Overview

Why should I do undergraduate research?

Conducting research is a vital component in the education of a chemist. When doing research, you may have the chance to work with and design instruments that you were only able to talk about in class, you may get to conduct intricate syntheses of molecules that have previously never been developed, or you may help to discover phenomena in the environment by using the latest software to take measurements that have never been recorded before.

As an undergraduate researcher, you will learn new techniques, concepts, and skills that will be invaluable to your future career goals. Over 70%  of chemistry majors have participated in undergraduate research and have benefited educationally, professionally, and personally from the opportunity.

Participating in undergraduate research is an exciting opportunity and privilege, but it can also be a bit daunting when first navigating how to find opportunities on campus and knowing what to expect.

Start your undergraduate research journey!

What will I gain from doing undergraduate research?

  • Apply concepts, methods and techniques learned in coursework to real-world research questions
  • Develop your critical thinking, communication, team-working, leadership and problem solving skills
  • Explore and prepare for future careers by learning new methods, techniques, and skills
  • Develop relationships with scientists in your department, campus, and around the world
  • Learn cutting-edge techniques to solve real-world problems that interests you
  • Contribute new knowledge to your field of study which may result in publications or scientific presentations

I'm ready to get started! What are my next steps?

1. Determine what most interests you in your discipline.

In other words, define a research area/topic (e.g. organic chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, materials science, nanotechnology, analytical chemistry, etc.). To do this, think about what truly interests you or what you would like to learn more about. Think back to your previous courses in high school and/or college— 

  • What topics/courses did you find most interesting?
  • What topics in the news do you find intriguing?
  • Are there any questions/problems in science that you would like to help solve, such as a specific medical condition, global warming, synthesis of new/cheaper pharmaceuticals, etc.?

If nothing comes to mind, then start by doing a general review of faculty research in the academic department in which you are majoring. Go to the departmental website and start clicking on the research profiles of the various faculty members/researchers. 

2. Find faculty that work in your area of interest.

Once you have a topic in mind, do a search of campus websites (see below) to identify faculty working in your area of interest.

You can do this in a few ways:

  1. Search through academic program listings, department/lab websites, student job sites, and undergraduate research databases.
  2. Find research opportunities advertised through the Chemistry Department newsletter or other departments’ newsletters.
  3. Attend departmental and university research forums and seminars to get an idea of what research is possible.
  4. Network by talking to classmates, friends, and TAs who are currently involved in research, and interacting with your professors who have a research group.

You can use this Google spreadsheet to keep your search organized. To use the file, go to File –> Make a Copy or Download.

Research in the Chemistry Department    Multidisciplinary Research Centers at UW-Madison

Wisconsin-Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement    Discovery Portal

Checkpoint

Identify what common themes or research concepts that you are interested in. Reflect on why this specific research area stands out to you and what you’re interested in learning more about it. You might want to write this down somewhere – it’ll be useful for your emails to professors, which we will go through in Step 2.

3. Create a list of potential research groups that you want to join. 

Read the faculty research descriptions and generate a ranked list of potential mentors. Identify at least one thing about each person’s research that is interesting to you and that you would like to know more about. You can use this Google spreadsheet to keep your search organized. To use the file, go to File –> Make a Copy or Download.

Do not get discouraged by jargon or unfamiliar concepts in the research descriptions. Research is often highly specialized and different sub-fields use different terminology. If you don’t understand something vital to understanding the research summary, take a moment to Google the word or concept, and keep going.

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

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, 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 Office. We will be happy to sit down with you to look over the emails that 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 to Write an Email to a Professor about Joining Their Group

Once you find research groups that you are interested in joining, you’ll need to start reaching out to professors either in-person or over email, whichever works best for you.

If you write an email, do not write a generic email saying, “Hi! My name is ____ and I’m interested in doing research with you. When can I start?” You’ll almost never get a response. You must put some time into this if you are serious about doing research. You can think of this process as being very similar to finding a job.

Here are the elements of a good email to a professor.

