Step One: Narrow your interests
Before searching for potential mentors, determine what you might like to study. Interested in Biology? Physics? Psychology? Math? UW–Madison has an extraordinary number of opportunities across all these disciplines. Reflecting on your interests and exploring different research groups will help you understand which topics interest you the most within broader areas of study.
If you are interested in undergraduate research opportunities, what’s motivating you to get involved? Consider the influence of the factors below on your research pursuit.
- Academic Major
- Academic Goals
- Career Aspirations
- Extracurricular Interests
When looking at a particular research area, try asking yourself, “how does this field fit with my major/career?”, “what about this field aligns with my interests?” or “why is this field better for me than another?”. This stage in the process is also a great time to discuss your interests with family, friends, and advisors. Those who know you well may illuminate interests you have difficulty identifying.
Additionally, you can explore the UW Experts Database to read interviews and articles about exciting research on campus using a keyword search. You might also look for inspiration in pop culture. Watch a documentary or a sci-fi movie and see what intrigues you. Think about which parts draw your interest and which areas seem particularly mysterious. There may be a group on campus that researches that subject.
After identifying a few exciting research areas, you can brainstorm specific keywords. For example, in the broad scope of “biology,” you may be interested in “genetics” as a particular research area, or “cancer” as a disease you would like to learn more about. In the next step, this list of keywords will help you find investigators that share your passions.
Step Two: Finding Research on Campus
After narrowing your research interests, you may be wondering where to find researchers in these fields. How can you gather specific information about research groups and projects?
Below is a handy list of sites for finding researchers on campus:
Research at UW compiles valuable information about UW researchers, including areas of expertise, contact information, publications, and collaborations. Simply search by keyword/phrase to find relevant research groups across departments.
Another helpful website is the UW Experts Guide, which organizes principal investigators by research topic, making it easy to find research groups within your general interests. After selecting a research topic, you can find brief introductions to each researcher’s work and projects.
The UW Research Centers website is an excellent resource for finding opportunities on and off-campus. When you click on a particular research center, you will be directed to a page with more details about ongoing research projects at their facility.
If you have declared a major, or know which majors align with your research interests, you can search various major department websites. Each department curates a list of its faculty. You can learn more about ongoing research projects by reading departmental faculty webpages or linked research group websites.
The Graduate School Programs website links to each graduate program on campus. Graduate programs often include faculty from several departments, so you can find investigators researching a common subject, even though they may have different appointments.
The Student Job Center is the best place to look for paid research positions. The positions listed will likely include maintenance duties, like cleaning, collecting samples, or making reagents. If you are looking for an independent research project, be sure to check the requirements before you decide to apply. Research assistant positions are still an excellent way to see if you enjoy the work atmosphere. In addition, you may have opportunities to transition from maintenance tasks to independent research.
After searching these websites, you may have identified a few particularly attractive research groups. Ultimately, you will want a list of 5-20 researchers you are interested in working with, as you may need to email quite a few groups to find a research opportunity. Therefore, it is important to keep track of faculty information in a well-organized list of potential mentors. Here we have provided a Mentor Search Spreadsheet, which can help you keep track of the information you have gathered during your search.
Step Three: Sifting and Winnowing
Hopefully, you found an abundance of interesting research groups on campus. However, if you feel overwhelmed by the wealth of information you’ve assembled, don’t worry—This is the perfect time to take a step back and review your priorities. It is important to consider your time commitments, research interests, and learning needs during your search. Below are some strategies to help you refine your list of potential research mentors.
When reviewing potential mentors, it is best to start with a shortlist of candidates, usually around ten researchers. We recommend contacting five researchers at a time during each round of introduction emails (explained in the next section).
Start sifting and winnowing by re-ordering your potential mentor list by level of interest.
Assign each research group an “interest score” between one and ten, with one being the group for which you have the least interest and ten being the group for which you have the most (it’s okay to have more than one group with the same interest score).
