Students often miss out on amazing research project opportunities during their undergraduate careers because they are unsure about what “research means,” think only graduate students and professionals can do research or believe that their field is not involved in research.
So what exactly is research?
Research is the creation of new knowledge. It’s about asking questions. If you are curious and like to explore the “who, what, where, when, why and how,” then you may enjoy conducting research.
Research can take place in a number of settings, such as a laboratory, a river or a library. It may even occur through observations or oral histories of how children cope with divorce. Research and creative scholarship happens in every discipline and every department at VCU — from the School of the Arts to the Department of History.
Universities are the perfect place to begin research, because they bring students of all levels together, from undergraduates to graduates and postgraduates, to learn not only from faculty, but from each other as well.
Can undergraduates perform research? Absolutely — and it is not limited to juniors and seniors. We encourage you to begin your research career as soon as possible. Just be mindful of requirements: Some research-based courses may have a prerequisite, and some faculty members may have a preference for students with experience. It may seem discouraging at first, but you can always conduct research on your own.
Before beginning an undergraduate research project, though, there are a few things to consider. First, you are going to want to define your own interests. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is there something I feel passionate enough about to explore?
- What are my favorite courses or topics?
- Have I completed a class assignment or paper that I can expand upon?
- Have I attended the Berglund Honors Seminar Series to learn about faculty research interests in various disciplines?
Once you have answered all of these — and thought of a few more questions on your own — explore every undergraduate research opportunity available for you. Most departmental websites feature descriptions of faculty research interests and undergraduate research opportunities.
Take advantage of undergraduate research initiatives:
- The Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program provides access to a wide range of research opportunities during the summer.
- Various departments offer undergraduate research opportunities, including independent study courses. Visit your department’s website or contact your departmental advisor to see what options are available.
- Keep your options open: You might be in the School of Business, but you could also be interested in how cell biology works. Look into every option — even if it is in a different department, we encourage you to apply.
Now that you have found something you are passionate about and a program that fits your goals and needs, pause for a moment before you contact any faculty members. Always approach faculty with respect and, if your initial communication is by email, use a respectful tone:
- Address the faculty member as Dr. or Professor, and never begin with “HEY Dr. XX.”
- Include a few sentences about yourself and your research interests.
- Avoid sending out mass emails with a general statement, such as “I’m looking for a research project. Do you have one?”
If you prefer meeting in person, visit during office hours or schedule an appointment, and be prepared:
- Dress appropriately for your meeting. Although it is not a job interview, you should dress presentably — a clean pair of sweat pants is not presentable.
- Read faculty profiles on departmental Web pages to learn about their research and publications — they will appreciate you putting in the effort to learn about what they are passionate about.
- Make sure that you can articulate your research interests. You should not walk into your meeting with a script, but make sure you have a working idea of what you are there to talk about.
Now that you understand the basics of research and are ready to look for a project (or start your own), just remember a few things:
- Research is not just for scientists and engineers. Research is ongoing, across every field and discipline. Just because it happens outside of a laboratory does not mean it cannot be considered research.
- Do not limit yourself. You should not feel like you are restricted by your major. Certain programs will want students from outside the field; various research methods or views on the same topic are always welcome.
- Keep your goals realistic. Think about your availability to do research. You need to really think about how much time you can commit to a project — research takes a lot of time.
- Always be professional. Stellar grades are necessary, but professionalism is just as important. Faculty members are looking for students who are not just high-achievers and interested in their research, but who are also reliable and can follow instructions.
- Be persistent. Remember to not get discouraged if you are unable to find a research opportunity right away. A faculty member may not have a position for you, but he or she may be able to recommend another faculty member.