FAQs

Finding a Research Group

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How should I start searching for research?

First, you should identify areas of research that you would be interested in pursuing.  To do so, think back to what chemistry classes and labs you particularly enjoyed.  Was the content of the class/lab more chemical biology, inorganic, chemical education, analytical, organic, materials, physical/theoretical or environmental focused?  Attending departmental and university research forums/seminars can also help you to figure out what you might like to do.  Don’t forget to also use your fellow classmates, your TA’s and your class instructors as resources.  If you’re still not sure what research area interests you, then start by doing a general review of faculty research in the academic department in which you are majoring. But, don’t be afraid to think broadly and explore research outside of your academic department, too!

Next, start searching through academic programs (including the School or Medicine, Engineering and Pharmacy), department web sites, the student job center, Buckynet, and on-campus research centers.  Using key terms, you can also use the search tool on wisc.edu or the Wisconsin Discovery Portal to identify researchers on campus that are conducting research in the area(s) of interest to you.  In addition, talk to friends, instructors and TA’s who are already doing research to get their advice about potential mentors.

You might also consider enrolling in CHEM 260.  Chem 260 is a 1-credit seminar course designed to help undergraduates find a research mentor, learn how to effectively define an independent research project, learn about the roles and responsibilities of a researcher, and learn how to effectively communicate your research to the greater scientific community. This course is designed to be taken concurrently with 1-3 independent research credits and is offered both in the Fall and Spring semesters.

After identifying eight to ten research advisors, start contacting the research groups via email.  Some helpful tips on how to contact research advisors is listed here.

How many research advisors should I email to find research?

It is recommended that you email eight to ten different research advisors whose research interests you.  Some helpful tips on how to contact research advisors is listed here.

How long does it take to find research?

For most students, it often takes 3-4 weeks of actively reaching out to groups who you would like to work with.  If you have sent out well-constructed emails and had no response after a week, make sure you try emailing the research group(s) again.  If you have been actively looking for research for 3-4 weeks and still haven’t had any success getting a response, please make an appointment with the Chemistry Undergraduate Research Director, Dr. Cheri Barta.  She would be happy to sit down with you to look over the emails you have been sending and talk you through additional strategies for finding research opportunities on campus.

Can I work in multiple research groups in the same semester?

Students are highly discouraged to work in two different research laboratories for two different research advisors.  If you have an interest in a project that would encompass the research of more than one professor, you could inquire about doing a collaboration with both professors.  Alternatively, find a research group that already conducts multi-disciplinary research in the fields that interest you.

How do I know if research groups accept undergraduates?

Contacting the research advisors through email is often the best way to determine if they are currently accepting undergraduates.  Looking at research group websites to see if any undergraduates are listed as group members or to see if the research group has any specific direction on how undergraduates can get involved with their group is also a good way to check; however, some research groups will still accept undergraduate students even if they do not currently have any listed on their website.  Overall, if you are really interested in doing research in their group, it is best just to ask.

Another option is to ask the TA’s you have in your coursework, the instructors you may have in class, or your fellow students if they know of any groups that are currently taking undergraduate researchers.  In addition, ask them if they are conducting research and if so, what they are researching—you may find that they are doing amazing, interesting things that you might like to also get involved with.

I’ve been asked to come in for an interview. What should I expect?

Many research advisors will ask you to interview with either them, their group or both before formally asking you to join their lab.  Be prepared to answer typical interview questions such as why you want to do research with their group, how long you plan/are prepared to stay in the lab per week, and what you plan to do after you graduate.  Make sure that you arrive on time, are ready to present the best side of yourself, are enthusiastic and motived, have reviewed their website, have read a couple recently published papers, and have a couple questions in mind regarding the research of the group.  Also consider asking about the expectations of undergraduate researchers in the group (time commitment, number of research credits you need to enroll in, type of work, level of independence, etc.) and who your direct mentor will be (professor, post-doc, graduate student, etc.).  It is also advisable to bring a copy of your unofficial transcripts and your resume, if you haven’t already submitted one.

When is the best time to get involved with research?

You can get involved with research at any point, but the earlier you start, the better.  For most students, it is recommended to start looking for research opportunities by your Sophomore year.  At the latest, you should aim to join a research group by the first semester of your Junior year.

