying for a job.
To get involved with a faculty member’s research is usually pretty simple:
1) Check out the type of research that a faculty member is conducting. Of course, with the Internet finding this out is easy. If a particular faculty member is conducting research you think is interesting you are set to move forward.
2) Contact the faculty member you want to work with to see if they are planning to work with new students. If they are, set up a time to meet in person. You can send them an email to make first contact, but to me I don’t see a problem if you decide to stop by their office during office hours to make initial contact. I will say, however, that when you stop by a faculty member’s office you might consider getting “dressed-up” just a bit—first impressions go along way.
3) Meet with them. When you actually get together with a potential mentor, be ready to talk—don’t go to the meeting unprepared. Read up more on what the faculty member has been studying and be prepared with questions. Let the faculty member see that not only are you interested in their research, but that you are able to have an adult-to-adult conversation.
4) Discuss possible ways you can work with this faculty member. These include volunteering, getting course credit as part of an Independent Studies course, or even doing an Honors project (usually reserved for seniors). The key is that there are usually several ways you can work with this faculty member.
As a faculty member I have really enjoyed working with undergraduates in my lab. I’m proud to say that most of these students have gone on to graduate school, law school, or professional school. Like them, I feel you too can benefit from getting involved in undergraduate research.