Undergraduate Research in Chemistry

Undergraduate research in chemistry is self-directed experimentation work under the guidance and supervision of a mentor or advisor. Students participate in an ongoing research project and investigate phenomena of interest to them and their advisor.

There is a broad range of research areas in the chemical sciences. Today’s research groups are interdisciplinary, crossing boundaries across fields and across other disciplines, such as physics, biology, materials science, engineering and medicine.

Basic or Applied Research?

Basic research
The objective of basic research is to gain more comprehensive knowledge or understanding of the subject under study, without specific applications in mind. In industry, basic research is defined as research that advances scientific knowledge but does not have specific immediate commercial objectives, although it may be in fields of present or potential commercial interest.

Applied research
Applied research is aimed at gaining knowledge or understanding to determine the means by which a specific, recognized need may be met. In industry, applied research includes investigations oriented to discovering new scientific knowledge that has specific commercial objectives with respect to products, processes, or services.

What is research at the undergraduate level?    

At the undergraduate level, research is self-directed work under the guidance and supervision of a mentor/advisor ― usually a university professor. A gradual transition towards independence is encouraged as a student gains confidence and is able to work with minor supervision. Students normally participate in an ongoing research project and investigate phenomena of interest to them and their advisor. In the chemical sciences, the range of research areas is quite broad. A few groups maintain their research area within a single classical field of analytical, inorganic, organic, physical, chemical education or theoretical chemistry. More commonly, research groups today are interdisciplinary, crossing boundaries across fields and across other disciplines, such as physics, biology, materials science, engineering and medicine.

What are the benefits of being involved in undergraduate research?

There are many benefits to undergraduate research, but the most important are:

  • Learning, learning, learning. Most chemists learn by working in a laboratory setting. Information learned in the classroom is more clearly understood and it is more easily remembered once it has been put into practice. This knowledge expands through experience and further reading. From the learning standpoint, research is an extremely productive cycle.
  • Experiencing chemistry in a real world setting. The equipment, instrumentation and materials used in research labs are generally more sophisticated, advanced, and of far better quality than those used in lab courses
  • Getting the excitement of discovery. If science is truly your vocation, regardless of any negative results, the moment of discovery will be truly exhilarating. Your results are exclusive. No one has ever seen them before.
  • Preparing for graduate school. A graduate degree in a chemistry-related science is mostly a research degree. Undergraduate research will not only give you an excellent foundation, but working alongside graduate students and post-doctorates will provide you with a unique opportunity to learn what it will be like.

Is undergraduate research required for graduation?

Many chemistry programs now require undergraduate research for graduation. There are plenty of opportunities for undergraduate students to get involved in research, either during the academic year, summer, or both. If your home institution is not research intensive, you may find opportunities at other institutions, government labs, and industries.

When should I get involved in undergraduate research?

Chemistry is an experimental science. We recommended that you get involved in research as early in your college life as possible. Ample undergraduate research experience gives you an edge in the eyes of potential employers and graduate programs.

While most mentors prefer to accept students in their research labs once they have developed some basic lab skills through general and organic lab courses, some institutions have programs that involve students in research projects the summer prior to their freshman year. Others even involve senior high school students in summer research programs. Ask your academic/departmental advisor about the options available to you.

What will I learn by participating in an undergraduate research program?

Conducting a research project involves a series of steps that start at the inquiry level and end in a report. In the process, you learn to:

  • Conduct scientific literature searches
  • Read, interpret and extract information from journal articles relevant to the project
  • Design experimental procedures to obtain data and/or products of interest
  • Operate instruments and implement laboratory techniques not usually available in laboratories associated with course work
  • Interpret results, reach conclusions, and generate new ideas based on results
  • Interact professionally (and socially) with students and professors within the research group, department and school as well as others from different schools, countries, cultures and backgrounds
  • Communicate results orally and in writing to other peers, mentors, faculty advisors, and members of the scientific community at large via the following informal group meeting presentations, reports to mentor/advisor, poster presentations at college-wide, regional, national or international meetings; formal oral presentations at scientific meetings; or journal articles prepared for publication

How do I select an advisor?

This is probably the most important step in getting involved in undergraduate research. The best approach is multifaceted. Get informed about research areas and projects available in your department, which are usually posted on your departmental website under each professor’s name.

Talk to other students who are already involved in research. If your school has an ACS Student Chapter, make a point to talk to the chapter’s members. Ask your current chemistry professor and lab instructor for advice. They can usually guide you in the right direction. If a particular research area catches your interest, make an appointment with the corresponding professor.

