How To Conduct Undergraduate Research

Conducting undergraduate research can enrich your education while giving you valuable skills and experience.  If you're interested in completing your own research project, there are a few basic steps you should follow.

  1. Choose a research subject.  In order to get the most from an undergraduate research experience, you need to find a topic in which you are truly interested.  What questions plague your mind?  What would you love to explore in depth?  Whether the topic is transcendental literature or the migration patterns of butterflies, finding a subject that is personally compelling will help you stay dedicated to the task. 
  2. Create a plan. If you're applying for grant funding or independent study credit, you may already have to create a research proposal, but you should approach any research project with a carefully considered plan.  That's not to say your research methodologies or even your basic hypotheses won't change over the course of the project, but successful findings come from well-prepared research.   

    Make sure you're aware of any regulations your college places on research.  You may be required to secure a faculty advisor.  Most institutions require you to fill out special forms if you're using humans in your research, even if they're just filling out a questionnaire.  Be aware of these rules ahead of time to avoid any unpleasant surprises in the middle of your research.  

  3. Find funding. The costs of conducting research vary widely depending on the subject.  Scientific research is easily the most expensive, from purchasing test tubes and chemicals to paying for the use of highly specialized machines.  Still, research into historical or literary topics can carry a hefty price tag if you must pay to access and photocopy rare materials or travel to another state for firsthand research.   

    When looking for funding, you should first consult sources in your own department and university. They may be able to let you use university supplies or tap into a general research fund.  If you're a member of an honors program, they also often provide funds to encourage ambitious students in their academic endeavors.  Outside of your college, some scholarships and grant programs are designed to support student research projects.  Visit the websites of organizations dedicated to your research topic and search scholarship databases like FastWeb to see the possibilities.  

  4. Stay on track.  Independent research requires dedication and perseverance.  If you fall victim to procrastination, there will be no way to complete a semester's worth of lab tests over a single desperate weekend.  Even if your research isn't earning you credit, treat it like a class with ongoing assignments and deadlines.  If you have a faculty advisor, she may also help you to stay on task. 

    When you get frustrated with your research or feel tempted to ignore your work in favor of more pressing deadlines, remember your inspiration for completing the research in the first place.  Whether you hope to cure cancer or add to the historical record, this goal is worth devoting your time to, even if it means a few late nights. 

  5. Look for ways to earn credit and recognition.  Certainly, researchers pursue their studies in the hopes of gaining knowledge and understanding, but it's always nice to earn something for your work.  If you're interested in earning credit for your research work, you should look into independent study and thesis course options at your college.  You can take care of requirements for your major, at the very least some elective credits, while completing your research.  Independent study options may only be available to junior or senior students, though.   

After you've completed your research, you'll want to share it with the world.  Check if your university hosts a student research symposium, or if one doesn't already exist, be the first to promote the idea.  If there are state and national conferences in your field, they typically solicit proposals from those wishing to present papers and posters at the event.  If you're feeling especially ambitious, submit your findings for publication in a scholarly journal.


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