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3 Ways to Get Involved In Research As an Undergraduate Student

I’m writing this blog post as an UNBC undergraduate student and UNBC Research Ambassador to share three potential paths you can take to get involved in research. I’ve been able to see all three of them in action, personally and through friends.

The process of getting involved in research can seem daunting, especially when you’re an undergraduate student with limited experience. Despite this reality, the potential benefits are high: boosting your resume; making money; increasing your academic knowledge as you apply concepts from class to the real world; refining the soft skills that will help you interact professionally; and improving your future applications to medical school, graduate school, and other post-undergraduate programs. It’s also easy to think of research as an exclusive and difficult club that is meant for “other” people (that’s what I used to think), but in fact all you truly need to start is enthusiasm for knowledge; if you don’t have the exact set of skills necessary, working with the right research mentor will allow you to develop them.

Here are the three paths – Don’t limit yourself to just one idea, either – exploring multiple avenues can open doors to places you’d never expect to find yourself!

Method 1: Applying to positions on the Student Research Opportunities page on the UNBC website

I’ll start off with the most obvious option: simply applying to research opportunities found on the the UNBC website. On the Student Research Opportunities page you can see which professors are looking for students and can then contact them directly with your CV. The e-mail you send is a way to make yourself stand out from the crowd; even if you don’t have direct experience with research we all have applicable skills. In research positions I’ve applied for (successfully), I’ve talked about my ability to work in a team and my love for working with community at my job as a barista, extra classes I’ve taken outside of my direct degree requirements that show interest in the topic at hand, and specifically what piqued my interest from the papers the profs have written.

A secret about this page, though, is that it doesn’t contain all the potential research opportunities available at the University. Sometimes professors will send out an e-mail to their colleagues to forward to students they think would be a good fit for a research study and others don’t necessarily need an extra student but would happily add a student to their team who shows interest. That’s why it’s important to try different methods at getting involved such as the next ones I describe!

Method 2: Approach a potential supervisor with a research award in mind you’d like to apply for

Oftentimes funding is a limiting factor in research. Although many research experiences are volunteer-based, having funding may let you work fewer hours at other jobs so you can focus on doing research and funding could help you create your own research project. If you navigate to the research page on the UNBC website and then click on “Research Funding” on the sidebar, you’ll be able to find different undergraduate research awards including the Undergraduate Research Experience Award, Research Project Awards, and the International Student Research Award, all of which are available to undergraduate students.

After reading the guidelines you can approach a potential supervisor with you CV and ask if they’d support you in applying for the funding and creating a research project. Oftentimes it’s easiest to ask a professor you’ve already taken a class with, but it’s also possible to ask a professor you haven’t met before if they’re in the field that interests you. If you aren’t sure what to say, you can ask me or one of my fellow UNBC Research Ambassadors to help you out with an e-mail template.

From here the professor might already have a research project in mind they haven’t gotten the chance to work on, have a larger research project they’re already working on, or they could even supervise you as you conduct a literature review. That last one might not sound as fun as the others but it’s a great way to discover a research project you can carry out in your graduate studies! Of course, it’s also possible they might not have time to supervise a student, or may want you to come up with your own research idea that’s related to their knowledge base. 

Method 3: Expand your network and then see what happens  

This is the method I found success with in finding my first research opportunity as a third year undergraduate student. I went to a speaker event that I saw posters for around the school and then talked to the speaker afterwards, telling her I thought the research she was a part of was really interesting. She then asked if I wanted to volunteer on the team, and I said yes! Volunteering has helped me get a summer internship at the University of Alberta, gain presentation skills by presenting at UNBC’s 2019 Research Week, secured me a killer reference for future applications, as well as gained me a mentor that has helped me figure out my future career goals. All of these things likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone to that one speaker event after class!

Another UNBC Research Ambassador, Zach, has written a whole other blog post on networking so please check it out on our website. Some ideas to start expanding your research network include asking your professors, lab instructors, and classroom guest speakers about their research and then potential opportunities if it turns out you’re interested in the topic their researching. Other options include going to speaker events that you’re curious about and joining clubs. Another place I’ve found success is by talking people who are closer to my peer group but a couple years ahead of me in terms of experience.

