Undergraduate Research

So you’re an undergraduate possibly interested in doing research? That’s great!

What’s research like? What skills do I need?

I would direct you to this excellent overall advice for students starting out in research. All the articles are good, but you should definitely read (in this order) ”Why, what, and how”, “Coming soon to a podium near you”, and “Creating decent graphs”.

For a perspective on how to approach the research enterprise from a life-goals perspective, I wrote a post on How to Have a Bad Research Internship.

How do I get a summer internship in your lab? Is it paid?

In general, summer internships are sometimes available for UC Berkeley undergraduates and local (Bay Area) high school students who can provide a local reference.

Current Berkeley students: Whether the internship is paid depends on my funding situation that summer,  so you’d have to ask. High school students: for procedural reasons it’s virtually impossible for Berkeley to pay you, so you’ll have to accept compensation in the form of karma and psychic income instead…plus of course, a reference letter if all goes well…

With the exception of students from local (Bay Area) high schools, I cannot take non-Berkeley students as interns, except through organized programs such as SUPERB, and I’m unlikely to respond individually to emails asking me to do so.  Sorry.

How do I find a position?

The Beehive application, formerly called ResearchMatch and designed by your own colleagues who are alumni of Prof. Fox’s CS169 course under the guidance of Prof. Jeff Bokor in EE, is designed to make it easy to find listings that match your skills, availability and interests.

Also see the EECS Undergraduate Research home page for other programs and listings to try.

But before you browse them, here are some tips that should help your search.

The single biggest source of problems in undergraduate research, whether for pay or for credit, is overestimating how much time you’ll have available and/or underestimating the effort required for your courseload or the research project. 

Spending 3 or 4 hours every other week on a project is essentially wasted time—yours and the project’s—and the project leaders won’t be happy about it. Your potential faculty supervisor will likely ask you about your course load.

So, how to maximize my chances of being offered a position?

  1. Have a reference or two (graduate student you worked with, supervisor, colleague, etc.) who can attest to your ability and work ethic working on other projects, even if just course projects.
  2. If the problem is one of funding, be willing to consider working for credit initially, with the informal agreement that if all goes well you will be first in line when more funding does become available.
  3. Don’t just show up and say “Do you have anything for me to do?” Learn about the projects people are working on (often their PhD students’ home pages are more informative than the faculty home pages or even the group/lab home pages). If they have recent papers that are accessible to you, check them out. Talk to the PhD students. They are on the front lines, and besides describing the project, may also have a better sense of what parts of it could use some extra assistance.
  4. Don’t spam faculty with identical emails. If you intro yourself by email, do it in a personal way, offer to drop by in person, and provide enough background about yourself and why you’re a good candidate that you will in fact be invited to drop by in person.
  5. Realize that people are really busy. If you don’t get immediate responses, or the responses or short, don’t get offended and don’t give up. Also remember that faculty plan ahead, so if you want to do research in summer, apply in early spring, and so on.

What skills/courses do I need?

Obviously it depends on the project, but it’s good to be comfortable with a variety of languages and frameworks to maximize your appeal to software-intensive projects. Working on extracurricular projects (hackathons, Blueprint, DeCal courses, etc.) or taking high-quality online courses from sites like edX or Coursera is a great way to do this.

I need to write a research statement/statement of purpose (SOP) for an REU or grad application. Any advice?

DO focus on your interests, work, and planned contributions, in 1-2 (max) pages:

  • What is your main research interest, and in particular, what aspect of it do you see as a concrete topic for {REU MS-thesis etc.} work?
  • Why are you interestd in that topic/problem? (this is the part where you can bring in relevant elements of your back story, the things that differentiate you from other applicants, even if those other applicants had similar research interest and overall similar background)

  • How do you think your work could change Berkeley/CS/education/etc if it succeeds? (or: what would “success” look like, thinking beyond the boundaries of the project itself and even of berkeley?)

DON’T tell your life story. I hate to be blunt but nobody has the time to read it, and its importance really is in how it relates to your research interests/goals/etc.

DO include elements of your life story that specifically relate to the research, but remember the overall statement is about the research, not you.

What if there’s a separate personal statement?

Your personal statement should focus on what it is about your life experience that you can bring to the institution, to your fellow students, co-workers, etc.

Tedious to read:

I did X and Y. I experienced hardship Z. I was enlightened/appalled/whatever by experience W.

Much more interesting:

My experience doing X and Y will help me succeed in my intended work because…

Hardship Z taught me that […], and the way this will inform my interactions with colleagues, ability to deal with challenges in my future research, etc. is […]

Experience W was life-changing, and I can bring to bear the lessons learned from it (or help others benefit from my experience of having learned those lessons) in the following ways…

Tedious to read:

Institution X has always been my dream school. (Or: It has always been my dream to work with researchers Y and Z at your institution.)

Much more interesting:

I think the work of Researchers Y and Z is {groundbreaking|relevant|etc.} because […]. In fact I believe I could contribute to and further their agendas by […], and I hope to learn from their students and them so I can pursue this promising avenue of work.