  • Introduce yourself: “Hi, My name is _________.”
  • State your purpose: “I am planning to go to grad school in chemistry and am looking to gain some research experience in a lab before I apply.” OR “I’m thinking about becoming a chemistry major and would really like to get involved with research in the department.”
  • Give some background about your experience: “I’m a sophomore chemistry major with an overall GPA of 3.4, and a chemistry GPA of 3.8. I have taken 103/104 and am currently enrolled in 311 and 343.”
  • Talk about your interests: “I’ve always been interested in polymers and would really like to understand their environmental impact.”
  • List a specific project from the group that you’re interested in: “I saw on your website that you were conducting research with biodegradable co-polymers and would love to learn more about this project.”
  • Ask if they are taking students: “Thus, I was wondering if you are taking any undergraduate researchers this semester.”
  • Ask to set-up an appointment: “If so, may I set-up an appointment to further discuss your research and this opportunity?”
  • Make sure to say thank you: “Thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing back from you.”

Remember these points are guidelines. You can add your own personality and enthusiasm in your email, so arrange them however you see fit. Feel free to add any information that is particularly relevant to why you want to do research.

How to Follow Up on Your Emails

Professors are very busy and might miss your first email. If you don’t hear anything back in a week or two, try emailing again by replying to your previous email. This will show the professors that you are following up on a previous email.

Sometimes it helps if you know someone in the group who may be able to introduce you to the professor. If you have this opportunity, don’t be afraid to reach out to your network.

If you’ve followed up at least 2 or more times with no response, it might mean that the group is not currently taking students. Sometimes professors aren’t able to take research students due to insufficient funding, limited lab space, limited personnel/mentors, etc. Don’t take this rejection or non-response personally. Stay positive and move forward with your next choice.

How to Prepare for Your Interview

Many research advisors will ask you to interview with either them, their group, or both, to ensure that you are a good fit for the group before formally inviting you to join their lab.

For a successful interview, keep the following in mind:

Before the Interview

  • Review the website for the research group, including taking time to read a couple of their recently published papers. They won’t expect you to understand everything on their website/papers, but it is important that you have at least a basic level of understanding of what their research group does.
  • Be prepared to answer typical interview questions such as why you want to do research with their group, what you hope to gain from conducting undergraduate research, how many hours you plan to commit to research per week, how many semesters you plan to stay in the lab, what you plan to do after you graduate and what made you interested in their group.
  • Prepare at least 1-2 questions that you would like to ask – either about the group, the research, expectations, and so on. 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.).
  • Print a copy of your unofficial transcripts and your resume to bring to the interview. Even if you have submitted them over email already, it is helpful for the interviewers to have a printed copy on hand for reference.

During the Interview

  • Arrive early or on time to the specified location. Make sure you know what room you are going to ahead of time, so you don’t get lost on the day of.
  • Be prepared to present the best side of yourself. You do not need to necessarily dress-up, but make sure you look like you really want the position (i.e. Do not wear pajama pants to the interview.)
  • Show your enthusiasm for the research opportunity.

After the Interview

  • Follow up with the interviewers (professor and/or anyone who was there) to thank them for their time and express your enthusiasm for the research opportunities.

For additional interviewing tips, please check out Successworks’s Preparing For Your Interview module.

Congrats on landing an undergraduate research position! Now it’s time to complete some paperwork to make it all official.

If you are doing research with faculty that are NOT affiliated with the chemistry department and want to obtain chemistry course credit for it, then you will need to write a 1-page summary about the research project, including the chemistry behind the work or chemical techniques that will be used.

A Research Authorization Form must be completed by any undergraduate student who is conducting research in the Department of Chemistry, regardless if you are planning to volunteer, be paid or obtain credit. The form needs to be completed after you find a research group, but before you start conducting research in the laboratory.

This form needs to be signed by you, your lab mentor, and your professor, and submitted online every semester you are conducting research for class credit, pay, or as a volunteer.

The Research Authorization Form should be turned in BEFORE you begin research, and if possible BEFORE the add deadline for the semester.  Please visit the Office of the Registrar’s Dates & Deadlines page to find the due dates for the current semester.

1. Download the Research Authorization Form

2. Submit the Research Authorization Form

After you submit the Research Authorization form, your form must be reviewed by the Office of Chemistry Undergraduate Research. After it is approved, you will receive an email from the Undergraduate Chemistry office with more information about your enrollment and safety training requirements.