Searching for a research opportunity? Start here!

Rodin’s The Thinker. Photo Credit: Columbia University Libraries.

Navigating the research landscape for student opportunities can seem intimidating – here are some tips on where to start with brainstorming and searching.

Picture your ideal opportunity
Jot down a few notes relevant to the kind of experience you are seeking. These notes will be helpful when you are searching through opportunity databases or finalizing a list of programs to apply to.

Interested in diving deeper into a particular area, such as the intersection of neuroscience and economics? Is there a discussion topic from a Core class or major elective that you would like to explore further? Previous project themes you would like to continue? A personal example: my Contemporary Civilizations professor’s research focus is on medieval Islamic medicine, and hearing about her experiences inspired me to dive deeper. This led me to propose a project exploring complementary medical systems and their rich cultural intersections through the Research Cluster on Science and Subjectivity.

Are you looking for a virtual/remote, hybrid, or in-person option? Note that some “wet lab” opportunities may not be able to accommodate entirely virtual/remote opportunities. For example, prior to March 2020, I was involved with neurodegeneration research in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC). Unfortunately, since the research mostly utilized in-person microscope imaging for analyses, I was not able to contribute virtually during the lockdown period.

What is your time commitment? Are you available for a few hours a week or more formally working part- and full-time? I personally chose to get involved in research part-time throughout the academic year and took on extra responsibilities over the summer. Considering most professors do not offer classes on Fridays, these days provide the perfect time to dedicate to research involvements.

What is your proposed timeline? Are you looking for an opportunity that takes place during the academic year, summer term, after graduation, or for the foreseeable future?

Search for existing opportunities
Visit the Undergraduate Research & Fellowships (URF) database for a curated list of opportunities that can provide leads to many others as well. You can learn more about programs such as the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholars Program or structured programs like the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) this way, and also connect with the advising team if you have any questions.

I would recommend subscribing to relevant newsletters, listservs, and email digests offered by departments and institutes within the Columbia ecosystem. For example, as a Medical Humanities major, I regularly reviewed the information shared through the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society’s undergraduate email listserv. Additionally, I found the weekly newsletters curated by the Department of Psychology to be helpful for news about open research positions. You can typically request to be added to these major or program-related listservs by reaching out to the respective Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) or faculty advisors. 

One example of a Columbia-based institute that has organized virtual internships in the past, across a range of sectors, is Columbia Global Centers. Additionally, keep in mind that you do not need to restrict your research pursuits to the Morningside Heights campus – there may be interesting opportunities available through the institutes and centers at the Manhattanville and Medical Center campuses as well.

If you are interested in pursuing a healthcare-related profession, the Berick Center for Student Advising team has organized a database of extracurricular and summer options. And be sure to check out LionSHARE, Columbia’s connection to the Handshake platform that is organized by the Columbia University Center for Career Education. Alongside research positions, Handshake also allows students to browse adjacent opportunities in business, social impact, consulting, and more. Last but not least, I have personally found the ProFellow database useful as an upperclassman, as some of the listed opportunities feed into graduate programs as well.

Directly reach out to labs and research groups
Explore labs and research groups at Columbia that are working on topics related to your brainstormed interests. Google is a great way to directly search by using the keywords you brainstormed earlier (e.g. “data science research at Columbia”) or you can navigate specific department pages (e.g. reading through the faculty profile pages on the Columbia Department of History website). Research groups’ individual websites provide insightful context about current topics of interest, recently published works, and team members behind the scenes.

While some research groups have a dedicated page about available opportunities, others may suggest that you reach out via email to inquire on a case-by-case basis. In these instances, you will potentially need to draft a cold email template or cover letter and organize a copy of your resume to attach (here is one example guide). As mentioned earlier, the URF advisors and Center for Career Education team are great resources for support in this process. Cold-emailing can seem intimidating at first, but it is important to remember that there is no harm in reaching out and demonstrating your interest in working with a particular research group!

Events around campus
Some departments host “open house” or “lab preview” events during the fall semester (the Department of Psychology is one example). These events feature brief overview presentations by representatives from different research groups and allow for students to ask questions about any open research assistant positions. I obtained a Research Assistant position with the Aly Lab this way: after looking through research group pages on the Psychology website, I first sent a cold email (with my resume attached). Then, I chatted with the lab manager in-person at the Lab Preview event about my continued interest; they circled back a few days later to connect me with a graduate student looking for support on her research study. We worked together for over two years on studies investigating the impact of attention fluctuations on the temporal organization of memory. In 2020, I presented a summary poster at the Columbia Psychology Symposium and was awarded runner-up, and we published a preprint earlier this year!

Additionally, student organizations host events around Columbia that share information about research tips or open opportunities. Two examples are Columbia Synapse’s Scientific Research Networking Event (I took part in organizing this last spring!) and Columbia Neuroscience Society’s Annual Undergraduate Research Fair. Attending similar events and participating in student organizations or clubs on campus also allows you to connect with like-minded, experienced students who can share advice based on their experiences. It’s also a great way to learn about any research group openings through word-of-mouth! 

There is no singular path to finding research opportunities, and it is certainly a time-intensive process when you are starting out! However, taking the time to explore available options can pay off by helping increase your chances of finding an ideal opportunity fit. Good luck!

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