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Research Opportunities for CICS Undergraduate Students in Computer Science and Informatics

If you are excited about the possibility of gaining new understanding or knowledge and communicating those findings to others, you may be a good fit for undergraduate research opportunities at UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS). These opportunities are a great way to experience research firsthand while making connections with people at CICS who share your interests in discovery. Together with mentors who are PhD students or faculty members, you will connect computing to a range of societal and scientific problems, gain skills, and open the door to careers that involve research.

Some of the possible avenues for pursuing research as a CICS undergraduate are listed below, including 1) CICS-offered opportunities and 2) national opportunities that our students might want to explore.

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Preparing for PhD Applications and Research Careers

Research experience is helpful for gaining admission into PhD programs, which are primarily about research. Working with faculty on a research project will lead to more informative letters of recommendation, demonstrating unique experience and achievement that is highly valued for academic programs and positions, and even many jobs in industry. 

Some research opportunities are advertised through CICS Careers or as candidate honors projects, but there are many opportunities to get involved that you will find by approaching a faculty member. If there is a faculty member or research group at CICS working in an area that interests you, start building a relationship with them by taking a class, attending research group meetings, or making an appointment to discuss research. You should also try talking to PhD students, who often help mentor undergraduates. Usually, students have completed the required 200-level CS courses before starting research, but some positions may be available earlier. 

Not sure how to approach someone about this? See these networking tips from CICS Careers. You can do it!

CICS-based Research Opportunities for Undergraduates

CICS is recognized for its excellence in faculty-led research. There are several ways for undergraduates to get involved with research projects, including introductory research programs and research experiences with faculty. Moreover, it is possible to receive course credit for research (e.g., for an independent study or honors project) or even receive a stipend.

ERSP: Early Research Scholars Program

ERSP at CICS is a structured and scalable research experience program for early undergraduates studying computer science and informatics. The program aims to create a diverse and supportive community at CICS, with a particular focus on engaging students from groups currently underrepresented in computing, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and indigenous peoples. It is an academic-year, group-based, dual-mentored, research apprenticeship experience. Students are placed into small groups and matched with a faculty advisor from a CICS research center or lab.

Students apply during the spring term of their first academic year and are accepted into the program before the end of that semester. 

During their sophomore year, ERSP students participate in the following two classes:  

  • In the fall semester, they take CICS 290A: Introduction to Research in the Discipline (1 cr.) to learn some basic skills and knowledge that are needed to begin a research project.  
  • In the spring semester, they enroll in CICS 396x: Independent Study - Directed Research Group (3 cr.) to carry out their proposed research projects in teams. This course may count as a major elective for computer science and informatics majors with UPD approval, subject to program rules that apply to independent study courses.

Through ERSP, students have the opportunity to learn about research, improve and apply core computing knowledge, gain skills important to their futures as computer and information scientists, and work closely with our amazing faculty mentors and a supportive group of peers in ERSP.

EMBER: Energizing, Mentoring, and Broadening Exposure to Research

EMBER (Energizing, Mentoring, and Broadening Exposure to Research) is a cross-institutional 1-credit class for undergraduates studying computer science or informatics at UMass Amherst and Mount Holyoke College, usually taken during junior year. Space permitting, seniors may also take the course. An overarching goal is to make research opportunities available and accessible to students from populations that are underrepresented in computing. The course includes a mini-research module mentored by PhD students where undergraduates carry out real experiments. These 4–5 week research modules are designed to be accessible for students regardless of previous research exposure, and to teach new skills through carrying out research projects. The weekly meetings cover a range of topics, including building networks and community in computing, research methods and skills, strategies for navigating graduate school applications, and developing basic research communication skills. Both writing and presentation skills are practiced so that students can be effective in referencing their EMBER experience in job, fellowship, and/or graduate school application letters.

CICS Careers Undergraduate Research Volunteers

The Undergraduate Research Volunteer (URV) Program is an opportunity for undergraduate students to pursue real-life applications of research. URVs work in teams of three and are assigned one PhD mentor, affiliated with a CICS Lab. Over the course of this program, teams have worked on projects related to differential privacy, environmental justice, and more. URV alumni have acquired positions in both industry and REUs. 

Independent Study with CICS Faculty

If you become interested in a research area being investigated by a faculty member, we encourage you to reach out to the faculty member to discuss the possibility of undertaking an independent study on a related project. Projects are usually for 3 credits a semester. Very successful independent study projects may lead to a second semester of independent study. Students must check course requirements to assure their  independent study courses fulfill their degree requirements. 

Commonwealth Honors College Honors Thesis

For students in the Commonwealth Honors College, an honors thesis can be a great way to get involved with faculty research. As with an independent study, the student and faculty member must agree on a suitable project. The student, with advice from their faculty mentor, must complete the required Honors College Thesis Application. The honors thesis will take the form of a written report that demonstrates critical thinking, a mastery of disciplinary material, and the communication of complex ideas. For the portfolio, your document will be accompanied by an artifact such as a computer program or invention that embodies the work done for the thesis. The completion of an Honors Thesis concludes with an oral presentation.

CICS Undergraduate Research Scholarships 

These scholarships provide financial support to a limited number of students to pursue a research project under the direction of one or more CICS faculty members. These projects can be pursued as independent study courses, as an honors thesis for students in the Commonwealth Honors college, or as full-time summer or part-time academic-year paid positions. Priority will be given to students from minoritized groups in computing (i.e., Black, LatinX, women, LGBTQIA, Native Americans, or Pacific Islanders). Priority will also be given to projects that are addressing important societal issues and are aimed at improving the common good.

National Research Opportunities for CICS Undergraduates

Summer REU Programs

Summer is a great time to engage in research. The National Science Foundation’s REU program funds summer research opportunities in computing at over 90 sites for US citizens or permanent residents. The Computing Research Association’s Committee on Widening Participation (CRA-WP) Distributed REU (DREU) program provides funding for research with faculty members across the US for students from underrepresented groups in computing, and has some limited opportunities for international students. 

Additional information

See also the CICS Careers Research Opportunities page, which gives tips about finding opportunities and links to other resources.