How to get involved with research

Research can take many forms, so what happens when you think you might be interested but don’t know where to start? You’re not alone. Throughout my academic career, the thought of getting involved with research crossed my mind but didn’t actually take shape until the end of my graduate degree. I offered to help a faculty member with a project for independent credits. Fast forward two years and I’m pursuing other projects in a doctoral program!

Whether you are seeing if research is a good fit or already have your mind set on finding a project, you’re in the right place. Getting started can be intimidating due to the fact that projects can look so different. The number one thing I would recommend to anyone just starting is to learn as much as possible about the form research takes in your area of interest. Here are some different places where you can begin learning about this process and look for opportunities:

  1. Talk with friends. Do you know someone working as a research assistant for the quarter? How about taking an independent study credit with one of your professors? Firsthand experience can tell you a lot about what you might be doing on a project. Ask questions about how they got involved or what a week looks like for them. My guess is that you may hear a lot of different experiences. Again, conducting research doesn’t look one way; see this as a chance to expand your options and find which style is most interesting.
  2. Check with your department. Departments usually provide information about ongoing projects online, in departmental newsletters or on faculty members’ websites. It might be helpful to check these resources to gain a general idea of what type of projects are happening in your field. Advisers may be able to refer you to faculty members about getting involved in the department.
  3. Meet with faculty members. This is how I first began my experience with research. Professors have so much valuable experience; it is extremely helpful to hear their perspective about what projects entail and how you can find a project in your respective area. A few tips when contacting a professor:
    • Be respectful of their time. If you set up a meeting, I would suggest 30 minutes for the time frame and always include what you would like to talk with them about.
    • Ask questions. Come up with a few questions ahead of time, for example: how they decided to work on their current project, what they might recommend for someone interested in gaining research experience and what made them originally interested in their field of work.
    • Consider offering to help with a project. If the information you hear sounds interesting, ask how you can get involved. This does not guarantee a position, but is a great first step in expressing interest.
  4. Attend research-related events. These can be through the Undergraduate Research Program, seminars hosted by the department that exhibit recent work or Research Exposed! – a series of seminars hosted through the university for different disciplines. I really enjoyed attending guest lectures through the Civil and Environmental Engineering department as well as the Jackson School of International Studies. If a presentation brought up topics I personally connected with, I would ask some follow-up questions with the speaker afterwards.

Again, the best step you can take is to ASK QUESTIONS! Collecting more information helps you gain a better idea of what to expect and helps inform people in your network that you may be interested in opportunities that become available. This investigative mindset will also be extremely useful for research and data analysis down the road. Best of luck with the search and your future work!

By Miriam E Hacker
Miriam E Hacker PhD Student