Getting Started in Undergraduate Research
- Is Undergraduate Research (UGR) for me?
- Benefits of doing undergraduate research
- Deciding on research
- What is the difference between Undergraduate Research and an Internship?
- Which comes first, the idea or the mentor?
- How do I pick a topic and how do I identify and approach a potential mentor?
Whether you are ready for research depends on your willingness to take intellectual risks, your interest level and persistence in pursuing a focused project, and your level of background knowledge. If you are intellectually curious about a topic and are willing to work hard to learn and master knowledge and new skills, then you are probably ready for a research experience. Some majors will require a UGR experience at a specific program stage or only after certain pre-requisites, so be sure to check for your major.
Participating in undergraduate research can provide opportunities for you to:
- Work one-on-one with faculty, graduate students, and post-doctoral researchers;
- Contribute to the creation of new knowledge;
- Sharpen your critical and analytical thinking skills;
- Complement and extend your classroom learning;
- Enhance your confidence in your abilities;
- Prepare for graduate-level study or a research job; and
- Explore your interests and clarify your career goals.
Some of the greatest benefits of being involved in research are the insights it gives you into:
- The ways you learn best;
- How new knowledge is created;
- What you can accomplish when actively engaging your own research questions; and
- How to effectively collaborate with a team.
Before getting involved in a research project with a faculty member, consider your goals, interests, and time commitments. Ask yourself:
- What do I hope to gain through a research experience?
- What are my interests?
- What do I know about research in my field?
- How much time can I realistically commit to working on a research project?
- Are there particular skills I need to aid me in my research project?
- Are there courses I should take before doing a particular research project?
- What type of learning environment do I prefer?
Keep in mind that if you are a beginner with few skills, the type of project you can undertake will be limited; however, projects suitable for beginners exist in many disciplines.
Some of the greatest benefits of being involved in research is the insight it gives you on:
- How to learn;
- How new knowledge is created; and
- What you can accomplish when actively engaging your own research questions.
Some internships actually are undergraduate research projects, but in many cases, internships provide valuable work experience without necessarily focusing on an original research question or creative objective. It is this focus on an original scholarly contribution to a discipline that defines an undergraduate research project. An internship is typically done off-campus or at least outside of your department (though terminology sometimes varies among departments). Graduate schools are usually impressed by an undergraduate research experience, especially if it results in a publication or presentation. On the other hand, an internship in many fields may be the best way to get the required experience for a job offer. Just about everyone is impressed by a well-rounded applicant, so many students will try to do both.
In some cases, you may not have much choice in the matter, but for now, let’s assume you have some control over both. Both a sincere interest in your project topic and an effective mentor are essential to your success. Of these, the mentor may be the more important of the two. A good mentor can instill passion in a topic that you never even considered before, while a poor mentor can potentially derail your enthusiasm for a favored project. In addition to providing guidance and expertise for your project, a good mentor will develop her/his relationship with you over time in order to provide constructive feedback and enable your scholarly development, curiosity, and collaborative abilities. Your mentor may also assist you in presenting or publishing your work and in planning and pursuing your career or graduate study.
Here are three equally valid ways to approach an undergraduate research project. Whether the idea or the mentor comes first varies with each one.
- Idea First: You are already thinking of a very specific project idea and you need to find a mentor whose research interests are closely related, or who will support you in your efforts. Few students start out with such a focused project idea, but in such cases, the research topic may clearly drive the choice of mentor.
- Mentor First: You have not identified any particular research direction, but you have identified a faculty mentor that you greatly respect and want to work with. After investigating the faculty member’s research focus and discussing research opportunities with him/her, you select a suggested project that is of interest to you.
- Mentor and Topic Together: You have an interest in one or more general research directions, but you are not committed to a specific research topic and may not have any particular question in mind. In this case, there are probably several potential faculty mentors with research programs that might interest you. You can talk with one or more of them and choose a project based on some combination of the available research opportunities, your passion for a specific research question or field, and your preference for a particular mentor.
Picking a research topic and mentor is NOT a passive process. It is often hard to separate the two, so we will take them both together. As in all aspects of undergraduate research, you must take personal initiative to get things done. Planning and carrying out an independent research, scholarly, or creative project requires motivation, proactive planning, effective communication, and disciplined time management. That’s one of the reasons why an undergraduate research project is so valuable. It is also one of the reasons that not everyone succeeds.
Let’s focus on an example in which you want to do undergraduate research but you have not decided on a project topic or a mentor. Very few students start their undergraduate research experience with a clear project in mind, so don’t worry if you have not yet settled on a specific topic.
Step 1: Consider your personal interests and preferences
- Make a list of your potential research interests. These topics can be quite broad. You can narrow them down later once you have identified your mentor. Examples might include: robotics, international economics, molecular biology, colonial history, marine pollution, figurative sculpture, sensory perception, elementary education, ecology, election politics, 20th century literature, health care, etc.
- Make a list of skills you would like to develop. Examples might include: chemistry lab techniques, working with ceramics, developing marketing survey tools, fishery capture techniques, microscopy, data analysis and statistics, ecological modeling, educational assessment, remote sensing technology, etc.
Step 2: Investigate potential mentors
- You should do a little homework on your potential mentors before you go to see them. Your mentor will likely be a CCU faculty member, but you can also pursue a research-based internship with an external mentor.
- View the UGR Opportunities page to find strategies and links to investigate faculty research interests or potential research-based internships.
Step 3: Contact potential research mentors
- Reaching out to a potential mentor may seem new and awkward for you, but it is completely routine for your potential mentor. Faculty get inquiries from students all the time, and they are anxious to help you pursue your interests and educational goals.
- If you have not met your potential mentor, or have only had limited interaction, you should email first for an appointment. Be sure to include a brief introduction of your background, interests, and goals.
- When you meet, be clear about your objectives and what you know and don’t know at this stage. Do you have a specific project idea or do you want to hear about potential opportunities and suggestions? Or both? Do you definitely want to work with this mentor, or are you shopping around and collecting research ideas from multiple people? Do you have specific skills you would like to develop? Do you want a project that will prepare you for a specific career direction? When do you want to start? Finish? Can this stretch over more than one semester?
Step 4: Based on the previous steps, choose a mentor and potential project direction, schedule a time with your new research mentor to chart out a basic timeline, and get started!
Office for Undergraduate Research
Coastal Science Center, Rm 160P
Director of Undergraduate Research
Undergraduate Research Assistant
Associate Professor for Research