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Finding Research Opportunities

How to find a research opportunity

First, decide if research is for you and if now is a good time. Research is fun and has tons of benefits but it also requires time, perseverance, and flexibility. You must be interested in asking questions, and be okay knowing that getting answers takes a long time and you may not actually produce any answers to these questions in your time here at UNCW. Some projects give you a lot of flexibility and some require a rigid work schedule (e.g., if you need to care of living organisms or use machines during specific hours). Assess what your courseload, work schedule, home life, etc are and what you can realistically take on in terms of research. Some students have success starting research in their first year at UNCW and some students need more time to get settled and adjusted to college life. Don’t force yourself to do research just because someone told you “it’s the right thing to do”.

Next, decide what areas you might want to work in. Sometimes students have passions that they wish to explore further but sometimes that passion comes just from being invested in a research question. Most professors wouldn’t say they knew as a 10 year old that they would study DNA synthesis, comparative entomology, or Irish immigration for rest of their lives. They followed what topics got them excited, were open to new topics, and pushed themselves to keep growing. Sometimes researchers follow questions or problems, sometimes they find organisms or objects of study and let those drive the questions.

Do your research. Look at department websites and read the faculty profiles. UNCW is great at interdisciplinary research so don’t confine yourself to a single department. If you’re interested in Marine Biology, look at the Biology & Marine Biology, Chemistry & Biochemistry, Earth & Ocean Sciences, and Environmental Sciences departments. Even Physics & Physical Oceanography and Mathematics & Statistics could be good resources. Identify 3-5 professors that look interesting and dive a bit deeper. See if you can find news stories about them, talks they have given might be posted online, read some abstracts of recently published papers.

You will next want to meet with them. The easiest option is to talk to professors you are taking classes with or have taken classes with. Stop by their office hours and just ask to talk about their research. Even if they aren’t the ones you end up working with, your curiosity and engagement will help you stand out in the classroom and they can likely connect you with their colleagues. Your other option is to email professors you are interested in working with. It is essential that you do not write a generic blanket email and send it to a bunch of professors. They do not like this! Take all that background research you have done and carefully craft an individual email for each professor explaining why you want to work with them. Here is some information about crafting such an email:

  • Introduce yourself and explain why you are interested in their work.
  • You can include what skills, insights, perspectives, etc you think you would bring and what you are hoping to gain (e.g., does this connect to your future plans?)
  • Ask for a meeting. You always want to meet with them before committing to anything. You want to hear about their current projects, learn about expectations, and get questions answered. You also want to make sure your personalities vibe!
  • Keep it short but be informative.
  • Be professional but also your authentic self. Address them by their formal title (Dear Professor Smith or Dear Dr. Jones). Proofread your email before sending it. It never hurts to have someone else read it and provide feedback (CSURF is happy to help you with your emails!)

Sometimes the hardest part of this process is getting professors to respond. They get busy and emails get lost (many professors get hundreds of emails a day). This is why it’s important to have a concise, well-written email. Be clear what you’re asking for (a meeting to talk about research opportunities). If you don’t hear back after two weeks, you can send a polite follow up email.

Compensation will vary with each position. Some professors will only take students when they have the funding to pay them. Some will require you to shadow someone or volunteer for a period of time.

If you are a junior or senior, you can almost always register for Directed Independent Study credits (e.g., BIO 491). Some departments offer 291 options for first- and second-year students(more information here).

But these are things that you will want to ask when meeting with professors about potential positions.

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