So you’re here and you’re wondering: how do I get involved with undergraduate research? When is the best time to get started? And so on. Getting and finding opportunities is not always so easy and can be quite opaque. That’s what we’re here for.
Why do research?
Good question. As an undergrad, you already have lots of classes to balance already. Why add more work? Doing research as an undergraduate is a commitment, but it can be one of the most exciting things you do at Yale. As a research assistant, you’ll get to conduct novel work, be on the bleeding edge of physics, and see what it is that researchers do on a day-to-day level. If you’re considering graduate study, doing research allows you to see if it’s for you or not. Many people, after doing research, have decided that they want to do graduate school, others decide it’s not for them. Both are valid, and research will give you some clarity. Furthermore, research simply makes you a more competitive graduate applicant.
OK! But how do I decide if I want to do research at Yale or elsewhere?
This is really mostly a matter of taste. For your senior thesis or research during the semester, you’ll most likely be working with a Yale faculty member. But the summer is when you can your most productive work, since that will be full-time. It’s up to you to decide whether to stay at Yale or apply to external programs. Both have their pros and cons. If you do work elsewhere, you’ll have a chance to visit other schools, network, and be exposed to entirely different frameworks of thinking about and studying physics. But, generally speaking, it may be hard to pick this work up again once you return to Yale. Again, this is a generality. There have been cases of students who have gotten Yale credit for continuing summer work remotely, but this may not always be feasible. On the other hand, if you stay at Yale, you will have that option of continuing your work during the year, allowing you to work on something more deeply than you could over just one summer. And of course, you can do both. Many students research at other universities during their first or second summer, but will stay at Yale the summer before their senior year in order to work on their senior thesis a bit early.
Lastly, external opportunities are known for being very selective. A lot of these programs, especially REUs, are aimed at students attending smaller universities and liberal arts colleges, who may not have the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research opportunities. As a result, it will be pretty tough for you to apply as a Yalie. Will it be impossible to get in? Of course not, but it will be hard to make your case since Yale already has a lot of cool opportunities already.
What are the avenues for summer and semester research at Yale?
I’ll be honest: there is a lot. The semester is generally pretty easy. All you do is work with someone and you can get credit for it (PHYS 469/470 if you’re a first-year or sophomore; ; PHYS 471/472 if you’re a junior or senior). If you’re an underrepresented student (women, racial minorities, first-gen, low-income, disabled), there are the STARS series of programs that will support your study during the year by paying you to do research on campus. There is the new Hahn Scholars Program for first-years (this program is extremely new, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information) and the STARS II program which you can apply for in your junior year and which will fund you during your junior and senior years. These can be done in conjunction with PHYS 469-472.
Now, the summer. So, you’ll want funding so you can pay for an place to live during the summer! Pretty important. The way you’ll get this funding is by applying to a Yale fellowship. After you secure a faculty mentor, you’ll talk to them about writing a short proposal. This generally will only be a page or two, describing the work you plan to do. You will submit this to a Yale fellowship, and if selected (don’t worry, the majority of people get selected), they’ll pay you a lump sum that you can use to support yourself. There’s many fellowships: STARS Summer (again, for underrepresented students), the Yale College First-Year Summer Research Fellowship in the Sciences & Engineering, and the Yale College Dean’s Research Fellowship in the Sciences and Rosenfeld Science Scholars. There’s also the Tetelman, which will specifically fund research done abroad (say, in the UK or at CERN). The deadlines are hosted on Yale Science website (https://science.yalecollege.yale.edu/), but are generally in January or February. I’ll talk more about the proposal below.
If you are on financial aid, there is also the DSA. The DSA will fund you up to $4,000, and also needs a proposal, but this will be due in May, and the application is quite easy. People who have applied have gotten positive responses in as few as two days.
Yale has a lot of esteemed and distinguished professors doing amazing research! You may be wondering how you can reach out to these professors so that you can work with them. Here’s a guide to contacting professors and finding a faculty mentor for research, whether that be summer research, a senior thesis, or other research conducted during the semester.
If you want to do research at Yale, you first have to find a mentor. Follow our guide below to learn how.
If you want to research at another university, most schools will match you with a mentor, so you simply have to submit a summer research application. Consult our list of summer research programs above in the menu.
Finding a Mentor:
- There are a lot of ways to find potential mentors. The two largest resources you have at your disposal are the YURA Database and the SPS advisors list. There are a host of professors listed, with descriptions of their work, publications, etc. There is bound to be a professor you’re interested in, so be sure to look through the database and list.
