Getting involved in research is a multi-step process, but not necessarily one that should intimidate you. If you know the elements involved, the process, while challenging, is not so daunting.
Finding a Topic:
Start with what interests you. Use the web to find professors who do this type of work. Read up on them and their work. Take classes with them (if possible), and/or make an appointment to meet with them during office hours. Explain your interests, and ask their advice in developing your ideas.
Finding a Lab:
For science and engineering students, research is often defined by getting involved in a lab. Dr. Lawrence Pinto, chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Physiology, has written a concise guide to help with this process. Additional suggestions for finding a lab can be found on our page for Natural Science and Engineering. We also have a searchable databse of research opportunities that contains many labs, the types of research they do, and how undergrads typcially get involved. Search the Undergrad ARCH to learn more.
Finding a Program:
Northwestern has numerous types of programs for students interested in doing research. The programs include everything from acquiring language skills in preparation for research work to funding independent student projects. Finding the right program for you depends on what you want to do. This choice does not happen a single time; hopefully, it happens multiple times over the course of your career at Northwestern as you progress from being involved in the projects of others to completing your own project. For a list of programs and possibilities, go to “Research Opportunities.” You can use our new search engine, the Undergrad ARCH, to see what is available.
Finding an Advisor:
This step is not necessarily the same as finding a topic. Hopefully, you meet and discuss your ideas with many different people in order to get a comprehensive view of the topic and issues involved. Your advisor should be the best possible person to help you with this project. S/he may provide lab and materials access. S/he may be the leading expert on what you want to study. Hopefully, s/he will also be willing to take the additional time and effort required to mentor an undergraduate in research, and hopefully, the two of you will connect personally to create a positive working environment. To help this process, you need to be prepared to know exactly what you are asking of this person. If you want a letter of recommendation, then you should have the forms ready and information about the deadline and program. If you want a mentor, then you should have the confines of the program and project ready to explain. This way the faculty member can make an informed decision on whether s/he is able to help you. Remember, you don’t want an advisor who can’t follow through due to other demands on her/his time. Be up front to avoid problems down the road.
Writing a Research Proposal:
The writing required for a research proposal will be unlike any you have done previously – it is its own genre. Do not think of it like writing an essay or just a two-page paper. People who review grant applications are looking for a fixed format, and while there is plenty of room within that format for individuality and creativity, you must give them what they seek. Remember, they are the ones with the keys to your project getting funded. Luckily, you have plenty of resources available to help this process. Some programs, such as the ones through the Office of the Provost, offer information sessions and one-on-one advising. If your program does not offer such a resource, make sure you review “Crafting a Research Proposal.”
It can also be helpful to look at successful grant proposals from your field. While this link doesn’t contain examples from every field, it covers a wide variety of disciplines. Read these sample proposals along side the “Crafting a Research Proposal” document to see how they succeeded in getting funding. It is not a question of mirroring them as much as it is finding the means to communicate what you need to say effectively.