Interested in doing undergraduate research? Follow these steps:
1. Learn: learn some of the basics about how undergraduate research works at a place like KU.
2. Explore: find a faculty mentor you might want to work with.
3. Reach out: contact a professor.
Read more below!
1. Learn About Undergraduate Research
If you are interested in participating in undergraduate research, you first need to understand how research works at a place like KU and the types of projects that are available for students.
Academic research looks different in different departments, as scholars have different ways of looking at evidence and producing new knowledge. The Research Cycle is a way to visualize the research process. Watch this video about the Research Cycle to learn more!
Types of Research Projects
Assist on a faculty-led project:
In many disciplines, research is a collaborative effort. Students can assist on a faculty-member's research project or do research as part of a lab or research group. Some notes:
- While there are opportunities to work on collaborative research projects in many disciplines, this is the primary way that research is set up in the sciences and engineering.
- Assisting on an ongoing project can be a good way for beginning students to get started. You do not need to have your own idea to get started, you just find someone who is doing research that looks interesting and ask if you can help.
Students can also pursue their own research interests and ideas through independent projects. They still work with a faculty research mentor to guide the project, but the idea behind the project originates with the student.
- Student-driven projects are more common in some academic areas, such as the humanities and arts, and are less common in the sciences.
- For a student-initiated project, students get advice from their research mentor to help develop their research questions and methods. While students early in their time at KU can do an independent project, students often wait until they have had a few courses in their major so they have a foundation from which to build their project.
Course-based research project:
Many students get started in research by taking a class that involves a larger research component. These classes can be at any point in your major, from introductory to capstone classes. From the students' perspective, course-based projects make getting involved with research easy: you just have to enroll in a class! Students doing course-based projects are eligible to participate in other programs through our office; students can apply for an Undergraduate Research Award to support a course-based research project and register to present their class research projects at one of our on-campus events.
Ways to Participate in Research
Regardless of whether they are assisting a professor or working on their own research ideas, there are three main ways that undergraduate students participate in research outside of regular classes:
Most departments on campus offer an independent study or undergraduate research course number that students can enroll in. The number or hours can vary, and you usually need a permission number that you can get from your professor or the department in order to enroll. Enrolling in course credit for your research can be a good way to manage time; you are essentially doing undergraduate research instead of taking an elective in your major. You and your professor will establish how your grade will be determined. Some tips & considerations for course credit include:
- Talk with your academic advisor to make sure the credits count for something that you need for your degree. You will need to pay tuition for the credits, so make sure it will count.
- Some professors require that students who do research with them enroll in course credit as a way of making sure that students will commit to the research. If you do not need the credit or it does not make sense for you financially to enroll in credit, talk with your professor about alternative ways of establishing expectations and holding you accountable, such as filling out an undergraduate research contract. There is not a university-wide requirement that students who are doing research enroll in course credit.
Paid hourly employment:
If a faculty member has a research grant or other funding source, students can sometimes work as paid hourly employees on a research project. This is more common in the sciences and engineering, but there are paid positions offered in other disciplines as well. Paid positions will be listed on the KU jobs site.
You do not have to be enrolled in course credit or hired for a job in order to have a great educational experience. Many students do research in a more informal way, through volunteering. Students and mentors agree on the educational goals of the experience and set up a schedule for the semester for when the student will be working on the research.
Since research can cover any topic and use a wide variety of methods, it can be a little challenging at first to even know what the options are. Here are some ideas for ways to learn about the types of research projects students often do:
Browse our archive of monthly student, mentor, and alumni spotlights
Talk with students and professors in your major to ask about what types of research projects students have worked on in the past.
2. Find a Mentor
Whether you are wanting to assist a professor on their research or start your own project, your first step is to find a faculty mentor to work with. This person will guide you in the process of learning how to do research.
Your goal should be to make a list of three to five research mentors/opportunities that are interesting to you.
Here are some places to start looking for research:
- Department websites: Many department websites have a tab for people, which gives brief biographies of professors and staff who are conducting research projects. Some department websites have a tab specifically for research, which can also be helpful to gain a sense of what type of research people do in that department. Also keep in mind that some of the research on campus is interdisciplinary (i.e. it crosses degree and subject areas), so interesting opportunities may exist outside of your major.
- Volunteer research postings: If you are interested in assisting a professor on their project, check out the volunteer research postings on our website. Keep in mind that this does not list all of the opportunities available, and that many faculty are open to working with students who contact them, even if they are not actively recruiting students through our website.
- KU jobs site: Visit the KU student jobs site to find paid hourly positions that involve a research component.
Some things to know that might help you in your search:
- Keep an open mind while you are looking for research opportunities, as some great projects might be outside of your major or involve a topic that you are not familiar with yet.
- People who have the title of Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor are generally doing research. People who are listed on department webpages as lecturers or courtesy professors may not have a full-time appointment at KU, so they may not have research projects that are part of their job at the university.
