Sunday, August 25

Digging up research opportunities

Projects with professors could boost your résumé, help you decide on postgraduate plans


Amy Chen

Welcome to one of the most prestigious research universities in the world ““ a greeting most visitors encounter at some point when they reach the UCLA campus. At a time when our curriculum and resources are under scrutiny because of budget cuts, we still hold fast to a strong base of research conducted by world-renowned faculty.

If students feel shortchanged in the classroom, fighting for a research opportunity is crucial to filling the void from a lack of interaction with professors due to large lectures, or gaps in applied coursework due to class restrictions.

The university is a difficult place to navigate when students first arrive, and finding research opportunities can be a daunting task. Personally, I didn’t fully understand the resources that are available to students until partway through my third year.

If you aren’t an Honors student who is privy to regular MyUCLA updates about research opportunities, you may be even more in the dark about what exists out there.

Though somewhat unadvertised, research is available and, as most pre-med students would agree, is crucial to any graduate or professional résumé. There is no wasting time in your search when you are competing with 26,000 other undergraduates to work with professors.

“(Research) is definitely a valuable undergraduate experience and an almost essential one for anyone who wants to go to graduate school,” said Mark Westfall, a fourth-year physics and mechanical engineering student who has been working in the same lab for the past two years.

Most students are aware of the benefits but struggle to get involved. A multitude of students read the mass listservs of research opportunities.

This makes it difficult for your application to stand out, especially if you don’t have prior experience. This is of course why you want to do research, and alas, we are back to the conundrum of needing valuable work experience to obtain work experience.

Checking the Student Research Project listserv is only so effective. Students have to aggressively search for and pursue professors to find an assignment to which they are suited. Opportunities are definitely not given out readily or widely advertised.

“My professors never really mention for their students to be involved in their research,” said Ellesse Wong, a third-year sociology student.

So many jobs and internships arise through connections, and research is no exception. Students should go out of their way to research their professors’ work and visit them in office hours with intelligent questions, which could prompt an offer to work together.

Even if professors don’t mention their work during lecture, they probably are still in the midst of a project that may need student assistance.

No matter the outcome, discussing the material of your course further with a professor will enhance your academic experience.

Another way to better get to know professors is to pursue classes offered by the Honors program. Creating an Honors contract or a 199 course with a professor may not include direct research but could forge a relationship that will lead to research in the future.

I was frustrated after attending an office-hour session in which the professor’s blank stare and puzzled face begged the question, “Why exactly are you here?” Having a specific project to work on gives an office visit some substance.

Though some professors may find your questions dull or give the feeling that they aren’t interested in involving you in their work, others will love the presence of any student in their office. Perhaps both the students and faculty rest too easy in the anonymity of the large lecture, and both see interaction regularly in office hours as unappealing.

I do find it exceedingly hard to believe that professors don’t want to engage students in truly insightful intellectual conversations. Why else would they enjoy working at a university?

If all else fails, a quick Google search will elicit top results for the work many of our well-known departments are publishing. The UCLA School of Public Health lists a variety of research topics that its faculty covers.

Students just have to snoop around to find something that fulfills the trifecta of research ““ interesting, substantive and qualified. Finding something that is related to a student’s future academic pursuits and allows them to do substantial work is very hard to come by. Still, opportunities can arise.

UCLA can be an overwhelming place, which decreases the likelihood of students easily connecting with professors.

But if students conquer this hurdle, they will be abundantly rewarded with interesting research work and the chance to develop an actual relationship with a professor. It is truly a double win.

Your best bet? Make friends with a helpful professor, and your search will be far easier.

Though UCLA will have to watch its academic prowess throughout the budget cuts, we can be sure its backbone ““ research ““ will still hold strong. This quality can be negative when students want professors to focus on refining their teaching style in large lectures, and instead they are more concerned with their own work.

However, if students make use of these projects, they will be rewarded with work experience, a reputable reference and hopefully a better direction for their postgraduate plans. Students who focus their criticism on dull lecture styles fail to recognize the benefits that research provides.

Students should fight to find ways they can involve themselves in research; it is an absolute must for any undergraduate at UCLA.

E-mail Mier at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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