Begin Research

Undergraduate research assistants typically work four to ten hours a week (may be unpaid or paid) under the direction of a faculty mentor on that faculty member’s own research. Students learn skills and gain valuable experience that will enhance their graduate school and job qualifications, all while making significant contributions to the fearless discoveries that drive UMD.

All undergraduate students wanting to get involved in research do so through their own initiative. MCUR cannot find a research opportunity for you, but we can advise you on a search strategy for finding opportunities and point you towards appropriate resources.

Preparing to take on research

We recommended that students interested in participating in research have the following characteristics:

  • Be in good academic standing: Because students on academic probation for consecutive semesters may be subject to academic dismissal from the University, we strongly recommend that such students NOT seek or commit time to undergraduate research activities until they have restored themselves to good academic standing at a minimum.

  • Have a minimum GPA of 2.5: If you are struggling or underperforming in one or more areas academically it is in your best interests to focus on strengthening your performance in your classes before committing substantial time to an extracurricular research project.

  • Have completed at least 15 credits at College Park: Adjusting to your new life and studies at the University of Maryland can take time. If you are a first semester freshman, we recommend that you make settling in well your priority. If you get off to a strong start in your coursework and develop good time-management skills at the college-level, you will be much better prepared to take on the time commitment of research.

  • Have time to commit to research: Research assistants typically commit to six to ten hours per week to their faculty-mentored research projects. Your course work should be your priority, so do not take on a research project if it will put your academic work in jeopardy.

  • Are willing to work as a research assistant for at least one semester: Research mentors invest substantial time and effort to train undergraduates to be effective contributors to their research projects. That investment will pay off best for both parties—for you and for your mentor—if you are prepared to commit yourself for at least one full semester of participation in a research project.

Starting your search

  • Start by talking with people you already know. Talk to your current or past professors or your undergraduate major advisor.

  • Survey the research being done by faculty members in your area of interest. There are two ways to do this. You can use the Maryland Student Researchers database to find research projects that are recruiting undergraduate research assistants. Search is available by college or keyword. You can also use the Research in My Major page on the MCUR website to explore the research interests of all faculty in a given department.

  • Identify faculty members whose research looks interesting to you.

Contacting faculty

Once you have identified some faculty members with whom you would like to work, send the faculty member(s) a personal email.

  • Do not wait until several weeks into the semester to contact faculty members about research opportunities. Research positions may fill up quickly, so start contacting faculty members before the start of the semester.

  • Your email should introduce yourself and explain why you want to join that particular project. Statements such as "I need to do research to get into medical school" will not encourage professors to commit time and resources to training you. Your application will ALWAYS be more effective if you provide specific, sincere reasons for contacting a researcher about their project.

  • Be sure to use your official UMD email account. Emails from commercial accounts such as Gmail or Yahoo may get deleted by spam filters or be ignored.

  • Your email should include the following:
    • A subject line stating your interest in undergraduate research.
    • Your major (if you've declared it) and academic year (freshman, sophomore, etc.)
    • When you would like to participate in the research (fall or spring semester, academic year).
    • A clear reference to the faculty member's research and what interests you about their research.
    • Highlights of coursework you have taken which are relevant to the research project.
    • Mention of any previous research experience.
    • Knowledge of skills or software that might be relevant to the research project or field.
    • Attached transcript and resume. The UMD Career Center has effective resources to help you prepare a good, concise cover letter and resume.
    • A request to set up a time to talk with the faculty member about available research opportunities.
  • Faculty members are busy people. If you have not received a response in a week or two, re-send your email.

An example email is as follows:

Dear Professor Blank,

My name is Sara and I am a junior with a double major in Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics and Journalism. I saw your project on DNA Tumor Virology and am very interested in joining, as I am considering going to graduate school to study Virology. I have completed the courses listed as prerequisites for your project. If you still have places available in your lab, I would love to be involved in your work. Please find my resume and unofficial transcript attached.
I look forward to hearing from you.

Sara Jane Smith

Getting the most out of your experience

As a Maryland Student Researcher, you have an opportunity to gain invaluable research skills and experiences. MCUR aims for you to be introduced to the research process and to learn more about a field that interests you. An added benefit is that you will have a chance to build a relationship with a faculty member outside of the classroom.

