Step 1: Think through these questions.
- Why do you want to do research?
- What are your career goals? How can this research experience and the mentor– trainee relationship help you achieve them?
- What would success in this research experience look like to you?
- How many hours per week and at what times/days do you expect to work on your mentor’s research?
- Assuming a good fit, how long do you expect to work with this research group?
- What, if any, specific technical or communication skills do you expect to learn from the research experience?
- How do you learn best (written or verbal instructions, watch and repeat, etc.). What can your mentor do to help you learn the needed skills? What can you do before you start so you are successful?
- Once you are trained in basic techniques, would you prefer to continue to work closely with others (e.g. on a team project), or independently?
- Once you have learned the needed techniques and procedures, do you prefer that your mentor watch what you do, or do you prefer a hands off approach to being supervised?
Taken from: Branchaw, J. L., Butz, A. R., & Smith, A. R. Entering Research (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan, 2020
Step 2: See what is out there
Make a list of ~3-5 faculty who are doing research on topics that interest (fascinate!) you. Here is how to find them:
Talk to an OUR Research Ambassador. These students are current undergraduate researchers who have a particular enthusiasm for helping other undergraduates. Their profiles are on our website - email them with questions or concerns!
Talk to a professor.
If a class has inspired you or piqued your interest, go to office hours or send a quick email to your instructor. Find time to talk to them about their research and other research projects in their departments. Faculty usually know what research is happening.
Talk to a TA.
Teaching Assistants are often seen as less intimidating to approach (though faculty are just as friendly!). They also frequently serve as Research Assistants. So they have potential insider knowledge of research in their department.
Google a UI department that interests you - "uiowa Biology," "uiowa Art," "uiowa History," "uiowa Internal Medicine". You should get a hit for their department's website.
Go to the departmental site and click on "Research" or "People". This will bring up projects, faculty profiles, and other ways for you to see what is being done and who is doing it.
This also works for research centers on campus, such as the Public Policy Center, Iowa Neuroscience Institute, etc. See the OVPR's list HERE.
Go to uiowa.edu. See the search bar at the top? Type a few key words about work that interests you ("diabetes research" or "3D design research"). Skim through what comes up, making sure to see if any news articles mention researcher names..
Handshake is run by the Pomerantz Career Center. It allows faculty members to advertise student-employee openings. These can range from research assistant positions, where you will be trained to do research, to technician roles where you will be doing basic "lab" maintenance. Make sure the duties align with your interests.
Keep an eye on OUR's webpage. Keep an eye on OUR's webpage, particularly on our list of "Open Research Positions". Check in regularly to see what is available.
Sign up for OUR's Mailing List. OUR sends out a weekly newsletter with open research positions and other opportunities. (There is also a link at the bottom of this page!)
Stop by OUR's office. We are here to help! Feel free to stop in or contact us for any assistance that you may need.
Step 3: Contact Potential Mentors
Contact the researcher(s) you most want to work with. Email is usually best, but students occasionally visit with faculty during office hours or after class (if the researcher is an instructor for a student's course).
Send an email.
Emails should be short (~5 sentences at most) and direct. Include the following information:
- Your year and major
- Your research interest interests
- What caught your eye about their work (be specific)
- A request to meet.
Here is an example:
I am a (your year) (your major) major at the UI. I am interested in learning more about research in (area of interest - Psychology, Genetics, 3D design, Museums, etc). Your research on (specific aspect of their work that caught your eye) looks fascinating. Would you have time to meet with me to talk a bit more about your work and the possibilities of getting involved in research in your area?
Why your email matters!
Year and Major
This provides a bit of context for who you are.
Area of Interest
This helps them know how your interest led you to them.
Specific Aspect of Work
Your interest is a compliment, and this shows that you have taken the time to understand their work.
Some students simply email everyone in the department. They usually don't get responses. This distinguishes you. Faculty want students who are interested and bring a level of excitement with them. THIS IS KEY.
Time to Talk
Neither of you have committed to anything. Don't corner them or you by asking if you can work with them. If it doesn't seem like a good fit, at least you learned something new!
Less pressure for both of you. There is a lot of pressure behind someone saying "Can I work on your research?" This is their livelihood. An invitation to talk turns thoughts from a formal interview to a fun conversation between people with similar interests. (Again, likely a "nerd-out" topic.)
Scope each other out. You can both see whether the dynamic between you would work well.
Learn about the work. Sometimes things look different on paper than they actually are. A conversation helps you find out whether the work or project is actually interesting to you. More in love than when you went in? Great - make a natural transition to asking how you could get involved. Not something you want to do? Great - let them know what your interests are. Maybe they know of faculty members who work on research projects more in-line with your interests.
No response after a week? Read "Why your email matters" (above).
If you've followed our tips and still haven't heard back, send a follow-up email. Researchers are busy, and your email may have been inadvertently overlooked. Hit "Reply All" and send a brief note, indicating that you are making sure your original email was seen and that you are very interested in talking to them. We recommend no more than two follow-up emails.
Step 4: Meet the Mentor
Did your heart stop for a moment when you read the email accepting your request to talk? Are you feeling a bit uncertain about the next steps?
Don't worry. Most students get nervous going in to meet a potential research mentor. Keep these things in mind, and you'll do great.
- Bring a resume. They may not ask for one, but if they do, you'll look very prepared.
- Keep calm. Unless you've both solidified that it is an interview, think of this as a chance to geek out a bit and learn about a really fun topic.
- Be excited. Yes, still keep calm and don't freak out. But it is okay to show your excitement. Researchers want students in their lab who are motivated and interested in the topic.
- Dress comfortably. You are your best you in comfortable clothes. If it is an interview, dress up a bit more. Otherwise, casual clothes that are clean and well kept are perfect.
- Follow up. After your meeting, send a "Thank You" email, regardless of the outcome.
Closing the Conversation
Don't be surprised if the conversation takes longer than you anticipated, but leave room for the conversation to end at the time you had agreed on. Two ways to close:
Your work is fascinating. I would love to do something like this. How would I go about getting involved in your group or in a group similar to yours?
Your work is amazing. I've been thinking that it would be interesting to do something along the line of _______. Do you know of anyone on campus who does something like that?
Refer to "Cash or Credit?" for more information. When discussing potential research involvement, be up-front if if financial compensation is vital for you. If there are no funds to financially compensate you, are they willing to support you in finding funds?
Step 5: Make it count
Have a research position lined up? Find out about financial compensation, transcript recognition, and course credit at "Compensation for Your Research". Learn what you can do to make the most of your experience at "What next?".
OUR and our campus partners provide workshops, events, and other resources to help you gain benefits and skills outside of your research setting. Find more by viewing or subscribing to our newsletter, "OUR Updates".
Off-campus research experiences are available nation-wide and internationally. Browse options: "Summer Experiences".
Be aware of how your involvement fits into your broader education and goals. It is likely that this will come up in interviews or applications for graduate school and employment opportunities.
Remember, OUR is here to help you at any step of the way. Please call, email, or stop by our office with questions or comments!