A 10-Step Survival Guide to Undergraduate Research

So you’ve decided to take up the daunting task of undergraduate research?

If it’s for the hands-on experience to put on your resume, or to fill honors coursework credits, or if you’ve simply been blowing things up in your garage and need to resort to a safe and sanctioned environment to channel your scientific creativity, then I have a program for you. I’ve complied the top 10 most essential steps on how to not only survive but thrive in undergraduate research. If you follow these tips, you’ll be well on your way to being mistaken for a grad student in no time. You might even start calling your professor by their first name. I don’t suggest you do that quite yet though.

1.)    Finding a Research Mentor. First, and truly foremost, since this will largely determine the quality of your undergraduate research experience. I spent the first year of undergrad looking for the perfect mentor, and it was well worth the time investment. Many departments have a faculty page where you can browse lists of professors and their research interests. Flip through some of their papers and see if their research interests you. Besides reading up on their research, see if you can find info about outreach projects, clubs, or if they host Research for Undergraduate (REU) programs. This is usually an indicator that the professor is experienced in working with undergraduate students (read: they will be happy to spend time mentoring you). After sending a short 150-200 word inquiry email, set up a face-to-face meeting to determine if they would be a good fit for you in terms of both research and mentorship style.  

2.)    Seek grad student Mentor(s). Usually your professor will pair you up with a grad student in the lab to show you the ins and outs. Take time to make friends in the lab – you can learn about their research, how to operate other instruments, or simply have someone to chat with while performing experiments. You can also rely on your grad student mentors for presentation practice and feedback on resumes and applications. Grad students are also typically experienced in different programming and graphing software, so they can help you learn how to make publication-worthy figures for any presentations you might have.

3.)    Decide on a reasonably ambitious project. If the project is too easy or too “menial” then it won’t be interesting and you’re more likely to quit. If the project is overly ambitious, then you run into the risk of hitting a roadblock and getting discouraged. The trick is to negotiate a project that has a reasonable timeline and is interesting to you but will leave you with a sense of accomplishment at the end of your term. You might not have an opportunity to negotiate if you don’t have much experience, but it’s important that your professor at least states a clear objective for your project. It’s important to communicate to your mentor any skills you are wanting to build or a field you want to get into. This will help your mentor home in on the best project for you.

4.)    Get paid. I can get into so many reasons as to why undergrads should be paid for research, but I won’t jump on a soap box here. The first semester I did research I obtained course credit. After that semester was over, I immediately applied for funding through an Engineering Research Center (ERC) affiliated with my professor’s funding. Your school might also have an Office of Undergraduate Research which offers competitive semester and yearly research grants. This will also give you experience writing (and winning) a research grant, which is always helpful to put on your CV. You can also look for funding outside of your school through the National Science Foundation (NSF) which offers Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) funding for the summer. The last effort is to simply ask your mentor to put you on payroll, which allows you to clock in and get money for the hours you work. If you’ve exhausted all your other options, this is worth mentioning. Bottom line: your time is valuable, your opportunity cost is valuable, so put in the work and advocate to get funded.

5.)    Present early and often. I presented at my first conference the end of my sophomore year of college, when I had only done research for a year. It was nerve-wrecking. But here’s the thing – I got over the nerves a lot earlier in my research career, and suddenly it becomes so much easier. You will never feel like your research is “complete” or ready to write your first abstract. If you sit down, even just after a semester of research, you will surprise yourself by how much you’ve done if you write it down. Working towards a conference is also great motivation for getting more work done. There are plenty of undergraduate research conferences around the nation, I recommend checking out the ACC Meeting of the Minds, the National Council on Undergraduate Research, and Posters on the Hill as a starting point.

6.)    Keep an organized lab notebook. I can’t tell you how many hours I could have saved if I had just practiced good notebook keeping etiquette. This also goes for electronic filing systems. A good rule of thumb is to write as many details in the name of the file as possible. I also create files for separate experiments that are within dated folders. Find a system that works for you and stick to it. You will save yourself a lot of work in the future.

7.)    Compile your work. Building off from the lab notebook etiquette, try to set a time during the end of the semester/quarter/whatnot to sit down and compile all your work into a document. My mentor in undergrad liked to have us send weekly reports, so I would take the data from those reports and compile them into a neat word document. You never know, this report might become the basis for a publication. You think you won’t forget how you did a specific experiment, or the parameters you used, or even the equipment name, but if you are doing research for a couple years, chances are these details will escape you. Writing reports and papers also gives you a sense of accomplishment, which releases endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Write things down.

8.)    Learn how to use visual media effectively. Presenting research is a large part of your job as a researcher, and it’s important to convey scientific ideas in ways that are accessible to a wide array of audiences. I like to take photos of my experiment set ups, as they are helpful to include on posters and serve as a sort-of digital archive for me as well. Invest time in learning the basics of PhotoShop, MatLab, or a graphing software of your choice. You might very well be carrying these skills into your graduate school career.

9.)    Outreach and In-reach. Your lab group might take part in different outreach events that get the younger generation interested in your subject. Participate, and when you can, lead. These events are typically fun, and they give you a renewed sense of excitement and purpose when you get to see someone learn about your field for the very first time. Be mindful of in-reach as well – foster connections with fellow undergrads, especially those who are coming from underrepresented backgrounds. In the hypercompetitive environment of academia, it can be very easy to become dissuaded. Invest in the people around you and build up others when you can.

10.) Don’t get discouraged and fail with purpose. Remember that undergraduate research is simply a learning experience, and no one expects you to publish in Nature by the time you’re through. While it’s nice to have lofty goals (maybe: present at a technical conference, or submit to a smaller journal), you are basically expected to fail. That’s because you’re coming in with virtually no experience and asked to do highly technical work. Read, learn, get to know yourself and others. Try to have fun because this is literally a “no stakes” experience where you get to be creative and try new, and wild ideas.

There you have it. A complete 10-item guide on how to survive undergraduate research. While these tips are by no means comprehensive, I hope they shed light into some of the mysteries of undergraduate research and my biggest takeaways having conducted three years of undergraduate research. While my experience has been specifically in engineering, I hope that they are applicable to many fields of research and serve you well as you start your journey.

Have you had an awesome undergraduate research experience? What were some of your tips and tricks you have for thriving in undergrad research? Let me know if you found these tips to be helpful!