Part 3: So you want to be a Scientist?? (or doctor, or dentist, or physical therapist, or lab technician, or…….)

Undergraduate Research at a Small University

Finding undergraduate research opportunities when you’re at a small university, primary undergraduate university (PUI), or community/ junior college can be challenging.  Professors at community/ junior colleges, and even at most PUIs, likely do not conduct independently funded research. Furthermore, if there is a research presence at the university, research options might be limited to a few disciplines with small research groups.

womeninscience_wikimedia commons

(Photo courtesy of NIH National Cancer Institute accessed via Wikimedia Commons.)

But don’t worry! Your future research dreams are not over just because you are attending a university or college with little or no research. In fact, there are quite a few advantages to being in this situation. Below is a list of the advantages of attending a non-research focused school in addition to some tips that may help you find a lab to work in during your undergraduate career.

  • Small university/college=small class sizes. Smaller class sizes mean that your professors will be able get to know you better (and vice versa). Good letters of recommendation can only come from professors who have had the opportunity to get to know you, which is more difficult in large class sizes. Additionally, professors at universities that are not focused on research do not have to devote as much, if any, time to research. That means they can devote more to the students.
  • Professors have connections. Even if professors aren’t currently conducting independent research, they most likely have conducted research in this past, either at the Master’s or PhD level. These experiences are valuable to learn from, and they may still have connections to former colleagues who are currently conducting research. Because your professor has been able to get to know you (see point 1!) they may be able to recommend you for research positions. Additionally, they will still have valuable advice and expertise on how to get into research, how to get to your next goal, etc.
  • Don’t fret about your research focus! One of the big secrets about undergraduate research is that your research emphasis doesn’t really The purpose of undergraduate research is to get a taste of what research is like, learn some basic skill sets, and start to learn how to think like a researcher. Therefore, just because you aren’t researching string theory or cancer or whatever else you think you might want to do for the rest of your life isn’t going to be the end of the world. My undergraduate research started in adiabatic calorimetry after which I moved to bioinorganic protein research. Neither of these have ANYTHING to do with quantitative biology or wound response, but they still gave me the experience I needed to get started on my research path. Even more, you may discover new interests by trying to research something you hadn’t considered before.
  • Summer opportunities are bountiful. Take advantage of summer opportunities at cool places! There are programs at larger universities specifically for students at colleges without research. Try e-mailing professors at a nearby university that has a heavier research component. Just because you aren’t a student there doesn’t mean you can’t work in a lab at that university. You can also look at national labs and opportunities abroad. Bonus: a lot of these are paid!
  • Taking time off between degrees is 100% okay! If you still feel you aren’t able to get the research experience you would like as an undergrad, take a year or two off after you graduate and find a “grown-up” research job. There’s no rush to start graduate school or any professional program. Take the time to figure out what your limitations are and get a taste for what science and research are like outside of a textbook. This will also strengthen your resume if and when you do apply for a higher degree program.

Don’t feel limited in your undergraduate research choices just because you aren’t at a major university. There are plenty of options to fulfill your research experience needs that may be more beneficial to your career in the end.

Special thanks to Katherine Nadler for providing insight into undergraduate research at a small university.

This is Part 3 in a series of posts for advice on doing undergraduate research. Find Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE.



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