No Experience, No Problem: Become a Research Assistant

When McCormick sophomore Eric Hao saw an email from his professor asking for compensated help on a project, he immediately replied to the professor expressing interest. Hao then spent the academic year working alongside the professor to design a Remotely Operated Vehicle using WiFi.

Perhaps Hao’s story seems like a typical undergraduate research story, but there was one crucial catch:

I had zero real research experience. Absolutely none,” Hao said. “The professor emphasized that no research experience was required.”

Undergraduate Research Assistant Program (URAP), run by the Office of Undergraduate Research, sponsored the project Hao and his professor worked on. Mary Leighton, URAP coordinator, noted that many students may feel apprehensive taking on research projects because of a lack of experience.

“Everyone is intimidated at first,” Leighton said. “But it’s perfectly possible to get involved with research without experience. The URAP program is specifically for students with little to no experience.”

A focus on research across all disciplines is one of URAP’s most significant elements, rather than the traditional STEM subjects that usually come to mind. URAP provides grants to faculty members who might not usually have financial means to hire undergraduate researchers. URAP also provides funding for residential college affiliated faculty fellows working with residential college undergraduate researchers. Student researchers are also compensated $10/hr, earning a maximum of $2,000 throughout the academic year, Past projects have included research in voice coaching for a theater major, anthropology projects, and sports journalism.

The basic process starts from interested students approaching a faculty member and asking if they have any projects in mind. In cases like these, faculty are the ones who submit the proposal with the interested student signed on, but faculty members can also submit a project and leave the undergraduate research position to an open search. Students can find a list of open research projects on the URAP website and then submit their résumés to specific projects.

Contacting faculty members may seem intimidating at first, but Leighton advised students not to overthink the process.

“It’s easy to come to Northwestern and feel like everyone knows what to do except you,” Leighton said. “But that’s not true. Everyone had to start somewhere…even the faculty members were once undergraduates, so they’re not as scary as you think.”

URAP offers an invaluable opportunity to receive one-on-one mentorship from a faculty member. Hao described his own experience as “truly a collective effort.”

The professor offered really helpful advice and guidance, but was also relatively new to the project,” Hao said.

The last day to apply for the 2016-2017 academic year URAP projects is November 8. Students who can’t make this deadline can still apply for the summer program. Leighton advised interested students to start reaching out to faculty members in early spring quarter and start planning their project then.

Northwestern designed URAP specifically for students with little to no research experience, funding faculty members and compensating students at a rate of $10 per hour. Students can form bonds with faculty and take part in projects that they’re genuinely interested in. As Hao put it, “There's really no reason not to go for it.

More details about the program can be found here.