What is research?
Traditionally conceived, research is the process of systematic inquiry designed to further our knowledge and understanding of a subject. The University Honors Program defines research as creativity-, discovery- or inquiry-based learning. Using this definition, nearly everything students do in college is ‘research.’ They seek to discover information about people, objects, and nature; to revise the information in light of new information that comes to their attention; and to interpret their experience and communicate that interpretation to others. This is how learning proceeds both for individuals and for all human beings together as we search for knowledge and understanding of our world.
What separates a research experience from the traditional classroom?
Research is different in kind from much of the work students did in high school, and even from much of what they will do in introductory courses in college. This is not to say that research cannot be a part of the classroom experience and, in fact, research is often a major component of upper-level courses. Generally, though, introductory classroom courses are designed to give students a basic foundation in a subject area, from which they will begin to examine the bases for current beliefs and claims in their field. This search, when conducted systematically and employing particular disciplinary methodologies, is research because it advances knowledge and understanding in an academic discipline. Adapted from: Hult, C. (2001). Researching and writing across the curriculum. Longman.
Perhaps for you the word brings images of microscopes, bubbling flasks, or intrepid field biologists. We encourage you to broaden your understanding of research. Think of it as any activity that leads to the formation of new knowledge: while this may involve working in laboratories, it might also involve;
- working in museums, manuscript collections, archeological sites, oral history archives, and libraries
- traveling to understand the influence of place on an author’s work
- conducting surveys or interviews
- creating art work or new designs
- learning to play period instruments to better understand the context of a musical composition
- studying different production techniques for dramas
- exploring the influence of social trends on garden design
You get the picture. Research is the generation of new knowledge. It is something that is done in every scholarly discipline.
Undergraduate research means that you, the undergraduate student, are involved in the generation of knowledge. You work closely with a faculty member or other experienced professional. You move beyond the mode of passively receiving knowledge in a classroom setting. You learn the methods for generating new knowledge in your chosen field.
And, just because you may be an English major doesn’t mean you can’t do undergraduate research in a biology laboratory! Participating in undergraduate research broadens your horizons and builds new career opportunities.
Why should I consider participating in undergraduate research?
- To learn: see the concepts you learn in class come alive as you pursue undergraduate research!
- To connect: your faculty mentor can help you find opportunities both during your undergraduate years and after graduation; he/she will be able to write detailed letters of recommendation for graduate or professional schools
- To succeed: doing undergraduate research sets you apart from other students and can help you can admission to prestigious graduate and professional schools. In fact, you MUST have undergraduate research experience to be considered by M.D./Ph.D. programs and most prestigious graduate programs in the sciences.
- To be recognized: undergraduate research experiences are key elements in successful applications for nationally prestigious scholarship and fellowship awards.
- To make career decisions: do you want to pursue a career in research? Undergraduate research experiences can help you to answer this question. If research is not for you, it is better to find it out now than half-way through graduate school!
- To have fun: the excitement of exploring the unknown, the people you meet, the conversations you have, the camaraderie that develops—all are part of one of the main reasons to do undergraduate research: because it is fun!
- To earn academic credit: undergraduate research experiences can be the basis for academic credit.
- To earn money: some undergraduate research programs pay you to participate or, if you qualify for College Work-study, you might be able to find a work-study job in a laboratory or other research environment.
- To learn about potential graduate programs: many institutions treat their summer undergraduate research programs as recruiting tools for their graduate programs. If you are interested in a particular institution for graduate school, look to see if they have a summer undergraduate research program. It is a great way for you to try them out and for them to learn about you and your capabilities.
How do I go about finding an undergraduate research experiences?
This is harder than it might seem. We have provided you with some web links. And we are working on a campus database of undergraduate research opportunities. But the truth is, you have to work to find an undergraduate research experience. It takes time, patience, and persistence. But remember, the experience is worth the investment of time it might take to find it! Here are some suggestions:
- Use the web resources we are providing on this site.
- Ask your professors—do they have positions for an undergraduate research student? Do they know of any colleagues who do?
- Look at bulletin boards around the various departmental offices.
- Ask your graduate student teaching assistants—the ones in science and engineering may know of opportunities in their lab or department.
- Visit departmental web pages. They may list undergraduate research opportunities. They will have descriptions of the research areas of faculty members. Contact faculty members by e-mail. Make appointments to talk with them about their research. A hint: keep your appointment and be on time—professors are looking for reliable undergraduate research students!
- Attend campus-wide undergraduate research events—not only to see what your fellow students are doing, but to identify potential research projects that interest you.
- Be persistent. Keep asking. Keep looking. You will find an opportunity.
- Be creative. Do you have special skills or interests? Think about ways these might be applied to a professor’s research. Let’s say you know how to build databases but want to learn about biochemistry—offer your database skills in return for a biochemistry lab experience! Think about unique combinations of your expertise and a professor’s interests. Expand your knowledge of horticulture by pursuing a research project with a landscape design professor.
- Be proactive. You can make you own experience possible. Let’s say you are an education major. A chemistry professor might be interested in having you work in his lab for a summer, doing chemistry research, but with the goal of developing new activities for elementary science teaching. Professors with research grants often need to show that they are pursuing efforts to take their research to the community or K-12 schools. You can be the person who makes that happen.
- Be open-minded. Ignore departmental and college boundaries. Look for the best opportunities, the best mentors, the best research environment. What is important is to do research. The actual research project is the least important detail!
Some more things to think about . . .
Undergraduate research experiences can range from a 10-week summer program to multiple-year, year-round experiences. Sometimes a short-term volunteer experience can translate into a paying long-term experience. Sometimes a lab assistant position, washing glassware and making solutions, can lead to a full-fledged research experience.
How much time can you spend on an undergraduate research project? If you find the fall and spring semesters to be too filled with classes, consider summer-only experiences. Think about trying multiple summer experiences—in different places and even different fields.