I think every undergraduate should do research, which was not something I previously thought. This project is the first thing in my undergraduate career that was fully about my interests and pushed me to design and manifest exactly what I wanted.
– Student SURG Winner, Summer 2019
How Does Research "Work", Logistically?
Isn't Research for Other People, Not Me?
Research, at its core, is about passion and exploration. If you are interested in something, it is natural to want to learn more about it, but what happens after you have exhausted Google and Wikipedia? What if you want to learn more? Research involves critical thinking, problem-solving, detailed analysis, and synthesis of ideas. The Office of Undergraduate Research can support you in various ways as you explore your interests. Undergraduate research helps you develop transferrable skills that are applicable no matter your future career goals – whether it is a career in industry, graduate school, professional school, or anything else you may pursue!
Can I Do Research in My Major?
YES! The methods may vary, but research can happen in any discipline! 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. If you’re wanting to know more about kinds of possible methodology, we’ve come up with a list and definitions to help. Additionally, one key distinction in planning how to get started on your project is whether your research will take place in a lab/field/team environment or whether it typically takes place in a more individualistic environment. As you continue in the “Get Started” section (we recommend you start with 1) How to Develop Your Interests and move through each of these sections), we will talk more about the different kind of research environments. No matter what kind of environment research occurs in, you will be working with the support of a faculty mentor who is an expert in your field. We also want you to think about ethical implications of how research is done, and so you are going to want to read this resource to help frame your thinking: Principles of Ethical Research.
When Should I Get Involved?
There’s not a right or a wrong time – it’s more a matter of what makes the most sense of you and your particular fields of study! Some students prefer getting involved right away because it is an opportunity to gain experience in project management and develop other transferable skills. In this way, research can differentiate you as a candidate for internships or other opportunities down the line. On the other hand, some students may need more advanced coursework (such as gaining proficiencies in a foreign language or research methods courses) before they are ready to pursue projects their interested. The more you know, the better you can get a sense of how research could fit into your goals. Advisors in the office can help you work through what makes the most sense for you.
What Kind of Commitment Would I Need to Make?
This really depends on what you are hoping to accomplish, and your particular circumstances. First, there are a lot of ways to get involved. Click to learn more about each of these ways students can pursue research (and many do pursue multiple options over time).
Work-Study Research Assistant
Work-study is a federal need-based financial aid program. If you are eligible, work-study is awarded as part of your financial aid package. The way it works at Northwestern is that the government pays for 75% of your hourly wage, and the department that hires you pays the other 25%. You can learn more about eligibility and earning this allotment here!
In general, the average work-study amount is between $3,000 and $4,000. While most jobs are posted on the work-study website, sometimes you can work to create a work-study position for yourself. Some faculty may have funding (through grants, etc.) to hire you, while others may not. With the federal wage subsidy, it would cost a faculty member about $750-$1,000 to hire you for the year (if you earn your full allotment). If you are hired at $15/hr, this ends up being about 200-260 hours of work during the academic year. Usually students work 8-10 hours a week for their work study job. Sometimes it may be helpful for you to advocate for yourself and explain how this process works to the faculty member; they may not be familiar with work-study, or they may not realize how simple the process is to create a work-study position. For example, Feinberg faculty at the medical school are eligible to hire work-study students, but they often are not familiar with the logistics of hiring a student via work-study.
That being said – we don’t recommend immediately emailing faculty asking for a job! Please work through the “Getting Started” modules 1-4 to learn best practices on how to identify and reach out to potential faculty mentors.
Research for Credit (During Academic Year)
Many students are interested in getting academic credit for their research. Essentially, when you enroll in an independent study course, the time you would typically spend in class or doing homework will be spent actively working on your research project. Independent studies can occur in your major/minor (they often satisfy upper level elective requirements, and they can help you progress towards an honors thesis), or they can occur in a department more closely aligned with your faculty mentor’s area of study (if this is not the same as your major/minor). Many research projects are interdisciplinary and could work as independent studies in more than one department.
To enroll in an independent study, you need to look at what the department requirements are. Every department has their own ways of handling this – the course numbers vary, as well as eligibility requirements (some are restricted to juniors or seniors), who can serve as the faculty “teacher” for the course (sometimes it has to be a faculty member affiliated with the department), and expectations for completing the course. If you want to know what it looks like for your department, we recommend googling “independent study” AND “northwestern” AND “department name”, and you should also talk to the department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS). Typically, enrollment in these kinds of courses requires approval from the DUS, and you need to submit paperwork to describe what kind of work you will be completing through the independent study.
If you enroll in an independent study, you are eligible to apply for an Academic Year Undergraduate Research Grant! We can’t pay you to take a class – so this grant provides $1,000 towards research related expenses. Think creatively – how could $1,000 make your project better?!
This is typically a very popular option because it allows you to engage in research in a more immersive way. You think about research totally differently when it’s the only thing you’re focusing on! Many times, summer research is equivalent to an internship – you can work towards the project full time for eight or more weeks.
The Office of Undergraduate Research has a number of summer grants to fund your research! Additionally, there are many smaller programs available through schools and departments. We recommend googling “undergraduate research” AND “department name” AND “northwestern” to see what opportunities are available. Sometimes they may simply link you back to our website, but other times there will be a list of additional funding sources.
Other university resources can help you explore other research related opportunities, too. For example, you can make an appointment with your Career Adviser in Northwestern Career Advancement and explore research related internships on the Handshake job database. You could also make an appointment with an Adviser in the Office of Fellowships if you are interested in an opportunity you found in the Fellowships Finder.
Volunteer Research Assistant
This is the most flexible way to get involved (no set requirement for how many hours a week you need to work), but it is not financially feasible for many students. Sometimes students start by shadowing or volunteering for a few hours each week to get a sense of the kind of work the research entails, and if it would be a good fit. The more involved you get, the more it makes sense that you would be compensated for your work- whether that’s through credit, or financially, or through recognition like co-authored publications.
If it is not financially feasible for you to volunteer and that has been the only option presented to you, it may be helpful to have an honest conversation with your faculty member about your constraints. Exploring options like work-study (see above) or one of our funded grant program may help to alleviate these stresses.
Paid Research Assistant
Sometimes it is possible for you to get hired as a paid research assistant, too (i.e. not necessarily paid through work-study). This opportunity will depend on whether the faculty member has money to hire you in this capacity, or perhaps you can be funded through a specific grant like the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program.
Many students choose to take gap years before applying to medical school or graduate school, and pursuing a full-time research job after graduation to gain additional experience can be one way to spend that time. If this is something you’re interested in, look for these kinds of jobs to be posted on the HR Careers site for the research institution that you would like to work for. Use search terms like “research coordinator”, “research technologist”, “research project manager” or “research study assistant”. Most academic research institutions will be hiring for these sorts of positions!
WE’RE HERE TO HELP!
We’re here to help you navigate this journey – and everyone’s journey is different! Make an appointment to talk with our researcher advisors about your interests and ideas. You do not have to have a developed project to come talk to us. We can work with you one-on-one from the first “I think I might (maybe) possibly want to do research, but I have no idea how that works!” stage, right up to a final proposal.