Searching for a Research Experience as a Community College Students


Searching for a Research Experience as a Community College Students

a person wearing purple latex gloves holding a pipette and the words ready, set, pipette
a person wearing purple latex gloves holding a pipette and the words ready, set, pipette

—from the Lab Manager's bench

I originally wrote this post on Quora to answer the question, "How do I get involved in undergraduate research while still in community college and working on my general education?" This version is slightly different from the one I posted on Quora.

You might feel that your options are limited but you probably have more than you think.

As a undergraduate, you might be able to do a project directed by faculty on campus, start an independent project, or go off campus for a summer research experience. (Summer research experiences for undergraduates are sometimes refereed to as REUs. Knowing that will help you during a search.)

Not all research mentors advertise for undergrad researchers, so when there are active research programs on your campus those opportunities might not be widely known. You can ask some peers if they are aware of any opportunities, but you'll probably need to invest more in the search.

First, ask your academic advisor if they know of any specific programs, or if they are aware of any professors on campus who have directed an undergrad research project Follow up with anyone they mention as soon as you can. On campus positions will be competitive so you'll want to connect right away. You might want to drop by a professor's office hours or contact through email. If you choose email, here are a few tips to help you write an email that gets noticed--in a good way Guest post: Tips on Emailing a Professor to ask for a Research Opportunity

If those suggestions don't work, or you’re not interested in the opportunities, ask at for suggestions from at least three professors who teach classes related to research subjects you're excited about. You might learn about on campus opportunities, or off campus research programs that other students at your college have participated in.

Considering an off campus summer research experience

Even if there are research opportunities on your campus, consider going off campus through a summer internship program at another college, research center, government or industry lab.

Know that many of these are paid positions. Although you won’t get rich through any of these programs, they will likely cover room, board, travel to and from the research site, possibly to a scientific meeting, and provide a modest stipend as well. Some programs include classes, and some are all research. Most last 8 to 10 weeks during a summer.

Starting your search for a summer research experience in the fall semester or early spring is important. Many applications require recommendation letters, a personal statement, and the due dates are months before the program starts. You can read more on how to search for an undergrad summer program in this article New Year's Resolutions and Summer Research Applications.

Other tips

  • Don’t let your lack of research experience discourage you from searching for a position. Most undergrad researchers start with little or no research experience. Research mentors want students who are genuinely interested in the research program, have the ability to uphold the time commitment, and those who want to learn and contribute starting from Day 1.

    Once you arrive in the lab, your labmates will teach you what you need to know. For a little on what to expect when you start a new research experience, check out 10 Things to Expect Your First Semester of Research

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of connecting with your professors on campus during the school year. Try to cultivate professional, mentoring relationship with at least three faculty members who will be able to write recommendation letters for you.

    You’ll need these letters for several reasons during and after your college career, but the letters will be a key advantage if you apply for off-campus research programs. Students with strong letters are more competitive than students with lukewarm letters or those written by a professor who doesn’t know the student well--even if the student performed well academically in class.