The key to help students get valuable skills needed in the job market is gaining practical experience in their chosen field. One of those opportunities is relatively new to undergraduates — the chance to do research while pursuing their first degree.
Once the realm of graduate students only, undergraduate students are getting a chance to develop their own research plans at some Canadian universities. Research labs receive hundreds of applications for each open position, so landing a spot right out of undergrad can be difficult due to the fierce competition. However, having these kind of opportunities are key for students who want to get into medical school or other cut-throat graduate programs.
How, then, do you get your foot in the door of the ultra-competitive research industry?
CampusRankings recently caught up with Eric Parker, a fourth-year science student at the University of Windsor, to learn what it took to get the equivalent of years of paid lab experience by fourth year. Here are some of the insights we learned from Parker for students interested in getting involved themselves.
Choose a school that supports undergraduate research
If you're interested in having the chance to do your own research, it's key to pick a school that gives you the opportunity to get involved in it from the start.
"Research opportunities can be rare for undergraduate students, so when I heard about a program that allowed me choice over my research interests and paid me to do it, I was certainly intrigued," says Parker.
He's part of the University of Windsor's Outstanding Scholars program, which gave him the chance to conduct research with professors as well as get real-world experience even as an undergrad.
The best part? This experience, as well as those offered at some other schools, will even pay you for the research work you do, meaning you could graduate with much less student debt.
Pitch your own ideas
The variety of research projects that you can get involved in as a student is limited only by your ingenuity. The best programs should give you a chance to suggest your own ideas for research.
"The greatest professional benefit of the program to me was the opportunity to propose my own projects to professors of my choice," said Parker.
This also gives you a chance to take part in a lot of different facets of the field you're interested in, and even take the lead yourself.
"I've worked on developing a hybrid for mobile applications that communicate with Bluetooth multi-sensors, used very powerful circuit simulation software, and designed and built autonomous drones," said Parker.
Other students at the university have worked on projects as varied as cancer research, exercise as treatment for ADHD, devices that help the visually impaired, creating new acting exercises, and more, showing that even as an undergraduate, you can have real-world impact.
Do your research
Although not all universities offer the same kind of formal opportunities for undergrad students, Parker says that students shouldn't give up hope.
"If you read an article online or hear of a project at your school or in your community that you're interested in contributing to, contact one of the project leaders directly and explain your interest and availability to them," he said.
Even if they say no, there's still a chance that they'll consider you later for other research opportunities. You could also ask for them to connect you with other professors looking for assistance, or a different project further down the road.
Above all, it's important to be persistent, even if opportunities don't present themselves immediately. Keep your eyes open for any available positions listed in university newsletters, and get to know your professors, even if they don't need any assistance right now. That's the key to making sure you can land a position at a later date.
Gain their trust
Once you have your foot in the door, professors are likely to trust you with more and more responsibility for larger projects. And once you've impressed them, there will be chances to participate in even more of their research.
"I've seen this happen many times with good friends of mine, some of whom are now publishing their own research papers," said Parker.
Giving undergraduates these types of opportunities gives them the chance to establish their skills early on and discover new possibilities that they would never have known existed otherwise.
"I hope more universities work toward implementing a program that encourages students to develop their research background during undergrad," he said, and we agree.