Feb. 20, 2024

Approaching Undergraduate Research

The What, Why and How
Student in Lab. Chemistry.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Do I need to come up with a research project before I speak to a supervisor? Can I only work with supervisors who know me from classes? Do I need previous research experience? These types of questions can quickly pile up, and it can feel like there is a mountain of information to sift through.

What is undergraduate research?

This umbrella term simply refers to research completed by undergraduate students. It typically involves the following components:

  1. The investigation of a researchable question (or questions) by an undergraduate student.
  2. Mentorship from a university supervisor to guide the the investigation.
  3. Funding through awards. Although this is normally only available for non-curricular research.

The most common arrangement for undergraduate research is non-curricular summer research. During non-curricular summer research, students complete 4-month projects from May till August of each year. This arrangement is formally called a “summer studentship,” and it's where most funding is available. When someone says “undergraduate research,” they almost always mean “undergraduate summer studentships.”

Why undergraduate research?

Research will appeal to different people in different ways, but everyone can benefit from participating at least once. Perks of undergraduate research include:

  • Go in-depth on an interesting subject
    • Students who love what they are studying can pursue a research project. It provides a chance to ask important questions and explore innovative solutions outside the classroom.
  • Collaborating with researchers, experts and practitioners
    • Undergraduate research allows students to work alongside industry experts, graduate students and more. This fantastic networking opportunity allows students to build lasting connections.
  • Extensive opportunities for skills development
    • Improve skills like critical thinking, project management, analytical, communications and problem solving.
  • Clarify and advance career path
    • Engaging in research allows students to explore different areas within their field of study, helping them clarify their interests and career goals.
    • Stand out when applying for internships or jobs.

Explore undergraduate research

Here are ways you can approach undergraduate research through a simplified process.

Find a professor (November – January)

  • Step 1: Find a professor whose research interests you. This can be accomplished through various means, such as browsing department websites and reading professor profiles and their research interests, initiating conversations with your professors after class, or participating in networking events and symposiums organized by the university.
  • Step 2: Once you have found a potential professor, reach out to them via email. In this email, inform them of your areas of interest. Be sure to demonstrate your understanding of their work. It may be worth highlighting a project or article of theirs that you found interesting or sharing some brief information about your skills and experience. Explain ways you can help with their research. It is also a good idea to attach a resume and cover letter and provide them with further information such as transcripts. End the email with a request for a meeting to discuss the potential for a summer project.
  • Step 3: If the professor responds to you, great! Arrange a time to meet and keep the conversation going. If not, no worries. It takes some time to find an available professor who can be a good fit.

Determine a project (November – January)

  • Work with your professor to identify a project. This process can be different for each professor. Some may have ideas ready to pursue, and others may expect you to do some thinking about options.

Apply for funding (December – February)

  • After the project scope is outlined, apply for funding to support your research. Funding can come from a variety of sources; one of the main sources is the University of Calgary summer studentship application. This is a single application for many research awards. The deadline to apply is normally early February.

Additional resources: