Getting Selected

In this section we will consider how you go about getting selected for participation in an undergraduate research program by:

By an Individual Faculty Member


The answer is that the same characteristics that will ultimately make you attractive as a job applicant when you are graduated from college are likely to be the same characteristics that will make you attractive to a potential undergraduate research mentor. As an undergraduate, your mentor is not likely to expect you at the outset to possess the skills that a fully trained researcher in the field would have. He or she however will be interested in whether you are responsible, interested, and willing to learn. Your mentor will likely be interested in knowing what your future career plans are, what (if any work experience) you have had in the field, and he/she will likely be interested in knowing how your undergraduate research participation relates to your career plans. This person may also ask you about your academic background – what courses you have already taken in his/her field and what grades you have earned in those courses. Of course, it is important for you to answer these questions as completely and honestly as you can. If you have a weak academic record, be prepared to address this with your faculty mentor. At this meeting be sure to ask any questions you may have regarding compensation (is this a volunteer position, salaried, or research for academic credit), work schedule, etc. A list of some useful questions you may wish to ask your prospective mentor during your interview follows:

  • How many hours each week will you expect me to work in the laboratory?
  • How many weeks or months will you expect me to work?
  • What form of compensation are you able to offer me for my participation in this project?
  • If the position is salaried, what is the source of funding (industrial, federal, etc.)?
  • What will my specific role be on the project?
  • Who will be my immediate supervisor on the project?
  • What training can I expect to receive?
  • What skills can I expect to develop over the course of my participation in this project? With what instrumentation will I gain experience?
  • How will you measure my progress on the project?
  • Are there any regular group activities that you will expect me to attend?
  • Will my research be likely to result in publication and/or presentation of this work? If so, what are your rules for authorship?

Afterward, be sure to follow up with a telephone call or e-mail “thank you.” This is also a good time to address any questions you feel you may not have adequately addressed and to raise any concerns you might not have mentioned during your original interview. No matter what happens, be sure to thank the faculty member for his/her time as you never know what opportunities may arise at a later date.

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By a Summer Undergraduate Research Program


The purpose of most summer undergraduate research programs is to provide undergraduates with an opportunity to participate in ongoing research programs in the students’ field of study thereby hopefully inculcating in the participants an interest in pursuing advanced study and thereby increasing the nation’s student talent pool in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Graduate research universities often host summer undergraduate research programs in order to attract talented prospective students to apply to their graduate programs. However, summer undergraduate research programs can be found at all types of academic institutions (community colleges, four year colleges, comprehensive universities, and graduate research universities).


Applications often include the following elements:

Short answer application form

Most forms request the standard personal (gender, ethnicity, etc.), background (academic major, year of study, GPA, anticipated year of graduation, etc.), and contact information from each applicant. You may also be asked if you have had any past undergraduate research experiences. If the program uses an on-line application, print out the application form and compose your answers to each question. Proof read your answers for grammatical and spelling mistakes. When you are ready to complete the form on-line copy and paste your answers into the appropriate fields.

Official transcript

The list of the courses you have taken and the grades you have earned in those courses at your academic institution will be used to determine if you have completed sufficient coursework and have demonstrated satisfactory aptitude to successfully participate in the research programs available at the summer undergraduate research program.


Essays can potentially provide program directors with insight into your interests, background, and motivation for participating in the summer program. Essays also provide useful information on how well you write so be sure to proofread your essay before submitting it. Sometimes applicants are asked to describe their future career goals in order to learn how the applicant’s participation in an undergraduate research experience relates to those career goals. If you have a mixed or weak academic record, the essay is a good place to describe any extenuating circumstances. In addition, it is useful to remember that summer programs like to have diversity among their participants. While likely you immediately think of ethnicity and gender, there are other characteristics that summer programs look for as well. For example, if you are enrolled at an institution where there are limited opportunities for participation in undergraduate research this can also be an important consideration affecting your acceptance into a summer research program. Again, the essay is a good place to mention anything that makes you and your application unique.

Letter(s) of recommendation

One or more letters of recommendation may be required. Program directors generally use these letters of recommendation to determine whether or not you have the intellect, aptitude, maturity, independence, self-confidence, and motivation to do research. So, be sure to identify recommenders who know you and who are likely to be able to speak well of your abilities and capabilities in these areas.

Telephone interview

From a programmatic standpoint they are a useful, cost effective mechanism for ensuring a good match between the student and the summer program; Program directors are often interested in learning something about the maturity and personality of the applicant. Be enthusiastic, personable, and most of all be yourself.