I’m sure there are many different methods of getting involved in research and I hope by outlining 3 methods and showing some of the benefits I’ve helped you start brainstorming how to start your research journey. Since research is the creation of new knowledge in a format that can be shared with others, it’s so powerful and therefore it’s essential that all type of people are involved in it. Knowing this, I encourage you to put yourself out there even if you don’t think you fit your idea of a “typical” researcher. For some extra guidance, please feel free to e-mail the Research Ambassadors at ResearchAmbassadors@unbc.ca to book a virtual meeting so we can talk the potential research paths you can take.

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Blog Research Opportunities

Research Networking for Undergraduate Students

A common question I have been asked this year has been, how do I go about talking to faculty about getting involved in research? As an undergraduate student, it can seem unclear where to start when it comes to seeking out research opportunities, and especially unclear when thinking about how to broach the topic with faculty. The classic catch-22 applies. You want research experience, but you do not know how to go about talking to faculty about getting involved in research because you have never been involved in research!

I recently got hired as a part-time research assistant, an opportunity I was made aware of by another professor I had worked with. Upon contacting a different professor to ask if they would be willing to provide a reference for me, they let me know that they would have been glad to have me as part of their research team as well. My head instantly swelled three sizes. While I consider myself fortunate to have gathered the research experiences I have had thus far, the one thing I would give myself credit for is diligently networking with UNBC faculty. Since beginning my studies at UNBC, I have made a concerted effort to get to know not just the instructors in each one of my courses, but virtually any UNBC faculty member who has crossed my path. I have gone to such lengths as inviting myself to department meetings, sending out cold e-mail invites for coffee meet-ups, being overly boisterous in class, and accosting instructors as they are waiting in line at Tim Horton’s. When a faculty member is familiar with you as a person, they are likely to be much more responsive to you inquiring about research opportunities. They may even come straight to you if they have an opportunity to offer! While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend some of the shameless networking strategies that I have employed, here are some simple things you could start doing tomorrow to become a better research network-er.

1. Go to your instructors’ office hours. This is a no-brainer, but something I find most students are reluctant to do. One of the privileges of attending a small university is the potential to spend large amounts of one on one time with your instructors. Without having experienced a larger university, it can be hard to know just how good you have it at UNBC. When I was studying at the University of Alberta, I used to have to wait in line outside instructors’ offices for thirty minutes. Once I got in, they would kick me out after five. For this reason, the only times I would slink up to my instructors offices would be to collect my graded exams. At UNBC, there has never been a time where if I so desired, I was not able to talk to a professor during their office hours. If you are serious about getting to know an instructor, and allowing them to get to know you, there is no reason for you not to be attending their office hours several times each semester.

Won’t they get tired of seeing my face if I go too often?

Well, that depends. The most important thing to be mindful of is that you not treat them like an object, especially given the fact they have set aside this special time of day to put themselves at your mercy. A good way to humanize your office hour interactions with instructors is to genuinely ask them how their day is going before getting to the main business of your visit. As you get to know them a bit better, making a bit of small talk at the beginning of your meetings will start to come more naturally. A personal favourite technique of mine is to comment on one of the books on their shelf. Like, do you actually ever read these? Or are they just here for show? Mind you, I am not endorsing brown-nosery. Any lighthearted conversation you attempt to make in an instructor’s office hours should be genuine. This genuineness will create the impression you see them as a person, and not a walking grade receptacle or fire-breathing dragon.

