Summer 2019: Getting into STEM Research
Written By: Hana Gabrielle Bidon
Gaining research experience as an undergraduate student is a fulfilling experience. As an undergraduate research assistant, you can explore career interests, cultivate leadership skills, and develop specific skills related to your field by analyzing data and reviewing established literature. Research is also an excellent way to use your knowledge from classes in a real world setting and allows you to learn how to work independently on tasks that you are not sure how to execute.
After interviewing with several professors and a PhD student for research assistant positions, I chose to research at Cornell University’s Future Learning Lab, as it would allow me to work on developing an educational game that helps users build computational thinking skills.
Although I was ecstatic to work on an exciting and collaborative research project in the summer for the first time, I wondered what research would be like. Would I be wearing a lab coat while working in an official lab space like my sister, a chemical engineer? What would the hours be like?
Throughout my internship, I learned the answers to these questions and more - and now I’m ready to share them with you. Here’s how I learned how to land a research internship, get comfortable with not knowing where my research is heading, and gain hands-on experience with exploratory data analysis.
How to Contact Research Professors
To get into research, you must first find a research area that interests you. An excellent place to begin is your department’s website, which describes faculty interests and current research projects. After curating a list of faculty interests, you can narrow the number of professors you want to research with to about 8 to 12 professors.
To contact each professor, you can email them stating your interest in their research. Be sure to discuss, in detail, why you are interested in this professor’s research. Mention parts of their work and specific projects they’ve done that interest you. To check out their latest research projects, visit their personal website or Google Scholar page and browse through their latest papers.
Next, discuss the skills you have and how they are applicable to the position. Briefly talk about relevant coursework and projects by describing the tools and technologies that you used. Finally, state that you want to discuss this professor’s research further and learn more about what they do. Make sure to tailor your email for each professor and attach your resume so that they know what you are capable of.
I personally wrote customized emails to 11 professors and one PhD student because his research interests aligned with mine. In each email, I wrote about my interests in the person’s research and mentioned relevant side projects in addition to relevant coursework and my involvement with organizations, such as Cornell Minds Matter and Women in Computing at Cornell.
I then described where I am getting the funding for the research, which was through a summer program, and attached my resume to show my background and relevant experience. At the end, I wrote, “let me know if you want to meet me in person to further discuss my interests and your current research projects.”
Out of the 12 people I had contacted, I heard back from five of them. Don’t worry if you don’t hear back from every professor you reach out to. They can get busy and may not have the time to respond to every email they receive. That’s why I suggest reaching out to at least 8 to 12 professors, because it’s often challenging to get a professor’s attention.
How to Ace a Research Interview
If you get an email back from a professor, you will often have to prepare for an interview. Don’t worry, this means you’re well on your way to landing that research position! Typically,professors are looking to see if your research interests match their current research projects. To prepare for the interview, elaborate on the experiences on your resume and explain why you are interested in this professor’s research.
For me, the interviews were casual and lasted 15 minutes at most. The professors asked me why I wanted to research under them and then offered possible research projects that I could work on based on my interests and skills. I was interested in data science and mental health, so I built a mental health education website for the Cornell community and got involved with Cornell Minds Matter, a mental health advocacy club.
My Research Experience
Though every research experience is different, I’d like to provide my insight into my own summer research experience. Most students typically research full time for 40 hours per week during the summer, but since I was taking a summer class, I researched part-time for only 20 hours per week.
Depending on the nature of your research, you may either work with another research assistant or independently. In my case, I worked independently because my research partner and I were focused on different aspects of the game. I was conducting behavioral analysis on the user interactions while my research partner was designing the levels of the game.
Not all research has to be done in a lab. I was allowed to research in any place that I felt comfortable, so I chose to work in Gates Hall, Cornell’s Computer Science and Information Science building. On Wednesdays, I had research lab meetings with my research supervisors and partner to discuss what we had accomplished.