- Don’t fret if you don’t understand all the research descriptions. If this is your first time doing research, a lot of these descriptions may sound like jargon. And that’s OK! Look up key terms, and you’ll start to get an idea of what it is people do. Make a short list of faculty whose work sounds interesting.
- If you’re having difficulty, contact your first-year or sophomore advisor. Your advisor knows many of the faculty in the department well, as well as their peers’ research. Don’t hesitate to schedule a meeting with them and ask if they know any potential mentors. They will work with you to find someone.
- The most imporant advice in this regard is: Don’t be afraid to contact them. Professors love having undergraduate interest and they want motivated people to work with them. That being said, do make sure to do some reading about the professor and their work before you reach out, since they may have a lot of students reaching out to them.
- It is usually best to contact professors by email. Make sure to address the professor politely and properly, and to describe why you want to work with them. Your emails do not have to be long, but they should describe who you are, and why you are contacting the professor in question.
- If you know your research interests, specifically state what you want to do or learn about.
- At the end, you should ask if there are any potential projects or spots open in the group or lab. Ask if you can meet, and if they agree to meet, you can ask more about what it is they do, what projects they have in mind, and what your level of involvement would be. Attaching your CV and/or transcript can be helpful so the professor can see what your level of expertise is.
- If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or two, don’t take it personally; they’re incredibly busy. Give them some time, around a week or two, then politely follow up and say you’re just checking in. If they don’t respond after that, it might be best to pursue contact with another professor. This is why the short-list is helpful!
- Don’t be afraid to drop by the professor’s office if you’re insistent. The professor won’t mind it, given that they’re not talking to someone right then and there. If you know where their office is, go drop by and politely introduce yourself and say you emailed them. More often than not, they’ll invite you to sit down and talk with
- When you meet the professor, remember you’re just having a casual conversion. You might be nervous, but that’s natural. Remember professors are people too! Take some notes. I find that I oftentimes will forget what is said during a meeting, so having the record is helpful.
- Establish contact after the meeting ends. It helps if you ask the professor to send you papers or literature they think are interesting for a potential project. That way, you can correspond back and forth about the papers and project.
- Make sure to contact a variety of professors. Everyone wants to work for the most famous professors, but they rarely have space for undergraduates and being famous isn’t everything. What’s important is whether or not the research matches up with your interests and whether you and your mentor are right for one another. So, don’t be afraid to contact multiple professors and juggle multiple offers. That brings us to our next section.
How Do I Know a Mentor is Right for Me?
Often times, students might have multiple professors who have agreed to work with them. How do you choose who to work with, especially if everyone has interesting research projects? Or, even if you have just one potential mentor, how do you ensure you two will work well on a project?
- It helps to be honest with yourself first. Do you prefer a more hands-on or hands-off mentor? How often would you like to meet them? What do you want to get out of the project? Reflect and decide this for yourself first.
- Talk to your mentors about it. Don’t be afraid to ask them: How would you describe your mentorship style? What are your expectations for me? How much do you expect me to finish by the end of the summer/semester? It might sound bold to ask such blunt questions, but professors will appreciate the honesty, and by setting everything straight from the beginning, you will have a much more productive mentor-mentee relationship. Doing this is key to a healthy mentor-mentee relationship.
- In the end, you do have to commit to working with just one professor, but you aren’t comitted to them for all of your Yale career. It is expected for graduate students to change their interests or mentor during their Ph.D., so as an undergraduate, it’s a given that you will change mentor or interests. So, if you have to turn a professor down, don’t be afraid to contact them again for a senior thesis or next summer’s research.
How do I fund my work during the summer?
When Do I Contact Them?
You might wonder when is too soon or late to contact professors. Let’s list out the cases.
If you’re doing summer research, anytime from January to March is fine, but read the fine print below. This does depend on where you want to get funding from. If you have a DSA and plan to use it, you have till May to apply for it, so you can contact professors anytime during the semester. If you plan to apply to a Yale fellowship, it’s best to contact professors in December or early January, since the Yale sponsored fellowship deadlines fall towards late February and early March. Furthermore, consider that other students may be contacting those professors, and they only have finite room in their labs. So, the moral is: the sooner the better, and you can’t go wrong if you contact in December or early January.
You generally have a lot of time for this, but contacting professors during junior spring can be a big boon for your mentor-mentee relationship. It will save you the struggle of finding a mentor during your senior year, which may be stressful during the hectic first weeks of fall semester. So, contacting professors in the spring will allow you to set expectations, develop a relationship over the summer, and hit the ground running once the fall semester starts.
What if I Have More Questions?
If you have any questions about physics research at Yale, do not be afraid to contact the co-presidents to ask them for advice! Their contact information is listed here.