Getting Started in Chemistry Research

What is undergraduate research?

This is an opportunity to work closely with a faculty member as a mentor on ongoing research projects related to the faculty’s interests with the goal of making an intellectual contribution in the field of study. In the Chemistry department, research areas span both experimental and theoretical chemistry. The experience allows you to acquire transferable (lab and other) skills, develop your critical thinking and problem solving abilities as you work towards answering specific questions in a systematic way. Research can take many different forms and some examples of common research tasks include (but are not limited to) designing experiments, collecting data, analyzing data, synthesizing compounds, and reading the chemical literature.

Who is eligible to get involved in a research lab?

Everyone!  We welcome and encourage all students into research, and hope that all our chemistry students will be able to find some kind of research experience over their years at Williams.  That said, we don’t recommend that students try to get involved in research in their very first semester because there’s a lot of other new stuff to get used to when you first arrive on campus, and in our experience, it’s better for students to wait until they have a better sense of their schedules and what it takes to manage their time before committing to a research lab.

What prerequisites are there for getting involved in research? I don’t know much chemistry yet.

Many labs can accommodate students who don’t yet have much chemistry background, while other labs may be more suitable for students who have a few courses under their belt. Experience in a related field (biology, computer science, physics, etc.) might also be helpful, depending on the specific research project. You should reach out to individual faculty to see what they think is needed to get started on a research project.

What if I don’t know what kind of research I want to do?

That’s fine!  In fact, we feel strongly that any research experience is beneficial, and that really, when you’re starting out, it doesn’t matter as much as you might think what kind of research you’re doing.  There are similarities to the experience of being in a research lab regardless of the particular focus of a given lab and we encourage students to be as open-minded as possible.

Is it possible to propose my own research project (or is it expected that I will do that)?

You are never expected to come up with your own research project at this stage in your chemistry education. Most often, you’ll discuss available projects that are currently underway in a given faculty member’s lab, and you’d join one of those projects based on the faculty member’s needs, or possibly your interest and background.  In general, at the undergraduate level, it is unlikely that a student will have enough knowledge or background or context to propose a research project.  Even if you have an idea in mind, research takes funding, expertise, specialized equipment, and a significant investment of time; each faculty member is working hard on their own projects and it is unlikely that they will be able to redirect their energies and resources to a new project that isn’t in line with their established research program

In some very rare instances, students can approach faculty with particular projects in mind that do not fall under the faculty member’s research program. If the faculty member feels that they can supervise such a project (this would be very rare), then it can be brought to the department for review and discussion.  It’s a significant extra undertaking for a faculty member to try to supervise a project outside of their expertise, so this would require approval at the departmental level.

What types of research experiences are available?

There are several ways to get involved doing research:

  1. Work during the semester for pay or as a volunteer (typically 3-6 hr/week).
  2. Work during the summer for pay (typically 7-9 week commitment, full-time).
  3. Take a winter study class “Introduction to Research” (usually 30-40 hr/week for the entire WS period).
  4. Take an independent study course during your junior or senior year (typically 10-15hr/week for 1 semester).
  5. Do a thesis! (2 semesters + WSP during your senior year, typically 10-15h/week during the semester, and 30-40 hr/week during WSP)

How do I join a lab during the academic year?

Attend the information session early in the fall semester to learn more about doing research generally.  You are also encouraged to attend the thesis students’ poster session in early October or the research fair at the very beginning of the spring semester to learn more about what’s going on in individual research labs. You can also read a summary of the research of individual faculty members here or get more in-depth information on their individual webpages.

Research for course credit (Winter Study or independent study/thesis)

There will be forms available to indicate your interest in research for course credit (in October for WSP, and in late January for independent study /thesis work the following year.)  You will be required to talk with the faculty who you’re interested in working with before you submit these forms.   We will try to match students to research labs as best we can.

Research as a volunteer or for pay during the semester

If you’re interested in volunteering in a lab during the semester or working as a paid research assistant, then you can contact individual faculty members directly.  There’s no form to fill out in this case. As described above, first semester students are not eligible to join a research lab.

How do I join a lab for summer research?

To get involved in summer research in any year, attend the Chemistry department’s Spring Research fair (typically the first Friday of the spring semester, but the specific date/time will be announced in January).  After talking with at least 3 faculty members about their research (either at the fair or during independently scheduled meetings), students can apply for these positions very early in the spring semester (the forms are typically available during Winter study, and are due around the first week of the spring semester).

How much time does research take?

This is something that you’ll work out with your research advisor, but 3-6 hours/week might be a likely target when you’re just getting started.  You should understand that doing research is a serious investment of time, and doesn’t always fit as easily into a schedule as other kinds of work do.  You’ll be learning new techniques and you’ll be working with sensitive equipment and potentially dangerous materials, so your work has to be done in conjunction with your advisor or with other research students in the lab.

Why should I do research?

  • It complements your course work. Research is a tangible application of theory you learn in class. Regardless of which comes first (class or research), you are more likely to understand and retain the information if you’ve approached it from both angles.
  • It expands on the kind of work you do in lab courses. We design labs to give you experience in chemical methods, but doing research provides even more in-depth training. You’ll get to do an experiment more than once, so you can better trouble-shoot; you’ll have more time/space to reflect on an experiment, its data and analysis. Lab courses are necessarily short, but research moves at a different pace. You get to experience chemistry in a real world setting.
  • Doing research is the pinnacle of scholarship. By participating in the scientific process, you’ll learn first hand how the information in your textbooks was determined. Spoiler alert: it’s messier than it seems! And if you’re able to contribute new knowledge to the field – well, that’s just icing on the cake.
  • It helps with career planning and preparation. Many of our graduates go on to work in a lab full-time after graduation (even if they ultimately do not go to graduate school in chemistry). It’s helpful to find out if you like research before committing to becoming a research technician or graduate student. Also, having experience doing research is often required to get one of these positions in the first place. It is an opportunity to become a more well-rounded student.
  • Working in a lab is fun! You’ll get to work with other smart people on hard problems. It’s also nice to work with your hands and learn some technical skills, since we tend to focus on study skills most of the time.

What if I begin the research experience and discover that the research area is not the best fit for me? Or is it possible to switch to a different research lab?

Have an open honest conversation with your faculty mentor as soon as possible. This will allow you to move on to something more meaningful sooner, and the faculty member to find a more suitable fit while minimizing the potential for a negative impact on the work.

Does my GPA matter when considering research?

Generally, no. Faculty place a stronger emphasis on your motivation, level of interest in the project, work ethic, and overall attitude.  However, there may be situations where a conversation with a potential research advisor may be necessary about the topic.