What is Undergraduate Research

What is Undergraduate Research

By: Haiyi (Yvette) Gong


Have you ever wondered what Computer Science research is like at the University of Toronto? Most people may have the false perception that only graduate students can partake in research. As a matter of fact, undergraduate students can also participate in research projects and benefit greatly from being involved with academia. Last Friday, September 30th, Assistant Professor Nandita Vijaykumar and Assistant Professor Gennady Pekhimenko joined us to uncover the truth about research and discuss undergraduate opportunities that are offered here at UTSC. 


What is Research

The general question “What is research?” may stump many students. While there are many academic subjects in existence, our knowledge of these subjects can be limited. The goal of research is to extend the body of existing human knowledge by proposing new ideas and solutions and making new observations.

Interestingly, research is usually performed with two various end goals, academic and industrial. Academic research is mostly conducted in universities and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is the primary research degree to break into academia. By completing a Ph.D. degree, one should advance the ability to learn anything and be able to think critically. Most importantly, Ph.D.s should develop expertise in a specific domain and dedicate themselves to pushing the boundaries of human knowledge.


Research in Universities

In North America, Computer Science research is conducted by research-stream professors and research groups composed of masters and Ph.D. students, and postdoc fellows. Each research group is led by a professor whose duties are to get funding for the research project and act as a mentor to provide research vision and directions to their research group. What many may not know is that universities have many collaboration opportunities with industries and start-ups to innovate cutting-edge technology. Industries come across countless modern-day challenges each day and their collaboration often leads to fascinating and revolutionary results. 


Why Research

If industry partnerships don’t excite you yet, here are more benefits to participating in research. Some practical benefits of researching include successful research that leads to published papers, professional expertise, and useful connections. Moreover, research degrees/experiences are greatly respected and recognized everywhere. You will have many chances to meet amazing researchers and industry leaders from around the world. It could also help you to land a job in academia, industries, or research, or even spark the idea to start your own company!

Of course, there are many intangible benefits as well. Most researchers describe that intellectual freedom and satisfaction are the biggest perks since they are constantly solving real-life problems and making an impact on our world. From doing so, researchers gain many critical skills such as perseverance, cogency, and the ability to pivot and adapt to paint the bigger picture. 


Why Do Undergraduate Research

Now the question turns around and points its arrow at you, why should you participate in undergraduate research? Well, if you are someone who thirsts for knowledge and wishes to work alongside world-class researchers, this is the perfect opportunity for you! Partaking in undergraduate research will not only widen your mindset and eyes, but you will also learn more than what you would by taking classes alone. Working on the cutting edge and deepening your knowledge about a field that you are passionate about will change your perception of this world!

If you are looking to get into a top graduate program in Computer Science or any STEM field, a stellar letter of recommendation from a faculty member will be the key to your dream school. When students apply with a DWIC (Did Well in a Class) letter, the letter often carries less weight as it only indicates the student’s academic excellence, not hands-on research experience. When students apply with a letter of recommendation from a faculty member who they did research with, the faculty acts as a strong reference to back up the student’s academic skills as well as interest to contribute to the field of academia.


How to Get Involved as Undergraduate

If the above has successfully convinced you to pursue research, here are some tips to help you get involved as an undergraduate.

1) Look for opportunities

It is always good to think about and research the areas that you are interested in. If you come across an area of your interest, proactively email professors in that area and ask for research opportunities. Professors get countless emails asking for research positions; therefore, it is crucial to be proactive and make good impressions to secure any openings on their team.

If you cannot find any posted research projects that spark your interest, it is always possible to email researchers/professors in other universities to look for opportunities. In addition, you can think of personal projects or look into creating extensions of a class project then reach out to faculty to see if anyone is interested in helping you.


2) Join a research team

There are many ways to join a research team such as course credit or for a small stipend, some companies offer research opportunities via internships as well. Remember that undergraduate research is not about money! You are getting valuable experiences from field experts, that alone is more precious than monetary value.


3) Do great research

It is always important that students should be prepared to work hard and be ready to prioritize research over coursework. While you are at it, be proactive about asking questions and using any opportunity to the maximum. There is no formula for success in research, spending the maximum amount of effort is the only way to increase your chances of return.


We hope this blog provided insights into how undergraduate students may get involved and benefit from research. Lastly, AA&CC website includes many research opportunity websites and resources to develop research experiences. We highly encourage everyone to check it out and find the best opportunity that interests you!