One of the first steps to getting involved in research, regardless of any prior experience, is to identify a topic or area in which you are interested. With so many options to choose from, this can be one of the hardest steps. Here are some helpful questions and tips to think about when trying to pick a topic:
- What would you like to learn more about? What is the most interesting class you have taken? What was the most interesting topic or assignment in that class?
- Do you ever find yourself Googling, reading, or just looking for information about something you heard earlier in the day? This could be a potential topic area for research!
- Remember that the topic does not need to fall within the scope of your (expected) major. In fact, research that is outside your major or combines your major with another area may be more exciting than just staying in your major!
Choosing a research mentor is an important step in ensuring a positive research experience. Because of this, it is important that you do your homework. You want to not only identify a topic that interests you, but also a research mentor who is right for you.
Who can be a research mentor?
A research mentor is often a faculty member, like a professor or librarian, but can also be a graduate student or post-doctoral researcher, particularly if you join a research opportunity and are assigned or choose to work on a project they are leading. A mentor’s responsibility is to provide you with training so that you can hone your intellectual curiosity and develop into an independent researcher. A mentor will usually share their experiences with you and provide you with advice on your college career and future goals.
The kind of working relationship you have with your mentor will depend on their mentorship style. Some mentors take a “hands-on” approach; they offer instructions and training, make themselves available so that you can come to them whenever you have questions, and will meet with you on a regular basis. Others take a “hands-off” approach; you still receive training, but you are expected to complete tasks independently and to try and answer questions on your own. Meetings might occur on an as-needed basis. Still, many mentors fall somewhere in between; they start off hands-on before gradually giving you more autonomy.
As you review your options and make a list of who you would be excited to work with, make sure you also consider their mentorship style and how it aligns with your needs as a budding researcher. If you are not getting what you want from your mentor, we encourage you to speak with your mentor about what it is that you need.
Where can I find potential research mentors?
Below are some tips that you can use to create a list of potential mentors with similar research interests.
- Class – If you are enrolled in a class that is covering topics you are really interested in and you'd like to know if there are research opportunities related to these topics, talk to the professor. Visiting during office hours is a great time to ask a professor if they are currently conducting research or if they can recommend other faculty on campus who are.
- Department webpages – Some Commonwealth Campuses or departments across the University have webpages dedicated to undergraduate research. Examples of such sites include University Park Departments of Political Science and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. These pages describe what undergraduate research looks like in those areas, as well as instructions on getting involved. Should a campus or department not have a section on undergraduate research, we recommend reviewing the faculty directory for the campus or department. Each faculty entry is accompanied by their research interests or current projects, curriculum vitae or educational training, and URLs to their personal websites. We recommend reading through directories to help you learn which faculty are conducting research and where their interests are focused.
- Penn State Research Database - This database showcases research output and can be a great way to learn about the work being done around the commonwealth, especially in the sciences. Some search options include by topic, department or campus name, and researcher.
- Undergraduate Research Opportunities Database – Browse our database to find mentors from all areas across the Penn State system who are looking for undergraduate support. This list is not comprehensive, so if you do not find an opportunity that interests you, remember to refer to our previous suggestions.
- Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Mentoring Office – Email us or schedule an appointment with an adviser if you would like help navigating department websites as you search for the right research mentor.
Once you have your list of potential mentors, we recommend you contact them via email and inquire about working with them. They receive a lot of emails, which means that a short email is much more likely to be read than a multi-page email. In the email, you should introduce yourself (name, year in school, major, any relevant coursework or training), articulate what interests you about their research and what you would like to learn, and ask if they are accepting new students. Do not send the same email to every person! It may also be helpful to include a copy of your unofficial transcript and a current résumé, as well as your general availability to meet and talk with them further.
Do not be discouraged if you do not receive a response immediately. Faculty have huge email inboxes, and like all humans, will miss emails from time-to-time. A friendly follow-up email is perfectly acceptable if you have not heard back after a week or two.
It is important to note that mentors typically look for students at the beginning of a new semester so that paperwork can be filled out, which is important if you want course credit or work-study funds for your participation. However, if you volunteer, you can get involved with research any time throughout a semester.
If you are invited to talk with a potential mentor, you are asking for the favor of a person’s time and expertise. Make sure you prepare before the meeting.
- Review their personal website and current research projects again. If there are recent publications listed, try to read a few of them.
- Create a list of questions that you would like to ask. (What do you typically look for in an undergraduate research assistant? Are there other people on this project? Would I be working with you or someone else on the team? How frequently would we meet?)
- Reflect on your own interest and goals. You can expect a mentor to ask you about yourself, what your (expected) major is, and why you are interested in their work.
- Bring our Undergraduate Research Contract to help establish a communication plan and clear expectations.
We have spent a lot of time discussing ways to find the right opportunity, but it is possible that your research interests change, you want to take a semester off from research to try something new, or you want a different type of experience than what you had previously thought. It is okay to want to switch research projects, groups, or mentors. In fact, it is perfectly normal.
If you find yourself in this situation, we encourage you to talk with your mentor and share what you are thinking. If it is that you are not getting the support you need or that the experience is not what you had originally envisioned, it is important that they know this information.
If you do decide to change research groups or mentors, plan to carry out the rest of the semester and complete your portion of the project as originally planned. You will want to give them enough notice that you will not be returning that they can look for new undergraduate support. If you leave on good terms, they might not only help you locate a new project or mentor, but also still be happy to write you a letter of recommendation.