Undergraduate research: 5 ways to get started

January 1, 2022

Magnifying glass with insect underneathGround-breaking research takes place across all academic disciplines in the College of Letters and Science. Even as an undergrad, you have the opportunity to take part in discovering new findings or testing new ideas. 

Here are five ways you can get started: 

1. A research program

The Office of Undergraduate Research & Scholarships offers multiple programs that connect undergraduates with research opportunities. The most popular of these programs is URAP (Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program), where students can apply for research projects that are actively looking for undergraduate apprentices.

Applications for some projects are more competitive than others. If the lab you ultimately want to get into is highly competitive, consider whether starting out on less-impacted project with similar methodology could offer you experience you can leverage when you are ready to apply to your target research experience.

If you want more guidance or aren't finding a fit through these programs, then you can...

2. Talk with a faculty member

Department websites often highlight faculty members and their research. Starting here can introduce you to a variety of research questions and guide you toward faculty whose interests align with yours.

Even if you don't have a class with that faculty member, you can always contact them and ask for an opportunity to talk more about their research. These conversations are great ways to better understand what research questions they're actively working on, what role undergrads play in their research, and what they look for in research apprentices. If they think there's a better fit out there, they can even make referrals to other faculty members. It also gives you a chance to decide if this faculty member is someone you want to work with.

If this conversation leads to research right away, great, but even if it doesn't, you'll walk away with valuable information. If that faculty member works with undergrads, you'll understand what you can do to make yourself a stronger applicant. They'll also become familiar with you and your interest in their work.

If approaching faculty members feels a little too intimidating, you could...

3. Talk with a GSI

Students often focus on faculty, but GSIs are PhD students who work directly with faculty members and conduct their own research projects. GSIs often know a lot about the research going on throughout the department at all levels. 

Ask a GSI about their research. Talk about your own research interests. They may be able to give you guidance on good next steps or even see if you're a fit for helping with their projects.

Then again, maybe you aren't interested in joining an established research project at all! You may want to pave your own way or find a unique way to get your foot in the door. If that sounds appealing, you could...

4. Conduct your own research

Don't want to wait until a position in a lab opens up? Have your own questions you want to pursue? See if a faculty will mentor you in doing your own research. If that sounds intimidating, you can always start small with getting guidance on doing a "lit review" (review of previous research or literature in the field) on a topic of interest and build your way up from there if you'd like. Working with a faculty member in this way is a great way to build a relationship, build your experience, and build toward understanding where gaps in knowledge exist that you may want to tackle in future research. And many departments offer units for these types of experiences through independent study.

The Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarships has a great resource section with information on finding faculty mentors, writing research proposals, and more to help you get started. 

And if you want to conduct your own research, but are drawn toward a structured experience, you could...

5. Apply for your major's Honors Program

If your major doesn't already require a senior thesis, many majors have an Honors Program that involves a writing one. While this opportunity isn't available to all students (most have fairly high GPA requirements), it's worth looking into as this can be a way to do your own research with a lot of built in support. 

If you aren't eligible for your major's Honors Program, you can still go back to option 4 and see if you can build up to doing your own senior thesis with the support of a faculty mentor.

Back to Discover Opportunities and Connect on Campus

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