What is Research?/How to Get Involved?
Video of undergraduates talking about their views on research and how they got involved.
"Research is the buzz you get in your stomach, the rumble in your heart. It's a question that keeps nagging you to find the answer. It takes guts and bravery to answer the call to research. So while everyone can do it, not everyone dares." - Tasha Richardson (SESP 2010)
In the spring of 2010, a group of undergraduates decided to fill an important void – they wanted to create a guide for students interested in getting involved in research. We thought it would be helpful to hear the perspective of fellow students, so the following is excerpted from “GURU: Guide to Undertaking Research as an Undergraduate.” GURU was written by Corinne Ellis, Hana Suckstorff, and Anil Wadhwani with inspiration from the writings of Professors Sonbinh Ngyuen, Lawrence Pinto, and Bernhard Streitwieser.
What is Research?
You could ask many people this question and get a different answer every time. That is because research takes so many different forms across many academic fields. Needless to say, this perspective makes research a little difficult to define, even if it is unquestionable that research is a cornerstone of our university’s mission.
Research is any systematic process by which new knowledge is generated from available facts. This knowledge can come in many different varieties, such as new facts that were previously unknown, theories about how facts are connected, or uncovering new questions that have yet to be answered. The methods may vary, but research can happen in any discipline: the natural sciences and mathematics, the social sciences, and the humanities and fine arts. Research can happen anywhere – on a cluttered bench in a scientific laboratory and in the dirt of the great outdoors, in the dusty archives of a medieval library and on a computer screen in your home, in our neighboring communities and in lands abroad.
Despite the many possible ways in which research can occur, there exists one similarity that stands out. In every conceivable instance, there is a researcher responsible for the questions that he or she asks and the knowledge that he or she produces. The first step to defining research is setting aside all other broader, generalized descriptions and realizing that research is first and foremost, an individual pursuit of one’s academic passions.
WHAT IS THE VALUE OF RESEARCH TO THE UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT?
Anything that has ever been learned in school was once not known by anyone, and unfortunately, we do not always hear about the process that yielded that knowledge. The traditional high school and early collegiate education is composed mostly of lecture-style courses that offer a broad survey of what is known and not much about how it came to be known. Research is an opportunity for you to identify something that interests you and study it in depth. It is up to you to seek out the information you need from textbooks, the internet, and primary sources.
As a result, research tends to involve a different kind of learning, one that requires critical thinking, problem-solving, detailed analysis, and synthesis of ideas. This approach tends to be how learning happens outside of school – not by memorization and regurgitation but by trial, error, and hopefully, success. Good teachers may get you to give this effort in the classroom, but by immersing yourself in research, you can and will teach yourself to do this work on your own.
You may have heard that graduate and professional schools take kindly to students who have done research. If this statement is true, it is likely because they value the type of learning experience that research allows you to have as an undergraduate. Remember, research requires that you be responsible for your own questions and answers. You should be sure that you are deeply invested in what you choose to study and that you are prepared to do so at the maximal level of engagement.
Your research is your own individual pursuit. The guidance of caring and dedicated mentors is invaluable, but at the end of the day, you are responsible for the generation of new knowledge and for the outcomes of your project. Stay true to your passions, and do what you love. This internal drive will allow you to push through tedious tasks and to overcome roadblocks. Find the mentor and the project that best aligns with your ideal educational plan. Choose your courses wisely to both complement your independent study and allow you to continue to broaden your horizons. Good time/task management can help you to balance your many obligations gracefully. Use research as an opportunity to learn more about yourself while you study the world around you.
Throughout every step of the process, tell yourself and everyone you encounter nothing less than the truth. It is acceptable to not know something; in fact, the first step of successful research is identifying precisely what you do not know. Never make a claim to knowledge that you do not have. Research requires the highest order of academic professionalism and integrity.
Finding that perfect research project is a challenging process, and one that requires time, effort, and perseverance. Before settling on a thesis topic, you will likely develop and then discard at least a half a dozen other particular lines of inquiry. Undergraduate research does not happen overnight and demands flexibility; its execution is often messy, and its exact course of development remains unpredictable and unexpected. However, it is a beautiful mess, and somewhere amid the confusion is the germ of a beautiful research idea. It is like writing a rough draft of a paper: there is usually a really great final version buried in there. You just have to get the crappy first draft done to discover it.