Use your assigned interest scores to rank your list. Put the groups in descending order, with the highest interest scores at the top of the list and the lowest at the bottom.
The first ten groups are likely the best candidates for your initial rounds of introductions but be sure to save the rest of your list. If at any point you need to reach out to more research groups, it may be necessary to look further down your list.
If you are having trouble assigning interest scores, revisit Narrowing Interests for tips on introspection.
Consider learning more about the research groups before evaluating potential mentor candidates. Peer-reviewed articles can be challenging to read without context, so be sure to search for accessible media, like popular press articles and interviews. The UW Experts Guide may have useful and comprehensible info, but not all research groups are listed. Twitter and other social media platforms also host active research communities that are worth exploring.
Step Four: Email Introductions
After you have selected your top research groups, you can begin to craft email introductions. Your email is the first impression you make with potential mentors, and it is important to write professionally and concisely. Therefore, we suggest you…
- Start your email with a professional greeting. Address the research mentor as Dr. or Prof. last name. Open with “Dear,” “Hello,” “Good morning,” or “Good afternoon” as your greeting.
- Email during traditional business hours (9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Monday–Friday).
- End your email with a polite closing line, such as “I look forward to hearing from you,” “Thank you for your time,” or “Sincerely.”
- Include an email signature with your information, including your full name, major/minor, academic year (or expected graduation date), and university email address.
Consider these reflection questions as you write your email:
What is the purpose of your email?
Here you should be brief but clear about why you are emailing. If you have seen the research group posting open positions for undergraduates on their website or Student Job Center, reference that here. If you haven’t seen any specific information about recruitment (which is normal), be clear that you are interested in undergraduate research opportunities in their investigative group.
Why are you interested in their research topic and what do you hope to learn from this experience?
This is the most important part of your email and should be tailored toward each research group. Avoid generalities, like “I am interested in science, so I would like to engage in undergraduate research.” Instead, be specific about what has made you interested in a particular research group’s work. For example, you could mention the particular research projects that intrigue you, previous research you found impressive, or techniques you would like to learn more about. It is normal to encounter techniques or concepts that you don’t understand, but this gives you the chance to ask questions and demonstrate your interest to potential mentors. Generating questions from reading publications is particularly helpful during the interview phase of research-finding (discussed in section six). Essentially, this “why are you interested” part shows investigators that you made an effort to learn about their research and highlights your motivation to be part of their team, making you stand out.
Do you have any previous experience or skills relevant to this opportunity?
It’s okay if the answer is no. Focus on your interest in their research topics and what you hope to get from an undergraduate research experience. After all, you can always be trained for techniques. What matters the most to many investigators is your interest in their research, eagerness to learn, and devotion to training. Additionally, many faculty like to work with students early in their careers. If the answer is yes, elaborate on your previous experience, but be wary of overconfidence, and understand that each research group may approach techniques differently.
What is your anticipated time commitment? Would you like to earn credit? Would you prefer to volunteer?
This is where you should indicate how you would like to engage in undergraduate research. You will have the chance to further discuss options once accepted into a research group, but it is still necessary to provide a brief outline of this information in your introduction email. This gives the investigator a sense of the commitments they can expect to make during your training.
To attach or not attach
Some research groups may request specific information/documents be included in your introduction email, the details of which can usually be found on their website. Of course, including your resumé, cover letter, or transcripts in your email never hurts but may not be necessary. Unless otherwise specified, only include the documents you feel comfortable sharing in your introduction. You can find a resumé template here. If you need extra help writing your resumé, the Writing Center and Career Services have excellent workshops and one-on-one appointments to help you formalize and revise your text. Additionally, Research Peer Leaders at WISCIENCE are available to help with email and resumé drafting via one-on-one appointments and drop-in hours.
