Getting started in Computer Science Research as an Undergraduate

Research in the CS department isn't the easiest to get involved in, but here we answer some common questions.

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March 23, 2022

Hi everyone,

Research has been an extremely influential part of my undergraduate journey at Purdue. It was extremely intimidating to get involved. At first, I struggled to find meaning in my coursework during the pandemic, and I was interested in making an impact in the field of computer science. I initially approached a professor with an interest in research my freshman year as I was interested in pursuing computational biology research that would complement my computer science background. Upon asking the professor to recommend courses that would prepare me for research, he recommended that I take his class on computational genomics to further determine my interest. I continued to seek knowledge from professors and faculty to best prepare me to successfully partake in research, but there is so much to uncover, and I am still learning more every day.

Today, I had the opportunity to ask Ms. Ranjani Rao some questions about undergraduate research about what I wish I had known before I started.

Interview with Ranjani L. Rao, Purdue Undergraduate Research and Career Development Specialist

Simran: Why should computer science students consider undergraduate research?

Ms. Rao: First, students gain intellectual satisfaction from solving hard problems, putting their work in the classroom, seeand seeing how all concepts work in the real world. Intellectual satisfaction is tremendous because you learn a lot more. Research experience is highly valued in industry and career strategy. It also helps improve the responsibility of a person. If you participate in conferences or present your work, have the ability to improve your communication skills.

Simran: What is the best way to approach professors for research?

Ms. Rao: When talking to CS professors, first analyze your own background and find out what aspects of cs you are interested in. Look at if you enjoyed CS 182, data structures, math classes, there are some areas of research like machine learning or computational sciences, or engineering. If you enjoyed CS 240, C programming, CS252, systems programming, then probably research in operating systems or systems security is better for you. First, analyze your background, then go around and study faculty bios and research professors on their websites. Read papers with a professor you want to work with. Play around with software that might be useful. Do your background work and then cold email professors or talk to people in their labs or others in research. Attend meet and greets and talks held by professors in the cs dept. The theory group has cs theory meetings every week. PurPL has a series of workshops where graduate students present their work. These are great avenues to learn about the research that different professors are conducting.

Simran: Do you have to have taken a course with the professor you want to do research with?

Ms. Rao: It would be helpful to have taken a course with a professor. For example, if you want to do research with a professor who is specializing in networks. The ideal case is if the professor taught CS 473. It is okay if you took CS 473 with one professor, but decided to approach another in the same area. As long as you have a class in that area, you are going to be productive at that lab.

Simran: What time in your college career do you recommend that students reach out to professors?

Ms. Rao: If this is a computer science professor, usually when you get past data structures and systems programming this is when you have courses and when you are ready to take upper-level courses. This is possible because you have some background classes. Then, prioritize the classes relevant to the professor you choose.

Simran: How do you make sure you pick the right professor since there are many different professors working in the same area?

Ms. Rao: There is no perfect answer. You have to do trial and error. One thing you can do to understand what area is to read papers by the professors, especially if they have done work previously with undergraduate students. Try to see what the undergraduate did. This will help you understand what the professor did. Systems building and deployment. With your background in cs, you can figure out a little bit more.

Simran: Do students get financially compensated for undergraduate students or can students do research for course credit?

Ms. Rao: There are different compensation In the early stages, when the professor doesn’t really know the student, As professor David Blyth told me, there are two phases with working with any cs professors, figuring out if you can work with each other, nothing is paid. If they figure out if you work, there are many ways to get compensated for the research that you perform. For computer science, you can get credit for doing research with a professor. You and the professor decide how many hours of work howwork, how much research, you can decide to have workhave to work down for a grade or pass/fail. Research for pay happens when you have a greater level of trust with the faculty. Some faculty have funding from companies or NSF research grants where they can help support you. This happens when the student works in the summer or has been working for the lab for a few semesters.

Simran: Do students have to be in CS honors to be active participants in research? Ms. Rao: CS honors is just a small part of the overall research done. When looking at the number of independent studies, 300 to 400 by students in cs. A number of students in cs honors were in the double-digits. No, you don’t have to just be in cs honors, but you do have to be a conscientious student

Simran: What are REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates)?

Ms. Rao: REUS are programs funded by NSF to support undergraduate research. Professors write up grand proposals and write undergrad extensions and the government gives them extra money to support undergraduate students. There are over approximately 115 opportunities just for computational sciences and engineering. This is the subarea that cs majors usually apply to over the country. It is a research boot camp. You work on a presentation and you present and the researcher mentors you and you get compensated which is nice. This opportunity is only open to US students and is extremely helpful for applying to graduate schools.

Simran: Could you please explain what is the SURF program and who should apply to the SURF program?

Ms. Rao: SURF is a program at Purdue that is part of an opportunity to do research with an engineering professor. There is a symposium in summer where you get to work with a professor on a project and get to present at the end of the summer.

Thank you for reading!

If you have any questions for Ms. Rao, you can make an appointment with her. Her email is [email protected]. Resume reviews are offered in Lawson commons on Mondays and Thursdays between 1:30-3:00 pm with Ranjani Rao.

Category: Research

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