Interested in being an undergraduate research assistant in my lab?
April 2014 (perspective of a postdoc)
I am looking for undergraduate students to assist on my lab's human-computer interaction (HCI) research projects, especially building tools for informal learning and online education.
The primary goal of my lab is to publish academic papers. We build and deploy software, collect real-world usage data, and run controlled experiments. But ultimately our goal is to produce novel, publishable research rather than, say, to create prototypes that might lead to a startup company.
If this sounds interesting to you, first read the traits I look for in my graduate students. Then read this article and email me if you want to chat. Depending on my schedule, I might direct you to my office hours. Or feel free to directly drop by my office hours.
Working on research will give you lots of hands-on experience with programming and running experimental studies. These practical skills complement the often-theoretical lessons you learn in classes. If you do good work, then you will receive a strong letter of recommendation from me for job or graduate school applications, which is more valuable than good grades.
How will you benefit from working on research?
First and foremost, working on research is awesome because you get a rare chance to preview and invent the future. In classes, summer internships, and most full-time jobs you will get after graduation, you are either studying the past or doing work that will be immediately useful in the present or near future. In industry, the main priorities for junior employees such as yourself are to deliver projects with near-term value in the coming week, month, or year. Only in a research lab can you prototype weird, quirky, high-risk ideas that are five, ten, or even twenty years ahead of the state-of-the-art in industry.
More concretely, one big benefit of doing research is the chance to rapidly improve your technical skills in a realistic setting outside of the classroom. I became a much better programmer and scientist throughout my three years of assisting on research projects as an undergraduate student. If all works out, working on research with me will feel like a super intensive yet satisfying lab class where you complete an innovative project that you are proud of. You might also get credited as a co-author on a published research paper, which is important if you want to pursue a Ph.D. in the future. And best of all, you are getting one-on-one mentorship from a professor, which rarely happens in even the smallest and most intimate of university classes.
Another potential benefit is professional advancement. If you do compelling work, then I can write recommendation letters and make personal referrals for you to get either a good job in industry or admitted into graduate school. These personal letters and referrals are a lot more meaningful than having a high GPA or a professor mentioning that you got an A+ in their class.
Interested in working in my lab?
I'm going to be blunt. It's rare for undergraduates to successfully contribute to research projects that lead to published papers. And it's never because you're not smart enough. You are!
The main problem is that you simply don't have enough time to devote to research. As an undergraduate, you're taking lots of classes and participating in extracurricular activities. That's awesome ... you should fully enjoy your college years! But your busy schedule leaves little time for research, maybe 5 hours per week at most.
Since research is much harder than class work, it's impossible to make progress with so few hours per week. That's why I don't work with most undergraduates who express an interest in my research, even if they are capable and hardworking. Because if you're like most students, you don't have enough time during the school year to do a good job on research. So your free time is better spent on other activities.
Now if you're a rare student who can devote at least 10 to 15 hours per week to research during the school year, then let's chat! But you have to make an effort to prioritize research over all of the other fun and interesting things you could be doing in college. That's a choice only you can make for yourself.
My expectations for undergraduate researchers
If you join my lab, then we will define a project together that is a strong match for your interests, technical skills, and the immediate needs of my existing research projects. I will be upfront and clear about my expectations for progress, much like how the professor of a well-designed class sets the proper expectations via the syllabus, homeworks, and exams. We will meet once or twice per week to work closely together and to keep you motivated, on track, and accountable.
If at any time you are not making reasonable progress or cannot meet your time commitment, then we will probably need to stop working together. There are no hard feelings, though. Don't treat our parting ways as “getting fired” or “failing a class.” Think of it more like voluntarily dropping a class or quitting an extracurricular activity since you don't have enough time.
Also, if you lose interest in your project at any time and want to quit, then let me know. Again, there are no hard feelings. This isn't a mandatory requirement for graduation. College is a great time to experiment with various kinds of activities and projects. Some end up working out, and some don't.
Postscript: What about independent study?
Say you're a self-motivated student with your own independent project ideas that might not fit into the mold of publishable academic research in my field. If you still think that I might be a good person to advise on your project, please stop by my office hours. I'm happy to talk your ear off during those times, but I can't make any outside time commitments upfront. If we decide later that registering for independent study units makes sense, then I'll be happy to sign the appropriate paperwork.
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Last modified: 2015-05-25