The first step in getting involved in research as an undergraduate is figuring out what interests you and what you want to work on.
Step 1. Define Your Research Interests
Make a list of your interests, even if they may not be within your major or you feel like the interests are completely disconnected from each other. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Which subject areas most interest you?
- Which topics in your classes interest you? What specifically made them interesting? What questions did I still have after the class finished?
- Is there a specific project in mind, or do you want to acquire a set of skills that can be transferred to other sub-disciplines in the future?
- What (if any) research topics relate to my hobbies, personal interests or extracurricular activities?
- What questions or problems am I most interested in exploring and/or solving?
Once you have some ideas you are excited about, it is time to find out more information. Find people who are interested in similar ideas, and ask them what they know and what still needs to be known in this field. Ask a lot of questions, and gather a lot of information.
Strategies for a Successful Topic
- Go beyond the basic internet searches. Try scholarly databases, scholarly works, journalistic sites and the library.
- Look for a hole that your research could fill. Look for things that still need to be done, and start to explore them.
- Think about how you want to get involved.
- What kind of experience do you want? Do you want to work in a lab, or do you want to work in a field?
- Do you want to work on a team as part of a larger research topic/question, or do you want to do your own original research?
- Note that a topic and a project are not the same thing. Your topic is the world that you are interested in, but your project is what you specifically will study.
You should be excited about working on a research/creative discovery project. Don’t do it just to build your résumé or earn academic credit.
Step 2: Identify Mentor Candidates
Being able to effectively communicate with faculty in a professional manner will be essential to finding a research opportunity. Before finding a faculty mentor, you should have a project idea in mind. It won’t be complete, but you should know enough to look for faculty with research interests relevant to your proposal.
Finding a mentor may take a bit of work, but there are many ways to approach the task:
- Ask your faculty advisor for names of faculty members who are doing scholarly work in your area of interest.
- Ask other students in your department about research projects they have worked on.
- Ask your class instructors and teaching assistants for suggestions and recommendations.
- Browse the faculty research/creative discovery database.
- Attend departmental and campus seminars to learn about new areas of research. If the speaker is a visitor from another campus, find out which faculty member hosted the speaker.
Step 3: Meet Your Potential Mentors
Select several faculty and contact them to set up an appointment during office hours to meet face to face to discuss research. Remember to always be professional and responsible in all of your communication, which includes making sure you always use correct titles (Prof. or Dr., not Mrs., Mr. or Ms.).
Make an Appointment
Let the faculty members know you are interested in their research and would like to find out more about the possibility of working with them. Be sure they understand you are talking with several mentors to find the best fit with your interests and abilities.
Build a Profile
Read all you can about each faculty member and their research program, including their research summary. Try to understand the basic principles of their scholarly work and the methodologies they use before you meet with them. Find out what other undergraduate researchers say about their mentors.
When you arrive for your appointment, bring a copy of your transcript or a list of relevant courses completed and a résumé. Explain why you are interested in a research experience and in their particular program, as well as the name of a faculty member or advisor who has agreed to be the reference. Also, give the faculty member an idea of the amount of time you are able to commit to your research experience, both in hours per week and total number of semesters. Be prepared with your research ideas when communicating with professors. Always ask for two crucial pieces of information:
- What should I be reading?
- Who else should I be talking to?
Examples of helpful questions are:
- Do you have a research/creative discovery project that needs an undergraduate student’s help?
- How did you get involved in this particular area of research/creative discovery?
- Why is your particular area of research/creative discovery important?
- Where does funding come from for your research/creative discovery?
- What does an undergraduate working with you typically do?
- What are some projects previous students have worked on?
- Are there any particular skills or characteristics you expect an undergraduate to have before beginning a project with you?
- What are your expectations of undergraduate researchers?
- Are there any specific classes you suggest I take?
- Are there any books or research articles you suggest I read?
- Do you have suggestions for other faculty members for me to talk to?
If the faculty member you contact is not able to work with you, ask for recommendations of other faculty that might help you become involved.
If you are still having trouble locating a faculty advisor, ask your academic advisor for suggestions.
Step 4: Select a Mentor, Select a Project and Start Working
Check out the current list of research to get involved with and apply for. Keep in mind that participating in research is your first step toward realizing your future career, so be sure to enjoy it!
Step 5: Preparing for Research
Many research projects will require you to complete additional training to participate. This could be related to specialized equipment, policies/procedures specific to that lab and/or regulations governing the work itself.
Make sure to document any training you complete on your résumé, as it could give you an advantage in applying for future research positions.
Joining a research group is a big commitment. In the life of an undergraduate student, there are many other responsibilities, so be careful managing your time. Undergraduate research/creative discovery is an endeavor requiring a decent amount of time. Make sure to set short- and long-term goals. List tasks that need to be done plus the time required to accomplish them. In order to keep track of goals and tasks, there are various tools and techniques that could be used, including calendarizing items by importance.