Keep scratching that intellectual itch that will not go away. Let your academic passions drive you to take advantage of all that this university has to offer, and plunge into a daring, original, at times wildly impractical, and tremendously exhilarating intellectual endeavor of your own choosing.
For more from GURU, see the tabs “Exploring Your Interests” and “Finding a Research Mentor” on this page.
This information should get you on your feet about what is entailed in doing research, but how to pursue research varies greatly depending on your area of interest. For a more detailed exploration of how to get involved in your discipline, please click the following links:
Exploring Your Interests
The first step towards starting research is to figure out what questions interest you, what is the current state of research in that field, and how can you incorporate this topic into the plan for your undergraduate education. This task may seem daunting, but it is a worthwhile one. Here are five sources of information that can help introduce you to numerous possibilities and to inspire you to generate your own questions.
1. The Internet
If there is information out there, you can probably find it on the web. The hard part is knowing where to look. The first way to define your interests is to find work done by other people that interests you. Start with department web pages and personal faculty websites; pay close attention to recent publications by specific faculty. Read recent and archived articles from the Northwestern NewsCenter, the Daily Northwestern, and North by Northwestern. Look outside of the university as well! What topics are discussed in recent periodicals like the New Yorker, Scientific American, and the Associated Press? Make sure you also check your email for information about talks and special events.
2. Published Works
Read academic literature—for fun: If you find a topic that interests you, NU’s library probably has plenty of books or articles that address it. Although it may seem counterintuitive, secondary sources are the best introduction to your topic. They will help give you an idea of the state of current scholarship surrounding your topic, and they usually have a listing of great primary sources or journal articles for when you want to take a closer look at a specific topic.
Reading this literature may seem dry and uninspiring, and it can be if you are worried about taking copious notes and mastering the ins and outs of current scholarship on your topic. Early in the game, do not try to be super thorough (that comes later); read for your own interest, which will make the process more fun and will attune you to nuances and wrinkles in the scholarship that get your intellectual wheels spinning. You will undoubtedly encounter complex technical material, but try not to lose sight of the big picture. If it helps, you can skip these sections and come back to them when you require the details.
Also, don’t be afraid of any sort of social stigma you think you’ll incur for this one. Don’t be ashamed to like learning for its own sake. Be able to say proudly, “This is for pleasure.” After all, it should be.
3. On Campus Seminars
There is a whole set of structures in the university devoted to innovation and excellence in research. There are research institutes, centers, and academic departments all over campus that can offer you a new look at topics that interest you. In many of these environments, affiliated faculty regularly meet for seminars with invited guest lecturers, faculty candidates, and graduating doctoral students. These forums provide an incredible opportunity to hear from professionals who have devoted their careers to the study of a single topic. It can give you insight on the type of investigations that can be done, the questions that can be asked, and the methods used to find answers.
The best part of the seminars is that faculty members are there to participate, just like you. When you encounter professors, they are usually the authorities on the material being discussed, but in seminars, they are there to learn and to critique. Not only to you get to hear how research is done, but you also get to hear praise and criticism of the presenter. What are the merits and shortcomings of their argument? How valid is the data? This side of research rarely gets seen in the classroom, and it is happening right in your own backyard!
It is often easier to attend these seminars because you can attend them whenever they fit conveniently in your schedule. They usually last about one hour - perfect for in between classes or during a break in the day. To find out when these seminars occur, keep an eye out for flyers in the hallways and in emails. Check a departmental or university calendar, or ask to be added to seminar listservs. Ask other undergraduates and graduate students in a department or center, and definitely ask your professors when their departmental seminars meet and if students are welcome. Remember to participate in an appropriate and non-disruptive manner.
If you are lucky, some of these talks may have refreshments or snacks for participants, too! An added benefit is that you will get to hear about what is going on in a department or research center. Also, these events offer an excellent way to strike up a conversation with a professor in an informal setting outside of class.
4. Student Organizations
There are others like you out there! Attend the activities fair to learn about the various academic events put on by student organizations. You can tell by their name if they are obviously affiliated with a specific department or discipline, but every group, from cultural to entertainment may invite speakers or host discussions on academic topics that may interest you. Attend political debates, lectures by prominent guests, and even research seminars offered by other undergraduates. These events offer a great way to meet upperclassmen who are already be involved in research and would be happy to share with you what they have learned about starting research in a specific field. From them, you can learn a great deal about what courses are useful to take and about which professors make good mentors. Odds are you will not find this information on the web.
