Undergraduate Research


The University of Chicago is an R1 university, meaning that it is classified as having the highest research activity. Much of the intellectual life of an R1 university lies not in the classroom but in research: an R1 university’s mission centers on creating new knowledge. The best way to make use of what the university has to offer is to be part of the knowledge-creating world. In the Department of the Geophysical Sciences, we encourage undergraduates to participate in research.

There are many benefits to engaging in research as an undergraduate:

  •  It can lead to a deeper understanding of subject matter to which you’ve been introduced in class.
  • Research gives you the opportunity to take responsibility for a project, and builds skills, independence, and self-confidence.
  • Having undergraduate research experience can make a big difference in applications to graduate school.
  • Doing research with a professor allows that professor to get to know you better as a scientist and as a person, allowing them to write more informative, personalized letters of recommendation for you.
  • Undergraduate research projects can lead to a peer-reviewed scientific publication on which the undergraduate is a co-author. This looks great on a CV.

In order to graduate with honors in either the Geophysical Sciences or the Environmental Science degree program, it is necessary to complete a senior thesis. A senior thesis involves conducting novel research under the guidance of a professor from the Department of the Geophysical Sciences.

When To Get Involved in Undergraduate Research

Undergraduates can get involved in research at any stage of their time at the university—even as first years—so don’t wait to get started. Most senior theses develop from research projects that students are already involved in prior to their senior year. The nature of the research, the level of responsibility, and the degree of independence expected will vary from lab to lab and from project to project, and of course will be decided in part by the knowledge and experience level of the particular student. In many cases, students will be given the appropriate technical training while doing the research (as opposed to being required to already have a particular skill set before starting the research).

How To Get Involved in Undergraduate Research

Research jobs are almost never posted on job boards, so the onus on the student to take the initiative and ask the professor if a research position is available. Professors will be delighted to offer research positions to motivated, well-suited undergraduates. Of course, sometimes a position in a particular lab cannot be offered because the lab is already full, so it’s a good idea to identify more than one professor of interest. With effort and perseverance, you will find a role!

The level of formality involved in starting undergraduate research can vary from lab to lab (and even from project to project within a lab), but the following steps offer a useful general guide for getting started:

  1. Decide what research topics are of interest to you. Be as specific as possible in each case: saying that you are “interested in paleontology” doesn’t indicate as much focus as saying that you are “interested in understanding evolutionary trends in bivalves”, for example.
  2. Identify one or more professors that are doing research in those areas. Browse the faculty web pages and research pages for guidance. This might also help you refine your interests (see Step 1).
  3.  Decide how much time you have available each week for research. Will you want to work on a flexible schedule, or on a fixed schedule? Will you want to work over breaks (including Summer), or only during the academic quarters?
  4. Contact the professor(s) that you want to work with. This can be done by email or by knocking on doors. Tell the professor about what you are interested in doing and why, and make the case for why working in that professor’s lab will help you achieve your goals. Some professors will want to see your CV and your academic transcript, so be sure to have those ready. Make sure that your CV conveys any useful background and skills that are relevant for that research position (e.g., familiarity with particular programming languages or data analysis software). Be sure to discuss your availability to do research (Step 3) and any financial considerations (see below).

Undergraduate students interested in research may also be interested in the Environmental Frontiers program run by the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation.

Financial Considerations

Most undergraduate research positions will be voluntary (i.e., non-paid) positions. Sometimes, depending on funding availability, professors are able to offer paid positions. If you have financial constraints, discuss them with the professor. The university also offers fellowships and grants to support undergraduate research, such as the College Center for Research and Fellowships (CCRF) and the Dean’s Fund for Student Life.

Questions or Help

If you have any questions about getting involved in undergraduate research in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences, or if you need help to get started in identifying topics or people of interest, contact Mark Webster, the Undergraduate Counselor.