Frequently Asked Questions

How to Get Selected

Question: What are faculty likely to expect from me if I do undergraduate research?

Answer: Faculty expectations vary widely with the individual, the discipline, and the specific nature of the research project. Consequently it is extremely important to clarify expectations upfront whenever possible. In the sciences and engineering, if you participate in undergraduate research during the summer months, faculty are likely to expect student researchers to dedicate about 40 h/week for a period of eight-to-ten weeks during normal daytime hours ( 9 am to 5 pm). Depending on the size of the research group and/or program, you may also be expected to attend other activities including safety training, group meetings, seminars, workshops, field trips, etc. You may also be expected to submit written and/or oral progress reports and at the end of the project to submit a final paper and/or make a final oral presentation.

Choosing a Research Topic

Q: Where could I find some examples of undergraduate research projects?

A: Examples of past undergraduate research projects in a wide range of disciplines on the Council of Undergraduate Research Website

Selecting a Research Advisor

Q: What if I choose an advisor and things don’t go well. Can I switch advisors?

A: Yes, of course! Sometimes it may be necessary to switch advisors and/or research groups. First be sure to try to work with your advisor to address any differences and see if you can’t make things work. If you decide to switch labs, remember that it is always best to leave on a positive note.

Literature Searching

Q: What do I do if I can’t find anything published in the literature on my topic?

A: It just may be possible that there isn’t any information on your research topic. However, it may also be that you have defined your search too narrowly or that you haven’t recognized the nature of your project. If the work has great commercial value, then you may need to focus on the patent literature. If the work enjoys governmental support, you may need to focus on government documents. Try to think outside the box. If you are unsuccessful in identifying any relevant resources, consult your science librarian, who is an expert in information retrieval and who may be able to suggest some creative approaches toward identifying resources for your project.

Q: There are literally thousands of papers published on my research project in the literature. I feel so overwhelmed and I don’t know where to start. What should I do?

A: First, this is a very normal situation. If you are working on a hot topic, it is highly likely that a lot of your peers are, too. Start small. Limit your search even further than you already have. If you have already used two or more terms in your literature search, consider adding additional limiting considerations as well such as:

  • time frame (look at the last year or the last five years)
  • type of literature (limit yourself to review articles or technical articles, meeting abstracts, etc.)

Keeping a Lab Notebook

Q: I forgot my notebook today. Can I just jot my notes on a piece of paper and transfer the information to my notebook later?

A: First, you should never remove the laboratory notebook from the laboratory for any reason unless you need to do some of your work in another laboratory. No, you shouldn’t jot your notes on pieces of paper, paper towels, or other materials as you are highly likely to misplace these. You are also likely to incompletely transfer the information later when and if you do copy the information into your notebook.

Q: I want my notebook to be neat. I would prefer to use scrap paper initially and then transfer the information later when I have more time into my permanent lab notebook. Is this OK?

A: No, it really isn’t acceptable. First, no one expects your lab notebook to be a piece of art. It should be legible but it need not be “perfect.” What it does need to be is a complete record of what you did when you actually did it. If you make your notes on scratch paper, it is highly unlikely that your notebook will be an accurate and complete record of what you did. Too often people either simply misplace the scrap paper and/or they incompletely transfer the information because they simply forgot the details and/or they never actually wrote them down in the first place. The bottom line: Always write everything directly in your lab notebook at the time that you do the work.

Q: I am working on several different projects at the same time. Should I use one notebook to document all my work on these projects or should I use separate notebooks for each project?

A: Ideally separate notebooks should be used to record the progress you have made on each. Speak with your advisor about this issue and follow their directions.

Time Management

Q: I have an examination and need to spend my time preparing for the exam. I really want to just forget about going to the laboratory this week. What should I do?

A: Make an appointment to speak with your advisor. I can’t guarantee their response but every research advisor wants to see his/her undergraduate researchers succeed both in the classroom and in the research laboratory. It is important to touch base with your advisor as he/she may have deadlines to meet. It is also simply the mature, responsible thing to do. I can’t guarantee that your advisor won’t be disappointed. However, if you don’t tell him/her about the exam and if you simply don’t show up to lab then I can guarantee that he/she won’t be very happy.