How to Find Research Opportunities in High School

In a world obsessed with innovation, research has become one of the most popular ways to drive change in fields ranging from chemistry to women’s studies. Understandably, many want to get involved in this constantly developing field, hoping to inspire change or create a new understanding by pursuing their curiosity. But finding and obtaining research opportunities isn’t simple, especially as a high schooler. Luckily, this article is here to help! As someone who has had multiple research opportunities ranging from application-based programs to internships, I will describe how to find and secure them in this article.

Reasons Not To Do Research ⛔

Before we begin, it’s important to address a concerning trend among college applicants: completing research as an application boost. As the college admissions process has become increasingly competitive, more significant numbers of students desiring spots at the nation’s top universities have begun researching to appear more enticing to admissions officers. If you plan to complete research for the sole purpose of college admissions, you should NOT do research. Colleges desire students who are passionate about the activities they are involved in, so it will be evident in your application if you are not interested in your research. While research intrigued me, it doesn’t work for everyone. Always involve yourself in extracurriculars that you genuinely enjoy.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s get back to our regularly scheduled programming! 🎙️
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Types of Research Opportunities for High Schoolers

Type 1: Formal Research 👔

There are two types of research opportunities for students: formal and informal research. Formal research refers to any official program where a hopeful participant has to apply for a spot and is later notified of a decision (usually acceptance, waitlist, or rejection). Typically, formal research programs are selective because many students apply to them, but they can be incredibly rewarding. Students in formal research programs work either individually or in a group to conduct an original research project and receive guidance from a superior like a professor, researcher, undergraduate student, or postdoctoral fellow. Each program may also come with unique perks, like having the opportunity to network with STEM professionals, attend tours, and present your final research project to a panel of judges.

Not all formal research opportunities are created equally, however. Some are entirely free to attend, while some require you to pay to participate in the program and cover any transportation you may need to get there. Some programs also have restrictions on who can apply (based on age, grade, location, school attended, etc.), but many have relatively lax requirements. Luckily, many paid programs like the Summer Science Program offer generous financial aid for those exhibiting need. Below is a list of some well-known research programs you may want to consider applying to.

Where to apply for formal research opportunities for high school students:

Type 2: Informal Research 🤝

For those who think that a formal research program may not be the best fit for them, informal research is also a fantastic opportunity. Informal research refers to any research a student completes outside of a traditional program or obtains in an untraditional way, such as an internship acquired through cold emailing, shadowing, or independent research. While informal research can be conducted in any subject, it may be especially beneficial for those who want to conduct research in the humanities since many research programs are made specifically for STEM. I found informal research rewarding because it allowed me to choose a university mentor who valued a specific topic that I found interesting.

Finding informal research opportunities can be less straightforward than formal research because you have to actively go out and look for them, but the process doesn’t need to be difficult. Consider following the steps below if you’re seeking to conduct informal research.

Step 1: In-Person or Online Research Opportunity? 🙋 💻

First, you need to decide whether you want an in-person or virtual opportunity. There are pros and cons to both of these options, which will be discussed below.

Pros & Cons to In-Person Research 🙋

  • ✅ You will get direct experience with an actual working environment, including laboratories and other facilities. For those who want to conduct research in STEM, you may benefit from access to colleges’ wet and dry labs and the wide variety of projects conducted in person. If you are interested in humanities research, in-person research may allow you to access original documents and manuscripts, but you will have fewer advantages than STEM researchers.
  • ✅ You may have an easier time networking in person since face-to-face communication is more effective than doing so online. Also, you may have the opportunity to meet other professors, researchers, undergraduate students, and more who can provide insight as you begin college and enter your career.
  • ❌ You may have restraints as to where you can conduct your in-person research since you’ll need to commute to your mentor’s college or university regularly. It can be especially limiting if you live far from a large city.

Pros & Cons to Virtual Research 💻

  • ✅ You will get to select specific mentors whose research aligns with your interests.
  • ✅ With virtual research, you’ll have the opportunity to choose a mentor from a college of your choice. Ideally, you should choose someone from a college you’re interested in applying to so you can learn more about their program in the subject you are conducting research in and show demonstrated interest.
  • ❌ It may be more difficult to communicate online than in person.
  • ❌ There may be some restraints as to what type of research you can conduct in a virtual environment. For example, specific wet labs for research in either biology or chemistry may be out of the picture if they require potentially unsafe chemicals or procedures. Humanities research may have fewer restrictions.

Step 2: Compile a List of Possible Mentors ✔️

Once you decide whether in-person or virtual research is the best option for you, it’s time to begin constructing a list of possible mentors. While this step can be difficult, it’s the most fun since you’ll have so much freedom as to which mentors you select.

If you plan on conducting in-person research, you are restricted to contacting professors from universities in your area since you will need to commute there regularly. For those choosing to go the virtual route, you have much more freedom than what professors you can contact. Be sure to include a wide range of professors on your list, including, but not limited to:

  • Professors met from networking
  • Professors from universities close to and near your home
  • Professors who work at selective and less selective universities
  • Professors affiliated with colleges you’re interested in applying to
  • Citizen science projects

You can easily find professors’ contact information using some Google wizardry. The process varies by school, but typically, you can search the name of the department in which you’re interested in interning and the school (ex. “Harvard Department of History of Art and Architecture,” “UC Berkeley Physics Department”), and then select the homepage. From there, you can usually find a research and faculty section, which stores their emails and/or links to each of the faculties’ personal websites. After completing this process, you can also search their names to find other important information/resources like a Linkedin page.

Step 3: Draft an Email ✉️

Now that you’ve created a list of potential mentors, it’s time to begin contacting them. Send your potential mentors an email that is length-appropriate and gets quickly to the point for the best response chance. Remember that college professors are busy people! Even then, most professors likely will not answer your email but don’t take that to heart; most of the time, they choose not to respond because they don’t have the time to mentor a research assistant or intern over the summer. Because of this, I would recommend contacting five or six mentors at a time and then contact another group of 5-6 if you don’t receive any responses.

Feel free to use this template below to contact mentors or use it as inspiration to create your own:

Dear (name with appropriate title),

Good morning/afternoon; I hope this email finds you well. I am reaching out to you because (reason why you chose this mentor) and found (what did you notice about them?). As for some background, I am (grade) at (school) and intend to major in (subject). I have explored (subject) through my involvement in (specific AP classes, extracurriculars, awards, etc.). I am hoping to continue on with my studies with aims to (long-term goals). Hence, your work on (description of their previous research) aligns with my future career goals.

I would love to arrange a call with you to discuss your research in detail. I would also be interested in knowing if you have any available (virtual or in-person) positions as a (research intern or research assistant) for (time period). Of course, given current circumstances, I completely understand if that is not possible. However, if so, I would be extremely (adjective) in getting a view of what your work entails daily.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.



For more cold emailing tips, check out this Fiveable guide!

Step 4: Schedule a Meeting 🗓️

If you make it to this step, congratulations; you got a response from a mentor who wants to meet with you! Remember to stay true to yourself; talk about your passions rather than completely conforming to the interests of your mentor. Also, be sure to ask your mentor about anything on your mind, including clarifications of content they discussed, questions about their research, and inquiries about their educational background (you’ll be going to college soon, too!).

Here are some interview tips to help you prepare for the meeting!

While the process of applying for and obtaining research opportunities is long, it shows passion and commitment. Best of luck as you explore those passions further!

🚨 Note to Minors: Please make sure that your parent/guardian is copied on all communication with potential mentors and that you have parent/guardian permission before contacting anyone. 🚨

Guide Outline

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