Get Started with Research

How to Get Involved in Research

Dr. Cheri Barta helps a student find information at the Majors FairThere are many ways to get involved in undergraduate research; you may do research for class credit, as an internship, for pay, or as a volunteer. Regardless, several blocks of time (a minimum of 4-5 hours per week) are usually required to carry out your project.   

The hardest part of getting involved in research is finding a research mentor. Some students may be lucky and find a research mentor immediately. Most students, however, may need to contact several people multiple times before finding a research lab that is taking undergraduate students. Don’t get discouraged though — although getting involved in research can be the most valuable experience in your scientific career, it also takes commitment and a lot of patience.  If you are having a hard time finding an advisor or would like additional information regarding undergraduate research, please schedule an appointment with Dr. Cheri Barta, the Undergraduate Research Director. Dr. Barta's office is Room 2110 Chemistry Building, or you may contact her via email at cbarta@chem.wisc.edu, or visit the chemistry undergraduate research frequently asked questions website.

Finally, the earlier the better. We highly encourage freshmen and sophomores to get involved in research. If you start early in your academic career, you will have more chances to explore different research opportunities, more chances to develop your scientific knowledge, and more experiences to prepare you for your future career.

Steps for getting involved in research:

1. Decide what interests you.

  • Think about what chemistry classes and labs you've particularly enjoyed. Was the content of the class/lab more chemical biology, inorganic, chemical education, analytical, organic, materials, physical/theoretical, or environmental?
  • Search around to learn about what other people are researching. Look online or look specifically at the research being conducted in the Chemistry Department.
  • Attend departmental and university research forums and seminars to get an idea of what is possible.
  • Talk to your fellow classmates, your TAs, and your professors.

2. Identify faculty members that you want to work with.

After you decide what type of chemistry interests you, browse the faculty listings at chem.wisc.edu and identify four or five professors who are doing projects you would like to work on. Also, stay flexible. Sometimes professors aren’t able to take research students due to insufficient funding, limited lab space, limited personnel, etc. Don’t take this rejection personally — just move on to your next choice.   

To identify potential faculty research advisors:

  • Look at faculty members' research pages;
  • Take advantage of office hours;
  • Talk to your fellow classmates, your TAs and your professors;
  • Talk with your undergraduate research coordinator (Dr. Cheri Barta, Room 2110 Chemistry Building, 608.262.6533)

3. Contact potential faculty advisors. 

Either write a compelling, concise email or stop by the faculty member's office. if you write an email, do not write a generic email saying, “Hi!  My name is ____ and I’m interested in doing research with you. When can I start?” You’ll almost never get a response. You must put some time into this if you are serious about doing research. You can think of this process as being very similar to finding a job — it's a good idea to have a resume ready in case you are asked for it and you must always be on your best behavior (make sure you don't have spelling errors in your emails, etc.)

Hints for writing a good email:

  • Introduce yourself: "Hi, My name is _________."
  • State your purpose: "I am planning to go to grad school in chemistry and am looking to gain some research experience in a lab before I apply." OR "I’m thinking about becoming a chemistry major and would really like to get involved with research in the department."
  • Give some background: "I’m a sophomore chemistry major with an overall GPA of 3.4, and a chemistry GPA of 3.8. I have taken 103/104 and am currently enrolled in 311 and 343."
  • Talk about your interests: "I’ve always been interested in polymers and would really like to understand their environmental impact."
  • List a specific project: "I saw on your website that you were conducting research with biodegradable co-polymers and would love to learn more about this project."
  • Ask if they are taking students: "Thus, I was wondering if you are taking any undergraduate researchers this semester."
  • Ask to set-up an appointment: "If so, may I set-up an appointment to further discuss your research and this opportunity?"
  • Make sure to say thank you: "Thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing back from you."

4. Wait

Professors are very busy. If you don’t hear anything back in a week, try emailing again. If you still don’t hear back, stop by their office and ask if you can set up a meeting to discuss their research. Remember that when you communicate with professors, you must be respectful and prepared. Treat it like a job interview — make sure you do your homework before your meeting (you should know what type of research they do before talking to them, you should have an idea of what type of project you would like to work on, etc.)

5. Fill out a Chemistry Research Authorization Form (pdf) and return it to the Dr. Barta, Room 2110 Chemistry.   

Once you have found a research advisor, fill out the chemistry research authorization form. This form must be completed and returned to the Dr. Barta every semester if you are doing research for class credit, for pay, or as a volunteer.