- If you are wanting to do an independent research project, you will want to find a professor who has expertise in the topic that you are interested in researching and/or the methods that you might be using. You don't have to have all the details worked out before you contact a professor, but narrowing down to some potential research topics that you are interested in will help you select a mentor that is a good fit. Think about any classes, books, or current events that have piqued your interest. Then look for professors who are doing research in similar areas.
3. Reach Out
Once you find a few opportunities or potential mentors that sound like a good fit for you, you can reach out to ask about getting started. If you found an opportunity on our volunteer postings or on the KU job site, follow the directions listed to apply.
Most students get started by emailing a professor to ask about doing research, which can feel a little intimidating. Here are some tips:
A personalized email that speaks to the professor's specific research interests will get a better response than a generic email. Before you contact a research mentor, do your homework. Read about their research on their website and look up a couple of their publications. You may not understand every detail in the journal articles, but being able to say in an email that you read a website or an article communicates to the professor that you are deeply interested in their work.
When you email a professor to ask about getting started in research, you should include:
- Basic information about you (i.e. your major and year in school)
- A description of your research interests and why you think this particular mentor would be a good match
- A request to get involved – you may want to request to meet in person
Tips for writing emails:
- Use professional language. If you aren't sure how to write a professional email, read about it online and look at our example emails through the link below. Address the email to "Professor" or "Dr.," not the person's first name, particularly if you have not worked with this person before.
- Be brief. Faculty members receive many emails; a short paragraph is much more likely to be read than a two-page email.
Once you schedule a meeting with a potential mentor, prepare for the meeting by writing down questions to ask.
Some potential questions include:
- What expectations do you have for students who do research with you?
- What kinds of tasks do students usually do when they do research with you?
- How many hours per week should I expect to commit to doing research? Is this flexible?
- (For lab research settings) Would I be working with a graduate student or other undergraduates? Are there regular meetings for the lab?
- (For independent studies) Be prepared to give a short explanation of your research interests. Then you can ask: what potential directions do you think I could take this project? What would my next steps be?
Getting Started FAQ
The vast majority of KU students who start doing research as an undergraduate have no prior experience. Your research mentors do not expect you to know what you are doing on the first day: that is where their role as a research mentor comes in. You will start with enry-level tasks that begin with your skill level and build up from there. Your role is to show up, try hard, and ask questions when you don't understand something.
While most students do not have prior experience doing research, some professors might want you to have taken a certain class before doing research with them. Other faculty are really interested in having first-semester freshmen start in their research groups. As you start reaching out to faculty and talking with them, you'll learn more about any prerequisites that certain professors might have.
Students in every major on campus can do undergraduate research, whether that is in English, business or psychology. No white lab coats required. Student projects in creative fields, like visual art, photography, or music composition, are also considered to be undergraduate research. If you aren't sure what undergraduate research looks like in your major, look at the faculty profiles on your department's website to see what types of work they are doing.
The number of hours you might spend per week on your project can vary a lot by your department, which professor you work with, and even which phase of the research project you are in. For students who are balancing other time committments outside of school (employment, family obligations, etc.), here are some things to think about:
- Paid opportunities: of course, getting paid to do research can enable students to cut back on work hours and have more time for research. Though funding is not available for all students to be paid, there are opportunities out there. Our office offers the Undergraduate Research Awards. Faculty with research grants sometimes post paid hourly research jobs on the KU jobs site. Certain programs, like the KU McNair Scholars Program and MARC Program, provide financial support and encourage students from low-income backgrounds to apply. You can also talk with professors in your department about opportunities that they are aware of.
- Course credit: some students enroll in independent study or undergraduate research credit hours instead of taking an elective in their major. That way, you are doing research as part of your regular course load, rather than something on top of it. Just be sure you talk with your academic advisor to make sure these credits count toward something you need for your degree, since you will have to pay tuition.
- Good communication: when deciding whether you want to work with a faculty member, be honest and realistic about the number of hours that you have available. It is better to be upfront with your professor so you can come up with a good plan together than to overcommit and not be able to follow through. You might find that some professors are more flexible about the number of hours that are required to do research than others, so having a conversation about your goals and availability when you first meet with someone is a good way to see whether it will be a good fit for you.
If you send an email and haven't heard back after four or five days, send a follow-up email. If you still don't hear back, you could try stopping by the professor's office hours to talk to them, or just move on to email the next person on your list.
Don't get discouraged if your first pick for a mentor doesn't work out. It is not uncommon for students to have to email several professors before they find someone who is a good fit. Be persistent, and contact our office if you'd like to brainstorm other ideas for people to contact.
Students who do research
- Learn to apply what they learn in class to real-world problems and issues.
- Develop strong faculty relationships and academic networks.
- Improve their creative and problem-solving capabilities.
- Explore their interests and potential careers.
- Improve communication skills.