In order to get the most out of your research experience:

  • Negotiate the details of your responsibilities by asking and agreeing upon the answers to the following questions:
    • How many hours will I be expected to work per week?
    • What will my schedule be (e.g., Monday, Wednesday, Friday 12-2pm)?
    • What will my responsibilities be?
    • Who will be my direct supervisor and how much supervision will I receive?
    • How will my supervisor and I communicate, and how often?
    • Where will I perform my responsibilities?
    • What if I get sick or have too much school work one week? How can I make up the hours? Who should I contact if I am not coming to work?
    • What are my start date and end date? Will I be responsible for working during exam week?  Will I be required to work during breaks such as spring break?

  • Ask your faculty mentor or a graduate student to explain the larger picture of the project and how it relates to current research in the field. Through this you may learn more about your field of interest and the process of research more generally.

  • Be assertive and direct when communicating with your faculty mentor. If you are unclear about directions for a particular task, ask for clarification. Ensure you have an agreed-upon way to ask questions and receive feedback and guidance.

  • Manage your time wisely and perform your research tasks regularly. You and your faculty mentor will benefit the most from your work as a research assistant if you set and keep regular working hours. If special circumstances do arise, notify your mentor as soon as possible.

  • Make a sincere and enthusiastic commitment to your project. While some tasks may seem insignificant, careful attention to minor tasks is crucial to any project's success. Make sure your mentor knows you appreciate the time he or she spends with you.

Additional resources

Research is the process of creating new knowledge. Used by all disciplines, research can take on many different forms, from scientific theory testing to artistic endeavors to building upon and revising existing knowledge. Depending on the field of interest, research may involve searching for information in libraries and archives, surveying and interviewing subjects, conducting fieldwork, creating models, performing computations, composing creative works, conducting laboratory experiments, and analyzing data sets. Undergraduate research uses these same disciplinary traditions to produce results worthy of communication to others. The colleges and disciplines at the University of Maryland support all forms of research through many formal and informal research programs, from interdisciplinary projects to honors theses.

Undergraduate students at the University of Maryland are encouraged to experience the excitement of contributing new knowledge or creative works to the world by conducting research. By researching, undergraduates can make a difference to society.

A research university is a university which considers research to be one of its primary purposes. The University of Maryland, College Park identifies itself as "committed to being a preeminent national center for research and for graduate education, and as the institution of choice for Maryland’s undergraduates of exceptional ability and promise." (University Mission Statement).

As part of its efforts to reach its goal of being a premier research institution, the University of Maryland supports undergraduate research. The University encourages faculty to incorporate research into coursework and provides undergraduates with research opportunities outside of the classroom, enhancing and improving undergraduate education in terms of teaching and learning, as many students learn better from the discovery/inquiry process than traditional instruction. The University has made research a priority in the undergraduate experience, in an effort to train students to become educated consumers of research and the next generation of researchers.

Research is an exciting way to deepen your understanding of an academic field outside of the classroom.  Research will not only expose you to a discipline’s current practices and trends, but also provide you with an opportunity for personal and professional growth.  While learning more about the world and contributing to our knowledge of it, you may figure out what you want to do in it and gain valuable skills that will help you to accomplish your goals.  

When you participate in undergraduate research, you will learn to:

  • Think critically
  • Integrate approaches to learning
  • Analyze and solve problems
  • Understand multiple approaches to problem solving
  • Examine problems and formulate research questions
  • Develop research problems on your own
  • Apply problem solving skills to different areas
  • Demonstrate research skills
  • Communicate the results of your research
  • Take responsibility for your own learning

Moreover, your research will allow you to:

  • Discover what academic research involves
  • Explore potential career paths
  • Gain experience and skills you can talk about in graduate school applications, cover letters, and job interviews
  • Develop a relationship with a faculty advisor who may serve as a reference

You should become involved in research whenever you are interested in researching and have the time to do it. Throughout the year there are opportunities for students of all levels to participate in research and many students become involved early in their academic careers.

Beginning research as a freshman or sophomore allows you to develop your research skills, preparing you for positions which require advanced skills. At the same time, starting research in the early stages of your college education allows you to explore different fields or several areas of one field and discover what interests you most.

Anyone conducting research must ensure that they work in an ethical manner. The University of Maryland has instituted a number of guidelines to help researchers work in a way which is honest, safe, and respectful of research subjects (human as well as animal).

