This page is intended to help empower students seeking research experiences. There is no one path or best approach to this process, but we hope to provide you with some effective thoughts and approaches.
What is research?
We use this term to encompass academic research and creative inquiry, which are active experiences of discovery. Everyone who pursues research will have a unique experience. Research can include numerous types of activities including: background reading and inquiry, formulating questions, developing and using methodologies, analyzing data, creating works of art, communicating new knowledge, or otherwise contributing to a field of study. These are just a few of the more common facets of research, and depending on a number of factors, your experience may include one (or more) pieces of the research ecosystem just described.
Another important part of research are the people with whom you work. Students work under the direction of a mentor, who advise and guide them through the research or creative process. Some experiences include collaboration with peers, graduate students, staff, or members of a community. Strong researchers possess curiosity, purpose, initiative, sincerity, professionalism, and an openness to serendipity.
Intangible Benefits of Research
While you can (and should) expect to learn new material under the guidance of a mentor, you’ll also learn a lot about yourself. Your interests and direction may change, and your engagement in research can help you clarify what it is you ultimately want to pursue. Whether you end up in a research-based profession or not, you will walk away from your experience more prepared to work with others and with a better understanding of yourself than before you began.
Prepare for Research
Did you know that you can start learning research skills before finding a mentor? Visit the Learning Resources available from the UVA Library to access tutorials like finding and using published works, thinking like a scholar, and starting the research process. These are found under the Do research heading, and they are free and accessible to you anytime.
Finding research opportunities
The path to involvement in research is not singular, but does require you to take the initiative and do your homework. Students may find opportunities by using department websites, looking for postings online, talking to peers, or speaking with instructors and TAs about faculty mentoring undergraduates. Keep in mind, sometimes it just takes talking to the right person at the right time to hear about a potential mentor.
- If you are an incoming first-year, second-year, or transfer student you may be eligible to apply for the UVA USOAR program. Federal Work Study-eligible students can apply to match with a faculty mentor and an opportunity to do paid research during the academic year. Find out more here.
- Paid research positions outside of USOAR may be available from time to time, in which case you may find them on Handshake.
- There are also many research opportunities outside of the University of Virginia. You can find some ideas by using the Office of Citizen Scholar Development's Awards Database.
Emailing potential faculty mentors
Unless you are meeting with a potential faculty mentor during office hours, you are going to have to send at least one email to make that initial connection. If you don’t hear back immediately, don’t give up! Faculty are people too. Sometimes inboxes fill up quickly, and responding to an unfamiliar email address may not be their top priority. You wouldn’t apply to a job without learning about the place where you may be working, and the same goes for research. Become familiar with the mentor’s research website before reaching out – what are they working on right now? Did they recently author a publication or present at a conference? Try reading something they have written, if you feel comfortable doing so. Faculty will be excited to hear that you were interested enough to learn more about their work before you speak with them.
COVID-Consideration: Communications take longer these days. Research has been disrupted. Faculty may have more responsibilities than you are aware of. You should allow more time than normal for them to respond. Feel free to send a polite email after at least ten business days, reminding them of your interest in their work and earlier email.
When writing an email to a faculty mentor, consider including some of the following suggested content. Some of these topics may be easier to answer than others, but it’s worthwhile to take time to be thoughtful and intentional about pursuing research with a mentor.
Introduce yourself, and feel free to go deeper than the basics (year, major). Why are you interested in their work? What about their research motivates you or is related to past experiences you’ve had?
Connect with them about their work. Faculty doing research are basically professional question-askers, it comes with the territory. If you are particularly curious about a facet of their ongoing work, a publication they’ve authored, or a seminar or lecture they’ve given – ask about it!
It’s okay to be transparent about your intentions or goals. Why are you interested in research with this mentor? In what capacity are you able to do work (volunteer? for-credit? for-pay?). How might research shape your life and future opportunities?
Many students try their hand at research because they see it as a requirement for admission to a post-graduate program. However, research can also provide you with a plethora of other benefits, even if you’re not sure what you want to do in the future!
Benefits of research include but are not limited to: further developing your own perspective and identity, improving your critical thinking skills, gaining a creative outlet, learning about a subject matter more deeply than you would in a regular course, and being part of a collaborative team effort.
Use full sentences, proper punctuation, address the faculty member using a formal title and last name (when in doubt you can use Professor), and use your full name in your signature.