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Getting Started in Undergraduate Research

[This guide to undergraduate research was adapted from Cornell University]

What is Research?

research. n.
Scholarly or scientific investigation or inquiry. Close, careful study.

Defining research is as difficult as explaining how gravity works. It means something different for each individual. Research is a tool that solves problems. Often, it is an engaging process by which there are accidental discoveries. You will see, learn and do things that you never imagined. Through research you develop objectives and work hard toward goals. But along the way you will pick up so much more. Tacit information, keen insight and acumen for solving some of life's greatest mysteries will lead toward your becoming a student for life.

Before you get started in "research," it is important to identify your goals and objectives in joining this pursuit. What are your expectations for becoming involved in college-level research projects? How committed are you to a project in terms of time, energy and enthusiasm? How will you evaluate your experience? Knowing what you can contribute and what you hope to develop through research will not only help you to find a great position, it will help you make the most of it. 

What is the Process?

How can you learn who is doing what in the way of research?

In the sciences it's usually easy. Web sites tell the story of current research in a paragraph or two and the bibliography tracks the story to date. Partly because of the way we go about research in the humanities and social sciences, the faculty in these fields don't generally set out a paragraph about their current research interests. For them, as for the scientists, the titles of their articles usually provide a good outline of where they have been, if not exactly where they are going next.

How will you know what kind of project will be right for you?

Pay attention to your reaction as you read those descriptions. We all usually react positively to all the topics. Were it not so, you'd wonder what made you think you were interested in that field. One or two topics, however, are likely to grab you; before the words even shape themselves, you know you'd like to get involved in that kind of thing. Those are your first clues.

Learn more. E-mail the professor to schedule an appointment during her or his regular office hours. Tell the professor that you saw she/he was working on (fill in the blank), and, you are interested because (fill in the blank). For the second phase, make yourself aware of what it is in your background that connects to those projects you find thrilling – there must be connections for you to experience that reaction. Some of those connections may seem babyish to you; don't hold back. That kind of experience is very authenticating. Entomologists, for example, are sometimes found by their field when they are about three years old.

Between the call and the time of the appointment, read one of the research articles listed on the faculty member's Web site. Don't worry if you can't understand it all. You may find that it is not all what you supposed, in which case, you cancel the appointment. Otherwise, this reading will help facilitate your conversation with the professor.

How do you get involved?

When the conversation swings, it's time to say that you'd like to get involved in such a project. Ask whether the professor can help you do that. (Marketing 101, cold calls and yes/no questions are a sure miss.) Never fear, the professor's first answer will relate to whether she/he is willing to sponsor your project.

Usually the first answer is, "No; I'm too busy," or "You'll learn more if you take English 320 first." Often, you make plans to do a project after that obstacle has been removed. Sometimes, the professor suggests another professor to contact. That is not a way of saying "go bother somebody else," rather; she/he senses that there will be more for you in a project with that other professor. Follow the advice.

Just in case you and the professor decide you want to get started on a project right away, be sure to carry an Add/Drop form and Independent Study proposal form with you to the meeting. Then you can cut the deal on the spot. In case the answer is "no," but you still wish you could get started working under this professor's guidance, ask, "May I leave this with you, in case anything should change?" "This" is your skills resume. Frequently, a good project for you will jump into a professor's mind within a day of your conversation. Your e-mail address will re-connect you.

What it Takes: Persistence

One common theme when people get started doing research is a process with one barrier to entry. That barrier is that you must demonstrate your indestructible desire to become involved. Many researchers will tell you that research is thrilling and worth every sacrifice, one percent of the time. The remaining 99 percent of the time is dedicated hard work. Persistence in finding a job will pay off when you need it again to find results.

Don't give up on account that becoming involved in research is difficult. College is a time for eager exploration. You are expected to learn and as such, professors are more than willing to teach if you have the self-motivation.