How to get undergraduate research experience?

Why do I need undergraduate research experience?

Working in a lab with graduate students and faculties can be an interesting and valuable part of the undergraduate experience. If you are an undergraduate student who wants to apply to graduate programs, working in a lab

–          gives you the opportunity to figure out whether doing experiments is really your thing (it can be different than you thought!)

–          allows you to learn more about the field of research and find your own research interests, which is crucial for applying to graduate school

–          connects you to many resources

o   the Principal Investigator (PI) and graduate students in your lab can be great resources for graduate school application (please ask politely)

o   the PI of the lab may be able to provide a high-quality recommendation letter if they know you well (always ask politely)

–          makes you a competitive applicant

o   faculties want to recruit applicants who know what they signed up for and have a history of thriving in a lab

o   knowing the common experimental procedure or skills of your area of research will reduce the difficulty of starting your own graduate-level research project

If you are an undergraduate student who is not sure about going to graduate school, having hands-on research experience allows you to explore this option before making a final decision.


Common methods

Different disciplines, universities, and even labs can have different cultures and procedures for recruiting undergraduate researchers. Here, I will share some of the common methods for getting research experience using UCLA psychology major as an example. If you are not sure about the norms in your major and institution, consider reaching out to someone with a similar background (e.g., graduate students in your department).

I.                     Reach out to faculties and graduate students

a.       How to find the labs I am interested in?

Many institutions and departments have a faculty list on their website (e.g., UCLA psychology department: This list usually includes a brief introduction to each faculty’s research interests, their contact information, and sometimes a link to their labs’ websites. Reading through the websites can be a quick way to screen for the labs you are interested in. If a faculty does not have a lab website, reading papers this faculty has published can also help you learn more about their research. To find their papers, simply google their name!

b.       How to contact them?

If the lab you want to apply to has a website, always check the website first for their recruitment policy. You may be able to find information on whether they are currently accepting undergraduate research assistants (RA), who to contact for application, and their expectations/requirements for applicants.

If you cannot find recruitment information about the lab online, consider contacting the PI directly. If this professor is the instructor of a class you are taking, you can talk to the faculty directly during office hour. However, a more common method is to send an inquiry email. This email usually includes:

§  a brief self-introduction (e.g., your name, major, what year are you in)

§  your research interests

§  why you want to work in this lab

§  what do you hope to gain by working with them

§  how this experience will help you with your future goals (e.g., applying to graduate school)

§  a few polite and positive closing sentences (e.g., thank them for reading, looking forward to hearing from them, etc.)

§  a resume/cv

If you did not receive any response from the faculty, the lab may be not accepting applications, or the faculty simply missed your email. In this case, you may want to send the PI a second email to politely and friendly query whether the faculty have read your first email or not. Some department provides a graduate student list (e.g., UCLA psychology: Thus, it is also possible for you to reach out to the graduate student in the lab with the inquiry email above. You can usually find the members of the lab on the lab’s website. Regardless of who you will contact, always be polite and thankful!

II.                   Undergraduate research portal and research classes

Some institutions provide research classes that allow you to earn credit for doing research. For example, at UCLA in the psychology department, PSYCH 196A and 199A&B are contract classes that allow you to receive 2-4 credits for doing research with a faculty (for more information:

The undergraduate research portal associated with this class can be a powerful tool for finding research positions (e.g., UCLA psychology 196A portal: Simply find the project you are interested in and send an inquiry email to the contact person. Remember to read the “Description of Student Responsibilities” carefully and tailor your inquiry email based on that.

III.                 Undergraduate research programs

Undergraduate research programs are great opportunities for gaining research experience, especially during the summer break. These programs usually require a formal application and hence, you need to plan for the application timeline in advance. Here is a list of undergraduate research programs compiled by C. Aizenman at Brown University: Besides this list, you can find more programs by talking to the undergraduate research counselor at your institution (e.g., UCLA HAS Undergraduate Research Center: or by googling online.

IV.                RA recruitment event and other workshops/events held by clubs

At the beginning of each fall quarter at UCLA, the Underrepresented Graduate Students in Psychology (UGSP; their website: holds a RA recruitment event where graduate students who are looking for RAs share information about their labs and their recruitment procedure. This can be a great opportunity to join a lab!

Other than the recruitment event, UGSP and other clubs on campus sometimes hold workshops on writing cv/resume, applying to graduate programs, and applying to undergraduate research programs. Stay on their mailing lists allows you to receive information about these events on time.


What other things I can do if I cannot get into a lab?

Many labs are currently not accepting undergraduate research assistants due to the COVID-19 situation. However, you can still learn more about research or prepare yourself for future research activities:

I.                     Taking graduate-level courses

When planning for your next quarter, consider taking a graduate-level course (e.g., 200-and-above classes at UCLA). Different from undergraduate courses that introduce you to general fields of research, the topics of graduate-level classes can be more focused. Hence, if you find a course you are interested in, take it, and enjoy a deep dive into the topic. Also, the size of the graduate-level courses can be small, which provides you a great opportunity to interact with faculties and graduate students.

At UCLA, a special petition is required to take a graduate-level course as an undergraduate student. Talk to an undergraduate counselor in your department (e.g., UCLA psychology: for more information. It should be noted that at UCLA, undergraduate students will NOT receive any credit for taking graduate-level courses. Thus, plan in advance and make sure that you can meet your degree requirement.

II.                   Go to brownbag/talk/seminar/journal club

Brownbag/talk/seminar/journal club are events where researchers come together and talk about projects in their lab or research papers. Attending these events can give you great exposure to a field of study. At UCLA, many areas of psychology (learn more about the different areas here: have their weekly brownbag event. Simply talk to a graduate student or faculty in the area to know how to attend those events. Some institutions or research groups also list their seminars online (e.g., UCLA Brain Research Institute:, UCLA Decision making affinity group:

III.                 Taking statistics and programming courses

Statistics and programming skills are crucial to conducting research in any area of psychology. Hence, learning these skills by taking classes or watching tutorials online can prepare you for both undergraduate and graduate-level research. Each lab usually has its own preference for the specific statistical software and programming language to use. However, learning the general principle of statistical tests and programming makes it easy for you to adapt to any lab’s requirements.


Special thanks to Haley Wang, Corinna Franco, Xochitl Arlene Smola, and Emily Martinez for sharing tips and resources.