Research: Classes, Scholarships, Volunteering, Paid Positions

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Do I need to find a research advisor first before enrolling in Chem 699 or Chem 299?

Yes, you must first find a research advisor, often referred to as a primary investigator, that has agreed to work with you.  The research advisor will also need to sign the undergraduate chemistry research authorization form before you can enroll.

What is the difference between Chem 299 vs. Chem 699 vs. volunteer?

·   Chem 299 is for students with freshman or sophomore standing by credits.  Students can take up to 4 credits/semester and should enroll before the Add deadline.

·   Chem 699 is for students with junior or senior standing by credits (54 credit hours).  Students can take a maximum of 6 credit hours/semester and should enroll before the Add deadline.

·   Volunteers do not receive credit hours or pay, and can start conducting research at any point during the semester.

·   All undergraduate researchers, whether volunteering, earning research credit, or being paid, must fill out the undergraduate chemistry research authorization form before beginning in a lab.

What work is required for Chem 699/299?

The amount of research conducted for Chem 699/299 is based on the number of credit hours you take.  1 credit hour = 3 – 4 hours of research/week for 15 weeks, for a total of 45-60 research hours/semester.  You will also be required to complete an on-line OSHA-certified chemical safety training before beginning in the lab, in addition to any additional safety trainings required for the particular lab that you join.

Undergraduate researchers may also be required to write a paper on the research they conducted during the semester, present at research group meetings, present at campus or national meetings, etc. These additional expectations are set by the research advisor and are counted towards the hours per week needed to fulfill the Chem 699/299 requirements.  Undergraduate researchers are highly encouraged to ask their research mentor about their expectations for students working in their lab either before or as soon as they start their undergraduate research experience.

How many research credits do most undergraduates enroll in per semester?

Most students will opt to take 2 to 3 credits per semester.  Some research advisors will require students to commit to a certain number of credit hours per semester (for example, many synthetic laboratories commonly require students to commit to a minimum of 2 credits/semester). If possible, it is best to arrange your schedule so you have a couple blocks of time (3-4 hrs) that you could commit to research throughout the week.  Research groups typically are also looking for students that can commit to multiple semesters during their undergraduate career.

Can I be paid and still enroll for Chem 699/299 credit?

If you are enrolled in Chem 699/299, you cannot be paid for the same hours that are being counted towards your course work.

How do I search for a paid position?

The best way to search for paid positions is to look at the student job center or BuckyNet.  While it is also true that some students have found paid positions by directly emailing research groups, this is not very common.  Occasionally, students who have been working in the same research lab for several semesters or have dedicated time to conduct research over the summer will be offered a paid research position for a specific amount of time.  This is research advisor dependent.

Are there any scholarships for research that I can use to help support my financial needs?

Yes, there are scholarships available for chemistry majors or students who are conducting research with chemistry faculty.  Many of the scholarships available are listed on the  scholarships site,.  Additionally, please also check out the Sophomore Research Fellowship, the L&S Honors webpages for their research grants, Hilldale/Holstrom Undergraduate/Faculty Research FellowshipSummer Term Research ScholarshipACS Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Award, and the ACS SURF Program.

What is the deadline to enroll for research?

The deadline to enroll is the Add Deadline for the semester, as set by the university.  If you find a research group after this deadline, please contact the Chemistry Undergraduate Research Director, Dr. Cheri Barta, for how to address this.

What if I need to change the number of credits during the middle of the semester?

Please email Dr. Cheri Barta, the Chemistry Undergraduate Research Director, to set-up an appointment to discuss your options.

Senior Thesis

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Do I need to complete 681/682 or 691/692 in my senior year?

Ideally, the two semester thesis course should be taken the year before you plan to graduate.

For the Senior Honors Thesis courses 681 and 682, you must enroll in a combination of 6 credits, with a minimum of 2 credits per semester.  These two courses should be taken sequentially.  For the Senior Thesis courses 691 and 692, you must enroll in a minimum of 4 credits (2 credits each for 691 and 692).  These courses should also be taken sequentially.

What are the expectations for a senior thesis?

Most senior theses will share the same format as a published literature article (abstract, introduction, materials/methods, results/discussion, conclusion, acknowledgments, and references) and will range in length from 15-40 pages; however, specific expectations for the senior thesis need to be discussed with your research advisor and will vary between research groups.

