Seeking undergraduate research advice
April 22, 2009 11:04 PM   Subscribe

Advice on seeking undergraduate engineering research

I am an undergraduate student majoring in mechanical engineering. I switched majors, so although I'm technically a senior, I'm really more like a sophomore in ME. I attend a public university, and I would like to go out of state for my masters degree, if possible. It seems to me (from what I have learned/heard) that if I want to have a chance at getting my graduate degree funded as an RA, it is imperative that I have undergraduate research experience. There is a program at my school that allows undergraduate honors students, such as myself, to do funded research. However, before applying for the program, I must already have a faculty mentor and some kind of research idea in mind (i.e., having collaborated with the mentor).

My main question is, if I have a faculty member in mind, how do I go about approaching them? I don't really have any solid relationships with any engineering faculty members, and I feel presumptuous emailing a professor that I don't know and essentially asking them for a research opportunity. Maybe I have the wrong idea, but I don't think I can just JUMP into doing research. I would be very interested to hear about anyone's experiences with doing undergraduate research.
posted by nel to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For me, all the connections into research projects grew organically - fellow students talking about their projects, segueing the occasional "wanna see our lab?" tour. If you don't feel like directly contacting professors, prey on the lower levels of the research hierarchy - grad students and post docs are a better window into what's actually going on at the grunt level (i.e. what your actual work would be and how the environment is) than the principal researchers, anyway.
posted by themel at 12:00 AM on April 23, 2009

My tip here would be to e-mail the professor/principal investigator directly, but not ask for a research position immediately. Just say that you're interested in what they do and want to learn more about it.

I'd also advise contacting multiple labs. Often labs don't have the time/space/money to take on another person. (Even if you work for free, there's always some kind of overhead.) So while cold e-mailing does work, don't neglect to check department e-mail lists and bulletin boards, ask your friends, etc. to find more opportunities in labs that are actively searching for students.

Once you've made initial contact, take some time and see if the work you'd be doing on the project looks as good to you in real life as it did on paper.

Ditto for the potential mentor too--personality clashes or a subpar mentor can make research excruciating. While the decision of whether the lab has room for an undergraduate is up to the PI, in many situations, a postdoc, grad student, or technician is the actual mentor to the undergraduate on a daily basis. So get to know everyone you can! Try to envision if you'd really enjoy it there.
posted by melvinwang at 1:02 AM on April 23, 2009

I guess every university is different, but I'll relate some things that have worked well for me. If your school is a higher-tier school than mine, some of this might not work, since there may be more competition. Professors are generally happy to talk about their research, and will be glad to involve you, especially if you can show you have something to add. In my case, for example, I'm pretty good at programming (and I enjoy it), so any time I've spoken to professors about research, that's been something I've brought to the table. Even if you don't think you have much, enthusiasm and interest will go a long way. If nothing else, you'll probably make yourself stand out a little bit better amongst a crowd of uninterested undergraduates.

If you're in the professor's class, you can just go to their office hours and tell them you're interested in their research, and then the conversation ought to meander automatically in that direction. If you're not in their class, the process is similar, but you can email them first and tell them you were looking into research done in the department, and that you wanted to hear more about theirs.

I had one situation where I had to write a short proposal to get a small grant that my school does for undergrads. Generally in this situation, the professor might have a smaller project they can have you do that's related to their research, but in my case, I had an idea for it, so I talked to one of my professors whom I thought might think my idea interesting, and he listened to my idea and suggested something similar, but more somewhat simpler. I didn't know the professor especially well prior to this, though he at least knew my name since I had been in his classes and done well.

In summary, it's pretty much fine to ask. Be inquisitive and interested, but polite and somewhat deferential (at least until you get to know them) and you'll be fine.
posted by !Jim at 1:23 AM on April 23, 2009

It definitely helps to have some sort of a personal connection with the professor before you apply to the funded research program. Having said that, I wouldn't worry about it too much! Everybody starts somewhere -- and once you start making a connection with one or two people, it becomes a lot easier to network with other researchers.

Many students start out by volunteering at the professor's lab for a few months. Look around your campus to see what kind of research is going on, and identify a few labs or researchers with similar interests as you. If there is a mechanical engineering class that you particularly enjoyed, consider the professor for that class, as well.

Afterwards, google the websites for these labs and researchers, and read a few of their publications. If you are still interested in these labs or professors, send an e-mail to the PI and let him/her know that you are interested in their research area. Be polite, but enthusiastic! It's kind of validating to hear that people outside of your lab are interested in your research topic. Offer to volunteer in his/her lab, and see if you can ask him/her for a meeting.

However, if there is not a whole lot of time before the application deadline for the funded program, it might not hurt to just try cold-contacting the professors. It's not as effective, but it's been known to happen. Follow the same procedure as above, but just indicate that you are interested in applying for the undergraduate research program.

