UCLA is a world class research university that receives hundreds of millions in research funding every year.
You can imagine the irony when students realize they still can’t find research positions here.
Participating in undergraduate research is critical and allows students to develop important laboratory skills. Many South Campus majors like microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and cognitive science require students to take up research for course credit. Students outside of these fields also choose to participate in research for the job experience.
Researchers from various departments can post about open positions on the UCLA undergraduate research portal. The portal allows students to look through various on- and off-campus research opportunities and apply online by submitting their resumes and cover letters. Many departments also post a list of research opportunities on their websites.
But most researchers do not use these avenues, so departmental websites and portals often miss out on many opportunities or are outdated.
“There are a lot of research opportunities at UCLA, but they are all over the place,” said Thaksaporn Chitrakorn, a third-year psychology student. “Students find out about them through the research portal, flyers or by contacting professors, and so the process is kind of messy.”
This limits students in research-oriented majors by preventing them from finding appropriate research opportunities to supplement their theoretical knowledge. In extreme cases, this may even prevent students from graduating on time. This also disadvantages those who wish to pursue research as a career by hindering their ability to gain valuable exposure and hands-on experience in the field.
Undergraduate students need a more effective avenue to take advantage of being at one of the top research institutions in the nation. The university needs to ensure professors are transparently and regularly posting research opportunities on established campus channels like the undergraduate research portal.
One reason why faculty do not post about research opportunities is because there simply aren’t as many open positions as there are interested candidates.
“Many labs have far more students interested in working in them than they can accommodate,” said Gregory Miller, chair of the psychology department.
The psychology department, for example, has more than 3,600 students – 38% higher than in 2011, Miller said. He added that the department has not seen a similar growth in the number of faculty, meaning the number of research opportunities hasn’t grown significantly.
Additionally, many undergraduate students don’t know how to seek out open positions. They also often do not know what information to include while emailing professors for research positions or how to prepare for interviews. This is because most undergraduate students have never been exposed to research environments before and thus are not familiar with the requirements of the job.
“As a freshman, it was very confusing as to where I should look for opportunities and how I should approach professors and different labs,” said Girija Chatufale, a third-year cognitive science student. “Do I need a CV? Did I need to already have an established relationship with a professor? I had a lot of questions.”
And yet there is a huge demand for undergraduate research positions. Miller said 500 to 800 undergraduates in the psychology department alone sign up for course credit for their work at research labs per year.
Many students are therefore forced to take things into their own hands, but often do not receive responses when they cold-email researchers and their contacts.
Chatufale said she emailed about 10 psychology labs about potential opportunities as a research assistant and only heard back from two, one of which told her the psychology department’s information was outdated and the project she asked about was no longer operational.
And this seems to be quite a UCLA-specific problem.
“After cold-emailing several postdocs and principal investigators at UCLA and other schools, I found that it is easier to get a response from researchers from other schools than from your own school,” said Om Kapoor, a first-year cognitive science student.
Students justifiably expect more from a top-tier research university. UCLA should inform and encourage researchers to post about open positions on the undergraduate research portal. A formal application process for all research positions on campus would also ensure that students are given a fair chance for getting and being regularly updated about research opportunities.
And while it may seem like interested students should be asked to take initiative, UCLA shouldn’t be forcing Bruins to go on wild-goose chases for research opportunities. It is difficult for students to seek opportunities when they are unaware of the necessary steps they should be taking to start the process. Moreover, the quality of candidates for undergraduate research positions only improves when there is more transparency about those jobs.
The spirit of research is to share findings and information with the community in an accessible and procedural manner. UCLA would do well to embody that ideal, too.