Academic Integrity and Plagiarism

The University enforces a strict honor code to ensure that students do not plagiarize or fabricate their research.

Hazardous Materials

The Department of Environmental Safety at the University of Maryland offers training to students who will be working with hazardous materials.

Human Subjects

The University of Maryland’s Institutional Review Board assures the protection of the rights and welfare of human subjects. The IRB approves the initiation of and conducts periodic reviews of research involving human subjects.

Not all research with people is considered human subjects research by the IRB. Journalism, creative arts, oral histories, reporting of current events, internal management projects, and secondary data from publicly available sources are not considered human research. See the IRB's definition of human subjects research here.

The University’s IRB provides online training to help researchers learn the requirements for researching human subjects.

Animal Subjects

The Department of Animal and Avian Science at the University of Maryland monitors research conducted on animals to ensure that they are treated humanely. Prior to conducting research, students must file a Protocol of Research Form available on the department's Staff/Faculty Resources page.

University of Maryland Research Ethics Resources

  • Institutional Review Board/Research Compliance Office oversees approval of studies on-campus involving human and animal subjects.
  • Responsible Conduct of Research Office, University of Maryland Division of Research: Look at series of links at the bottom of its homepage, under “Topics,” addressing research ethics issues such as Animal Welfare, Conflict of Interest, Human Subjects, and Research Misconduct; these are topics that the National Institutes of Health recommends for coverage in research ethics training.

Further Resources

  • The Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC) is mandated by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) to provide information for improved animal care and use in research, testing, and teaching. It is located at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland.
  • The National Science Foundation as well as the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)/U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) now require that all undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral researchers supported by NSF funding must complete online Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training.

Research Ethics Tutorials, Learning Modules, and and Study Guides

Research conducted on campus is funded through the researcher's program of study or through external grants. The Maryland Center for Undergraduate Research does NOT provide funding for ongoing research projects, nor does it have funding available for paid research assistantships.

Students looking for compensation for research conducted during the academic year may consider the following:

  • Conducting research for course credit: Most departments on campus have options for students to treat their research as a course, receiving a grade and credit for it and having it appear on their transcripts. A full list of courses available for credit can be found under Research in My Major.
  • Seeking grants and scholarships from external organizations: Many national honors societies and research organizations have competitive funding for student research. Consider looking into organizations you're a part of to see whether they have funding available.
  • Discuss funding with potential research advisors: Some researchers may have funding available to pay their research assistants, though this is not commonly the case. If it is necessary for financial reasons for you to find a paid research assistantship, make sure this is communicated early on.

Students looking for compensation for research conducted during the summer can use the options listed above, but also have a number of options for funding independent research projects:

  • Maryland Summer Scholars provides funding for approximately 25-30 University of Maryland undergraduate students engaging in independent research projects under the guidance of faculty mentors. Maryland Summer Scholars are chosen through a competitive application process each February. Recipients receive $3,000 in funding and present their research findings at Undergraduate Research Day the following spring.
  • Students should explore the lists of research opportunities on Research in the D.C. Metro Area and Research in the U.S. to learn about the variety of options for summer research. There are hundreds of programs through which students can conduct research full-time over the summer at universities and research organizations around the country. Programs typically provide a stipend, housing, and career enhancement activities. All programs listed have a competitive application process; application deadlines are in January and February each year.

Applications for on- and off-campus research programs, such as MCUR's Maryland Summer Scholars program and off-campus REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) require letters of recommendation or references, usually from university faculty members. It is very important to ask faculty members for recommendation letters early. You should contact faculty members with your request for a reference at least three weeks (and preferably a month) before your application is due. This will also give you time to find alternate references in case a faculty member is unable to write for you.

When contacting a faculty member by email to request a reference, be sure to use your official UMD email account and include a subject line mentioning your reference request.

When a professor agrees to write a letter for you, provide the professor with:

  1. Your Resume

  2. A Draft of your Personal Statement

  3. A Copy of your Transcript (unofficial or official). Unofficial transcripts may be downloaded from Testudo.

  4. A List of the Programs to which you are applying and the application deadlines. You may also wish to provide URLs to the webpages of these programs.

  5. A Copy of the Major Research Paper/Poster/Project you completed in his/her course (if applicable)

Remind your professors one to two weeks before the letters are due that they promised to write you a letter. They will not take offense at being reminded—they are very busy and will appreciate the reminder.

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