Category: Undergraduate Research

Why and How You Should do Research as an Undergraduate

Why and How You Should do Research as an Undergraduate

Careers in the sciences are centered around research. Whether you want to be a scientist doing the research, a journalist writing about the findings, or a policy-maker or environmental manager using those findings to make decisions, a thorough understanding of the scientific method and the process of research are vital. There is no better time to get acquainted with research than college, when you will likely be surrounded with faculty and graduate students working in a wide variety of fields. Working in a research lab will help you to narrow your professional interests, inform your future career decisions, and give you a taste of what graduate research is like.

How do I get Research Experience?

Depending on your school you have a few options. Most labs are constantly strapped for cash, so they are always willing to accept undergraduate volunteers. If you are a student at a research university (or if you just happen to live near one), all you need to do is find a lab that sounds interesting to you on the school website and email the PI (Principal Investigator) offering your time. In many cases he/she will have a hard time turning away free help! Some schools may offer course credits for working in a lab. If you can get your PI to sign off on it, this is an excellent way to document volunteer research experience on your transcript while (possibly) giving your GPA a boost.

The ideal find would be a paid position working on a research project. Unfortunately for reasons stated above, these are few and far between. There are paid technician roles in many labs that do more repetitive or menial work however, and you may be able to use these as an “in” with the lab manager or PI. For example, if you’ve been working as a tank cleaner or animal feeder for a semester already when the lab has a need for help on an existing project, the PI might offer you the spot before advertising it to other students. Your school might also offer undergraduate research funding that you can apply for, which may or may not include a stipend for you. Consult your PI or your school website to find out what is available to you.

Some schools require an undergraduate thesis or capstone project during your final year. If you haven’t gotten some experience with a research lab by that point, this is your chance! Every school handles this a little differently, and some (mostly American schools as I understand it) only require a thesis of Latin Honors graduates rather than all students. If your school has a formal process of choosing a lab in which to do your thesis then that is the process you should use. Otherwise, it would be wise to start volunteering in a lab well in advance of your thesis time so you are familiar with your lab-mates and the available resources. An undergraduate thesis/capstone project is also a perfect experience to leverage when applying to graduate school.

Finally, I recommend you look into the National Science Foundation REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program. I’ve written about the program here, but the idea is that you apply to one or more REU Sites where, once accepted, you get to conduct a research project in a PI’s lab. You are given a stipend, research mentoring, and sometimes room and board. REUs are typically more involved than research at your home institution because most programs last 3-4 months over the summer and are typically a full-time job. The REU program can be helpful if you want to do research in a field not studied at your home institution, or if you aren’t sure whether graduate school is the right path for you.

These are all excellent ways of getting research experience as an undergraduate student. I heavily recommend that anyone working toward a science degree of any kind gain experience with a research lab before graduating. Having a hand in the scientific process early in your academic career can give you an edge in graduate school applications, help you figure out which career path is best for you, and make you a more scientifically literate citizen.

Photo Credit to Pexels

Paying for Undergrad

Paying for Undergrad

One of the biggest obstacles to becoming a scientist can be the financial burden of college. In the United States, high school seniors often commit to colleges and universities without knowing how much they will pay for tuition, fees, textbooks, room and board, etc. (For reference, when I started college at a large state school in 2014 my father and I estimated the total cost of four years at about $100,000). Student loans are marketed extremely well, and most undergraduate students I know have been told that taking out large loans to pay for school is not only normal and necessary, but safe. No one should be ashamed of needing student loans, but if you intend to pursue the sciences as a career you should do everything in your power to minimize your debt as early as possible. Going back to school for an advanced degree or two is difficult enough without student loan debt from undergrad hanging over your head.

The good news is there are ways to fund your education without taking out loans! None of them are easy, but they can all be worthwhile depending on your situation. Preparing for college probably has you feeling overwhelmed already, but putting in the work for scholarship applications or AP classes now can go a long way toward reducing or eliminating the amount you owe at graduation. The goal of this post is to outline a handful of funding sources and strategies you can use to lower the cost of college, better positioning you to pursue a scientific career after graduation.