2. Read work produced by UNBC faculty. Goodness help me if you are not already reading the work of faculty whose research you want to get involved with. Not only will this instill within you a tremendous sense of UNBC pride, it is absolutely necessary preparation should you propose to work with a faculty member, or vice-versa. If you don’t have any particular faculty member you feel you might want to work with, endeavour to reference the work of UNBC faculty in the research assignments you complete as part of your regular coursework. This is a good way of familiarizing yourself with work you might want to get involved with. Your instructors will probably love it, too. In fact, I can tell you that doing exactly this resulted (I believe) in securing the research position I previously mentioned. When writing the cover e-mail to the faculty member in question, I was able to say that I had cited their work multiple times in a paper I had written the previous year. Once again in the interview, I was able to reference aspects of their previous work that I was interested in. Obviously, if you ever secure an interview for a research position, you should learn as much as you possibly can about that faculty member’s research. In my case, I think the interviewer was impressed that I had previously taken a voluntary interest in their research.

3. Don’t burn bridges. Every student could tell you of an instructor that they do not see eye to eye with. If at all possible, it is best to avoid entering into some sort of prolonged dispute with an instructor, even if they are definitely not someone you could see yourself working with in the future. This is especially important at UNBC, where a difficult student’s reputation is that much more likely to spread throughout an entire department. Granted, there are circumstances where discussing the outcome of an assignment or giving some constructive criticism about an instructor’s teaching methods is appropriate and necessary. When these situations arise, here are some best practises you ought to follow. Firstly, do not attempt to resolve the issue solely via e-mail. This will come across as passive-aggressive. The best way to resolve an issue is to talk face-to-face. You can initiate the discussion by e-mail, but if you are not willing to follow that up with an office visit or phone call, the instructor in question will have much less reason to take time to address your comment. The silver lining of such action is that, if it is just a minor quibble, the instructor may even appreciate you all the more for actually coming and talking to them. Secondly, do not blame and complain. Try to think in terms of a mutually beneficial solution or piece of constructive criticism. Consider, how will my bringing up this issue make my instructor’s life, and those of their current and future students, easier in the future? If your instructor was to change they way they handled this assignment or exam, would it result in a better teaching and learning experience for all involved? This advice only applies to matters which you consider to be subjectively academic in nature. Other matters, such as those related to academic misconduct or unprofessional behaviour, are beyond the scope of this article.

4. Pay attention to the news. Pay special attention to the news as it relates to the research interests of those faculty members you hope to work with. This may seem like an odd recommendation at first, but I have never met an instructor who did not appreciate a student who kept up with current events. I have had multiple classes where an instructor designated part of the lecture specifically to discuss the news. In others, there are often times where an instructor will bring up a news item, giddy with excitement, only to be let down by an entire class that has no idea what they are talking about. If you can be the one student who is able to chime in when this occurs, you will carve out a special place in your instructor’s heart and mind. I would argue that paying attention to the news as it relates to the course material is almost as important as completing the assigned readings or problem sets (perhaps more-so in the social sciences and humanities). Staying up to date on the news will also aid you immensely as you try to make small talk in your instructors’ office hours ;). Just trust me on this one.

5. Stay ‘engaged’ in class. I cannot stress this enough! It would be unhelpful of me to recommend that you simply ace a particular instructor’s class at will. That said, there are ways of behaving in class that demonstrate your reliability, enthusiasm, independence, and initiative. What faculty member would not want to work with a student who exemplified these qualities? While you may be hard-pressed to knock off an A+ in a particular course, there are other outputs which you have more control over. The obvious ones are showing up on time, completing the assigned readings and problem sets, and attending office hours. For online learning, staying engaged could mean turning your video on if you are comfortable doing so, muting your mic until you need to speak, and not getting up from your keyboard every ten minutes (I have been guilty of all of these things). These are fairly obvious. Some more nuanced examples include preparing insightful questions to ask on the topic of the day’s lecture; being responsive, but not rude or overbearing, to your classmates’ comments; trying to take a leadership role in group assignments; and completing any optional assigned material. In seminar courses with a participation component, doing these things will probably pay off for your grade as well.

If you can start doing all of this, I guarantee you will have a better shot at getting involved in research at UNBC. Of course, one last thing you could do is get in touch with your friendly neighbourhood research ambassadors. Send us an e-mail at : ‘researchambassadors@unbc.ca’. Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests, and we will do our best to help!