It is true that the match of personality and style between you and your supervisor can make a very big difference on your overall experience. I guess the good news is that, at undergraduate level, the length of the program is probably only going to be one to two terms long. So, even if you end up running into personality differences, you won't have to suffer it very much. On the other hand, if you end up having a perfect match of both research interest and personality, you could probably stay at the lab longer.
posted by tickingclock at 1:47 AM on April 23, 2009

I agree with what people have said. Just email and express interest in their research and in learning more. It doesn't hurt to say that you are looking for a research position, but don't ask them outright to hire you since they don't know you. If you have good grades and/or seem highly motivated, it's not that unusual for a professor to hire you even if they just recently met you. I would encourage you to talk to more than one professor in the field. It helps to gain perspective. When I was an undergraduate (in Canada) looking for summer research, I would email 5-10 professors. Some would ignore my email, some would politely say that they cannot hire me, and I would end up having a chat with 3-5 of the others. If they ask, I'd send them my grades and resume, then at some point I get a "yes" or "no."
posted by bread-eater at 6:54 AM on April 23, 2009

I did my undergrad in mechanical engineering in Canada. I am pursuing a masters degree (and maybe a PhD) in ME at an American university.

I started undergraduate research with a month of powder metallurgy superconductors as more of a formality relating to a technical-content requirement of an internship I did as a TA. I loved the experience and signed on for another semester. I would have continued again after that except I had to take a better paying part time job for unrelated financial reasons.

I definitely just approached these profs. I didn't have an "established" relationship either but I e-mailed him to setup an appointment and dropped by the next day. I explained my situation, what I had to offer and what I needed in return. The initiative was the only real prerequisite. If you ask for it you are showing more interest than some of his/her grad students. :P

I didn't get to publish any papers (in peer reviewed journals) from the superconductor research because I left when I did but it a few more weeks and we would have had enough novel material for a journal article or conference.

Later I arranged a senior thesis research project on CFD and the impact of modeling assumptions on quantitative results. Total switch from the materials science research I was doing and again I just approached directly. Engineering is a profession. Be direct and professional. They won't think less of you even if they say no.

These experiences gave me a great deal of practical experience in academic lab environments (practical: how to work DSC, SEM, etc. logistical: how to procure materials and equipment on the cheap, or quickly), and I think more importantly enthusiasm for research. The latter part is most relevant to me because I am not currently doing research in either of the fields in which I did undergrad research.

I can't say enough for practical engineering experience like undegrad research. Engineering is about doing, and not enough is done in undergrad lab classes in my opinion.

Now I'm a grad student with RA funding in an ME lab at MIT and I'm still really enthusiastic about academic research.

MeFi mail me if you have any other questions.
posted by KevCed at 7:38 AM on April 23, 2009

In addition to the above, I have some suggestions for selling yourself to a prof in the right way:

From my experience, working in undergraduate research is still a job, so you need to have qualifications that make you attractive to the professor, even if you're going to be in an entry-level research situation. Because the professor doesn't want to hire someone that requires even the most basic training, he wants to know you'll be able to get out of the starting gate as fast as possible.

To some degree, the skills you would do well to highlight depend on the research the lab is conducting. But generally, good classes to highlight are your chemistry and physics labs, which taught you to show high attention to detail, an ability to use various pieces of analytical equipment (see if you can be specific to the research the prof does), properly recording and analyzing experimental results, lab safety. Any other jobs you've held that can contribute bits of knowledge to being able to do repetitive tasks, work in a team environment, etc. will help you.

If you can track down which profs are hiring for the summer, talk to some of their grad students to see what kind of research the lab does (also do a search for recent publications, the prof likely has some listed on his profile page for your university). In this way you can also be prepared to 'talk the talk' and increase your chances of sparking the prof's interest.

worked as a chem eng summer student 4 years ago, never left (fully funded M. Sc.). My prof hires mostly 3rd or 4th year students, who've finally got the educational background to understand what's going on in the experiments. If you're missing key classes (from the prof's perspective), don't be disheartened, you can always apply next year.
posted by lizbunny at 7:49 AM on April 23, 2009

It looks like you have great answers for approaching professors. Go for it and good luck!

Since you are at about a sophomore level for MechE, you might want to consider looking into an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) in MechE as well as research at your own university. REUs are usually during the summer (often done between junior and senior year) and are a great way to do more research and network with more people in your field. Many provide housing and are paid experiences. I did an REU in Applied Math and loved it. Some quick googling shows there are several out there for Mech E.
posted by wiskunde at 8:27 AM on April 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughtful responses! Sounds like the main bullet point is, if you don't ask, you'll never know. All they can do is say no, right?

Just to give some more information, the program I'm interested in can be participated in for up to 5 semesters. I would work on my honors thesis for the last two. I do have a couple of friends who work in a lab, although they are graduating this semester. I actually spoke with a researcher, that my friend works for, last year. He was planning on bringing me on an interesting-sounding project, but I don't think it got funded, and nothing ever happened with it. I'm thinking about emailing him again just to see if he has anything to do over the summer for me (as a volunteer).

What makes me apprehensive is pretty much what you guys mentioned -- that someone WILL bring me on, but I won't perform, or there will be a personality clash.

I think I have this delusion that because researchers are very busy, they are also very impatient and will get frustrated with me if I don't pick things up immediately (which probably isn't true in most cases).
posted by nel at 9:58 PM on April 23, 2009

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