Colleges like Princeton love to brag about their high rates of student involvement in research: our admissions pamphlets are peppered with student testimonials about the accessibility of professors and the university’s commitment to undergraduate research. But although Princeton does provide incredible resources, doing research with professors doesn’t always feel accessible. Especially as a first-year or sophomore student, it can be challenging to find research opportunities outside of classes (except during the summer).
As a first-year student, I definitely felt this pressure in the fall semester. I knew I wanted to be a part of research on campus as soon as possible, but I worried that no professor would want to work with me. After all, I was less experienced than many older students, and as a CBE major, I knew that quantitative and technical skills were of paramount importance in my field. Though I was afraid of being ignored (or worse, rejected!) by professors, I decided to reach out anyway. I emailed my MOL214 professor (who runs a lab in CBE) hoping that he would help give me an introduction to the department. When I went to his office for a simple discussion, he ended up offering me a position, and I’ve been working in his lab ever since!
This story is reflective of the many opportunities that are available at Princeton if you’re willing to look hard enough: professors really do want to get to know you and work with you! Below, I’ll give you some of my tips for finding a research mentor as an first-year or sophomore.
First, find out what you want to research. Though it might not be obvious, there’s a big difference between liking a history class and enjoying archival research. Think about your interests, work habits, and preferences—do you love writing? Doing lab experiments? Working with human subjects? These methodological differences, though often ignored, shape the day-to-day progress of your research, so make sure you enjoy your field’s methodology!
Next, research professors in that department. Whose research excites you? Is there a particular topic that you find interesting? Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few professors, see if there’s anyone you know in the department. Have you taken a class with one of the professors? Gotten particularly close with a preceptor? If so, that’s a great opportunity to start a conversation about doing research: after all, it’s easier to connect with someone who’s not a total stranger. Even if you don’t join their group, meeting with a professor you know and talking about your interests could lead to their suggesting potential good fits for you.
Finally, in the event that you don’t know a faculty member in your intended department, professors are typically very receptive to first-year and sophomore students who want to get involved with their work! Though it’s often hard to get responses to cold emails—professors are busy people—attending office hours, scheduling meetings through WASE, or even reaching out to departmental assistants can be a great way to start conversations about your potential research path.
One of my favorite things about Princeton is the vibrant research culture on campus. As an fist-year or sophomore, however, it’s easy to feel excluded from the research community. But we can all make valuable contributions to our fields, even though we have less experience! Regardless of your interests, humanities majors and engineers alike can participate productively in ongoing projects. So don’t let the barriers to entry dissuade you from trying to join a research group: first-years and sophomores are just as welcome to conduct independent research as juniors and seniors!
—Ella Feiner, Engineering Correspondent