Undergraduate Research (FAQs)
In summary, requirements are:
- Each experience must have a UMass Amherst faculty sponsor who monitors, ensures quality control, and grades the experience. The faculty sponsor also establishes the nature of the assignment/project to be submitted by the student.
- Each site must designate a sponsor for the student experience. This person has daily contact with the student and is aware of their work performance.
- Credit ranges from 1-6 based on the faculty sponsor’s judgment of the work being accomplished. Credit may be earned two ways: (a) via Chem 388 or 499Y/T a requirement for BS students non-honors and honors respectively or (b) 196, 296, 396, or 496. The independent study for freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors respectively.
Q: I'm interested in chemistry, materials science, or biological chemistry research, but I don't know where to go or what to do. Can you give me some advice?
A: There are lots of opportunities on campus in many different fields. Many opportunities are available in the Chemistry Department. First off, remember that almost every technological or biological advance being pursued in “the real world” depends vitally on chemistry. As an undergraduate, you have the opportunity to ask faculty and their research groups about how their work is connected to scientific questions that interest you. Second off, undergraduate research gives you the direct opportunity to contribute to answering important scientific questions. “Research” in chemistry does not mean simply going to the library and digging up known information to be assembled into a paper – chemistry is a “do it” area, which involves gaining new knowledge through experimentation, high level simulations, or high level theory.
Occasionally, undergraduate projects may be available through the Departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Chemical Engineering, Polymer Science & Engineering, and Physics. If you have an interest in a particular group in one of these other departments, you should check with the Undergraduate Program Director or the Undergraduate Research Advisor in advance for the “latest” on such possibilities.
The best place to start looking for topics that interest you, is on departmental research web pages. You can find descriptions of research projects that faculty already have going. Most are willing to take undergrads, especially after their sophomore year. Do some reading, and when you find something that you think is interesting, go talk to that prof. See the research page on directions on how to do so.
Talking to other undergrads who are already in research groups is also a good way to find out more about different groups.
Q: When “should” I be thinking about doing research?
A: Ideally, undergraduate Chemistry majors begin research late in their sophomore year or in first semester junior year. Sophomore Seminar gives a very good introduction to research in the department.
The earlier one starts, the earlier one gets to learn about a lot of the background info (where can I get a particular analysis? who can teach me how to run this instrument? what type of notebook do I need, and where I can I get one?) that allows an undergraduate to become seriously productive.
Typically, one semester of undergraduate research is just enough to let the student know a bit about what research is like, and for a professor to figure out if the student is well suited to do their type of research. Additional semesters of research give the experience that make an undergraduate ready for highly competitive science jobs or for the best graduate schools.
Q: If I do research over the summer instead of taking a job, how will I get money?
A: Undergrads often get paid to do research over the summer (research during the academic year is normally done for course credit instead). Stipend policies vary quite a bit – some faculty have funds available specifically to support undergrads, some have money they're willing to spend if a good student comes along. It is important to ask about this well in advance. Also, your chances for paid summer research jobs go way up you have already proven yourself with at least one semester of research in an established group.
Summer REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programs on campus and off campus are usually announced during January-February before the appropriate summer. (See the REU/Internships page.) These REU’s provide a stipend for support, and sometimes provide housing as well, typically for 10 weeks of full-time research with a professor’s group. REU programs typically have an application process that requires multiple references, and can be quite competitive, so you should apply to more than one program.
The summer after sophomore or junior year is a good time to do an REU program. Keep this in mind as you plan.
Q: How do I find out about summer research internships and REU programs?
A. Usually, such opportunities start circulating in the late fall through January-February of the following year. So, November-December-January-February is the time to look hard for such opportunities and apply, if you want to find out. Check the REU/Internships page and read your email from the Undergraduate Program Coordinator, they email Chemistry Majors with this information.
Q: I have almost no experience. Is research with a graduate group really something I can do?
A: Absolutely! It is good to be at a university, because there are many people who can help you out, and will be happy to do so. People in a single research group typically have different levels of experience and background ranging from starting undergraduates, to graduate students, to postdoctoral research associates, to professors. Everyone leans from one another; everyone is able to help one another.
