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UCLA advisor, math professor share suggestions for securing research positions

(Andrea Grigsby/Cartoons director)

By Shruti Iyer

Aug. 18, 2020 10:00 a.m.

For students studying science and engineering, research often comes up as a potential career path.

Lexi Kwon, a second-year physics student, said she started to look for research opportunities to see if research was the right career for her.

“I think getting research (experience) is so helpful in seeing what the future could be like,” Kwon said. “It’s not anything like … the lab classes I’ve taken at all.”

Students can reach out to faculty or teaching assistants via email, attach a resume and write a brief introduction mentioning their interests, said Jazmine Vega, an undergraduate physics and astronomy advisor. Under normal circumstances, students should then follow up by attending office hours. Since a mostly online fall quarter is far from normal, students can instead request a virtual meeting, she said.

First-year students should complete their introductory courses before looking for research opportunities, Vega added.

Kwon said she thinks the pandemic has both good and bad effects on research availability – remote internships and research positions are more accessible for those away from campus, but programs may get canceled because of a lack of funding or poor coordination online, she said.

Vega said groups on campus that work on research projects are collaborative ways for students to teach other students lab skills.

Research aside, the next best option to gain experience is to read work published in the fields students are interested in by using UCLA research databases, Vega said.

Research databases can be found through the UCLA Library, where students can browse for published work using keywords.

Students can also use the Undergraduate Research Center – Sciences site to search for projects, she added.

Vega said coding skills are worth learning. Programming in Computing 10A: “Introduction to Programming” is a recommended introductory class, she said.

However, students should take the initiative to ask faculty for detailed advice, said Don Blasius, the undergraduate vice chair of the mathematics department.

Research requires a frame of mind that is different from classroom problem-solving, Blasius said.

“You need to look for more complexity, and more time is devoted to one topic,” Blasius said. “You need to be prepared to figure out along the way what you need to learn, and you need to be able to get advice about that from others.”

Students can develop soft skills used in research by building relationships with graduate students and professors, Vega said.

“Start being comfortable with the language that is used … and learning what questions to ask,” Vega said. “(Don’t) force yourself to go to office hours, but really take the time to think about what you want to ask before going.”

Blasius said that showing a willingness to prepare and work for opportunities will yield better responses from faculty members.

Students should use department websites that list out faculty and their projects, or join departmental mailing lists because many opportunities arise through circulated emails, Vega said.

“Whenever someone shoots us an opportunity, we’ll go ahead and forward it to all students,” Vega said. “(By) having students sign themselves up for mailing lists and paying attention to those emails, … someone might stumble on something.”

Kwon said she got her first research opportunity this summer by applying to positions she saw in departmental emails.

“I think every internship I applied to was actually an email from the department,” Kwon said. “It’s actually really cool that they do that. Every week I was getting a new email that had a different research opportunity.”

Vega said students should not feel discouraged if they don’t get research opportunities right away. She added that most faculty will be understanding of the restrictions caused by the pandemic for future applications.

“(Take) an active role in your own exploration,” Vega said. “(Engage) with literature and (ask) questions. I think that’s the best thing you can do right now.”

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Shruti Iyer | Assistant News editor
Iyer is the current Science and Health editor and a reporter for News. She is also an Illustrator and Graphics contributor. She was previously a contributor for the Science and Health beat. She is a third year astrophysics student at UCLA who enjoys writing Physics and Astronomy research articles and drawing accompanying artwork.
Iyer is the current Science and Health editor and a reporter for News. She is also an Illustrator and Graphics contributor. She was previously a contributor for the Science and Health beat. She is a third year astrophysics student at UCLA who enjoys writing Physics and Astronomy research articles and drawing accompanying artwork.
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