STEP ONE: Identifying research groups and supervisors you'd like to work for:
- Network: Talk to everybody you know at MIT, in your living group, including tutors and housemasters, any organizations you belong to, your TAs, recitation instructors, other faculty, your advisor, recent alums, etc. Find out what research they're doing, who they've worked for, and try to get introductions. A lot of UROPs get filled by word of mouth. Somebody you already know may have the perfect UROP for you and can help you join up. Course VI students UROP for supervisors all over MIT who need their skills. Did you know you can do your Advanced Project and MEng Thesis with professors all over MIT? The topic doesn't even have to be EECS-related, although it must be technical.
- Webwork: Use the web to identify MIT laboratories, centers, and research groups that interest you, and to look at researchers' individual websites. Scan their recent publications paying particular attention to the "What Needs to be Done" section toward the end of many papers. Here are some good sites to start with:
- Getting Paper: You can pick up paper versions of some of the research directories and thesis titles, etc. in the Course VI Undergraduate Office, 38-476.
Email Lists: We use the "jobs list" to send out every UROP or other job listing we receive (among other purposes). To get on the jobs list go to https://lists.csail.mit.edu/mailman/listinfo/eecs-jobs-anounce. Most of these listings will be for UROPs in EECS-related topics offered by faculty and research groups 'outside' EECS, like the Media Lab, Sloan, etc. Our own EECS professors don't generally advertise their UROP openings, prefering instead to pick somebody out of their classes (which means it's essential to talk to your Course 6 instructors!). That doesn't mean Course 6 faculty won't respond well to a good approach at the right time. The MIT UROP Office, in 7-103, also has listings, so check with them, too.
By all these means develop a list of people you'd like to approach for a research project.
- Email is NOT the best way to try to make contact. It's too easy for the recipient to ignore it, and too easy to fire off a negative response summarily. On the other hand, it's easy and it might work. Networking is better.
- What to put in your email message: So you've read through the research group's website, and figured out projects you're interested in, scanned their recent publications, and have some ideas about where you could fit in. Tell them about what excites you and how you're suited to this work. Be brief. Attach your resume.
- Step Three: Convincing them you'll be a great addition to the lab. Get a paper resume into their hands, be clear about what in their work you're interested in, and be ENTHUSIASTIC, as enthusiasm is the one thing everybody says they're looking for in a UROP student.
Maybe the supervisor, postdoc, or grad student, is declining your request for a UROP. But the answer to "May I UROP for you?" isn't really "yes" or "no", it's "now" or "later". Perhaps the supervisor has too many UROPers right now. In that case, ask when you should get back in touch. Perhaps you lack the backgrounded needed for the research. Then ask what you should do or take to acquire that background, and when you should return. Self-confidence and persistence are impressive qualities. In the worst case, firmly request referrals to people in the same or other research groups at MIT who are doing similar work. Then, of course, tell the second supervisor that the first person suggested you contact him or her.
Advice on interviewing for a UROP
At the EECS Communication Lab we have seen plenty of UROP candidates make mistakes when they interview with a lab. Here are some tips from a graduate student who has interviewed several research hopefuls.
Things I wish UROP interviewees would do:
1) Think deeply beforehand about why you want to join my group and do this research. I've seen students astonishingly unprepared for this question. That's painful for both of us.
2) Send a follow-up email so I know you're serious.
3) Convey that you're interested in doing long-term research. Help me be confident that you'll stick around.
4) Convey that research is a priority in your schedule and (concretely) that you can achieve 10 hours per week all semester.
5) Tell me that you have some interest in the group; even something as simple/vague as "I recognize the central importance of energy in the 21st century." (I work for a lab with energy-related research.)
6) Show me you understand that resources — time and money — will be dedicated to bringing you up to speed and that you intend to make that investment worthwhile.
7) Highlight your abilities. You might not have any actual skills yet, but show me that you are a go-getter, ambitious, and reliable. These hold universal appeal.
8) If you've changed majors, are getting into UROPs late in your career, or other weird things — justify them! Otherwise, I'll make assumptions about why those things happened... and it probably won't be in your favor.
9) If you've worked as a UROP before, be prepared to give both a truthful and tactful explanation of why you decided to change labs. Also — should I worry you'll want to change out of my lab?
10) Ask plenty of questions. Otherwise, I'll think you didn't do your homework and you're not that curious. Both aren't desirable traits in research.
Things I wish UROP interviewees would not do:
1) Don't tell me that you "have a lot of CS experience" and are "looking to get a bit of EE experience as well." That's not very flattering. And don't apply if you're "just looking to get your feet wet." A great UROP experience won't be a side project, so you can't treat it like one.
2) Don't tell me that you have lots of free time because you have nothing else going on. It sounds like you might lack drive or aren't very productive.
3) Don't tell me that you'll be very busy, but you're a great multi-tasker. If you really want to do the whole superhuman schedule thing, show me with past experience that you can still accomplish your goals and prioritize research.
4) Don't be timid. I'm not necessarily looking for a lot of experience, but I am looking for students who champion their experience and themselves. That tells me you'll be able to champion your future UROP research — and that's exactly what I'm looking for.
We hope these tips help! And don't worry if you haven't followed these guidelines in the past; they're skills that you build, and this may very well be the first time that you're getting this kind of advice. So, don't worry, practice will make you better. If you want to try out your interview skills on a real-life grad student or postdoc, make an appointment with the EECS Communication Lab.