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Researching research projects at U of T

I’ve met a lot of people recently who are working on undergraduate research projects through various departments of the university. Just as they sound, these half- and full-year courses (for credit) involve working on an independent research project that’s planned and carried out by the student, under the supervision of a professor.

One friend, who recently finished her fourth-year independent study in history, wrote a Wikipedia page about her rather accomplished grandparents. Another, through the CSB department, has spent his term growing a specific strain of bacteria in order to locate and knock out one of its important genes for the purpose of isolating that part of the genome. Fellow UpbeaTer Lucy also wrote a post about paid research positions, which is worth a second look for those who haven’t seen it.

Most departments at U of T – from Italian Studies to Linguistics to Cell and Systems Biology – offer research courses at a bunch of different levels:

299s: For students who’ve completed more than four full courses, but not more than eight-and-a-half by the end of the summer of 2010. These courses constitute the Research Opportunity Program (ROP), which enable students to work with a professor on a mutually agreed upon research project. Depending on whether you want to do an ROP in the summer or fall, a huge number of departments participate. The deadline for both the summer and fall courses is right around March 15.

399s: For students who’ve completed between eight-and-a half to fourteen full-year credits. These courses, like all the others, require a formal application. However, the 399 courses consist of really small groups of students working on-site with select professors. The deadline for 399s is around the end of March. The sessional dates are to be posted on the Arts and Science Calendar sometime this week.

497/8/9s: For students who’ve completed more than fourteen credits. The 497 courses, offered only by some departments in the university, consist of a half-year research project, while the 498s and 499s are full-year credits. The 499 projects are fairly ubiquitous across departments.

The procedure:

Before applying for a research course, you need to contact the professor you’re interested in working with. Having just applied to do a research project over the summer, I found this a little scary; but after initially emailing  my prof and getting a quick and positive reply, I realized that it doesn’t need to be. The worst that could happen is that the teacher may refer you to another, if the latter’s area of expertise coincides better with your intended area of research.

I already knew what I was interested in studying, and I assume that having a general topic of interest is useful for anyone thinking of getting involved before approaching a teacher.

After finding a professor who agrees to work with you, an application must be filled out. These applications differ depending on the department, and for the fourth-year courses there are different deadlines. Depending on enrollment and the time of year (summer generally being quieter and therefore less competitive), some departments select only certain applications. If accepted, you enroll in the course, pay tuition and receive marks via ROSI, just like any other course.

The many benefits of the research project:

The obvious benefit is real research experience, which can be hard to get as an undergrad. There’s a lot of competition for working positions and a limited number of classes that provide students with palpable research skills, which make it difficult to get a firm grasp on exactly what research entails. These courses provide a way to supercede the often benign “skills” taught in classroom labs, to incorporate your own interests into a course that you can plan, mold and implement.

This experience also lets you know whether it’s something you like or not. The one thing that I hear consistently about these courses is that they are a lot of work. This can be a great thing, if you love what you’re doing, but can also sap the passion from your project. Either way, by the end of eight months, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how much you like research.

Finally, research projects are a fantastic way to meet other students and faculty members with similar interests. That might sound cliche, but it may be the best way to learn about something: to be surrounded with enthusiastic people who have common academic interests, providing you with a whole new social way of learning.

– Mary