A copy of your senior thesis (either hard copy, electronic copy or both) needs to be given to your research advisor by the last day of classes of the semester in which you are completing Chem 682 or 692.  A hard copy of your thesis also needs to be turned into Dr. Barta’s office, RM 2110 by the same deadline.

Most students who write a senior thesis often comment that they wished they had started working on their thesis earlier; so, DO NOT wait until the last minute to start working on your thesis.  Make sure you are working on your thesis throughout the year and take advantage of opportunities to get feedback.  The Writing Center on campus also holds several workshops throughout the year on senior theses—please consider taking advantage of these opportunities.

If preparing to complete a senior thesis during your last year of your undergraduate work, it is strongly advised that you start conducting research with that same group by the first semester of your junior year, at the latest.

Funding Research

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Are there any scholarships for research that I can use to help support my financial needs?

Yes, there are scholarships available for chemistry majors or students who are conducting research with chemistry faculty.  Many of the scholarships available are listed on the scholarships site.  Additionally, please also check out the Sophomore Research Fellowship, the L&S Honors webpages for their research grants, Hilldale/Holstrom Undergraduate/Faculty Research FellowshipSummer Term Research Scholarship,  and the ACS SURF Program.

How do I search for a paid position?

The best way to search for paid positions is to look at the student job center or BuckyNet.  While it is also true that some students have found paid positions by directly emailing research groups, this is not very common.  Occasionally, students who have been working in the same research lab for several semesters or have dedicated time to conduct research over the summer will be offered a paid research position for a specific amount of time.  This is research advisor dependent.

Research Expectations

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What should I be expected to know before joining a research group?

When joining a research group, it is helpful to have taken a course relevant to the topic to make sure you are truly interested and have some understanding of the project.  i.e. if you want to join an organic chemistry research lab, it is helpful to have had at least one semester of organic chemistry and be enrolled in or have completed the organic chemistry lab course

For most research groups, you will be paired with a graduate student, postdoc, lab tech or research scientist that will teach you the techniques you will need and/or the instrumentation you might use.   Make sure you ask lots of questions when you first begin—it is expected!

Lots of enthusiasm, interest in the research project, a positive attitude about learning, and a willingness to try new things are also desired in undergraduate researchers.  Keep in mind that working in a research lab is a privilege—take this opportunity seriously, including being on-time for all meetings, communicating any change in your schedule to your research mentor, and using professional conduct at all times in the lab.

Will I be expected to come up with my own project?

In collaboration with your research advisor and often your graduate student/post-doc/lab tech mentor, you will come up with a project that is related to the over-arching goal of the research group.  Although it is rare for students to generate their own independent research project, it is encouraged to share any ideas you may have regarding a research project with your research advisor and/or mentor(s).   Keep in mind that the research advisor must approve of any research project(s) you work on in their lab.

Will I have my own project or will I be repeating experiments/techniques that have already been done before?

It should definitely be your goal to conduct novel research as an undergraduate researcher.  However, the level of independence required of or given to undergraduate researchers will vary depending on the group you join, which research project you have the opportunity to work on within that group and your experience and knowledge in the field.  Keep in mind that most students need training on the specific techniques/instrumentation their research group uses when they begin, so there often is a period of time where you will be asked to repeat experiments that have previously been done or make starting materials for group members before moving on to a project of your own.  Use this ‘training’ time wisely—ask lots of questions so you can learn as much as you can about how these techniques or methods work and what role it plays in the bigger picture of the research group.  You may also consider asking for additional reading resources to hone your knowledge on the research being conducting in that particular group.  As you gain more experience, trust from your research group, confidence in your scientific abilities, and knowledge in the specific discipline, you will be given more independence to investigate individual research questions.

What additional training do I need to work in a lab?

All undergraduate who either conduct research in the chemistry building or are enrolled in a chemistry course for research (Chem 116, 346, 299, 699, 681/682, 691/692) must complete an online OSHA-certified safety training.  To access the safety training, please fill out the undergraduate research authorization form and return it to the Chemistry Undergraduate Research Director, Dr. Cheri Barta.  After receiving this form, Dr. Barta will send you a link to the safety training.  In addition, every research group has its own safety trainings specific to the lab space and the techniques you will be performing. For information on those trainings contact your graduate student/post-doc mentor and the research group’s Chemical Hygiene Officer (CHO), or the research advisor you are working for.

