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Starting Research

The term research refers to scholarly or creative activity that contributes to human knowledge. In many disciplines, research consists of systematic investigation of the natural world or society; in other fields, it is a matter of engaging in creative work that advances our understanding of human expression.

Undergraduate research involves an educational collaboration between students and faculty members. An undergraduate research experience may be initiated by a student who seeks out faculty supervision or by a faculty member who includes undergraduate students in her or his research team.

Undergraduates seeking a research opportunity should follow these steps:

1. Attend an information session

  • The Office of Undergraduate Research holds regular information sessions that introduce the basics of undergraduate research.
  • Start here to get an overview of the benefits and models of research, how to identify opportunities, and the dos and don’ts of approaching professors about assistantships.

2. Consider the benefits of undergraduate research

  • Conducting research as an undergrad can benefit you in many ways, enhancing your skillset, your understanding of course content, and your applications for jobs or graduate school.
  • It can also be great for networking and for figuring out what direction you’d like to take your life. Consider what you might want to get out of a research experience.

3. Determine the research model you’re most interested in

  • Undergraduate research can mean assisting a professor with his or her project or initiating your own independent research.
  • It can take place during the school year or summer, either on campus or out in the field.
  • Researchers also perform a variety of tasks.
  • Identify the model you’d like your research experience to follow and get inspired by examples of other students who have participated in undergraduate research.

4. Identify your interests

  • What topics interest you? Are you most interested in studying the natural world, human society, or creative expression?
  • What relevant coursework have you taken or do you plan to take? Is there something you are passionate about and would like to explore?
  • Take stock of your favorite courses and your work, volunteer, or extracurricular experience that could relate to your research interests.

5. Find faculty members who share your interests

  • Use Eureka and other resources to find potential research projects and faculty who work on your preferred topics.
  • Read faculty profiles on departmental web pages.
  • Browse organized research units on campus.

6. Prepare to contact faculty members

Stop! It is crucial to prepare before making your first contact with a faculty member.

  • Approach faculty with respect. Before you approach a professor, do your homework. Read her or his website, find out about recent publications, and have a good understanding of that person’s research.
  • If you’re unsure about this step or would like examples of introduction emails, attend one of our information sessions. An Advisor in the Office of Undergraduate Research can help.

7. Contact a faculty member

  • Be professional. Write an email in a formal, respectful tone. Address the faculty member as ‘Prof. X’ or ‘Dr. Y.’
  • Include a sentence or two stating your interests and topics you would like to explore (primarily those that the faculty member shares with you).
  • Show your enthusiasm, commitment, and initiative.
  • Make sure you can clearly articulate your own interests and goals.

8. Prepare for your initial meeting with a faculty member

  • Review what made you interested in this topic (courses, college experiences, family/background, media).
  • Look over the faculty member’s curriculum vitae and publications.
  • Be able to articulate the skills and qualities you can bring to the project.

9. Ensure a successful first meeting with a faculty member

  • Be confident, excited, and relaxed.
  • Introduce yourself and address the faculty member as ‘Prof. X’ or ‘Dr. Y.’
  • Look presentable. This isn’t exactly a job interview, but you should dress neatly.
  • Ask the professor what will be expected of you.
  • Come away from the meeting with a concrete sense of the next step to take.

Keep in mind…

  • Be willing to start “at the bottom.” As you gain research skills and experience, you will eventually be ready to take on higher-level responsibilities.
  • Be yourself. The faculty member will want to get to know your interests and ideas.
  • Think about your availability. How much time do you have to commit to this project? (Remember that your workload shifts during midterms and finals. Don’t overestimate how much time you can contribute.)
  • Be reliable. Faculty members are looking for students who are not just interested in their work, but who are reliable and can be counted on.
  • Don’t get discouraged. If this faculty member does not have an undergraduate position available, she or he might be able to recommend another project or faculty member for you.