This summer I have arranged to do research under the advisement of one of the professors at my university in the field of Computer Science. I am still and undergraduate, looking to go into graduate school (eventually to PhD) and would like to test out if research is for me.

My overall question is "What are the expectations of undergraduate research?" What constitutes a success? I realize that I'm most probably not going to make some insane breakthrough and become famous. The problem that he has said that we are going to be working on is a very important problem, with many applications. Finding an efficient algorithm for this problem would be very huge for the field. Since many people have been working on it over the years, it's obviously not an easy problem, otherwise someone would have solved it already.

What should I expect? If (when) I don't find this "magical" algorithm what kind of things could I pull out of this to make it a "successful" research endeavor?

3 Answers 3


I was in your shoes during my UG second-year summer; I am now a first-year Computer Science PhD. For me, there were no expectations because I, like you, were doing it for the sole purpose of seeing if I enjoyed research. But, though there were no expectations set in place the following is what made my undergraduate research internship a success for me (YMMV):

  1. I found out I really enjoyed research!
  2. ....
  3. ....
  4. Nope, that's it!

What I am trying to say is, you have your goal. Your goal is to see if you enjoy research, would like to pursue it, would like to maybe make a career out of it. Everything else. It is all extras.

I personally; started to learn how to write papers, present in front of people, grew confident in talking to strangers about my research, travelled abroad to my first conference, finally understood how you get so in-depth with a subject you almost fall in love with it and much more all in the short space of 6 months! But, in the end, none of that would have told me if I was a success or not.

My end goal was to find out if I enjoyed research not to save the world and so for me, the only marker for success is if you get your answer to that question. Now, if you also get the solution to your research questions, well, take that as a bonus!

  • I never considered that angle of it. Thank you for your answer.
    – SH7890
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 19:47

Having been, worked with, and supervised a number of undergraduate researchers in my time, a few thoughts:

If people have been working on a problem for years, it means there are pieces of that problem to work on. There is often a perception, I find, with new researchers, that the process of doing research is an on/off switch...that there is nothing...nothing...nothing...BAM! Breakthrough.

For most research, this isn't the case. Particularly good undergraduate projects are pieces of a larger whole, and generally are accomplishable over the course of a summer. Testing a particular hypothesis. Working on the implementation of the algorithm on a new platform/language, etc. Applying existing tools to new data or areas as a proof of concept. Testing the sensitivity of the results of a tool to some of the parameters used for it.

Undergraduate research, to be "successful", should produce a project the undergraduate can take ownership of (i.e. not just "Write the code one of my postdocs can't be bothered to) and helps move the lab's research agenda forward, but it's not necessarily supposed to produce flashy standalone results or major breakthroughs.

  • Thank you for your answer. This is a part I'm going to have to accept going forward. Thank you for pointing it out. I'll give the question a little bit more time before I accept the answer, but I thank you for your time.
    – SH7890
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 0:43

Not a lot is expected. Concentrate on your ug classes and grades (and GRE, etc.) I did a top rank degree in the sciences with zero ug research experience. It was no problem.

That said, "success" is a publication. There is some strategy in getting that (mostly aim low, be honest, etc.) But get that ball across the goal line. Get SOMETHING out there in the peer reviewed lit a rat chure!

  • Welcome! I'm not sure that you're directly addressing what the poster is asking. I read the question as, "What is expected from a PI's point of view?" rather than from a grad school application point of view. I'm sure the OP has heard about publications, but going into the summer they might want more concrete advice about even small, incremental things being publishable (if that's your experience). Commented May 1, 2018 at 22:54

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