How to Get Involved in Undergraduate Research

By Ariane Tsai, C2ST Intern, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Institute for Genomic Biology

If you’re a student pursuing a STEM field in college, you’ve likely heard of undergraduate research. But what is it, and how can you get involved? Undergraduate research offers students the chance to conduct experiments and investigations under the guidance of a principal investigator (PI) and their graduate students. In this article, I’ll share insights into undergraduate research and offer guidance on getting started. 


Why Participate in Undergraduate Research? 

  1. Enhance Your Education: While classroom learning can sometimes feel abstract, research lets you apply your knowledge, filling gaps and solidifying your understanding by observing real-world applications. 
  2. Enhance Your Critical Thinking Skills: Engaging in research challenges you to think critically, helping you gain deeper insights into your field and refine your ability to construct compelling arguments. Consider dipping your toes into scientific research and take advantage of an opportunity to contribute to your chosen field and answer questions no one else could!
  3. Expand Your Network and Mentorship: Joining a research lab broadens your professional network, fostering connections with peers, professors, and graduate students who may initially seem intimidating to approach. 
  4. Obtain Strong Recommendations: Whether you plan to pursue further education or enter the workforce, a recommendation or reference from a research mentor can carry more weight than a recommendation from a professor you took one class with. Research experience is also highly valued by many employers and graduate programs, some may even list it as a requirement.  

When to Start Undergraduate Research? 

There are advantages and disadvantages to starting research early or later in your undergraduate journey. However, early involvement is often preferable because research is time-consuming, and the sooner you begin, the more you can learn. Keep in mind that some labs prefer more senior students for their knowledge and willingness to contribute. But nevertheless, you are never too late and never too early, so start when you feel ready!   

What to Consider Before Joining a Research Lab? 

  1. Area of Research: Choose a field of study that aligns with your interests, even if you have limited prior knowledge. You may keep the research area general and reach out to professors, then narrow down your interest once you have a conversation with them.  
  2. Commitment Level: Discuss with your PI how many hours you can dedicate weekly, setting clear expectations for both parties. Some PIs have students set their own schedule, and some (especially the ones getting paid) will require a certain amount of time each week to put into research.
  3. PI Involvement: In the lab, you will work closely with a graduate student most of the time. Sometimes, however, the PI will take a more active role in the mentorship. Every lab has a different culture and mentorship style. Some PIs are more involved and hands-on compared to others. Consider what style works best for you. Keep in mind the bigger the lab, the less likely you’ll have face time with the PI.  
  4. Stipend vs. Credit: Determine whether the lab offers monetary compensation or research credit (or neither) by discussing this with the PI. The options on whether the students receive funding or support rely heavily on the lab’s funding. While it is often that undergraduate students do not get paid, it is still important to have a conversation with your PI about what you may receive as a researcher besides invaluable experience.  

How to Join a Research Lab and Reach Out to PIs? 

  1. Explore Specialized Programs: Universities often have programs designed to assist undergraduates in finding research opportunities (e.g., undergraduate research program for first-year students, peer research mentorship program, etc.). Check your institution’s resources. 
  2. Visit Lab Websites: Departmental websites usually list professors and their research areas. Reach out to them by attaching your resume/CV and explaining your motivation to join their lab. 
  3. Attend Seminar Talks: Often, professors and their students present their research on campus, allowing you the chance to connect with them personally. It’s a great way to scope out what kind of research is being done and whether it sparks any interest.
  4. Other Strategies: You can also connect with graduate students, seek recommendations from fellow undergraduates, and explore additional ways to enter a research lab.

Ways to Maximize Your Research Experience 

  1. Consistency: Regularly showing up in the lab demonstrates your commitment and enthusiasm for learning. 
  2. Take Initiative: actively participating and showing your passion for research is a great way to receive mentorship from those around you and may provide you with opportunities to learn new skills and tackle more responsibilities.
  3. Present Your Research: Share your findings at undergraduate research symposiums or national conferences to develop vital communication skills. 
  4. Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU): Apply for this competitive NSF-funded program to work on your own project in a different research lab during the summer. 
  5. Apply for Fellowships and Grants: Secure funding to support your research and enhance your career prospects. Numerous organizations offer opportunities for fellowships and grants, so consider taking advantage of these options to help further your research and professional development skills.

Remember that these guidelines are general, and each university offers unique resources. Seek advice from peers, and if you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to contact me at I would be happy to offer some more personalized advice or assist in your journey into undergraduate research 🙂 


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