Research Frequently Asked Questions

Getting Started

How do undergraduates get involved with research?

Interested undergraduates should reach out to multiple people with whom they would be interested in working.  This can include faculty or graduate students. Each year, the Atmospheric Sciences department hosts an undergraduate research symposium, which is an excellent opportunity to meet faculty and students with similar research interests and learn about opportunities. Students may also contact the Student Services Coordinator (atmosadv@uw.edu) or Prof. Becky Alexander (beckya@atmos.uw.edu) for more information.

What will be expected of new undergraduate researchers?

The biggest expectation that faculty mentors have for students is a willingness to learn, enthusiasm for research, and a good work ethic.  Experience processing data in common programming languages (Python, MATLAB, etc.) is a huge benefit, but certainly not required of undergraduate researchers, as coding and other research skills can be learned on-the-job.  Many faculty members don’t assume a lot of prior knowledge or experience and are willing to accommodate and work with undergraduates to build their skills.

Doing Research

How do undergraduate researchers and faculty work together to develop a research project that is both interesting and approachable?

The process of developing a research project is different with each student.  Sometimes there is an existing project that fits well with the student’s interests, and sometimes questions and approaches are developed while exploring a topic.  The driving motivation when developing a project is to explore something that everyone is interested in and that will help the undergraduate gain research skills, such as programming, troubleshooting, and understanding scientific methods.  Another factor that will impact project development is how long a student can work on a project (e.g. just over the summer or for a year or more).

What are the roles, activities, and time commitments of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in an undergraduate research project?

  • The undergraduate reviews background material to learn about their topic, carries out analysis and/or experiments, and documents and communicates their work and findings, with feedback and support from their faculty advisor and possibly a graduate mentor throughout the process.
    • Since many undergraduates do not have programming experience before beginning a project, projects often begin with a period of learning how to write code and perform analysis.  Writing code is a very common activity during research, even for laboratory-based projects (e.g., plotting data), so anything a student can do to learn a programming language (especially Python) is very useful. 
    • The time commitment for undergraduates varies by project, the student’s availability, and the time of year, with more hours possible during the summer. Students should communicate with their research mentors to determine an appropriate time commitment.
    • Students receive credit for undergraduate research and are sometimes paid if funding is available.  Students can also apply for support through the Mary Gates Scholarship, NASA Space Grant, and other similar programs.
    • Students can expect to meet with their faculty advisor around once a week to discuss progress, answer questions, and brainstorm next steps.  Graduate mentors are generally available more often to discuss work in a more casual capacity.
  • Graduate research mentors may act as the first point of contact for questions about lab procedures, data analysis, programming, and creating posters/presentations.  Outside of research, they also provide general mentorship and advice on searching for jobs and/or applying to graduate school.  Graduate mentors generally spend 1 hr/week with a student and are generally available to answer miscellaneous questions.
  • Faculty time commitment varies depending on the project and on what the student is working on (e.g. learning coding, running experiments, performing analysis, creating posters).  Faculty typically meet with undergraduate researchers 1 to 2 times each week.  Having a graduate mentor involved in the project reduces the load for faculty and provides more one-on-one mentoring for the undergraduate.  It is important for faculty and undergraduates to communicate clearly about the time required to complete a project and the time the student has available to work.

Benefits of Undergraduate Research

How can research influence undergraduate career planning and preparation? 

  • Undergraduate researchers typically gain experience with programming, communication, finding and synthesizing information, and the scientific process. It’s okay to learn through an undergraduate project that you don’t want to pursue research in the future, and the skills undergraduates obtain through research can be critical for their success in the job market beyond academia and research. 
  • On the other hand, undergraduate research can also introduce undergraduates to new aspects of atmospheric science and give them the confidence to pursue a Masters or PhD program. Research experience is often one of the most important pieces of a graduate school application as an indicator of interest and scientific creativity, and can also lead to letters of recommendation from the professors you work with. 

What aspects of undergraduate research have been most rewarding for undergraduates, graduate mentors, and faculty research advisors? 

  • Undergraduate researchers have enjoyed doing something outside of their classes that can connect with what they’re learning in class while also offering an opportunity to explore new ideas and discover their interests. 
  • Graduate mentors can learn how to take big scientific questions and boil them down to tractable projects for undergraduates–this is an important skill for advising students in the future, and also translatable to leadership positions in industry. Graduate students’ individual research can also benefit from collaboration with undergraduates.
  • Faculty are able to explore new questions and develop new skills through mentoring undergraduate research. One of the most important and rewarding parts of a professor’s job is engaging students in research and helping them progress in their careers, within or outside of academia.
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