How to get involved in research as an undergraduate

By Associate Teaching Professor Mark Sheldon

After studying for a while, many students are curious about what CS research involves and wonder if it is something they should do. Is it right for you? Consider the following points as you weigh the pros and cons.

If you want to go to graduate school, then YES! Find out what you're getting into before you apply, sign on, and sign up. And it is a feather in your cap when you apply (especially if you have any publications).

If you don't want to go to graduate school, then maybe. It can be a great chance to work on a larger project in a non-class environment, get to know faculty and graduate students, and learn deeply about something you would likely not be able to learn about any other way. It can also look good on a resume.

If you decide to do research, it will be during the summer, during the regular school year, or both. Thus you need to have time to do it. Whether an internship or research opportunity is better is hard to say. You want to learn something, enjoy what you are doing, and prepare for your future.

If you decide that research is right for you, there are two main avenues for gaining entry into research: here at Tufts or outside of Tufts. The key in both cases is to find the opportunities, assess your own interests, and then apply.

A good way to start assessing your interests is by attending department colloquia which are advertised in the Cummings Center and via colloquia email (contact to subscribe). You'll find out what people are doing and see what excites you and, just as importantly, what does not excite you.

If you are curious about what kinds of research students do at Tufts, including in other departments, you might want to attend the Tufts Undergraduate and Research Symposium. This is an annual Tufts tradition held at the end of the academic year.

Research outside of Tufts

Research Experiences for Undergrads (REUs) are part of funded research projects that have been budgeted specifically for undergraduate participation. You can find out about what is available at the National Science Foundation (NSF) website.

Start by browsing. Find topics that interest you. Skim the list and note projects of interest (open a tab in a browser or save the URL or take notes). Then go back and review the interesting opportunities.

Things to keep in mind: Is the project large or small? Is it a new opportunity or an established program? Some REUs are part of a project that does this routinely, and they have an organized approach to bringing on new people. Some are smaller or newer, and things are less formal. Larger ones may mean you work less with the head faculty member (if at all) and more with their graduate students. That's not bad — the grad students are doing the work for the project in question, but they may be less experienced at managing students.

Ask around among your friends or try to find people who have done a program before through the NSF. They can let you know whether they support students well or whether you are expected to work on your own more.

That said, most are well-run and are great opportunities to do something you might not be able to do here at Tufts.

Research at Tufts

Be sure to check out the Summer Scholars research program for information about summer research opportunities, independent studies, and more.

Additionally, you should be aware of the Senior Honors Thesis Program. If you decide to do research, this might be a path for you. See Undergraduate Research Fund for a funding option.

You can also contact faculty about research positions. However, there are two projects you should do first. Devote 45 minutes, maybe an hour or so to each, but do them a day or two apart. That will give you time to digest what you saw and let things simmer before you come back for the second round.

Advice: Do not email or otherwise contact a faculty member and ask “Do you have research projects for students?” without doing the preparation below. You are wasting your time and theirs if you do that.

Be aware that not all faculty are looking for undergraduates all the time. Everything depends on funding, the state of current projects, and the particular goals currently being pursued.

Task 1: Option narrowing

Go to the department web page about research areas in the department. You'll get a sense of what we do in the department and you can see what areas resonate with you. Most of those items will point you to various individual faculty web pages, which will contain more information about exactly what they do. You may also go to the department faculty page to get links for faculty member pages.

If they have instructions for getting involved in their research groups, make a note of that — you'll come back to that later if you're interested in working with them.

Read up on their general descriptions. If they have project descriptions, read those, of course. Take notes on things that interest you, and, if you like, things that don't seem interesting.

  • The goal is to learn about you!
  • Don't expect to understand what you read! These descriptions are generally written for other faculty members and graduate students and frequently contain information intended for practitioners in the specific subfield of the research area.
  • Answer this: Would I like to learn more about this? Is this something that piques your interest?
  • If you have a sense of what you like, you have been successful. Take notes!

At the end of this task, you will have a list of 0–4 faculty members doing work that interests you, and maybe even a couple projects that you read about. Well done — take a break for a day or two.

Task 2: Whom should I contact?

Welcome back! You may revise your list of 0–4 faculty members after some time away. If the number is 0, then you may consider the NSF page referred to above, internships, and/or personal projects. Not everyone has to do research. In addition, our department does not cover all possible areas of interest.

For each faculty member on your list, go back to their respective web page(s). Look at their 2–4 most recent publications or more detailed descriptions of the work of their graduate students. You can concentrate mostly on the abstracts, introductions, and some items about what they actually did in the reported work.

  • The goal is to learn about you!
  • Don't expect to understand what you read! These descriptions are written specifically for practitioners in the subfield of the research area and not for a general audience.
  • Answer this: Would I like to learn more about this?
  • Answer this: Would I like to come to work every day (over the summer) or a couple times a week (during the year) and do what they're describing?
  • If you can answer these questions, you're being successful. Take notes!

At the end of this task, you should have a list of 0–4 faculty members for whom you have 1 or 2 items of interest plus notes on those things.

Take a moment to write up some questions about the project.

Task 3: Making contact

For each faculty member on your list, make contact. Start by looking at their websites. Many professors have explicit instructions about how to get involved in their research groups. If they have taken that trouble, then do what they say!

In person is probably best in general, but online is okay. You can send an email, too. Keep it short.

Start by saying you are looking for an undergraduate research opportunity. Let them know why they should keep talking or reading.

Ask your questions about their specific projects. This will:

  • Get answers to your questions, allowing you to decide whether the project is still as interesting as it seemed
  • Let them know that you did your legwork
  • Entertain both of you by starting a conversation about something you are both interested in (faculty members are people, too)
  • Ask about opportunities with those projects, what specifically you might be able to do, and how to proceed if there is mutual interest. If you are open to other projects, then express that, too.

As I said above, not all faculty members hire undergraduates and at any given time, and there may or may not be space in their groups. The above tasks are, still worth it, because you were learning about you. Even if there is not an opportunity here at Tufts, you may have discovered something of interest to you that you can pursue somewhere else, on your own, or with a group of friends.

Faculty vary widely in whether and how they hire and pay students (again, see Undergraduate Research Fund for some possible funding). Therefore, I cannot give specific advice about that. At the end of Task 3, they can tell you what happens next. They might ask you to come to their research group meetings and hang out to see whether a relationship can emerge organically. They might want to interview you for a job (or have one of their graduate students do that). Whatever it is, you are on your journey.

Remember! The goal is to learn something about you and what you might enjoy doing, and to prepare for your future.

Welcome to the research community!