Me: "Can I please list 'can raise each eyebrow independently' in the 'skills' section of my resume, so it doesn't look so empty?"
Other Freshman: "I made my first resume when I was six; I knew eight different programming languages by that point, and started my first company while in the womb."
Which of these people will be able to land an undergraduate research position in their first year at MIT?
That's right! They both can. Thus is the beauty of the UROP program.
UROP, noun or verb ("to UROP"). Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. 85% of MIT undergraduates participate in research while they're here - in labs and machine shops and offices and goodness knows what else, on campus and around the world.
As far as I can tell, UROPing follows a basic rule of thumb: if you want one, you can get one.
One night, you're getting ready for bed when you hear a knock at your bedroom door. You open it to find a Nobel Prize winner on his knees, begging you to UROP with him. "I'll even give you my medal!" he says.
Let's be honest: your chances of finding yourself in this situation are basically zero. The initiative has to come from you. Before you embark upon your quest:
Make a resume.
You're definitely going to be asked for your resume, so you might as well make one now. That way, you won't have to worry about throwing it together when the time comes. The MIT career office is a great, under-used (from what I hear) resource: I made an appointment with them to go over my first draft, and found it very helpful.
Think about what your interests are.
You're definitely going to be asked to describe them. Think about why it is you’re looking for a UROP in the first place (I trust it’s something other than “I’m bored”), or why it is you’re interested in a particular area of research. Do you have prior experience that you want to build upon, or put to use in a new way? Do you have no prior experience, and want to try something new? Is there a particular cause you feel strongly about?
Have a little faith.
No one is expecting you to waltz onto campus with years of research experience - or any at all - under your belt. Professors definitely recognize that everyone has to start somewhere. I had a little freak-out about this earlier in the year, and a grad student friend of mine said something that I found very comforting: “in my experience” (and trust me â€“ this guy has a lot of experience) “it's a lot more important to show that you're willing to learn, than it is to show off how much you already know."
^Something to bear in mind.
Anyway, here you are, resume and bucketloads of faith in tow. Time to begin your search! Resources to take advantage of: 1) People you know (professors, TAs, freshman advisor, GRT, friends), 2) The UROP website, 3) Department websites, 4) Department doors (knock!), 5) Off-campus institutions, and 6) Talks and symposia.
1. People you know
Professors: you have regular access to these people, and they all do research! I know people who got UROPs by sticking around after lecture, or visiting during office hours. Chat to your professor about his or her work, and if it sounds like something you might be interested in, ask if there are any UROP opportunities available. Worst possible scenario: there aren’t, and you look elsewhere. Don’t feel intimidated.
TAs: again, people you have regular access to, who do research. Maybe you find your TA easier to approach than your professor; he or she holds office hours, too, so you can chat then or before/after recitation.
Your freshman advisor: it’s this person’s job to help you. My advisor wrote a couple of e-mails on my behalf to people he knew in his department, which was awesome. It helps to know people who know people.
Your GRT: a graduate student living in your dorm. Mine does work at the Media Lab, and I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to ask him for suggestions. Again: it helps to know people who know people.
Friends: remember that the vast majority of undergrads UROP at some point. Most of the people I know currently UROP. While a friend probably can’t single-handedly set you up with a job, chances are that they’ve been through the process before and can at least point you in the right direction.
Professors, post docs, and grad students will post openings on this website, along with their contact information. There are a zillion kinds of UROPs across a zillion departments, so you’re bound to find something that interests you. Bear in mind that not all UROPs are advertised, so you should also take a look at...
3. Department websites
Many (most) UROP opportunities go unadvertised: you have to make them, in a sense. If there’s a particular department or area of research that interests you, check out their website, find a professor or lab doing work that looks cool, and get in touch with them. I usually attach my resume, since I know they’ll ask for it later anyway. If you’re feeling a little bold and don’t want to deal with the possibility that you won’t get a response to your e-mail (more on this later), you can knock on...
4. Department doors
I was at a Physics faculty dinner a couple months ago, and chatted with a professor who told me that to find a UROP, I should wander the halls of the department and knock on office doors with copies of my resume on-hand. Sounds a little intimidating (hi Famous Physicist! Job please?) but shows some spine, in my opinion. I know someone who landed a summer internship at CERN this way. If you’re dying to get off-campus (understandable), you can also look...
5. Outside MIT
I found out recently that it’s possible to UROP off-campus: at the Children’s Hospital, for example. I don't have any personal experience with this, but I would probably start here, or by getting in touch with someone at the UROP office. Finally, keep your eyes peeled for information about...
6. Talks and symposia
Sign up for mailing lists, read posters in the hallways, and ask your dorm-mates to forward you information they receive from their respective departments. I signed up for the Brain and Cog Sci mailing list before I even got to MIT, and that's how I ended up with my first UROP: I attended a talk, thought it was interesting, and approached the speaker at the end to express my interest in her work. I introduced myself (heart pounding and teeth chattering), shook hands, explained that I was considering a major in her department, and asked if there were any opportunities to help out with the research in her lab. She told me to send her my resume, and that was that. I was pretty pleased with myself, and turned to leave â€“ two seconds later, my feet got tangled up in some random person’s briefcase, and I face-planted. Right in front of her. I was out of that room like a shot.
Anyway, I e-mailed her...and never got a response (might have something to do with the face-planting), which brings me to my next point:
Be ready to fight for it.
If you really want a UROP, sometimes you have to fight for it. Stalk for it, even.
Here’s the thing: I recognize that MIT professors are very busy people. E-mails get buried in overflowing inboxes; it happens to all of us. But listen: if I want a UROP, I am not going to allow myself to flow out of anybody's inbox.
Anyway, after about two weeks, I accepted that my e-mail was not going to be answered. I did a quick search online, found the professor’s office number, and walked in. A couple of post-docs stared at me, waiting for an explanation of who I was and what I was doing there. I said that I had sent an e-mail to the professor a couple of weeks ago about a UROP, and wanted to follow up in person. They told me that she was currently traveling, but that another post doc was looking for a UROP, and that I should e-mail her. I walked back out, post doc's contact information in hand, and sent her my resume that evening.
Find another lab? No way. I wanted that UROP. I signed up to be a research subject for the lab, and during a break in the procedure, asked the woman administering the experiment about UROPing. The response was, in sum: "I'm from Harvard, and have no idea what a UROP even is."
My response, in sum: :( :( :(
A week later, I got an e-mail from the Lab Manager, who said that he'd "heard" that I was interested in doing research with the group, and that two post docs were looking for a UROP.
I have never responded to an e-mail so quickly in my life. I scheduled an interview, and was working with the two post docs by the end of the week.
A heads up about the UROP interview: as far as I'm aware, most UROPs require some kind of interview. In my experience, these are pretty casual: the researcher just wants to know a little more about what your specific interests are, and what you hope to get out of the job. Make sure you've done your research on what kind of work your interviewer does, and come prepared with a few questions of your own: you should be assessing the UROP as much as the interviewer is assessing you. It should be a two-way fit, so that you actually enjoy committing to the experience.
In conclusion: if you want a UROP, you will find one, even if you have to bang down a few intimidating office doors (or fall flat on your face) along the way.
Hopefully that covered most of it! If you have any other questions, or if you're a UROP veteran with advice of your own, please post below or e-mail me and I'll create a little FAQ/addendum section.