Undergraduate Research

Have you ever wondered what computing research is going on at the U? Are you interested in getting involved in computing outside of the classroom? Would you like to meet PhDs and other undergraduates working on research in computing to hear about the projects they work on and the people they work with? Would you like to get paid to work on new ideas?

Utah’s School of Computing hosts one of the top ranked computer science research programs in the United States. Our research efforts help strengthen the classroom experience at the U, but, beyond that, undergraduates also directly contribute to this research by getting involved outside the classroom and working with faculty and graduate students. Getting involved in undergraduate research is a great way to apply what you are learning, to build your skills, and to work with great people, all without having to leave campus.

In algorithms and theory, machine learning, computer software and hardware systems, human-centered applications and more, the U has top-tier work going on in nearly all areas of computing.

However, most students don’t know where to start when they are interested in getting involved. Successful research projects also require substantial persistent effort and sustained mentoring by faculty or graduate students. Our purpose here is to help you understand some of the benefits and challenges of getting involved in research and to help you understand what opportunities are available to you.

Undergraduate Research FAQ

What is the best way to get involved and find opportunities?

School of Computing Research Day is a good way to find opportunities.

Computing Research Day! Each semester the School of Computing hosts an open house and poster session where you can find out what our talented PhD students are doing. They drive most of the interesting work. This spring we had more than 60 students and faculty come together to discuss ongoing research in the department at our inaugural Computing Research Day. Attend, talk to the students driving research, explore your interests, and make some connections. If you find something exceptionally interesting, ask the poster presenters about how they got involved in research and what avenues they would suggest for getting involved in work in their specific research area.

Please also join our list of students that are interested in opportunities, which we will also use as a mailing list for opportunities. But, the truth is that the best way to get involved is to make a connection with existing students doing research.

What can I do right now if I missed Computing Research Day?

Finding good opportunities is challenging, mainly because researchers (faculty and students included) are often busy doing research and teaching. That said, there are opportunities out there, and persistence is the key. Think of the areas of computing that most interest you and the classes that have had the most impact on you. Then, take a look at the list of faculty here in the department and consider which of them are working on the types of things that interest you most. Faculty are often receptive to scheduling a meeting with you to discuss your interests and opportunities. Sometimes faculty might be looking for students to perform specific tasks, other times they might invite you into research group meetings so you can get a sense of the culture and process, and other times they might suggest you take certain classes or seminars that will help you explore your interest in their area. Take a look at the course offerings for the department as well and scroll down to the bottom. Often there you can find faculty in areas that you are interested in teaching special “seminar” courses where students regularly meet to discuss new research ideas and papers. If you find something that interests you, ask the faculty organizing the seminar if attending the seminar would be a good fit for you and your interests.

What kinds of computing research is happening at the U?

Our website lists several general areas of research and which faculty focus on that area within the department. Most of these areas are represented at the Computing Research Day poster session, so, again, this is a good place to get a sense of what work in each of these areas looks like.

What background would I need? What are the expectations?

Every project and research group has different areas and expectations, and research doesn’t take anything special. Virtually anyone can do it. But, like anything else, getting results and benefits requires training and persistent hard work. This has two consequences that make getting started in research hard: first, faculty are busy with their own hard work on research efforts, and, second, students struggle to find time in their own schedules and the mentoring they need to succeed in research.

This is why we are excited about Computing Research Day. First, it gives you a chance to find things you might be passionate about that others are passionate about as well. Like anything else in life, that interest is crucial since it can drive you to explore and invest in a topic. Second, it connects you to the students who do the real work and the ones that would most likely be able to mentor you to success. Our PhD students are busy, but many of them find time to mentor undergraduate students.

How does research fit in with graduate school? Do undergraduates publish research articles here at the U?

Many of our students go on to graduate school here at the U and at top-ranked computer science programs, and research often ties into that both before and after students finish their undergraduate degree. If you are considering continuing your education beyond your current degree and have questions about what that path might look like, then let your undergraduate advisor know. Also, make sure to attend Computing Research Day to connect with faculty and PhD students there who can tell you more about their own journey. We had many questions ourselves not that long ago, and we’d be excited to tell you how it works, what it’s like, and what opportunities are possible in academia and research beyond your time here.

Can I get paid to do research as an undergraduate? What about course credit?

Yes, this varies. Many undergraduates are paid for the research they do within the department. There are several ways that you may be funded, but in all cases this funded work is always through a specific faculty member that is mentoring and sponsoring your work. Sometimes faculty hire students based on tasks they need performed, but most time times faculty may only hire a student for a paid position once they have had an opportunity to work with a student for some time or if they have formed a specific project or research question together.

If you are working with a faculty member, then discuss with them ways by which you can be compensated for your work. For example, students are often funded through Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) through organizations like the National Science Foundation. Utah’s Office of Undergraduate Research also funds undergraduate research through its UROP program. In this program you define and submit a short proposal for the work you want to do together with the faculty member that is advising you on the work, and, if accepted, UROP pays you to complete the proposed work with the faculty member.

Finally, faculty will also sometimes host students for independent study credits. If you have work planned with a faculty member you can ask them whether this option makes sense for you and the project you are working on.