What should I do to establish a good working relationship with my mentor?

Establishing a good working relationship with your mentor starts with establishing strong communication and aligning your expectations with theirs.  Establish when you plan to work, the best ways to contact your mentor, what their expectations are of you, and what your expectations are of them–make sure you are “on the same page”.   Remember to also be respectful of your mentor’s time, which includes being on-time, communicating when your schedule changes, trying to think through your questions before asking your mentor and taking notes when learning new techniques/skills.  Being in a research lab is a privilege—make sure that you treat it as such and continue to show enthusiasm for this opportunity.

Will I be able to publish or present my work at a conferences?

It is sometimes possible for undergraduates to present their work at conferences or be an author on a publication (~10% of undergrads will publish).  For presentations, the first step is to find a conference you would like to attend, and then ask your PI if you can present your work at that conference.  For publications, you will work closely with your graduate student/postdoc mentor and PI to create a manuscript that will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication.  For all publications and presentations, the name of your mentor and PI will be included on the document and must be approved by both before submitting any of your work.  Ask your research group for recommendations for appropriate conferences/journals.  Keep in mind that there is a Department of Chemistry Undergraduate Research Travel scholarship that is available twice a year.  For additional details regarding this competitive Scholarship, please contact the Chemistry Undergraduate Research Director, Dr. Cheri Barta.  You may also consider publishing in the on-campus journal, Journal of Undergraduate Science & Technology or to present your work at the annual Chemistry Undergraduate Poster Symposium or the Undergraduate Symposium.  Both of these symposia are held in the Spring.

Do students ever switch research groups?

Yes, students do occasionally switch research groups.  Most research groups plan on having their undergraduate researchers stay for multiple semesters;  however, it is recommended to switch into a different research group as soon as possible if the group you join is a poor fit either from a research standpoint or a personal standpoint.  With this said, most undergraduates find the first semester of research very overwhelming, even if the student truly enjoys the research and the laboratory environment.  Thus, it is advised that you stay for at least a semester to give the research project and research group a fair chance.  If you still feel after a semester that it is not a good fit, please schedule a meeting with Dr. Cheri Barta who will be willing to help you navigate your way into a research group that better meets your expectations.

Will there be someone around that can show me what to do?

Yes.  Undergraduate students are not allowed access to the office or laboratory without a grad student, postdoc, or research advisor present.  When you join a group you will likely go through moderate to extensive training on the new techniques/instrumentation you will need to know.  Some of this training will build on what you learned in previous laboratory classes, and some will be completely new.  Additionally, your mentor is there to help you, so you should be asking questions often.  As you gain more experience, you will be expected to become more independent and take a lead on the research project you may be involved with.

What do I do if my experiments are not successful?

Experiment failure is a part of the research process, not everything will work right away (sometimes even after carefully following all directions and attempting the experiment multiple times).  Researchers learn how to use the negative results to improve their experiment for the next time around.  As an undergraduate researcher, you will also learn how to develop this skill.  Most undergraduate research experiences are not graded on results (if you are taking research for credit); but rather about learning and adapting to the research process.

What happens if I have a conflict with my research advisor or mentor?

Conflicts can be a part of any work experience. You are advised to try to address the conflict yourself first.  Most conflicts can be resolved through communication.  However, if you have a conflict that you cannot address yourself or do not feel comfortable addressing yourself, please contact Dr. Cheri Barta.  She can either help, or point you in the direction of who you need to discuss the issue with.

Can a student be “fired” from undergraduate research?

Yes, working in a research lab is a privilege that can be revoked at any time for reasons, including but not limited to: failure to meet expectations, failure to follow safety protocols, creation of group conflict, or academic and/or ethical misconduct.  The undergraduate research opportunity may be terminated immediately or at the end of the semester, depending on the situation, and at the discretion of the research advisor.

If your questions were not answered by this page, please contact Dr. Cheri Barta, the Undergraduate Research Director, or Vanessa Orr, the Undergraduate Research Teaching Assistant.