Frequently Asked Questions
What is undergraduate research?
It’s important to think about what the term research actually means. Many of us automatically associate research with the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (commonly referred to as the STEM fields); we think about lab coats and test tubes. However, undergraduate research is conducted in all disciplines and encompasses a broad range of activities – from learning about research to discovering new knowledge and creating new works. Research is really about solving problems and answering questions, in any discipline.
Click here for more details on the different dimensions and understandings of undergraduate research, including thoughts on research in the fine arts.
Why should I get involved in research?
There are plenty of reasons to get involved in undergraduate research! Here are just a few:
- You get to investigate topics that are of interest to you
- It can make your coursework more meaningful – you’ll discover real-world applications of what you’re studying
- You get hands-on, practical experience in your field of study
- It can help you uncover hidden study and career opportunities that you might not have thought about before (A question really can take you anywhere!)
- Research is a great way to network and meet new people – maybe a new friend, maybe a mentor, or maybe even a future employer!
- Undergraduate research allows you to test the waters and help you decide if grad school is for you.
Even if you’re not interested in graduate school, getting experience with research as an undergraduate can equip you with knowledge and transferrable skills that you can apply to almost any career.
What will I do as an undergraduate student researcher?
Through research, you solve a problem, find a solution or expand understanding (Wisker, 2009). As a student, you are actually carrying out small-scale research activities all the time, including drafting computer software, doing literature reviews and assembling group presentations. However, your role as an undergraduate researcher may vary greatly depending on the type of opportunity you’re involved in and your level of experience. For example, you may start out assisting a faculty member or graduate student with components of an existing project, and later progress to working more independently on a project of your own choosing.
Here are just a few examples of research undergraduate students have done:
How can I start doing research with a faculty member?
If you'd like to get involved with research activities with a faculty member, it's as simple as contacting them!
For more information, please see our tips on Approaching Faculty Members.
Keep timelines in mind. If you'd like to do paid summer research work with a faculty member, you need to let them know you're interested by approximately November of the previous year. In most cases, faculty members are the ones who apply for funding to hire students (as opposed to students applying themselves), and they need to have their summer submissions in by February.
Do I have to come up with my own project or will I work with someone else?
Often, as an undergraduate student, you’ll work alongside a graduate student or faculty member on a project that is related to their ongoing research. It may be a part of a larger project they’re already working on, or it could be an independent project that somehow complements their work. Depending on the nature of the work and your experience, you may have some choices about the project you’re working on, or you may be invited to design your own project under the guidance of your mentor. It’s best to do some research about potential supervisors working in your area of interest before approaching them – this will help you target your search and give you a greater understanding of what kinds of projects might be available.
I’m only in my first year− can I still do research?
Yes! It is never too early to start thinking about research and to begin developing relevant skills. Even in your first-year coursework, you’re already learning about the theory and methods of your discipline. This is also a good time to get to know your professors, teaching assistants, and lab instructors – most are happy to discuss the research they do and can provide insight about possible research opportunities and how to prepare for them. You can also explore research opportunities by attending research seminars (see the URI events calendar for a partial listing) or by participating in URI programs such as Research Crawls, How-to Seminars, and the Festival of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (FURCA).
Also, be sure to check out the Undergraduate Research Portal early and often – many postings for summer research opportunities are filled as early as November.
Where can I find opportunities outside U of A?
There are many opportunities for U of A students to do research elsewhere. Here are some places to start:
Keep in mind that a university is not the only place you can do research. There are also a number of private companies and other organizations in the community that do research. You may be able to find research-related jobs or volunteer opportunities with various organizations. Here are just a few places to consider looking: