Develop Your Interests

The first step in any research or creative project is figuring out what interests you. You probably have many interests that feel completely disconnected from each other. Not a problem. Think about what you’d like to learn.

I'm Interested in a LOT of Things!
How To Narrow Down Your Interests

Undergraduate research is a chance to individualize your education! What do you want to learn more about? What is something that has kept you thinking?

Think about the following questions:

  • In the next 10 years, what is the most important problem you think people will need to solve?
  • What lecture from your favorite class in X field kept you thinking after you left class? Did you want to talk about it with a friend?
  • If you could showcase a project in your portfolio to a future employer, what kind of project or output would it be?

The goal of this step should be identifying things you’re interested in for whatever reason and want to learn more about!

You can also think about research areas by topic — the WHAT? (for example, 20th century German literature, food studies, or orchestra music) or by methods -– the HOW? (for example, building prototypes, archival research, or interviewing)

Check out the following video of Northwestern students talking about their projects and how they view research!

Lastly, you could also think about research in terms of how you want to incorporate it into your studies.

  • I am a X major. I should do X research.
  • I am a X major, and I’m interested in Y, Z, and A. I want to use research to achieve some benefits of a “double major” or a hobby. I can find research in Y, Z, or A and maybe it will overlap with X.
  • I am a X major, and I intend to go into career C. People in Career C tend to have skill K, so perhaps I can do research in X to gain skill K for career C.
  • I don’t have a major, but I think I like X and Y. I could do research to see if I even like X or Y.

There is no right or wrong way to think about the type of research that you engage in! The most important thing is that you’re interested, because that will lead to a better experience and better connections!

Where Does Research Take Place?

Depending on your interests, research can happen in very different settings! It can be in a lab or research group setting that involved undergraduates collaborating with more senior researchers, or it can be in a non-lab setting where undergraduates work entirely (or almost entirely) on their own. Sometimes, a field does not necessarily have a uniform approach to the research environment; in some fields, like economics, computer science, and journalism both kinds of research settings are possible. Here are some examples of lab and non-lab research!

Research Group/Lab Non-lab
Biology labs Documentary film
Clinical research History
Digital design labs Comparative Literature
Archaeological fieldwork Theater
Psychology labs Mathematics

In lab settings, undergraduates work on their own project, but their research is part of a larger research collaboration that includes faculty, postdoctoral researchers, or graduate students. The following image is the common structure of a lab or research group. A faculty member, otherwise called a Primary Investigator (PI) is the leader of the group, with Research Assistant Professors, postdocs, Lab Managers, and Research Coordinators below them. This is then followed by Graduate Students, Undergrads, and Lab Techs.

Lab Structure.jpg

Students working in non-lab settings can be conducting interviews, analyzing texts, working in archives,  and producing creative projects, among other things, under the guidance of one or more mentors. There is not one structure or hierarchy that is typically in place because of how many different sources you may be working with. You could be working with a couple faculty members, a post doc, and two grad students, or they could be all faculty, or other undergraduates. There’s not a right or wrong way to do this!

Remember what distinguishes lab and non-lab settings! Where the research takes place can effect your research goals– are you trying to get in a lab or research group? Or are you trying to build an academic network to offer you feedback on your own project? The answers to these questions can have important implications moving forward with this course as well. Pay attention to sections that are marked for lab or non-lab students!

Continuing to Develop Your Interests

Students in lab or non-lab settings can have different experiences when it comes to sorting through their ideas and developing projects. Experiences might include receiving a project from your research group that you then have to develop an understanding of, or starting something completely from scratch and building it from the ground up. The following video shows some of these different situations.


The cool thing about research is that it’s an ongoing process– people have been interested in the same things as you before, and they’ll continue to be interested in the future. What this means though, is we’re walking into something that may or may not already be extensively explored and we need to get up to speed. There are two ways of familiarizing yourself:

1. Looking at what’s been done before.

2. Talking to the people involved.

What you should be looking at or who you should be talking to may change depending on your interests or what you plan to pursue. Will you be reading papers different labs have produced and talking to people in those groups? Will you be watching documentaries and thinking about who the audience was, how the story was framed, and what stories still need to be told?