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Students’ Knowledge of Finding and Securing Research Positions: How Can We Make Undergraduate Research Experiences Accessible?

Many STEM students are seeking the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research at some point in their academic career due to its many benefits. However, finding and securing a research position can be challenging, and may be more difficult for some students than others. In a recent publication in the International Journal of STEM Education, researchers interviewed undergraduates who were involved in undergraduate research and students who were not involved but interested in participating in research in order to compare their knowledge on finding and securing research positions at a research-intensive institution (Cooper et al., 2021).

How can students find research?

Students who were interviewed said that they found research opportunities by talking with instructors, academic advisors, peers, or teaching assistants or by using online university resources. The study found that there were no differences between students who did research and students who wanted to do research in the ways they mentioned to find these opportunities, so it seemed as though students knew how to learn about these positions. However, there were differences in their knowledge regarding securing a research experience.

How can students secure a research experience?

Because there are a limited number of research positions available to undergraduates and typically more undergraduates interested in doing research than positions available, this process becomes competitive. Students who were interviewed said that they secured research experiences by expressing interest in a position by reaching out to the research advisor or being engaged during an interview, doing background research on a lab, building relationships with the research advisor either over email or in office hours, and emailing multiple research advisors. The study found some differences in the knowledge of students for how to secure a research position. Students who were not involved in research were less likely to mention some of the tactics used by researchers for securing positions. Some of these methods include expressing interest in a position, connecting with research advisors, doing background searches on a lab’s current work, being engaged during interviews, and contacting multiple research advisors.

How can we make undergraduate research experiences more accessible to students with less knowledge about research?

Instead of asking students to find and secure their own research experiences, institutions can build research experiences into the formal undergraduate curriculum. For example, course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) provide undergraduates with valuable research experiences without making students go through the formal application process of joining a research lab. This way all students can engage in research, even if they go into the course not knowing what research is or why research may be important to do. For institutions that do not offer enough CUREs for all students, they can try to make undergraduates aware of the hidden curriculum regarding how to secure a research position. Advertise this information to students through student newsletters, social media, and discussing it in science classes. 

We acknowledge that as we try to level the playing field for students so that any student could get access to a research experience it is possible that more privileged groups will find ways to maintain their advantage. However, we still aim to find solutions to make undergraduate research opportunities more accessible. Although this study focused on what we can teach students about the knowledge needed to secure research positions, we can also ask that research advisors make changes in their criteria for accepting students to undergraduate research experiences. Research advisors can be mindful of varying levels of knowledge students have, not make assumptions of students based on their incoming knowledge, and be explicit with students about how they should prepare for an interview to do research in their lab.


  • Bangera, G., & Brownell, S. E. (2014). Course-based undergraduate research experiences can make scientific research more inclusive. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(4), 602-606. doi:10.1187/cbe.14-06-0099
  • Cooper, K.M., Cala, J.M. & Brownell, S.E. Cultural capital in undergraduate research: an exploration of how biology students operationalize knowledge to access research experiences at a large, public research-intensive institution. IJ STEM Ed 8, 6 (2021).

Post Author:
Tala Araghi is an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Sara Brownell's Biology Education Research Lab at ASU. She is pursuing a degree in Biological Sciences (Biomedical Sciences) and planning to attend medical school after graduation. She is interested in researching how we can create more inclusive learning environments for undergraduates pursuing STEM.


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