Working with faculty as part of a mentored research experience is a rewarding experience because it allows you an up close view of how knowledge is produced and gives you the opportunity to consider what sort of research or work you may want to do going forward.
Finding a great school-life balance is one of the main concerns and challenges for undergraduates pursuing research. Many students have duties within and outside of school that require extensive time and effort, making it hard to find space in their busy schedules for more activity. However, UCSB permits students to receive units for their work or apply for academic credit, creating a more balanced schedule with less stress.
A student can apply those units as upper or lower division units towards those needed to graduate. Many faculty members offer students an RA position that varies between 1-5 units, depending on their laboratory and work needs.
Departments have discretion in how many units to award for research and how many hours this translates into. Departments commonly expect between 25 and 50 hours a quarter for each unit. For example, 4 unit research could expect between 10 and 20 hours per week of work.
Here are some first steps you can take to start your journey
Go to office hours and talk to Professors and TAs
Attend department or campus events and mingle to get to know people in the field you're interested in
Visit your department website and ask the undergraduate advisor about email lists where opportunities are shared
Browse information and links from our partners in the Undergraduate Research Consortium
Check out the Undergraduate RA Directory
Join URCA on Shoreline to hear about events and opportunities
Sending That First Email
Emailing faculty you don't know well or at all is intimidating. Get started with our guide below and reach out to us if you have questions. URCA Peer Mentors are available to review drafts and provide feedback so that you put your best foot forward.
Professors lead extremely busy lives, with teaching, participating in research, and their personal lives. Try not to get too worried if you don’t receive a response in a timely manner, especially at the beginning of the quarter. Stay patient and perseverant, and politely reach out again after a few days. Make an appointment with URCA for assistance with drafting emails or planning out your next steps.
Err on the side of formal. Do not address faculty by their first or given name. Write in complete sentences with proper punctuation. If they engage informally you can adjust, but to start you want to make a professional first impression.
Remind yourself that you are at a research university for a reason and that you can make valuable contributions to faculty projects. Faculty want research assistants who are confident in themselves and their work because the faculty need to be confident in your abilities too. While you should be humble, they have plenty to teach you after all, do not put yourself down in subtle ways.
Before writing, consider your goals to make sure you communicate them. Do you want to set up a meeting? Do you want to find out if they're looking for research assistants? If you communicate clearly what you are asking for, you're more likely to get a response. Asking questions encourages follow-up in a way that a vague "just wanted to check in" does not.
Know the professor you're writing to--look up their department profiles, personal websites, and browse their publications on Google Scholar. Referencing their research and accomplishments in your email is a great way to signify genuine interest in their specific projects.
Introduce yourself to the reader. Who are you? What do you do? How did you find their contact information?
What is your reason for writing? What questions do you want to ask? Explain why you are writing to them specifically and show that this is not an email you copy/pasted to every other professor in the department.
What do you want to come of this email? In the simplest terms, reiterate the reason for writing.
Tips and Templates
- Triple-check that you got the professor's name right
- Write a subject line that summarizes what your email is about, for example, "Undergrad Research Assistant Position on Project Name"
- If you are responding to a job posting or listed opportunity, re-read that post to make sure you address any questions asked in the post and don't ask any that are already answered
- Use your university email, but first send a test email to another account and see how your name shows up as the sender. Set it to first and last name instead of the netid default
- While it's great to say "thanks for your time" after a meeting or to sign off an email, you should not apologize for taking time. The first shows appreciation, which is great, whereas the second is describing yourself as a bother or inconvenience when you're just doing what you should be as a student.
Dear Prof. [Surname]
My name is [Your Name] and I am a [undergraduate student/second year] majoring in [your major]. I am writing to you regarding the Research Assistant position in the [Department name], described in a recent department email.
I am looking to get more research experience and was excited to learn about this opportunity in your lab. Through experience in [name other research experience or relevant course]I have the necessary skills to succeed in your lab and be an asset to your team. My past experiences researching and writing about [research topic] has prepared me for this work.
What is the process to apply for this RA position?
Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Dear Dr. [Surname],
My name is [Your Name] and I am an [undergraduate student] majoring in [your major]. Your post for [Project Name] on the Faculty Research Assistance Program website sparked my interest. Are you still looking for research assistants?
As a [something about you like your major or relevant background or ambitions] I am particularly intrigued by this topic. Having read up on your work in this area [name an article they wrote] I would love the opportunity to learn more through serving as a research assistant on this project.
Please let me know if you are still looking for undergraduate research assistants and what information I can provide to apply.
Be Confident and Resilient
Remember: It’s not personal!
When someone says no, it can be easy to attribute rejection to a fault or weakness within yourself. However, it is so important to actively identify these negative automatic thought patterns. Overgeneralizing causes individuals to see a single negative event as a repeating cycle of failure, and easily jumping to conclusions creates negative interpretations. To overcome the personalization of rejection, practice redirecting that energy towards practicing reappraisal or listing some positives happening for you!
It may take 10 no’s before a yes. Research can be extremely competitive and sometimes things just don’t work out. Take every no as a learning opportunity for the future! Oftentimes, these conversations can lead to more connections, further expanding your professional network.
There is no shortage of exciting projects to join here at UCSB! It may take some time to find the perfect fit, but the URCA office is here to help you every step of the way on your research journey.