There are a few different reasons why someone might get involved in a research project as an undergraduate student. First, a few students in social science fields (e.g., HDFS, psychology, sociology) already have an inherent interest in research. They seek out involvement in a research project because they are excited about research and scientific inquiry and want to get involved. Second, students in the honors program usually are required to get involved in research at some point, leading up to the experience of doing an honors thesis. These students seek out involvement on a research project because someone told them to. Third, some students want to go to doctoral programs and know that getting involved in research as an undergraduate student is important for their grad school applications. So, they get involved in research to check that box off on their “things to do to get into grad school list.”
Even if none of these three reasons apply to you, however, you should seriously consider getting involved in a research project with a faculty member. Often students do so in their junior year, though if you have time to do it as a sophomore, it may open more opportunities.
What do you do on a research project? Obviously, student research activities can vary dramatically depending on the field, topic, and stage of research. But, these are common activities:
- Attend meetings where faculty and students talk about research ideas, plan research studies, and talk about research findings and papers they are writing
- Help with data collection, with activities such as administering surveys, participating in experiments (e.g., performing tests on babies; helping participants with fMRI), calling and/or scheduling participants
- Help with data entry and data cleaning
- Code data, e.g., watch videotapes, listen to audiotapes, or watch live to rate participants on different behaviors or characteristics
- Find research articles on specific topics
Why should you participate in a research project if you’re not in the honors program and you’re not thinking about doctoral programs? Or if one of these things is true for you, but you’re not yet a senior?
- Get to learn more about how to do research, and a particular research project
- Get to know a specific mentor. At large universities, you may not have many opportunities to talk to faculty, even in your major. When you apply for graduate school or jobs, it can be challenging to find faculty to write you letters of recommendation. But, if you participate on a research project your mentor will get to know you well and will most likely be willing to write a letter for you.
- If you are planning to do a thesis, starting research earlier in the program gives you a chance to make sure a particular project/mentor is a good fit before committing to a yearlong project like a thesis.
- If you're planning to go straight to graduate school, you will be applying in Fall of your senior year. If you wait until senior year to get involved in a research project, your mentor will only know you for a couple of months before you ask him/her to write a letter. If you start sophomore or junior year, s/he will know you much better.
- Participating on a research project often opens up many other opportunities. You may have opportunities to apply for funding in the summer to continue your research. You may get to present your research at an undergraduate (or even local/national) research conference, increasing your networking opportunities and building up your resume.
Your involvement on a research project is often critical to the faculty member or graduate student’s completion of that research project. But it also can be critical to you in multiple ways – figuring out what you want to do career-wise, making connections that will help you later, and getting an enriching experience outside of the classroom.
“Why you should do a research project first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on October 23, 2018.”