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Why should I participate in undergraduate research?

The Department of Biological Sciences strongly encourages interested BIOL majors to pursue undergraduate research opportunities at Virginia Tech.

Undergraduate research allows for the hands-on application of concepts and information learned in the classroom and enables students to conduct real research.

Participating in undergraduate research is now considered a requirement not only for students pursuing research careers, but also for many career options in the health sciences. In addition, students participating in this type of learning experience often get to know faculty better and thus faculty mentors can provide more meaningful references.

How do I get involved at Virginia Tech?

Arranging an undergraduate research experience is much more informal than the standard class enrollment process and expectations and policies may vary from one faculty mentor to another.

Although opportunities to conduct undergraduate research are occasionally advertised via flyers or listservs, generally students must contact individual faculty to inquire about research opportunities (which may vary from semester to semester due to research funding, the faculty mentor’s other commitments, etc.).

To initiate this process, consider the following steps:

As Biological Sciences faculty conduct research in areas ranging from molecules to ecosystems, consult the Research section of the website to identify possible mentors.

  • While considering your area of research interest, keep in mind that you may approach faculty from other departments such as Animal and Poultry Science, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Entomology, Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, Plant Pathology and Weed Science, Psychology, Wildlife Science, the VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, and the Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (to name a few). These departments and institutes maintain lists of faculty research interests and students should also scan such lists to identify potential mentors.

Once potential mentors are identified, students should:

  1. Contact those individuals (by email, phone, or in person) to inquire about undergraduate research possibilities, indicating why you wish to do undergraduate research and why you are interested in that faculty member’s area of research.
  2. Provide potential mentors with a current resume as well as a list of relevant classes completed or in progress, the type of experience you wish to obtain (volunteer, for-credit, for-pay) and some information about your availability (when you hope to start, how many hours a week you can participate, how many semesters you hope to do research). If you choose to phone or contact faculty in person, you should be ready to answer these questions.
  3. Students may be mentored directly by a faculty member, by a postdoctoral scientist, or by a graduate student within the faculty mentor’s research program.
  4. Students commonly spend 6-15 hours a week working on their project, but this can vary and is determined jointly by the student and faculty mentor. If research is carried out for credit, mentors generally expect 3-4 hours per week for each credit received. Many students begin research as a volunteer and then later transition to doing research for credit or in a paid research position. Paid positions may be more common for summer research positions, when time can be fully devoted to the research. The availability of paid positions depends on the funding level of the research lab. Generally, undergraduate research is not done for credit on campus in the summer since this requires the payment of summer tuition.

What opportunities are available off campus?

Majors are also encouraged to explore research experiences and/or internships off-campus as well as on-campus during the summer. Many opportunities exist and the Advising Office will forward any that we learn about to our major listservs. By clicking on Career Exploration, you will find a variety of ideas for potential employment and internships. Students may also wish to explore the following sites:

How to receive academic credit for Undergraduate Research:

With the approval of a faculty mentor, students with junior or senior standing and a 2.5 GPA may enroll in BIOL 2994 or 4994 Undergraduate Research. Majors in the University Honors Program may elect to participate through BIOL 2994H or 4994H.

Fast Facts:

  • BIOL 2994 or 4994 may be taken Pass/Fail or A-F as determined by the faculty mentor.
  • Biological Sciences majors may count a maximum of 4 credits of BIOL 2994 or 4994 toward the required 22 Biological Sciences elective credits provided the credits are taken A-F and a passing grade is obtained.
  • Any undergraduate research credits taken Pass/Fail, or taken in excess of 4 A-F credits, will count as free elective credits.
  • Biological Sciences majors conducting research with faculty in other VT departments may be asked to register for undergraduate research credit through that department, but if the research is related to biology and the grading is A-F, those credits can be substituted as BIOL credit.