How To Get Involved In Research On Campus

A Guide for Those Interested in Research and Those Pursuing Honors Theses

Many professors at UAlbany work with undergraduate research assistants. In the professor/research-assistant relationship, the student provides some of the knowledge and effort that is necessary to move the research forward. In exchange, the professor teaches the student about research and the topic being explored. In this way, the student and the professor both benefit from working together.

Being Involved in Research

Research should be an important part of the education of every student in The Honors College. Through research, you learn how knowledge is created, use your creativity to address new questions, and move your learning beyond the classroom. While you are a research assistant, you can also develop a connection with a professor. This connection can lead to a long-lasting mentoring relationship and it can enable the professor to write detailed letters of recommendation on your behalf.

Being involved in research strengthens many of your academic skills. As you work with a professor on his or her research and deepen your knowledge of the research topic, you will improve your ability to understand research methods, formulate research questions, collect and analyze data, and draw conclusions from that data. Being involved in research can also develop your critical-thinking and time-management skills.

Involvement in research can also help you prepare for the future. It can help you clarify academic and career goals, either by solidifying your passion for a long-standing academic interest or by developing a new interest. It can also make you more attractive to graduate schools, professional schools, and employers. Undergraduates who are involved in research are more likely to be accepted into graduate or professional programs than are undergraduates with no research experience.

Becoming a Research Assistant

As you start looking for a position as a research assistant, it is important to identify your goals and objectives. What are your expectations for becoming involved in research? How much time can you commit to a research project? Do you have knowledge, experiences, or perspectives that might benefit a professor's research project, for example, knowledge about research methods, statistics, or a subject area that you have gained from your courses? Thinking about these issues will help you prepare to meet a professor to talk about your involvement in the professor's research.

It is important to keep in mind that research-assistant positions are not reserved for juniors and seniors. There are opportunities for freshmen and sophomores as well. For many professors, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn are all that is expected of a prospective research assistant.

Finding a Potential Research Project

There are many strategies for finding a research project for which you might become a research assistant.

Identify professors whose courses you have enjoyed or whose work has inspired or influenced your academic interests. Find out about their research from their department's website. Make an appointment with them so that you can ask them about their research, express your interest, and discover whether they are looking for a research assistant.
Visit departmental websites. They are a rich source of information about faculty research interests. Some faculty web pages list specific and up-to-date information about a professor's current research. On other professors' pages, you may have to rely more on the titles of recent articles or books that they have written to determine their research interests.

Attend lectures on campus to familiarize yourself with professors who are doing research in areas you find interesting. Check the UAlbany event calendar and departmental postings for announcements about faculty lectures and presentations in fields that interest you.

Consider your research or academic interests from an interdisciplinary perspective and identify professors in several departments who may be doing research that you find interesting. You may find a professor with the perfect research project for you outside of your major department.

Talk to fellow students, especially juniors or seniors involved in research, to find out which professors specialize in areas relevant to your interests and which professors are the most rewarding to work with. Graduate teaching assistants or other graduate students can also be good sources of information about professors and their research.

Making Contact

Once you have identified one or more professors with whom you would like to work, you should contact them to make an appointment to meet. Sending an email message or leaving a phone message is a good way to make initial contact. You can also visit during their office hours or approach them before or after class to make an appointment.

Be sure to identify yourself as a student in The Honors College.  You could also mention any of your coursework or other experiences that are related to the professor's research.

Before you contact the professor, familiarize yourself with his or her research interests, areas of specialization, or publications. In your initial message, be sure to show that you have some knowledge of his or her specific area of interest or expertise (for example, "I read on your department's website that you are currently doing research on . . ."). State that you are interested in the professor's research and ask if the professor has any openings for a research assistant. If there is an opening, ask if you could arrange a meeting to talk about it.

Try not to be discouraged if you do not receive a reply. It is possible that the professor is out of town or busy. After a few days, email or call again, or visit the professor during his or her office hours. In the meantime, try contacting other professors whose research interests you.

It is acceptable to approach more than one professor simultaneously about being a research assistant. If you receive more than one offer to join a research team, accept one and decline the others with many thanks.

Meeting the Professor

Prepare for your first meeting with a professor. As you did in your initial email or phone call, describe your interest in the professor's research. Be ready to discuss any knowledge you have about this area (you do not need to have knowledge about the area, but describe any knowledge that you do have). Be prepared to describe your future plans and how this research experience is important to those plans. You want to show that you are informed, prepared, and eager to learn and work.

Bring any written materials that might be helpful. For example, you could bring your resume and an unofficial transcript of your coursework (perhaps with relevant coursework highlighted).  You should also mention again that you are a student in The Honors College.

Be aware of time. Keep the length of your meeting within the expected time limit (for example, a 15-minute period). It is important to be considerate of the professor, who faces many demands on his or her time, as well as your fellow students waiting to speak with the professor.

After you have met with the professor, follow up with a short email. Thank the professor for meeting with you and, if appropriate, say that your eagerness for being a research assistant with that professor was increased by the meeting.

If the professor is unable to offer you a research position, do not be discouraged. Think of this meeting as good practice for the next one. Review the meeting and decide if there are things you might do differently in the future.

Finalizing the Arrangements

If a professor offers you a research-assistant position, you should find out about the research environment and what your involvement will entail before you agree to participate. Set up a time to discuss the project further, and ask for materials or references to help you prepare. Discover how many hours each week you are expected to work, the tasks you will be expected to do, how often you will meet with the professor during the course of the research project, and how your performance will be evaluated. Going over the details of your involvement as you join the project will help to avoid future misunderstandings.

Your role as a research assistant may include performing repetitive or non-interesting tasks. Completing these tasks may not always be mentally stimulating, but it is an important part of research. However, there should be components of your work that enhance your understanding of the research process and that use your intellectual talents.