Why Undergraduate Research?

Participating in undergraduate research provides a unique opportunity to learn, practice, and hone academic/practical skills that can benefit you in professional pursuits. You will gain tangible outcomes that will build your professional profile such as research presentations, awards, and potential academic publications. Research provides a great boost to your resume and can open the door to many opportunities in academics and industry.

What is Undergraduate Research?

Undergraduate research takes many different forms. For engineers, research responsibilities in a STEM-related lab can range from being at home on your computer doing lab-related tasks to pipetting samples to run on a gel. Faculty pages are great resources to figure out what kind of tasks you might be performing. After first joining a lab, students typically start by assisting a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow who has more experience in the field. After some time, you might become involved with a specific project in the lab. Oftentimes, a lab has many different projects that fall under the same research topic and undergraduates collaborate with other senior members of the lab to carry out these projects. You might even get the unique opportunity to start and manage your own project!

Research tasks usually consist of some form of data collection and analysis. Intermingled with this, you will also probably find yourself at lab meetings, preparing presentations, discussing projects with your mentor, writing scientific documents, and collaborating with other scientists. Undergraduate students play a prominent role in the lab and oftentimes have integral tasks that are vital to lab function. Be sure to talk with your mentor about expectations and responsibilities prior to starting.

How to Get Involved

The first step in getting involved with undergraduate research is to do some research yourself. Get a feel for what research topics might interest you while keeping in mind that your research interests might lay outside of your major. Visiting faculty pages online is a great way to discover the variety of research topics that are pursued at the University.

The next step is to seek opportunities. The Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates (ICRU) website keeps an updated list of research opportunities. ICRU, and some other programs around campus, also provide many research networking events where you can get a feel for the positions available. The University’s online job board, HireaHawk, often has listings of research positions available to undergraduates.

However, possibly the best resource to obtain a position is communicating with professors directly about available positions. Stopping by their office hours or sending a quick email inquiring about their research interests and available postings is a good way to get your foot in the door. Professors are always happy to sit down and discuss their research with students and this can help you get a better idea for what to expect in their labs. Be sure to have your resume available as they will want to get know you as well. If you are still having trouble, seek advice from upper-level students who have participated in research.

Research FAQs

Will I be paid for my research?

Financial compensation depends on the lab, your experience, and the specific work to be performed. When you first join a lab, it is common to be compensated in the form of academic credit rather than payment. This credit can count towards your GPA, Honors Program credit, major requirements, or some other form of academic compensation. Oftentimes, unpaid research resembles the student having his/her own project with some form of publication or thesis. Paid research tends to be related to lab maintenance/upkeep. See the ICRU website for more information.

Regardless of your research position, funding is available through various scholarships and undergraduate programs. For instance, ICRU gives out around $400,000/year to support undergraduate research with summer and academic year funding available. Certain departments on campus and online programs also offer forms of funding.

How many hours can I expect to work a week and will it interfere with my studies?

The amount of hours per week spent researching depends largely on your personal schedule and the form of credit you are receiving. A good range is about 9-12 hours per week. If you are receiving academic credit, oftentimes it equates to about 3 hours/week per semester hour. This is a discussion you should have with your mentor prior to starting to set forth the expectations for lab attendance.

If you are a student who is motivated enough to seek out and perform research, you will probably not have any problems balancing this time with your course load. In most cases, research can actually provide you with knowledge that supplements your education. If research does begin to conflict with your studies, be sure to talk to your mentor about changing your hours.

How can I get academic credit for my research?

Academic credit comes in many different forms--graded credit, ungraded credit, Honors Program credit, and Departmental Honors acknowledgement. Departmental Honors is earned by completing a thesis covering their work. This credit is also used to count towards University Honors credit. Registration for these credits vary on department but normally research can be registered for credit through ICON. See the ICRU website and Honors Program website for more information.

I’m interested in research. When should I start looking for positions?

Typically, you will want to wait until the end of your first-year to begin applying. This allows you to get a feel for college as well develop good study techniques prior to making a time obligation. Professors also prefer you have some academic experience prior to joining. A good time to start looking is spring of your first-year with a starting time of either the summer or fall of your sophomore year. Many students also wait until they are either a sophomore, junior, or even senior to begin research.

How long should I perform research?

This is entirely up to you. You might find yourself starting a project in a summer and wrapping it up in the fall and choose not to participate any further. Some students do research for most of their four years. The best advice in this area is to talk to your mentor about how long you might want to stay. Oftentimes, they are open to varying lengths of time and will not expect you to stay for all of your four years if you do not want to.