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FAQs on Research Experiences

What is an undergrad research experience?

Research experiences for undergraduates are really just a special type of internship for science and mathematics students. Two important elements distinguish an undergraduate research experience from a short-term job or community service. First, you bring an intentional “learning plan” to the experience. You not only plan to learn, but you have a plan for evaluating what you learned and how. Second, you are allowed to participate in the exciting research work of a professional research facility, and usually are responsible for conducting your own independent research.

Why would I want to get research experience?

If you are considering graduate school, you need to get research experience. Graduate school is about you conducting your own independent research—not about classes. An undergraduate research experience can help you either confirm your decision to continue your studies, or make a decision to choose a different path. You can make an informed decision about whether you are interested in graduate school, or a particular career—a good thing to know before you graduate!

An additional reason to find a research experience is a selfish one: employers actively seek students with career-related work experience. Your odds of getting a job in today’s competitive marketplace are much greater if you have research experience or an internship.

Where do I find a research experience?

Unfortunately, there is no one single place to find a research experience. All MSU faculty have their research interests posted on their departmental websites. Find someone whose interests are in a field you want to learn more about, and contact them to see if they have any openings.

Caution: Don’t just show up and say “Hi, I want to do research.” Taking on an undergraduate involves a lot of work for the professor. You need to convince them that it’s worth while for them to work with you. If you go in with a specific plan for what you want to study, how their research interests you, how you want to study it, and what you want to get from the project, you’re much more likely to convince the professor that you’re serious and that taking you on would be a good idea.

When should I start looking for a research experience?

Now! It’s never too early to gain “hands-on” experience. As soon as you identify what sort of career path you are interested in, start keeping an eye out for research experiences.

It’s important to plan ahead. Typically, for summer research, the deadlines are in November and December. Some of the most popular programs have very strict rules – they will not accept late applications, and you must fill out certain forms properly. Read the instructions carefully.

How do I get credit for a research experience?

Your academic department determines the requirements for receiving academic credit. Some departments have special courses you can register for if you are doing research on campus. Remember, though–just because something is called a “research experience” doesn’t mean you will get credit through MSU for the experience. You must work with your department.

Some research experiences will give you academic credit at other institutions. Some research experiences don’t count for credit at all—but will look wonderful on your resume and help you determine your future career path.

Will I get paid? How long does a research experience last?

Research experiences can be part-time or full-time, paid or unpaid. They can last from a month to a year. Co-ops or research experiences at federal labs often last longer than typical summer research experiences. The potential long-term career advancement of these positions can easily outweigh the time cost of missing a semester of class. NatSci offers scholarships for students participating in undergraduate research.

Do I have to do a research experience? What if I don’t do one?

You don’t have to have a research experience. However, seek out career-related work experience if you can. You’ll expand your education and get contacts in your field. Even time spent volunteering can help you meet people and become more knowledgeable about future career paths.

I can’t afford to do an unpaid research experience. I have to work to stay in school. What should I do?

Unfortunately, it’s expensive to go to school, and an unpaid research opportunity just isn’t realistic for lots of students. To get a paid research experience, you need to plan ahead—make sure you apply early. Target a few research experiences and try to establish contact with the people offering them. Make sure they know you as a person, to increase your chances of acceptance.

You may be able to arrange credit and create your own research experience if you are working within your academic department. If you can’t find any work related to your field, try volunteering in a research laboratory on campus a few hours a week. Even if you are just washing glassware, you can observe how people work in your field, and make networking contacts.