Getting Started in Undergraduate Research



By Alayna Johnson, 2019-2020 SCS Student Advising Leader:

The importance of undergraduate research can hardly be understated: not only is it the best way to build a connection with faculty on campus, it also gives you a major leg-up when applying to graduate school and industry positions. It’s the single best way to apply what you’ve learned in your lecture classes to the real world. Not to mention possible opportunities to present and publish your work. Most students are aware of the benefits of conducting research as an undergraduate, but many underclassmen aren’t sure where to start when it comes to finding a position. Here, I’ll highlight three common ways to find your first research position and point you to some resources on campus to get you started.

1. The cold email: In some cases, a simple email can be a successful first step to joining a research lab on campus. After researching few faculty on campus who you would be interested in working with, spend some time reading their recent publications before drafting a professional email expressing your interest. The email needs to succinctly explain who you are, what interests you about the professor’s research, and why you’d be a good fit for the lab. It should demonstrate a clear understanding of the professor’s work. Here’s a brief example:


Good morning, Professor Y,


I'm a third year undergraduate student in the School of Integrative Biology. Last fall, I took Integrated Pest Management with Dr. Z and became fascinated with the importance of understanding insects' behavior ecologically in order to develop better policies for the management of natural resources. If there is an opportunity to do so, I would like to do research along these lines as an undergraduate. Your work on chemical ecology, especially in regards to insects' relationships to plants, and your commitment to science education and mentoring are very inspiring to me. I see on the Entomology department's website that you have previously worked with undergraduates in a research capacity. Would you be willing to meet with me in-person to discuss the possibility of joining your research project for the Spring 2019 semester? Thank you very much for your time.




Junior, School of Integrative Biology

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Always include an appropriate address (e.g., Dr. or Professor), always send from your email account, and always use spell check. Some professors may not respond; it’s okay to send a polite follow-up a week later, but don’t take it personally if they don’t get back to you.

2. On-campus programs: A more formal option than email is to apply to specific research programs on-campus. These range broadly and could involve a professor putting out a call for researchers in a departmental newsletter or a department offering a structured research course to their students. Some residence halls and RSOs also offer research programs. Watch closely for these opportunities and apply before the deadline.

3. Off-campus programs: For some students, their first research position will actually occur off campus at a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) or similar program. In short, host universities across the country invite talented undergraduate students to conduct research on their campus for 8-10 weeks over the summer under the guidance of a professor or graduate student. For more information about this option, see my previous blog post here.

Did you know the University of Illinois has an entire office dedicated to helping you find a great research position? Check out the Office of Undergraduate Research, located on the north side of the Union bookstore. The Office posts new research opportunities weekly, offers research grants, and hosts free workshops to help you get started in research. You can also schedule an appointment with a research ambassador to get your in-depth questions answered. A program of special interest to new researchers is the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, which offers students with no prior research experience the opportunity to assist advanced graduate students with their research projects.


In addition to the campus-wide Office of Undergraduate Research, we’re lucky to have a career center dedicated to our department. SCS Career Services is located conveniently on the first floor of Noyes and can help you edit your résumé and find excellent research opportunities.