What does “research opportunity” mean?
As an undergraduate student you will hear the word research often. Sometimes you will be told to do research in order to write an essay or a lab report. This is a kind of research that you will do very frequently. That is not what we mean by “research opportunity”. More generally, research is the activity that advances knowledge – i.e. creates new knowledge. In science disciplines it often consists of designing an experiment to test a hypothesis. That’s what many professors are doing in their research labs.
Research labs in physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics are where professors, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research associates do their work. So, for an undergraduate, “research opportunity” means the opportunity to participate in a research lab under the supervision of others in that lab.
It is an opportunity to learn advanced lab skills, use equipment that you would not typically use in an undergraduate lab, interact with graduate students, learn in-depth in a particular field, and actually contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge.
Getting involved in research
There are many ways you can participate in research, including research practicum courses, RAY positions, NSERC Undergraduate Summer Research Awards, Capstone Project Courses, or volunteering.
Research practicum Courses
Some disciplines offer zero credit research practicum courses. These are a mechanism for recording on your transcript that you participated in a research lab. Because they are zero credit you do not pay for them; but you do get a pass or fail grade depending on whether you met expectations for the research. Those expectations will be worked out between you and the professor at the time you enrol in the course. Remember that the professor and other members of the research team are committing their time to support and train you and they expect to get results for that from you!
Some professors advertise positions via the Research@York (R@Y) program. As you will see from the website these are paid positions; students apply and are selected by the professor according to who best meets the skills for the position. The nature of the involvement in research can vary quite significantly, but this is a great way to help finance your studies at York.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) offers Undergraduate Summer Research Awards (USRAs) to undergraduate students in universities across Canada. York typically has between 30 and 40 such awards every summer. They are prestigious and highly competitive – you will need a high average to win one – and they offer a well paid summer “job” working in a research lab, fully immersed without distraction! This is perhaps the Cadillac of undergraduate research experiences.
Capstone Project Courses
Most honours programs require a final year project course. These are for-credit courses (i.e. you pay for them and they count towards meeting your required credits) and they typically involve working fairly independently on a research project that you have planned with the help of a supervising professor. The projects vary according to your interests and those of your supervisor, and sometimes they lead to publications in scientific journals or conference proceedings.
Get to know your professors, read about their research, and then talk to them! They will love that you are informed and interested. This approach can take you places you might not have dreamed of!