Earning College Credit in High School

One of the most effective ways of lowering the cost of college is to knock out required credits before you start your freshman year. High schools typically advertise these programs heavily, so you are likely already aware of what your school has to offer. In my experience the three most common programs are:

-Advanced Placement (AP)

-International Baccalaureate (IB)

-Dual Credit Programs (PSEO, College Credit Plus, etc.)

AP classes can be taken individually, so you can usually sign up for as many or as few as your schedule and high school graduation requirements allow you to. At the end of the year, you pay a fee to take the corresponding AP test and are scored on a scale of 1-5 by a nonprofit called the College Board (the same people who administer the SAT). At many colleges, high scores on AP tests can net you credit and get you out of required classes. AP credits are widely accepted, but you should check with specific schools when you are deciding where to go.

IB is a comprehensive program that extends from elementary school all the way through high school, and individual school districts may offer the full program, only a few high school IB classes, or anything in between. The classes typically conclude with a test that might be worth college credit depending on course level. IB and AP are frequently compared, but which program to choose (if your school offers both/if you cannot take advantage of both) is ultimately up to you and your family. I am aware that not all IB tests are accepted for college credit and that IB students often take the corresponding AP tests at the end of IB courses to guarantee credit, but administrators at your school should be able to tell you more and advise you.

Depending on where you live, your school may offer you the opportunity to take classes at a local college for free while still in high school. Programs like this generally give you “dual credit” that counts toward your high school graduation and for college credit at the same time. Examples include Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) and Ohio’s College Credit Plus program. These programs can be very useful, but I recommend you take a careful look at how easily transferrable those credits will be before you start. I knew many people in high school who took classes at a local private liberal arts college through the PSEO program, only to discover that most of those credits could not be transferred to less expensive state schools. They were forced to choose between abandoning the college credits they had worked for and attending a much more expensive private school. These programs can be great ways to earn college credit, but always make sure the credits can be transferred before you start, assuming you want to go to college elsewhere.

The FAFSA

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is an application you should fill out every year starting your senior year of high school. Essentially, the FAFSA takes in detailed information about your and your parents’ financial situations and spits out need-based financial aid to help you go to school. Depending on your financial status, you might be offered loans, grants, and/or work-study funding. You will then have a chance to accept or reject each offer individually. I can’t explain the pros and cons of individual awards because the details may change from year to year, but the general idea is that:

  1. Grants don’t need to be paid back under most circumstances (this includes the Pell Grant for students from low income families). Always read the fine print, but I would generally advise you to seriously consider accepting any grants you are offered.
  2. Work-study funding is a great opportunity to get paid for work that can be related to your major! Again, read the fine print, but these awards are usually helpful.
  3. There are many types of loans, but they usually come in two flavors: subsidized and unsubsidized. As a rule, subsidized loans don’t start to accumulate interest until after you graduate (because the loan is subsidized by the government paying for your interest until that point), and unsubsidized loans do accumulate interest from the get-go.

I am not a financial advisor of any sort and you shouldn’t make potentially life-altering financial decisions based on this blog. Navigating the world of college financial aid (especially loans) is complicated, and you should talk over your options with your family and guidance counselor if possible. There is no single way to pay for school, and the right way forward is something you and your family will need to decide. The only universal piece of advice I can offer here is read the fine print!

Taking Generals at a Cheaper School

This is a relatively common strategy in my experience. Students enroll at a local community college for their first year or two in order to knock out general requirements like freshman writing, chemistry, and physics for a better price. After that, they will transfer to a bigger, more expensive school to take advanced classes and ultimately graduate. Alternately, some students enroll in community college during summer breaks from their regular school. The above warning about making sure your credits will transfer to your desired school before you start applies, as well as a brief caveat regarding research.