If a week has passed and you haven’t heard from an investigator, don’t be disappointed. Some researchers receive hundreds of emails every day, and it’s possible your email was simply lost in their inbox. Therefore, we recommend waiting two weeks before sending a follow-up email. However, if two weeks have passed and you are still interested in their research, send a follow-up email to restate your enthusiasm. Feel free to include any additional interests, accomplishments, or questions in your follow-up.
Step Five: Interviews
After establishing a rapport with a research group, you may be invited to interview if they have open slots for undergraduates. Investigators typically interview students to assess their fit within the research team. Of course, you are also determining how you would mesh with their research culture. The interview format is often casual and conversational but can be structured like a traditional job interview. Either way, it is important to be professional and well-prepared.
When preparing for an interview, you can start by reading a few recent publications. These often illustrate the group’s current initiatives and trajectory. Researchers will not expect you to understand every detail of their projects; however, you should at a minimum read the abstracts and grasp the main ideas/significance of their work. During the interview, you should be able to state your specific interests in their work, just like you have done in your emails, but in more detail. This means you should be able to articulate what about their research fits your interests and pursuits. Be sure to listen attentively and ask follow-up questions when appropriate.
You may also generate a few questions to ask during the interview. This demonstrates your eagerness to learn about their research topic and ability to think critically. Their answers may strengthen your resolve to study in a particular field or could point out aspects of their research that are less attractive. Either way, the information gained empowers you to make the best possible decision. Additionally, questions are a great way to gauge what you can achieve through a research experience. We encourage you to ask about expectations for undergraduate students and opportunities to publish and present research.
Remember that the interview process is just as much about them interviewing you as it is you interviewing them. Be clear about what you want from this research experience. You can ask about what your specific roles and tasks might be and how many hours you would be expected to work. You may also discuss options for compensation, including course credit or hourly wages. This is a good time to bring up long-term goals, including future professional goals and how they tie into undergraduate research. If opportunities to pursue funding (fellowships, grants, scholarships, etc.) or capstone projects are important to you, be sure to share this information. In turn, investigators may ask how long you are looking to be involved in an undergraduate research position, and while you are not committing to a timeline during the interview, you should be prepared to offer a general idea of your plans.
Overall, investigators are always looking for mentees who are passionate about their research. Be yourself, express your interests, and ask lots of questions—We know you’ll be great.
Step Six: Follow-Up
Congratulations! You’ve completed your interviews. You’re almost done. At this point, you’ve already written a ton of emails, but you’re not finished yet. Following up with researchers after your interview is the important last step in securing an undergraduate research position.
You may have been offered a position at the end of your interview, but more likely, you’re waiting to hear back over email. This is a great time to send a follow-up email thanking the researcher for their time and reaffirming your interest. These emails should be sent soon after your interview—We recommend 24 hours afterward. If you have interviewed with more than one research group, take a step back and evaluate which experience would better fit your needs. Keep in mind that the subject area is important, but the mentoring experience is paramount when deciding between undergraduate research experiences.
After some time has passed, you may begin to receive offers to join research groups. It is an extremely rewarding feeling and validating of all the hard work you’ve put into this process. You may jump at the opportunity to join a research group, but do not feel inclined to accept the first offer you receive. It’s important to think carefully about your preferences. After all, accepting a position is a commitment for yourself and the research group.
If you haven’t heard from the investigators you’ve interviewed with, that’s okay too. Feel free to reach out again after about a week. In the event that a research group is not able to accommodate you, thank the investigator for their time, ask them to keep you in mind for future openings, and inquire about opportunities with research collaborators. Oftentimes, investigators may know of other groups actively recruiting students and can direct you towards similar research.
When the time comes to accept an undergraduate research position, thank the investigator again, confirm your acceptance, and set up a time to review next steps. The onboarding process is different for each research group, but you can expect to be paired with a primary research mentor and given materials (papers, online trainings, protocols, etc.) to review before starting.
For the research groups that you decide to “turn down,” it is important to thank the investigators and inform them of your decision.