Research at USC: How to Get It, Keep It, and Be Rewarded By It

Natalie Monger Athletics, Computer Science, Natalie, Research, Service, Viterbi Class, Viterbi Life, Viterbi Plus

Hello there, research hopefuls!

If you are coming to USC interested in research, look no further than this How-To Guide!

I’m in the research spirit right now: I’ve been meeting back-to-back with different research partners, comprehending papers on neural networks, and preparing to present some research at the AAAI conference next weekend. So let me splurge my secrets on how I went from being a clueless, barely-involved freshman to an upperclassman who is working under two different research institutes, attending weekend programs, and developing multiple side projects for fun.

Disclaimer: These tips are all from my personal experience. There is no “correct” way to obtain research or be hired for certain projects. I just hope sharing my experience inspires you to find your unique path of research.

How to Get It

  • Talk to your professors. The professors in your major’s department are usually all buddies with each other and know about the kinds of research projects they are pursuing and what sorts of candidates they are looking for. I got both of my research positions by simply attending my professors’ office hours and having a conversation about my interests.
  • Don’t be afraid to be honest about what you want to do. Even if your professor isn’t currently working on research or isn’t doing what you want to do, he or she probably knows someone who is. For example, when I went to one of my professor’s office hours and described my interests in technology and dance, he told me that he had a friend who was starting a project that involved dance and gave me his friend’s contact information. Because I was straightforward about my passions, my teacher was able to immediately identify someone who would be interested in my abilities.
  • Be confident in your abilities and don’t be afraid to talk about your interests that may be untraditional. Like I mentioned above, I told my professor about my dance background and how it has influenced me as a person. I didn’t try to conform to what I thought a computer science researcher had to be. Mentioning this detail about my life to my professor is exactly what got my foot in the door to my position. If you have unique interests or knowledge about topics that most people don’t know much about, that might give you an advantage, so never be afraid to be yourself when searching for a position.
  • Send lots of emails. Sending an email expressing your interest in a professor’s research never hurts. To find professors you might be interested in, browse faculty pages and read some of their papers. Once you find some professors you are interested in, ask for a 15-minute meeting to discuss your interest in their work. If the professor doesn’t respond after a while, you should follow up with another email. However, don’t take it personally if the professor doesn’t respond; sometimes, professors are simply not looking for new research assistants and may not respond to your request for a meeting.
  • Don’t give up. Even if you don’t get research immediately, that doesn’t mean you will never get it. Consistently check your email for applications. Talk to your professors. Work hard in your classes. Opportunities will arise; just keep working hard!

How to Keep It

  • Make a weekly schedule and stick to it. Some labs are lenient in the sense that the work you do can be done on your own time. Sometimes, you can even work from home. While this all sounds great, it sometimes becomes tough to meet your requirements when you don’t have research times planned into your schedule. To make sure your project deadlines stay on track, plan times into your schedule when you’ll work on your project.
  • Take advantage of every opportunity your research professor gives you. If you work under a research lab at Viterbi, chances are the lab has great connections to programs or resources that can benefit your education. For example, I am getting ready to attend the AAAI conference this weekend. Another opportunity I can take advantage of is the annual SIGGRAPH conference. Opportunities like these are hard to come by, so take advantage of them while you’re a student at USC.

How to Be Rewarded By It

There are three main ways to be compensated for your research:

  1. Volunteer Experience: One of the best ways to show a professor your skills is to start out as a volunteer researcher. Working for free shows that you are truly passionate about the work the professor is doing. If you can prove your skills to the professor, it is highly likely you will be asked to remain in the lab next semester and potentially join the payroll.
  2. Payment: Many labs are great about paying student researchers for their work. You can be paid hourly or get certain stipends. You can search the Viterbi undergraduate research page for information on stipends like the Merit Research Program.
  3. Course Credit: Another great option for research compensation is getting credit for it through Directed Research. Usually, Directed Research courses will count towards your tech elective requirements. For example, instead of taking a traditional CS tech elective this semester, I am in CSCI490, which allows me to receive credit for my research.

Well, I hope this summary helped you gain a better understanding of how research works at USC. I hope to write a post soon on how to design your own research curriculum/projects, which is partly what I’ve been doing these past few months, so stay tuned for that. As always, fight on, y’all!

About the Author

Natalie is a junior studying Computer Science/Business and Dance. Click the photo above to find out more.

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