If your goal is a career in scientific research, getting research experience as an undergraduate student is a no-brainer. Not only will this experience tell you whether a research career is right for you; it will make you a more attractive applicant for graduate programs. These early research experiences are also where you will begin to build your scientific network, which can produce job contacts and letters of recommendation going forward. I bring up the importance of undergraduate research here because the “community college transfer” strategy can easily hinder your opportunities if you let it. If you arrive on campus as a junior and only spend two or three years there, you will have less time to find, apply to, integrate into, and gain experience with a research lab. It’s certainly possible to do all of this on a shorter timeframe, but I recommend taking your time to try out different labs to find one where you fit academically and communally. If you start at a community college, try to volunteer (or work for pay, if you’re really lucky) in a lab at your desired school before you transfer, even if it’s only one day a week. Volunteer experience with an on-campus lab will absolutely help you find a place in the research community once you do transfer, and you will be a competitive applicant for any other lab positions you decide to pursue. Bottom line: taking general credits at a cheaper school is a great way to save money, as long as you don’t use it as an excuse to put off getting research experience.

Scholarships

Scholarships can be like magic. If you put in a little effort to write essays and ask for letters of recommendation, money might appear out of thin air!

In all seriousness, scholarships are often a much more efficient way to earn money for college than working a part-time job. Some require you to write personal statements about why you want to get a degree in this field (which encourages self-reflection), and best of all, you never have to pay this money back!!! I heavily recommend that you apply for lots and lots of scholarships at every opportunity, especially if you want your career to center on research. What are grant applications, after all, if not massive, bloated, ultra-competitive scholarship applications? Asking for money to further your research will be a central part of your career; applying for college scholarships is excellent practice.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll separate scholarships into two categories: Internal and External. Internal scholarships are offered by your school or department. These are typically a little less competitive because applicants must be from your institution, and you should absolutely take advantage of them. During my undergrad I spent two summers at a field station run by my school. There were a handful of scholarships set aside for students taking classes or doing research at this station, and the open secret was that, because so few students came to the station each year, every applicant got at least $500. The only way to miss out on this money was to not apply! While this may have been a special case, the principle holds true. If you have decent grades and a good letter of recommendation, your chances of netting some cash are probably pretty good. Look over your college/university/department’s website, ask your professors, research mentors, or academic advisors, and apply for everything you can!

External scholarships vary a lot more in both scope and size, but are equally worth pursuing. There are high-profile national scholarship competitions like the Astronaut Scholarship and the National Merit Scholarship (I’ve written about the National Merit Scholarship here), as well as field-specific awards like the Hollings Scholarship. You may also find smaller-scale awards from community organizations like churches or businesses. I can’t list every possible external funding source for science undergrads because they are numerous and constantly changing, but I can advise you to give it a google! Large schools often have an entire office devoted to national-level scholarship competitions; seek them out if you’d like to throw your hat in the ring.

Jobs Related to your Major

Another fantastic way to earn money while in college is to find a job that will get you more experience in your major. The obvious choice for an aspiring researcher would be to find a paid role in a lab, but these are more frequently volunteer positions because labs are usually strapped for cash. In the natural sciences, animal care can be a more viable option. Chances are there are labs on campus with live animals that need to be fed and looked after. This grunt work is often pushed off onto undergrads in exchange for a paycheck and extra exposure to the lab animals and equipment. My undergrad alma mater was landlocked, so I found a position feeding zebrafish that were used by genetics and neuroscience labs. If you don’t want to wash fish tanks, improving your teaching skills by tutoring younger students may appeal to you. Many departments have formal tutoring programs that you can apply to work for; if not, you could put up flyers and freelance! “Weed-out” courses early in a major will always have students that need a little extra help, and teaching material will help to solidify your own understanding. There are plenty of other options for work on campus that don’t involve cleaning plates in the dining hall, but they vary a lot between institutions. Consult your advisor, professors, classmates, and department website to see what’s available!