Let the professor know that you are considering getting involved in research, you have read a bit about her/his research program, and that you would like to find out more. Professors understand that students are not experts in the field, and they will explain their research at a level that you will be able to follow. Here are some recommended questions to ask when you meet with this advisor:

  • Is there a project(s) within her/his research program suitable for an undergraduate student?
  • Does she/he have a position/space in the lab for you?
  • If you were to work in her/his lab, would you be supervised directly by her/him or by a graduate student? If it is a graduate student, make a point of meeting with the student and other members of the research group. Determine if their schedule matches yours. A night owl may not be able to work effectively with a morning person.
  • Does she/he have funding to support the project? Unfunded projects may indicate that there may not be enough resources in the lab to carry out the project to completion. It may also be an indication that funding agencies/peers do not consider this work sufficiently important enough for funding support. Of course there are exceptions. For example, a newly hired assistant professor may not have external funding yet, but he/she may have received “start-up funds” from the university and certainly has the vote of confidence of the rest of the faculty. Otherwise he/she would not have been hired. Another classical exception is computational chemistry research, for which mostly fast computers are necessary and therefore external funding is needed to support research assistants and computer equipment only. No chemicals, glassware, or instrumentation will be found in a computational chemistry lab.
  • How many of his/her articles got published in the last two or three years? When prior work has been published, it is a good indicator that the research is considered worthwhile by the scientific community that reviews articles for publication. Ask for printed references. Number of publications in reputable refereed journals (for example ACS journals) is an excellent indicator of the reputation of the researcher and the quality of his/her work.

Here is one last piece of advice: If the project really excites you and you get satisfactory answers to all your questions, make sure that you and the advisor will get along and that you will enjoy working with him/her and other members of the research group.

Remember that this advisor may be writing recommendation letters on your behalf to future employers, graduate schools, etc., so you want to leave a good impression. To do this, you should understand that the research must move forward and that if you become part of a research team, you should do your best to achieve this goal. At the same time, your advisor should understand your obligations to your course work and provide you with a degree of flexibility.

Ultimately, it is your responsibility to do your best on both course work and research. Make sure that the advisor is committed to supervising you as much as you are committed to doing the required work and putting in the necessary/agreed upon hours.

How much time should I allocate to research?

The quick answer is as much as possible without jeopardizing your course work. The rule of thumb is to spend 3 to 4 hours working in the lab for every credit hour in which you enroll. However, depending on the project, some progress can be achieved in just 3-4 hours of research/week. Most advisors would recommend 8-10 hours/week.

Depending on your project, a few of those hours may be of intense work and the rest may be spent simply monitoring the progress of a reaction or an instrumental analysis. Many research groups work on weekends. Saturdays are excellent days for long, uninterrupted periods of lab work.

What are some potential challenges?

  • Time management. Each project is unique, and it will be up to you and your supervisor to decide when to be in the lab and how to best utilize the time available to move the project forward.
  • Different approaches and styles. Not everyone is as clean and respectful of the equipment of others as you are. Not everyone is as punctual as you are. Not everyone follows safety procedures as diligently as you do. Some groups have established protocols for keeping the lab and equipment clean, for borrowing equipment from other members, for handling common equipment, for research meetings, for specific safety procedures, etc. Part of learning to work in a team is to avoid unnecessary conflict while establishing your ground to doing your work efficiently.
  • “The project does not work.” This is a statement that advisors commonly hear from students. Although projects are generally very well conceived, and it is people that make projects work, the nature of research is such that it requires patience, perseverance, critical thinking, and on many occasions, a change in direction. Thoroughness, attention to detail, and comprehensive notes are crucial when reporting the progress of a project.

Be informed, attentive, analytical, and objective. Read all the background information. Read user manuals for instruments and equipment. In many instances the reason for failure may be related to dirty equipment, contaminated reagents, improperly set instruments, poorly chosen conditions, lack of thoroughness, and/or lack of resourcefulness. Repeating a procedure while changing one parameter may work sometimes, while repeating the procedure multiple times without systematic changes and observations probably will not.

When reporting failures or problems, make sure that you have all details at hand. Be thorough in you assessment. Then ask questions. Advisors usually have sufficient experience to detect errors in procedures and are able to lead you in the right direction when the student is able to provide all the necessary details. They also have enough experience to know when to change directions. Many times one result may be unexpected, but it may be interesting enough to lead the investigation into a totally different avenue. Communicate with your advisor/mentor often.

Are there places other than my institution where I can conduct research?

Absolutely! Your school may be close to other universities, government labs and/or industries that offer part-time research opportunities during the academic year. There may also be summer opportunities in these institutions as well as in REU sites (see next question).

Contact your chemistry department advisor first. He/she may have some information readily available for you. You can also contact nearby universities, local industries and government labs directly or through the career center at your school. You can also find listings through ACS resources:

What are Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) sites? When should I apply for a position in one of them?

REU is a program established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support active research participation by undergraduate students at host institutions in the United States or abroad. An REU site may offer projects within a single department/discipline or it may have projects that are inter-departmental and interdisciplinary. There are currently over 70 domestic and approximately 5 international REU sites with a chemistry theme. Sites consist of 10-12 students each, although there are larger sites that supplement NSF funding with other sources. Students receive stipends and, in most cases, assistance with housing and travel.

Most REU sites invite rising juniors and rising seniors to participate in research during the summer. Experience in research is not required to apply, except for international sites where at least one semester or summer of prior research experience is recommended. Applications usually open around November or December for participation during the following summer. Undergraduate students supported with NSF funds must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States or its possessions. Some REU sites with supplementary funds from other sources may accept international students that are enrolled at US institutions.

How do I prepare a scientific research poster?