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I attend a university with a fairly large undergraduate computer science program - our introduction to programming course was ~1400 students during the last fall semester and many of the upper division courses have 400-500 students.

I am interested in doing research to gain experience and to get to know a few professors, but it is difficult to get in contact with said professors because of the course sizes.

Given this situation, I am thinking about skipping the step of trying to get in contact with the professor I am interested in researching with and directly contact the PhD students with interesting projects.

On the other hand, it seems that contacting a professor may expose me to more interesting projects that I didn't know he/she is involved in.

Is it discouraged to contact both the PhD students and the professor?

  • What year you are in? Are you an undergraduate student? What abilities you have in computer science both in theory or practice? How many hours per week you have free to dedicate to research? – o-0 Aug 18 '15 at 21:11
  • @DaveRose, I am a rising undergraduate Junior. As for your next question, I am not certain how to respond - the only measure of capability I would be able to use is GPA (>3.7 for technical), which is a poor indicator, but is some form of a ruler. Hours are flexible - I would be willing to lighten my course load to accommodate more hours to research. – dant Aug 18 '15 at 21:17
  • I would think a professor would have office hours posted. However, if not, or if they are not convenient, email and ask for an appointment. "Dear Prof. So-and-So, I took your Intro to Modern Physics course in the spring semester. I would like an appointment to come in and speak with you about how to get involved in physics research. I am on campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays all day, and Monday and Wednesday afternoons." Something like that. – aparente001 Aug 19 '15 at 5:46
  • I'd say you should not contact PhD students. In the best case a PhD student would relay your request to their supervisor. – Alexey B. Jul 12 '16 at 22:47
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Some universities and faculty are more interested in getting undergraduates involved in research than others. I've had quite a few undergraduate students do research with me with great success (publications even). I've never taught at a university with a PhD in CS though - my institutions encouraged undergraduate research and often even provided funding for it.

I would recommend against approaching PhD students to work on their research unless directed to do so by their advisor - they are focusing their time and energy on finishing their degrees as well as any research/teaching duties assigned by the university. You can ask graduate students for advice on which professors are interested in working with undergraduates - they usually know the faculty pretty well.

As far as professors, there are a few different approaches. Your department should have research seminars - probably more than one - have you been attending? They are usually open to anyone who is interested and it's a good way to hear about interesting research. If the faculty member you are interested in working with has a research group with a seminar series then sitting in on that is also a good way to show that you're serious about doing research with them (but ask if that's ok!). Figure out a specific faculty member or research group you're interested in - you're more likely to get a positive response if you can demonstrate knowledge of what they are doing and genuine interest (in the research - not just in getting a recommendation letter!).

Does your department have programs for undergraduate research? Many have summer scholar programs that partner students with faculty or with research labs. Faculty who have grant money can often get extra funding to pay an undergraduate to work with them.

The other thing you can do is to look into Research Experience for Undergraduate programs - summer programs where you'd go to another university to do research. They are competitive to get into though so it's another situation where you'll need a letter of reference. This can be from someone whose class you've taken (I've written them for my students).

  • J, thanks for your response. It was insightful to know how PhD students would feel about being contacted. – dant Aug 19 '15 at 1:05
  • Welcome to SE J! This was a very insightful answer. Doing research at a undergraduate level is something the universities I went to didn't even talk about but it would have helped a lot during my Masters if I had had more research experience. – Memj Aug 19 '15 at 1:43
  • J, just wanted to say thanks again for your response. Through your inquiry about whether my department has a program for undergraduate research I stumbled upon our Honors program which is exactly what you described, and is what I have been looking for! – dant Aug 19 '15 at 18:06

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