There are also paid research internships called “REUs” (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) funded by the National Science Foundation. REU programs typically take place during 10-12 weeks over the summer, and pay in the neighborhood of $5,000-$6,000 (as of 2017). Think of it as grad school lite. You spend a summer working on a project under a faculty mentor and participating in seminars, culminating in a final report and presentation. Not only is this fantastic experience, but the pay is usually great. These programs can get uber competitive, but they are absolutely worth the effort. (I’ve written more about the NSF REU program here).


I realize this is a lot of information to take in at once, but if you put in the work, knock out a few generals before starting college, land a couple of scholarships, and work an on-campus job, you’ll be in a much better position to pursue a research career after graduation.

Photo Credit to Pexels

What is an REU, and Should I Apply For One?

What is an REU, and Should I Apply For One?

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program is administered by the U.S. National Science Foundation and is an incredible way to gain research experience while still in college. If you are a sophomore or junior I heavily recommend you look into this. I spend a lot of time on this blog advocating for undergraduate research opportunities on your home campus, but with an REU you can study any of a wide variety of research topics at another institution. Plus you’ll probably get paid!

How does the program work? First off, because this is a U.S. federal program, you need to be either a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S. or one of its territories. This is true even if the research will take place in another country. Essentially, the NSF funds many “REU sites,” which are hosted by specific labs or departments at different colleges or universities. Every year these sites will solicit applications from undergraduate students across the country. A handful of students will be selected (usually in the neighborhood of ten, depending on the site) to travel to the REU site, and live and work there for a few months. Most programs are between twelve and sixteen weeks long during summer break, although some take place during a full semester. Exactly what you’ll be doing varies from site to site, but the general idea is to give students a taste of life as a graduate student researcher. You will be conducting a research project under the direction of a professor and may be working alongside his or her graduate students. Depending on how your project goes you may even have the chance to present at a conference or publish your work! Some REU sites may offer additional programming, such as research seminars, networking events, or tours of labs or other facilities. You’ll also have plenty of downtime with your REU cohort, and I suggest you try to make friends because these may be your future professional colleagues! Lastly, you will likely receive a stipend for your work. Some sites provide room and board for their students, others house them but don’t pay for food, and still others require you to find your own housing but may assist you financially with this. The exact rate of pay varies depending on these and other variables, but the aim is to make sure students won’t turn down an REU opportunity because they need to make money at a summer job.

If this sounds exciting to you, or if you’re considering a research career, I heavily recommend you apply to some REU sites! The advice my undergraduate research mentor gave me during my junior year was to “apply to every REU program that interests you, even a little bit. Even if the subject isn’t exactly what you want to make a career studying, the research experience will be pivotal!” Every site has its own application and deadline, but for the most part everything is due around winter break (at least for the summer programs). Most REU sites either prefer or outright require that students be entering their final year of college, so most people apply during their junior year for the following summer. When you apply you will probably be asked to identify one or more professors at the site you would like to work with. Put some time and effort into this process. Read a paper or two of theirs, and most importantly, be able to explain why you are interested in their work! Nothing will shoot down your application faster than listing a specific researcher as your first choice, but when asked why responding with “Their research is really interesting to me.” You should also know that these programs are selective. Like really selective. In my college social circles people would apply to ten or more different REU sites, hoping to get into just one. I don’t have access to any large-scale metrics, but I am aware of one REU site that had more than 400 applicants for about twelve positions in 2017. I don’t know for a fact that this is typical of all REU sites, but it illustrates my point. I don’t bring this up to discourage you, but if you are serious about landing a spot in one of these programs you need to put real effort into the applications. I suggest making a list of all the programs you’d like to apply to well in advance, then submitting one application each weekend in late fall. You can then save the last few for winter break. Separate your applications with enough time that you don’t burn out and start phoning it in.

The REU program is an amazing opportunity to get varied research experience before finishing college, and is a good way to feel out whether graduate study is right for you. It’s no walk in the park to get in, but the connections, experience, and pay are all good enough that you should give it a shot! If you’re sold and are chomping at the bit to find an REU site, check the NSF website and good luck!

Photo Credits to Pexels and the National Science Foundation