Conducting research is a common experience many university students have. Research is defined as the prolonged study of any particular subject and results in a final product such as an article, paper, or presentation. This information sheet provides tips for obtaining supervised research opportunities above and beyond your academics.
1. The Value of Research Experience
For those pursuing a career in academia, research experience is vital. Most graduate schools are looking for innovative students to bolster their ranks, and there is no better way to show your academic worth than solid research experience. Even for those bound for non-academic careers, research can be beneficial as it provides practical experience, which employers value. Research can also expand your career and academic horizons in new and unexpected directions.
2. Getting Your Foot in the Door
Volunteering is a great way to gain valuable experience, which can prepare you for more challenging research roles. Volunteer opportunities are often less intensive, but they can give you some preliminary immersion in a research environment. Some professors accept student volunteers to help with their research and so getting to know your professors and TAs is important. Ask about their research and the possibility of volunteering (find out more below). Hospitals, charities, and non-profit organizations are also places to engage in volunteer research work. Positions may be available in a number of areas, from life sciences to social work. These volunteer opportunities are competitive, so it is important to apply with a well-developed résumé and cover letter. If invited to an interview, it's recommended that you research the organization beforehand. The information you obtain will allow you to ask intelligent questions that demonstrate your knowledge of the organization and your enthusiasm for the opportunity. Attend the Get Hired Fair to speak with representatives from some of these organizations. Have a look at the “Volunteering” tip sheet, for other ideas and resources.
Working as a Research Assistant (RA) provides experience in research methodology and hones your knowledge and research skills. It also allows you to work with professors and/or graduate students, focusing on one or more existing research projects. For those interested in an academic career, an RA position is also an excellent way to make strategic contacts and references. These positions can be volunteer but are generally paid.
The Work-Study Program offers many research-oriented positions for students. During September and October and in May (for summer work-study positions) across all three campuses, the positions are posted on the CLNx (Career Learning Network) under the Jobs and Work-Study tabs.
In addition to these listings, the best way to obtain an RA position is to get to know your professors and build networks in your fields of study. Inquire about their current research projects and whether they need additional help. Many professors prefer to hire students they know and many RA positions are not advertised. Start networking with your professors early. Check out another Tip Sheet called Academic References, which can help you get started networking with professors.
Research Opportunity Program, UTM Course Internships, and Community Engaged Learning
UTM students can also apply to the Research Opportunity Program (ROP) which allows students in their 2nd, 3rd or 4th years to earn a full course credit by participating in a faculty member’s research. Availability varies by faculty and year. Some programs also offer Academic Internships for students to gain experience, including research-based. The Community Engaged Learning program can also provide research experiences.
Independent Study Courses
Another excellent way to gain research experience is through a supervised study course. Offered in the majority of programs, these courses allow upper-year students to conduct an extensive examination of the literature on a selected topic or perform laboratory and/or fieldwork in their area of study. Students must obtain the permission of the department and locate a professor who agrees to supervise them. Consult the course calendar or speak with your departmental advisor.
Developing your Research Network
Make the most of your network. Talking to your professors can be of great benefit as they have extensive networks and may be willing to share contacts. You can also ask friends, family and colleagues if they are aware of any professors or industry professionals currently involved in research. Review the U of T Blue Book or the UTM Online Directory to locate and contact professors.
3. Funding Opportunities
Studentships and Fellowships
Studentships and fellowships are awarded at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they do have some differences. Studentships tend to refer to undergraduate positions, while fellowships tend to refer to graduate/post-doctoral positions.
Studentships allow students to engage in their own research in an academic, laboratory, or clinical setting. Generally, student research projects are completed under the supervision of an established researcher. These positions are essentially research internships and usually pay a stipend.
Departmental websites may post current research positions and some departments may compile a database of students looking for opportunities or studentships. Professors review these databases when they're seeking assistance with research projects or are interested in supervising a student research project. A good example is the Faculty of Medicine’s research site, which lists Summer Student Program Information. Networking is also highly recommended and effective at uncovering opportunities.
Academic departments may also have information on possible funding opportunities for independent research. Speak with the undergraduate advisor of your department for more information.
Government Funding at a Glance
The Canadian Government funds programs that specialize in particular research fields. Three main funding bodies are:
- The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)
- The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)
- The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)
Funding from these agencies is directed primarily towards faculty, graduate students, or institutions, and community agencies. However, undergraduate students who are supervised by a faculty member holding a designated grant may also apply for research funding. NSERC has a dedicated undergraduate research grant, and CIHR occasionally has grants for undergrads as well.
Although the specifics of the application process may vary, in general, all proposals are awarded through an independent, national, peer-review process. This process involves a selection committee that assesses the proposals based on academic excellence and other essential criteria. For more information, consult the following sites:
- Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
- Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
- Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Preparing a Research Proposal
Most organizations require candidates to submit a formal proposal to be considered for project funding. It's important that your research project is conceptually sound and a good fit for the organization. Funding organizations like to know how your project complements their philosophy so researching the organization to tailor your proposal is key.
Writing a Proposal
Important sections in a proposal include: the Executive Summary - a brief summary of your proposal; the Statement of Need which provides the rationale for your project and how it will further the field; the Project Description which outlines your objective, methodology, administrative structure, strategies for evaluation and timelines; and the Budget - lists the type of expenses likely to be incurred and an outline of how funding will be directed. Check here for more information on writing proposals.
Research Opportunities Abroad
MITACS has an international research program for international undergraduate students.
The website GoinGlobal lists international internships in a variety of research areas. Search this site by country of interest via the CLNx under the Resources tab.
Information is subject to change. Always refer to the original sources for the most up-to-date information.
Updated August 4, 2022