Finding Your First Research Opportunity as an Undergraduate, by Qiyuan (Grace) Miao

Finding research opportunities on campus may sound a little intimidating at first, since faculty members are so busy and the thought of speaking with a professor can be scary. For those of you who want to get started, I would like to share my experience finding my first research assistantship and doing my first independent research:

1. Start with your classes

As one of the best research universities in the United States, UCLA has brilliant and resourceful faculty who are always working on research projects. As a result, the easiest way to unlock new experiences is talking to the professors who are teaching you right now!

I major in communication, with departmental honors and a specialization in computing. During the fall quarter of my second year, I took COMM154: Social Communication and New Technologies. Students in Professor Francis Steen’s class needed to conduct a small independent research project, and I looked into the relationship between north campus students and technology. I regularly went to office hours to discuss the research project. One day, towards the end of the quarter, Professor Steen asked me if I was interested in being his research assistant, and I immediately said yes. Since then, I have been working with Professor Steen, managing the UCLA Department of Communications NewsScape Library, which contains more than 200,000 news programs from around the world.

An additional tip for those of you reading this article – throughout a quarter, there are times when students do not show up to office hours, such as weeks without any exams or assignments due. If you are interested in getting to know a professor and asking for potential opportunities, those weeks are the perfect time to inquire!

You can start by asking questions related to course material, expressing interest in the professor’s research (listed on the faculty profile pages), or just telling them about your passion. Our brilliant and resourceful UCLA faculty can always help you in one way or another.

2. Maintain healthy rapport with your professors

I took the GE Cluster – Frontiers in Human Aging during my freshman year. GE Clusters are a one-year-long, interdisciplinary course series for freshmen. The spring quarter of the cluster program requires a writing seminar with one of the six faculty members of our choice. Having the opportunity to take a small writing seminar class closely related to the faculty member’s research area is a unique experience at UCLA. Due to the small class size, students and faculty can get to know each other very well.

I took Professor Levy-Storm’s seminar, which focuses on communication, aging, and social support networks. This class only had eight students, which allowed me to get to know her. I was active in class and went to office hours frequently. Although I wasn’t sure at the time I took the class if academic research was in my future, a year later I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school and would need more research experience. When I reached out to Professor Levy-Storms again during the spring quarter of my second year, she still remembered me very well, and said that she would love to work together.

During a brainstorm session, Professor Levy-Storms and I developed the specific topic and methodology of my independent research project. First, I started off by telling her my broad interest – older adults and communication. Then she described how she could support me, for instance, by providing different datasets she had collected. Finally, she gave me an overview of quantitative and qualitative research styles I could choose from.

Among the several options she provided, I chose to work on the video dataset of meal-time interactions between older adults with dementia and caregivers in nursing homes. We then further developed the research idea together. She told me about Conversation Analysis, an in-depth qualitative analysis methodology that she was interested in but never had the chance to actually implement on a research project. I thought Conversation Analysis sounded cool, and it became the methodology I am currently using in my independent research.

An organic brainstorm session like this really helps bring things together, and it works the best when both participants have open minds and curious hearts. After that, I started conducting the research – learning about the Conversation Analysis methodology, diving into the video data, and taking notes on interesting things I noticed. Eventually, I landed on a specific research topic: emotional connections and responses during dementia care. My research is funded by the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP), and it has been a very helpful resource. I will now be continuing my academic training in a graduate program at Columbia University.

3. Don’t be discouraged by rejections

As college students who need to reach out to numerous places, it is absolutely normal to receive rejections. I have been rejected multiple times by professors, companies, and for other opportunities throughout my three-year undergraduate journey. This happens to everyone! As a result, don’t take rejections personally and don’t let rejections affect your mental health. Instead, be truly grateful to those who said yes to you, maintain a positive attitude, and luck will keep coming! 🙂