You may get interested in a group’s work by reading a research page, or by talking with a graduate or undergraduate TA, or listening to a professor. Ultimately, if you have serious interest in a professor’s research work, refer to the Research page about joining a research group.
Q: Talk to a prof? What should I say?
A: Maybe something like "I read this and I know a little about it and I think it's neat and I'd really enjoy working on this, plus I'm a good and responsible student who wants to find out what it is like to do science." But, it will help much more if you can say a few things about what specific interest in a professor’s work drew you to him or her. This may be because you like his or her lectures, or you read their research page and liked the work on (place your topic of interest here). Details of what interested you are more helpful to help a prof decide whether he or she has topics that might be suited to you as an undergraduate researcher. For more detailed directions see the Research page about contacting a potential research advisor.
Q: Isn't it more efficient to just send an e-mail to every prof on campus?
A: No, the personalized approach is best. Professors get e-mails every day from across the world. They do not get approached by a UMass Amherst undergraduate every day. They know the quality of our students. They respect those who gather the courage to ask about a research position, because every one of them did the same thing once (or more than once, most likely).
Q: By research, you mean I'm going to be stuck washing someone else's test tubes?
A: Absolutely not. Most faculty in the sciences will encourage undergrads to get involved in the science going on in their research group — some get undergrads going on their own project or involved as a partner in a multi-person project right away, while others ease them in more slowly — it depends on the nature of the work and the style of the prof. Some research is technically very challenging to do, and requires much time and experience to be able to perform safely. Feel free to ask what sort of things you would have the opportunity to do, and with whom you would be likely to work. Most likely, you would be working with graduate or postdoctoral members of a group for most of your time as an undergraduate researcher.
Q: I thought maybe I would be working one-on-one with a prof. So, what's a research group?
A: Most faculty members in the Chem Department have active research programs that include a group of graduate students (most working toward their Ph.D. degrees) postdocs (who have graduated from another university with a Ph.D. or similar degree), undergrads, and occasionally other people like visiting professors or students, area high school and community college teachers, etc. Some groups have two or three members, some have over 20. Larger groups usually have some sort of hierarchy, with postdocs and experienced grad students often taking much of the supervisory responsibility for younger workers. In smaller groups the prof generally has more direct interaction with the other group members. Research groups normally concentrate on a few specific areas — group members generally work on different, but related, projects that have the same general focus.
Q: How do I design a research project? I don't even know where to start.
A: Fortunately, you don't have to (at least if you're going to work in the sciences) -- nobody expects undergrads to develop their own research project from scratch. If you work in chemistry, you might start out working closely with a grad student or postdoc, then get more independence. After gaining a little experience, most undergrads will get to dig into their own project or become a partner in a project that involves a few people (i.e., their own niche in a broader effort within a research group). The training needed to design and carry out a meaningful research project is embodied in graduate work toward a PhD -- undergrads simply don't walk into a lab able to do this. With a little experience, however, most start to design their own experiments, and think about the direction their project is headed. At that point, an undergraduate researcher is becoming a true undergraduate scientist.
Q: Is it safe for undergraduates to do high-level chemistry research?
A: Much chemistry research involves some degree of risk, especially for untrained individuals. Chemistry majors are supposed to be gaining necessary training, in a supervised environment.
Undergraduate Chemistry majors are supposed to get basic safety training in the beginning of Chemistry 267 (Organic Chemistry for Majors), which typically is at the start of the sophomore year. Campus Environmental Health & Safety personnel do the training. You will learn about safe work habits, proper waste disposal, and how deal with small fires or chemical spills. Yearly online training updates are required to work in a research lab after this initial training.
The one, most important way for such work to be safe, is for you to remember that you should ALWAYS ASK IF YOU ARE NOT SURE. In fact, you should probably always check to be sure, even if you think you are sure what to do.
If you ask about safety concerns, if you ask for supervision when doing a new procedure, you should never work alone in a lab, then you should be quite safe as you are learning real research methods in a real research lab. Always talk to your prof, when unsure.
Q: What academic credit can I get for doing undergraduate research, and what course numbers are appropriate?
A: See the undergraduate students' research page for details.
Q: Can I get academic credit for paid summer research in an REU, internship or coop program?
A: At this time we do not award academic credit for paid summer research in an REU, internship or coop program.