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Students

Finding a Research Project

The first thing you need to do is to find a research mentor to work with.  The best way to do this is to spend time going through faculty web pages to identify a list of researchers that you are interested in talking to. To help you with your search, after you have read this page, go to the website at the bottom to begin your search. Type in the area you are thinking about working in to identify UA researchers in that area.  Don’t be too narrow as the best first research position is the one that will take you! Also, don’t be too broad. Instead of searching biology, try to figure out what part of the field is of interest to you. You do not have to look only in your home department. Look in the department that you are hoping to go into in graduate school, professional school, or are just interested in.

Make a list of at least 10 potential mentors, along with the office locations (a departmental secretary can be of great help with this if locations are not on the web page).  They will also know if someone is on sabbatical or otherwise not reachable).  Identify your top three, and read at least one recent research paper the faculty member has published in the past year. If you cannot access a paper you are interested in, ask a reference librarian to assist you – they can show you how to access papers at no cost.

Now that you have your list and have read the papers, you should go to the faculty member’s office to ask for an appointment to come back and talk about potential research projects. Faculty get hundreds of emails a day and if you email, it may get lost in the shuffle! A personal approach is always the best.    Do not assume the faculty member is free at that time; you are there to make an appointment at their convenience.  Make sure that even though you are only asking for an appointment, you have read a paper of theirs just in case you get invited in. Don’t go unprepared. Take an unofficial transcript in case they want to see what courses you have had, as well as a resume that shows that you are a hard worker, and a copy of your course schedule for the semester you are inquiring about.

When you have the appointment, be prepared to answer the question “Why do you want to do research on my project?” You won’t be able to answer this with out having read a paper or two and giving it some thought.  What is it about this particular project that interested you? What can you offer – hard work, willingness to be as helpful as possible, etc.. Also, know up front how many hours you can contribute to the research – 8-10 hours a week? What days, blocks of time?

There are many reasons why someone you have selected may say no to your request.  That is why you have 10 people on your list. If you get 9 nos knock on the 10th door. If you get 10 nos, make an appointment with Drs. Bissell or Shreves, and we will help you with your search.
Be polite, persistent, and passionate!

Getting off to a good start

There a several things to do as soon as you are accepted by a research mentor to ensure a successful experience:

1. Have a meeting at which you ask your mentor what his or her expectations for you are. This includes numbers of hours they are expecting, the schedule of hours, how often you should have a face-to-face meeting to update your mentor on your progress, how often your mentor wants e-mail reports, if your mentor wants any products turned in (a paper, report, etc…).  It is critical that you are on the same page with respect to what is expected of you, and this must be explicitly discussed to avoid misunderstandings later. Share with your mentor your expectations for the experience as well.

2. Keep the agreed upon schedule. Having a test or a paper due is not a reason to miss your research hours. Plan ahead and work around your other obligations. Your letter of recommendation at the end of the experience won’t say you are dependable if you take off every time something else comes up.

3. If you don’t understand something, ask.  If something is explained to you – take notes and learn it so you don’t have to ask again.  This is a learning experience so treat it like any other – do your homework and learn what you need to do the project.

4. If the project is not meeting your expectations, discuss it respectfully with the mentor. Maybe you have learned a technique and are ready to do more. Maybe you would like to add another facet to the project. Be sure that you engage in open and frequent communication with your mentor.

5. Meet all deadlines given.

How to have a successful research experience

Now that you have begun research and are keeping your schedule and are in regular communication with your mentor, snags can occur.  Sometimes (many times), the project does not go as planned. This can be because a piece of necessary equipment broke, the IRB approval didn’t come in, or it just isn’t going as planned. Failure is the very essence of research.  When snags arise, discuss them with your mentor. You may need to redefine the project or scale back the expectations. As long as snags are openly discussed, this is ok.

If you get into something that is over your head and you are struggling to understand, again, discuss it with your mentor.

Know any deadlines you are given, any requirements you have, and meet them.

Tips on publishing your research

Many undergraduate researchers have the opportunity to be a co-author on a professional journal article. You should ask your research mentor if this is a possibility for you.  If not, there are other opportunities for you to get published. Look at the links below.

It is your responsibility to be aware of the ethics involved in publishing research. A useful guide about plagiarism that is applicable to all students is the The Code of Academic Conduct. Ignorance of the rules is no excuse so take the time to familiarize yourself with this.

Publishing & Presentation Opportunities

  • Journal of Science and Health at the University of Alabama 
This student-produced interdisciplinary journal is written, edited, and published by undergraduates at the University of Alabama. JOSHUA is published once a year and features articles covering a wide range of topics, including but not limited to biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and mathematics.
  • Undergraduate Journals and Conferences Directory
    
The UJCD lists journals, electronic and paper, and conferences, that will consider undergraduate student essays, research papers, poetry, short fiction, photography, cartoons, art, etc., for publication.

Presenting your research

Doing  research is only half the experience – communicating your results to others is a key element in scholarly research.  As a UA undergraduate researcher, you have several opportunities to present your research.

  1. UA hosts its own Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities Conference each spring. Students across academic disciplines are encouraged to submit their finished research papers or works in progress for review for presentation.To find out more, check out the conference website: http://ovpred.ua.edu/urca/
  2. The Council on Undergraduate Research hosts a national conference open to undergraduate researchers across the country, NCUR. NCUR is an excellent opportunity to present your research as well as get feedback from other faculty members and students and connect with graduate recruiters. To find out more, check out the conference website: http://www.cur.org/ncur_2016/.
  3. Opportunities for Travel Support.  Some students have the opportunity to present a poster at a professional society meeting or at a regional or national conference.  Talk to your research mentor to see if this is a possibility for you. If so, you may apply for a travel award of amounts ranging from $300-$1000 depending on the funding source. Your first step is to ask your mentor about available funds within your department or college and then look for external funding sources such as the SGA or the Office of Research and Economic Development. Each year, the SGA awards research grants to undergraduate students who are looking for funding to conduct their research or present their research. For more information, contact Steven Spellmon at stspellmon@crimson.ua.edu.