How To Pursue Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Canada
Lauren Winsor is currently studying at Wellesley College through the Killam Fellowships Program. Prior to her semester in the States, Lauren studied psychology at Newfoundland's Memorial University, where she has contributed to multiple research studies. A Rhodes Scholarship Finalist, Lauren aspires to become a practicing physician and research scientist, focusing on mental health and health promotion. The following is a collection of Lauren's six best tips for Canadian students interested in pursuing research during their undergraduate career. Full disclosure: Lauren is an Atlantis Author, an independent contractor position with Atlantis. In Summer 2017, she spent three weeks on an Atlantis Research Fellowship in Barcelos, Portugal.
Most professional and graduate schools recommend that applicants have at least a moderate research background. So how do you get your foot in the door?
The scene is familiar. Standing in a dimly lit laboratory, a sleep-deprived scientist holds her breath and presses the button before her. Static electricity crackles in the surrounding air as she throws her head back and exclaims: “It’s alive!”
Truth be told, this fantastical picture is how many people imagine scientific research. However, to those who have been fortunate enough to participate in experiments, or conduct studies of their own, research is very different from what Frankenstein would have us believe.
From my own experience, research is synonymous with innovation and progress. It is challenging and rewarding. And as you’ll find, if you haven’t already, most professional and graduate schools recommend that applicants have at least a moderate research background. So how do you get your foot in the door?
In the paragraphs below, you’ll find six actionable ideas I’ve collated from my time as an undergraduate student at Newfoundland's Memorial University. Whether you’re aiming for your dream medical or graduate school, or seeking to ultimately make a monster of your own, these tips will help you jump-start your undergraduate research journey.
One of the best ways to get into research as an undergraduate—particularly as a first or second year student—is to volunteer with a research group.
First, search your faculty or department directory to find a professor or lab conducting research that interests you. Then, contact the lead professor or researcher of the lab via a professional email and ask if they are looking for volunteers. You may need to contact several professors, but fear not – finding the right match is worth the search.
Take Independent Study Courses
Another option for getting started with research is to take an independent study course, which many universities offer to second or third year students. These classes will give you the opportunity to conduct your own independent research on a topic of special interest.
In my experience, independent study courses require a supervisor, so start emailing professors who are engaging in work that fills your heart with wonder.
Pursue an Honours Degree
Pursuing an honours degree can be a great way to build research into your study program. The difference between a general and an honours Bachelor program is fairly simple: Honours degrees require a few specialized major courses that are not required by the general degree program (e.g. an extra statistics course or an upper-level seminar). Additionally, students need to complete a thesis, which is a long paper on an independent research project.
At the start of my undergraduate degree program, the word “thesis” made me shudder. But soon enough, I became excited for the opportunity to pursue independent research, knowing I’d have a supervisor to advise me in the research and writing process. Helpfully, most university departments will post a list of faculty who are interested in supervising honours projects as early as six months prior to the start of the new academic year. Seek a professor out!
When deciding on a supervisor and a project, take time to think carefully about your goals for the experience. What are you interested in studying? What kind of environment do you need in order to complete your best work? You will spend a full academic year partnering with your supervisor and working on your research project and thesis, so make sure that you collaborate well and that you conduct research that you enjoy.
Many universities have centralized employment listings that advertise jobs open to students during the academic year.
Investigate Internal Research Programs
While the three options presented above are wonderful ways to get involved with research as an undergraduate student, why not shoot for a paid research position?
Many universities have centralized employment listings that advertise jobs open to students during the academic year. At my university, research positions can be found each semester through the MUCEP system.
Semester-based research positions are awesome, but they usually do not extend into the summer months when most students are frantically searching for employment. If you’re looking for a summer research job, check your departmental or faculty website for information on summer research grant programs.
At Memorial, the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medicine both have Summer Undergraduate Research Awards (SURA). The former provides funding for 16-week research internships with a professor in the Faculty of Science, while the latter offers 8- to 10-week research internships with a supervisor in the Faculty of Medicine.
In many cases, universities will have a separate Research and Grant Services department which may also offer university-wide research grants for undergraduate summer employment. The goals of university-based research grant programs are twofold. In addition to fostering innovation at the institute, they inspire students to get involved with research and consider future careers in this field.
Recently, Memorial implemented the University Student Summer Internship Program (USSIP) which offers 13- or 16-week paid internships to undergraduate students who collaborate with a professor at the university.
Application deadlines for research positions like these vary, so consider conducting some preliminary job searching well in advance of the position’s start date. It is also wise to speak with students who have participated in these programs in the past, as application deadlines tend to be similar from year to year.
If you are unsure of how to apply for a research position for your next academic semester or summer job, contact your university’s Career Office for advice and guidance.
Canada’s three major health, sciences, and humanities funding councils also provide summer employment opportunities.
Explore National Research Programs
Along with internal, university-based research internships, Canada’s three major health, sciences, and humanities funding councils also provide summer employment opportunities.
For engineering and natural sciences students, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) offers 16-week Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA) which may be held at any university in Canada as long as the student’s supervisor is an active recipient of NSERC funding.
For health sciences students, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) offers a number of summer research grants across the country in various sub-disciplines such as arthritis and musculoskeletal health. At Memorial, these grants can be used for summer research studentships.
Finally, for social sciences and humanities students, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) offers paid summer internships at universities across the country, such as the SSHRC Undergraduate Student Research Award at the University of Lethbridge.
Keep in mind that most universities which provide summer employment opportunities through NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC have internal application deadlines, and the availability of summer positions depends upon university funding. Check with your institution for more information on these amazing programs.
Check Out Hospital-Based Research Programs
Last, but certainly not least, are hospital-based research internship programs. Some hospitals—such as the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario—provide paid internship opportunities for students to participate in their laboratory and/or clinical research.
Take a few moments to read through the websites of your local hospitals or health authority to see if such opportunities exist in your area.
Research is an important aspect of the academic experience for many students, and getting started early is within your reach. To recap, try one of these six ideas to begin building your research resume:
Volunteer at your university or an independent research group
Take independent study courses, and conduct a research project of your own
Pursue an honours degree
Investigate your university’s internal research programs
Explore national research programs and grants
Check out hospital based research programs in your area
There are countless ways to incorporate research into your student experience. Even though you probably won’t be sparking a monster to life, the research opportunities ahead of you are arguably more exciting than anything Mary Shelley could dream up.
Lauren grew up in St. John's, the most easterly city in Canada, and studied psychology at Memorial University. Currently based out of Wellesley, Massachusetts, she is completing the final semester of her Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree at Wellesley College through the Killam Fellowships Program. In her spare time, Lauren enjoys volunteering, playing music, and spending time with her friends, family, and wonderful dog. In the future, she hopes to become a practicing physician and research scientist, with a focus on mental health and health promotion.