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Unfunded Undergraduate Research: How I Got Here

Undergraduate programs all around the country boast about their research opportunities. At admissions events and Q&A sessions, they’ll have students talk about how nice it is to earn credit or money while gaining experience in a lab working on a project that you’re interested in. Upperclassmen will tell you to ask professors about their research and how you can get involved. But what they won’t tell you is that not every research lab is funded, which means you won’t always get to choose between getting compensated monetarily or with credit.

At a large university, there are a ton of paid research opportunities. Even better, a lot of those positions can be filled by an undergraduate student. I chose a different route, though. The research that I conduct is primarily my own, which comes with its own set of pros and cons.

During the fall semester of my sophomore year, I decided that I wanted to go straight into a graduate program after I finished my bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t sure where to start, especially because I was just starting the uphill battle of fixing my GPA. So, the first thing I did was set up a meeting with my academic advisor, who is an amazing resource to have. At the meeting we talked about what I want to do ten years down the line, and my advisor helped me to realize that I really did want a career centered around research more than I did a job that focused on design and sales. During our conversation, I mentioned how difficult and intimidating it was to approach professors and ask about research positions, and he handed me a list of ideas that he wanted me to pursue.

About a week later, I emailed my advisor and told him that there were a few projects that caught my eye, so we set up another meeting to specifically talk about what a research project could potentially look like. We talked about what each topic really meant and where it could potentially lead me. It was here that I learned I wouldn’t get paid or have to be in lab for a certain number of hours per week. Instead, the progress of the research would be determined by how much extra time I had to give. The first goal we set was to complete a literature search and start brainstorming about what an independent project might look like, so that way I could get at least one semester of credit for my work.

close up of desk with laptop, books, papers and coffee mug
Photo by Daria Obymaha from Pexels

I spent the next semester and a half reading technical reports and other published literature to try and narrow down what aspect of my research I would be focusing on in the fall. I would have regular check-in meetings with my advisor to go over my progress and make sure we were in a good place heading into break. Over the summer, I wrote a research proposal that outlined what a semester-long project would achieve and how I would complete the work necessary to gain credit. The entire time I kept an open line of communication with my advisor, so that he would be able to help me solve any problems that I ran into. Towards the end of summer, my proposal was approved, and I could start earning credit.

Especially during the pandemic, I was extremely limited on what I could accomplish because I did not receive any type of funding from the university or outside resources. This was both a set back and a positive because there was a lot less pressure on me to rush through stages of my research. I’ve spent the past year working on roadway-based renewable energy solutions and despite not having funding, I was able to write a paper on what I’ve done so far, and I have an opportunity to present my findings at a conference.

As a woman in engineering, I often feel out of place talking about my research because it isn’t done in a large lab that receives a lot of money every year. However, I hold a lot of pride in what I’ve been able to accomplish so far and being able to choose exactly what I spend my time on makes it even more rewarding. I really wanted to work in an established lab and be able to tell my peers that I’m doing important work on something in the engineering field. Even though I don’t have a physical lab to work in, I am still doing important research and I’ve learned a lot about my major and the world around me along the way. All research projects that have made a difference started somewhere and someone had to be brave enough to take on a project that they weren’t getting paid to do.

Marvin Meyer

If you take one thing away from this article, it’s that you should put yourself out there and pursue opportunities even if they aren’t exactly what you had in mind at first. It’s okay to not do the same things as your peers, as long as what you are doing makes you feel fulfilled and happy at the end of the day.

I'm a mechanical engineering major with a passion for sustainability and green energy. In my free time I love to skateboard, drink coffee, and listen to music.
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