I'm a computer science student at Stony Brook University. As the undergrad final project next semester, I am to do a research project under the supervision of a professor, whom I have to find this semester.

I have not yet taken any classes with professors whose research I am interested in, How can I show that I'm "competent enough" for them to spend time on me? It feels like standards for computer science are different than say, biology. I also currently don't know a lot about the area I'm interested in (data systems/mining), though I will be taking the database course this semester. Would this be a major negative factor?


Research means diving into the unknown.

Committing to work on a research project with a mentor is also diving into the unknown.

What I can reassure you about is that

  1. Professors are used to undergraduates signing up for research projects with less preparation than would be seen in grad students

  2. The stakes will not be as high for this as they would be as a grad student. If you don't have any original findings to show for yourself at the end of the project, that won't be a disaster.

This is a chance for you to get your feet wet, to ask, I wonder... and then figure out how you might start working on an answer.

Give it a try!


How can I show that I'm "competent enough" for them to spend time on me?

In short, you cannot. You can inform yourself roughly about their area, but you won't be able to impress them by knowledge in their area. Let them choose the topic.

Would this be a major negative factor?

It would be a negative factor. Whether it'd be a major one, depends very much on the topic. There is still a lot of low-hanging fruit in the area, so, deep knowledge might be simply not as necessary as programming skills.


Self-doubt is important. Shutting down and doing too much of self-doubt is quite harming.

While at the post-graduate level I recon the most important researcher quality to be having new ideas, this is of lesser importance for you know. You might not know enough to get good new ideas or might happen to rediscover things people already did.

To take a short digress: a famous marvel of Soviet mathematical school was "the ability to solve problems". Some even describes this as the prime task of a mathematician. While we might go aside and discuss in length if this is generally the case, this fits your current stage.

So, to put in in a succinct manner: As a undergraduate doing research, you need to be able to find solutions to the problems your advisor assigns to you. Most of them would be of the sort "implement this" or "find which one of known methods to do that better works with our current data". Of course, if you find a yet another method not listed/mentioned by your supervisor, it's a plus. If you invent a new one, if a huge plus. But do not aim too high for now.

tl;dr: Convince your professor, you are good at problem solving. As this is CS, most of problem solving would involve coding.

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