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Why conduct undergraduate research?

Discover first-hand how research contributes to the advancement of human knowledge. Experience a change of pace from formal classroom activities and gain skills applicable to both research and non-research careers. Studies show that students who engage in research are twice as likely to graduate, five-times more likely to go on to graduate school, and have more successful careers after graduation.

Various opportunities are available for students to pursue a research experience during their Purdue undergraduate career:

  • On-campus and off-campus
  • Academic year and summer
  • Credit and non-credit
  • University and industry
  • Domestic and international

In addition to this webpage, there are many resources on the OUR website that can help you in your search for undergraduate research opportunities.

Start Here

Step 1: Define your interests

  • Which subject areas interest you the most?
  • Which topics in your coursework or outside interests appeal to you?
  • Do you have a specific project in mind?
  • Do you want to discover what existing opportunities are available?

You will spend a lot of time and effort on research – and your research advisor will expend significant time and resources to mentor you – so you need to find a project that excites you. The experience will not be enjoyable or as productive if it is only to build your resumé/CV or to earn academic credit. A research project can require a greater time commitment than another class.

Step 2: Identify possible research mentors

Locating a research mentor takes some work and here are various methods you can use to identify potential.

  • Browse Purdue websites (including the Office of Undergraduate Research website) to learn about faculty and staff in your area(s) of interest. Most faculty and staff have websites with their research interests and CVs.   Search sites like google.com and scholar.google.com for additional background information.
  • Ask current or previous undergraduate researchers about their projects and mentors.
  • Ask your professors and teaching assistants for suggestions and recommendations.
  • Attend scholarly and research seminars hosted by colleges, departments, and other campus offices. Look at the schedule ahead of time and do background research on the topic and/or presenter(s) to get a better idea of the project.
  • Read news articles to learn what is happening across campus and find out about new research projects and grants. Follow websites and social media for the Office of Undergraduate Research, Purdue Exponent, Purdue Libraries, Honors College, and your college and department.
  • Talk with individuals in the department(s) of interest including academic advisors, faculty, staff, undergraduate students, and graduate students. If a class topic interests you, discuss your interest with the instructor or your academic advisor.

Step 3: Meet your potential research mentors

  • Do your own research. Search online for each potential research mentor and their research program, including their research summaries. Try to understand the basic principles of their research areas and the methods they use before you meet with them. Find out what other undergraduate researchers say about their mentors, if possible, by reaching out to them.

Tip: Go one step further and search co-authors on papers for potential mentors.

    • Request an appointment. Let the potential research mentor know you are interested in their research and would like to find out more about the possibility of working with them.
      • Remember email etiquette when contacting potential research mentors keeping in mind being respectful and polite.
      • Take the time to write an individualized email to each potential research mentor.  It is another step that indicates your specific interest in their work rather than bulk emails that are obviously written with the purpose of finding any opportunity.
      • Be sure they understand you are contacting a few potential research mentors to learn about various research projects in your area of interest. This will help convey to them you are seeking the best fit for your interests and abilities and they could offer other suggestions.
      • Be specific in your email about your interests and why you are contacting them – to talk about their research program and your professional goals.
      • If a lab manager, postdoc, and/or graduate student work in the potential research mentor’s program, you can express that you would welcome the opportunity to speak with whoever is available.
      • In your initial email, do not ask if they will mentor you or fund your research project – this will come up during or after the first meeting.

Be prepared

  • Bring a copy of your transcript or a list of relevant courses completed and your resumé to the appointment. During the meeting, you should give the potential research mentor an idea of the amount of time you can commit to the research experience, both in hours per week and total number per semester.
    • Show up slightly early to ensure that you are not late.
    • Practice your “elevator pitch,” which includes why you are interested in a research experience and in their particular program. It should not last more than a few minutes.
    • Be sure to cover your interest in getting involved with their research program.
  • Follow-up. You want to make sure that a great conversation continues. You should send a thank you note/email to acknowledge their time and to elaborate on why you would enjoy working with them. Also, you should follow-up with anything that was requested of you during the meeting, such as a recommendation contact or a writing sample.

What questions to consider asking faculty?

Here are several appropriate questions you could ask:

  • Do you have a research project that needs an undergraduate student’s help?
  • How did you get involved with this particular area of research?
  • Where does funding come from for your research?  (Only ask if you were unable to find this information online.)
  • What are the typical responsibilities for undergraduate students engaged in your research?  And what are your expectations of them?
  • What skills or characteristics do you expect an undergraduate to have before beginning a project with you?
  • Are there specific courses you suggest that I take?  Or skills that I should develop?
  • Do you have any suggestions for other research mentors for me to contact?

Step 4: Select a research mentor and start work on a project

Common Question: I am new to research and cannot find a research project, but I am still really wanting to start on a project? What should I do? Do researchers take undergrads without experience?

Yes, researchers do take undergraduates without much experience - we all start somewhere. However, it can take time to locate those who fit your interests AND are available, looking for new students, and can train students in their area. 

There are some other options to consider if you are starting out in your research career to gain skills and experience in an area such as:

  • A student work position that is within a department/unit/lab/center that is connected to research that you are interested in working with. You never know through the power of networks if you could then be the next undergraduate researcher, but you will have a skillset to market.
  • A CURE (course-based undergraduate research experience) where an authentic research question/project is worked on throughout a course and you are learning research skills to employ in the project.
  • A summer research position at Purdue or at other institutions where some programs emphasize hiring students without research experience. Most programs begin opening their applications in Nov/Dec preceding the summer of the experience. You can focus on searching and applying to summer programs.
  • A campus department that could be working on a project area that you are interested in and would like to provide support in a research capacity. Departments could have a list of potential research questions they would like to consider, but they may not have the students who have expressed interest.
  • A community organization that may have similar interests that you share that you could work with on projects with the guidance of an expert as a mentor, either in the organization or a Purdue researcher.
  • A student organization that has research projects as part of their regular activities.

Dr. Jianming Li in the College of Veterinary Medicine has created a "Tips" sheet from a faculty member's perspective on what undergraduate students should consider and do if they want to complete an undergraduate research experience.

SAGE Research Methods has a lot of information that could be useful in your search for opportunities and beginning a research project.

(Some information adopted from the University of Missouri's undergraduate research office website.)