Finding a Research Mentor

Tips on Finding Research Mentors
In order to find a mentor you will need to decide what research area interests you. You may want to discuss this with your academic advisor, a professor, or a TA in one of your courses. Often they can give you ideas about faculty who are working within your area of interest. However, there are several ways you can learn of potential mentors on your own. All involve identifying a faculty member on the basis of their area of research and reading about their research before approaching them.

Visit the web pages of departments on campus. Many departmental web pages have links to web pages of individual faculty members where descriptions of their research can be found. Use a searchable database to search for a topic that interests you. One such database is the Community of Science.

Read about the research of potential mentors. The faculty web pages you visit probably have a brief overview of the research projects going on in their laboratories and research programs. In addition, many faculty web pages list some of the publications that the faculty members have authored. You may want to locate some of these publications at a campus library and read them for a more in-depth background before approaching the potential mentors. You may find that these publications are written at a level that is hard to understand, given your exposure to specific scientific areas thus far, but you will be able to get a basic idea of what the research involves by reading the Abstract and Introduction portions of the research article.

Contacting with a Potential Research Mentors
Once you have an idea of the potential mentor’s research, you are ready to contact the mentor. You may choose to do this initially by email or to send them a packet containing a letter of interest and some information about yourself. In some cases, you may be able to contact the mentor by going in-person to their office or lab or by calling them on the telephone.

In an initial contact with a potential mentor, you will want to convey some of the following information about yourself and your research interests:

  1. Background information about yourself including your name, address, phone number, email address, your area of research interest, your educational background (for example, course work in biology, chemistry, physics, computer sciences), and any previous research experience. You may find that a simple one-page “resume” is the best way to organize this information and to make a good impression on the potential mentor. Many mentors also like to see a copy of your academic transcripts.
  2. The amount of time you are able to commit to a research project. You should also indicate when this time is and give an idea of what your other weekly commitments are. Often it is helpful to show a potential mentor a copy of your weekly class and work schedule.
  3. What you read about the potential mentor’s research that particularly intrigued you. Also, you will want to identify a general area of the mentor’s research on which you might like to work.
  4. What your motivation for pursuing a research project is. For example, are you considering a career in research and looking for an opportunity to try research? Have you learned about a topic in your course work that fascinated you and you want to investigate it in more depth?

If the potential mentor you contacted does not respond to your email, phone call, or letter, you will want to contact that person again after about one week or so. If you initially e-mailed the mentor, you might want to try sending a letter this time or calling the potential mentor on the phone. Getting in touch with a mentor often takes several tries. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear back from them immediately. Keep trying! Although mentors are extremely busy people, they are almost always happy to talk to undergraduates about their research.

Once you are able to contact the potential mentor, you should ask if they received the information you sent about yourself and your research interests, restate your interest in getting involved in a research project, and ask if they might be interested in meeting with you to discuss the possibility of your working on a research project with them.

Meeting with a Potential Research Mentor
Usually when potential mentors agree to meet with you, they are interested in finding out more about you before they make a commitment about acting as your mentor. The potential mentors are probably interested in hearing about your interests in research and in judging your level of motivation and enthusiasm. Be prepared to explain what you hope to get out of a research experience, why you are interested in this mentor’s research and what general type of project interests you. Be sure to ask the mentor to describe the research projects going on in their labs and which projects would be available to you. Remember that the mentor is an expert in their field but you are only starting in this area. Now is the time to ask the basic questions that you need to understand the project and the science involved. There are also some other important questions you may want to ask a potential mentor. These include:

  1. Have you had undergraduates working in your group before? How did it work out? What are some of those undergraduates doing now?
  2. Who would directly supervise my work? Possible answers range from the professor to post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and more experienced undergraduate students. In nearly all cases, you would be assigned a supervisor and not be “on your own.”
  3. Is there potential to eventually work on my own project? Most mentors will reward hard work, reliability, and acquisition of skills by giving an undergraduate increasing amounts of responsibility and independence.

At some point in this conversation, if you feel that either this mentor or research project is right for you, you will want to ask them if they will be your mentor and allow you to work on a project you have discussed.

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Finding Research Funding
Students are encouraged to apply for thesis research support from university-wide programs such as the “Hilldale or Holstrom Awards”, special departmental research funds for undergraduates, or to the CALS Honors Program. Other sources include Book Store Academic Excellence Award and the Wisconsin Idea Undergraduate Fellowships.

Faculty researchers are a primary resource for many students. The ongoing research activities of a professor who is interested in and willing to support the research activities of an undergraduate using funding from an existing research project are a frequent source of funding used by many students.

Other faculty members who have projects supported by funding from Agencies like the National Science Foundation have an opportunity to apply for supplemental funds to provide a research experience for undergraduates (REU). Students are advised to talk with their mentor about the possibilities of support for a project they wish to pursue.

Regardless of class level or honors status, any student interested in mentored research resulting in a Thesis is also encouraged to apply for research support from the College’s Honors and Undergraduate Research Committee.

The Honors and Undergraduate Research Committee has three sources of funds at its disposal to support undergraduate research experiences. Each requires students to submit a funding proposal. If your project is approved for funding by the Committee, you are expected to present the completed results as an oral report, poster, or other format at the CALS Undergraduate Research Symposium.

You are encouraged to apply for funding from multiple sources. If your proposal is successful in more than one competition, you will need to choose which support you will accept.