5. Professors and Advisors
Talk to your teachers. It is as easy as that. Many of them have mentored students in the past. You may be interested in the work that they are doing in particular, but they also know about what work is being done by their colleagues in the department. Pop in during office hours or set up an appointment with one of your professors or your college/major advisors to probe their expertise.
Be prepared for this meeting. Many of your professors are busy. Do your research ahead of time and ask thoughtful questions. Talk to them about the specifics of your interests, the research questions you would like to answer, and the literature you have read. Ask them about their previous students, programs offered by their departments, colleagues who are also open to mentoring undergraduates and other resources on the web and in print that you could read.
Even if you have never met these professors, do not be afraid to contact them about meeting to discuss your research interests. We are incredibly fortunate to attend a school where many professors genuinely care about undergraduate education and are more than happy to meet with students. Ask what they are working on and if you can help. At worst they will say no and give you guidance on pursuing your own research interests; at best, they will take you on for one of their projects. Even if they turn down your offer, they can still offer valuable advice.
Bonus. Your Classes
Take classes in subjects that really interest you. This statement might seem like a no-brainer, but it is a great way to expose yourself to topics that might pique your interest. Taking classes that really speak to your intellectual passions is also an excellent way to get to know professors who can help guide and refine your research interests. We undergraduates can be pretty naïve in the world of research, but luckily we have access to members of the faculty who do research when they are not in classroom. It is a truly invaluable resource.
Finding a Research Mentor
In order to find the perfect mentor, you not only need to know the type of work you want to do, but you also need to understand the type of environment in which you would like to conduct your scholarly activities. It is a challenge to find the perfect fit for you, but you will have a more educational and productive experience if you do the leg work early on.
Start with departmental web pages. Identify the faculty whose interests coincide with your own. Look up their published works, or sit in on their classes. If the instructor for one of your classes happens to be working on something that you are interested in, it is a good idea to plan a meeting with him or her during office hours in which you can discuss the field, what research in the field entails, and possible next steps. These professors have a wealth of knowledge and are the best people to discuss ideas with once you have a well-defined interest.
There will likely be interesting potential faculty mentors that you have never met. In those situations, write a friendly, professional, and above all else, personal email directly to the professor. Briefly introduce yourself and your interests, and ask if you could meet with her/him to discuss potential research opportunities. It helps to demonstrate that you have done your homework; mention specific aspects of their work that interests you and any previous experiences from classes or other research projects you may have done. It may also help to attach a file containing your resume, unofficial transcript, and research abstracts if available. Lastly, be sure to include specific times that you are available in the upcoming week in order to make scheduling a meeting easier for the professor.
Keep your message short and to the point, and always remember to be cordial and appreciative. You may not be successful every time, but do not get discouraged. There are some professors who are more interested in mentoring undergraduates and some who are not able to take on that commitment at a certain time. Rest assured- there is someone in the field that interests you who will want to help you out. It is acceptable to send a second email if you have not received a response after a week or two.
Come to your meetings with potential mentors prepared for a detailed discussion about your interests, your background, and your education and career plans, but try to get to know the professor better as well. You will want a research experience that allows for both intellectual and personal growth. Finding the right personality is critical when you will be working with a person so closely. Ask about the other undergraduates with whom the professor has worked and the graduate students that he or she may advise. It may be to your benefit to contact them for a more personalized perspective on their research experience.
Remember, research requires a major investment from every party involved. Your mentor will spend a great deal of time teaching you methodologies and the nuances of the field. You probably will not find this type of educational experience in any classroom. At the same time, be sure to participate at the maximal level of engagement. Think for yourself, ask questions, and continue to be imaginative and innovative. Work closely with your chosen mentor to set a concrete plan for your first quarter of research. Check in with them regularly with progress updates and questions. Every couple of months, you should have a longer discussion where you can talk about long term goals such as applying for an undergraduate research grant or presenting at a symposium, getting coursework suggestions or career advice, and most importantly, discussing your projects progress and direction in detail.