Research is the pursuit of new knowledge through the process of discovery. Scientific research involves diligent inquiry and systematic observation of phenomena. Most scientific research projects involve experimentation, often requiring testing the effect of changing conditions on the results. The conditions under which specific observations are made must be carefully controlled, and records must be meticulously maintained. This ensures that observations and results can be are reproduced. Scientific research can be basic (fundamental) or applied. What is the difference? The National Science Foundation uses the following definitions in its resource surveys:
At the undergraduate level, research is self-directed work under the guidance and supervision of a mentor/advisor ― usually a university professor. A gradual transition towards independence is encouraged as a student gains confidence and is able to work with minor supervision. Students normally participate in an ongoing research project and investigate phenomena of interest to them and their advisor. In the chemical sciences, the range of research areas is quite broad. A few groups maintain their research area within a single classical field of analytical, inorganic, organic, physical, chemical education or theoretical chemistry. More commonly, research groups today are interdisciplinary, crossing boundaries across fields and across other disciplines, such as physics, biology, materials science, engineering and medicine.
There are many benefits to undergraduate research, but the most important are:
Many chemistry programs now require undergraduate research for graduation. There are plenty of opportunities for undergraduate students to get involved in research, either during the academic year, summer, or both. If your home institution is not research intensive, you may find opportunities at other institutions, government labs, and industries.
Conducting a research project involves a series of steps that start at the inquiry level and end in a report. In the process, you learn to:
Chemistry is an experimental science. We recommended that you get involved in research as early in your college life as possible. Ample undergraduate research experience gives you an edge in the eyes of potential employers and graduate programs.
While most mentors prefer to accept students in their research labs once they have developed some basic lab skills through general and organic lab courses, some institutions have programs that involve students in research projects the summer prior to their freshman year. Others even involve senior high school students in summer research programs. Ask your academic/departmental advisor about the options available to you.
The quick answer is as much as possible without jeopardizing your course work. The rule of thumb is to spend 3 to 4 hours working in the lab for every credit hour in which you enroll. However, depending on the project, some progress can be achieved in just 3-4 hours of research/week. Most advisors would recommend 8-10 hours/week.
Depending on your project, a few of those hours may be of intense work and the rest may be spent simply monitoring the progress of a reaction or an instrumental analysis. Many research groups work on weekends. Saturdays are excellent days for long, uninterrupted periods of lab work.
This is probably the most important step in getting involved in undergraduate research. The best approach is multifaceted. Get informed about research areas and projects available in your department, which are usually posted on your departmental website under each professor’s name.
Talk to other students who are already involved in research. If your school has an ACS Student Chapter, make a point to talk to the chapter’s members. Ask your current chemistry professor and lab instructor for advice. They can usually guide you in the right direction. If a particular research area catches your interest, make an appointment with the corresponding professor.
Let the professor know that you are considering getting involved in research, you have read a bit about her/his research program, and that you would like to find out more. Professors understand that students are not experts in the field, and they will explain their research at a level that you will be able to follow. Here are some recommended questions to ask when you meet with this advisor:
Here is one last piece of advice: If the project really excites you and you get satisfactory answers to all your questions, make sure that you and the advisor will get along and that you will enjoy working with him/her and other members of the research group.
Remember that this advisor may be writing recommendation letters on your behalf to future employers, graduate schools, etc., so you want to leave a good impression. To do this, you should understand that the research must move forward and that if you become part of a research team, you should do your best to achieve this goal. At the same time, your advisor should understand your obligations to your course work and provide you with a degree of flexibility.
Ultimately, it is your responsibility to do your best on both course work and research. Make sure that the advisor is committed to supervising you as much as you are committed to doing the required work and putting in the necessary/agreed upon hours.
Be informed, attentive, analytical, and objective. Read all the background information. Read user manuals for instruments and equipment. In many instances the reason for failure may be related to dirty equipment, contaminated reagents, improperly set instruments, poorly chosen conditions, lack of thoroughness, and/or lack of resourcefulness. Repeating a procedure while changing one parameter may work sometimes, while repeating the procedure multiple times without systematic changes and observations probably will not.
When reporting failures or problems, make sure that you have all details at hand. Be thorough in you assessment. Then ask questions. Advisors usually have sufficient experience to detect errors in procedures and are able to lead you in the right direction when the student is able to provide all the necessary details. They also have enough experience to know when to change directions. Many times one result may be unexpected, but it may be interesting enough to lead the investigation into a totally different avenue. Communicate with your advisor/mentor often.
Absolutely! Your school may be close to other universities, government labs and/or industries that offer part-time research opportunities during the academic year. There may also be summer opportunities in these institutions as well as in REU sites (see next question).
Contact your chemistry department advisor first. He/she may have some information readily available for you. You can also contact nearby universities, local industries and government labs directly or through the career center at your school. You can also find listings through ACS resources:
REU is a program established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support active research participation by undergraduate students at host institutions in the United States or abroad. An REU site may offer projects within a single department/discipline or it may have projects that are inter-departmental and interdisciplinary. There are currently over 70 domestic and approximately 5 international REU sites with a chemistry theme. Sites consist of 10-12 students each, although there are larger sites that supplement NSF funding with other sources. Students receive stipends and, in most cases, assistance with housing and travel.
Most REU sites invite rising juniors and rising seniors to participate in research during the summer. Experience in research is not required to apply, except for international sites where at least one semester or summer of prior research experience is recommended. Applications usually open around November or December for participation during the following summer. Undergraduate students supported with NSF funds must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States or its possessions. Some REU sites with supplementary funds from other sources may accept international students that are enrolled at US institutions.
Here are some links to sites with very useful information and samples.