Become Involved

How to Get Started in Research as an Undergraduate

You probably have many questions: How do I begin? Where do I go for help? What can I expect from the research experience? Here are some suggestions to help you get started. You can begin as early as your freshman year. 

Talk to your undergraduate advisor

The undergraduate advisor counsels you on courses to take in your major, graduate school options, and careers. Undergraduate advisors – who are also faculty members - know which professors who would like to work with students on research projects.

Some departments and programs have well-developed procedures for getting students started in research, including the Honors CollegeBiological SciencesChemistryCommunicationsPhysicsPolitical Science, and Psychology. The Honors College Capstone Thesis is an option for Honors College students in all departments that offer an undergraduate major. Most of the aforementioned departments also offer their own thesis for non-Honors College students.

Select courses to get you started

You should choose courses that have a research focus as early in your academic career as possible. In the social sciences, these courses often have “research” in their titles and may focus on research methods or how to do research. Professors in such classes are likely to know which of their colleagues need research assistants and which professors work well with undergraduates.

Search for a campus job

You should find jobs posted for undergraduates who can be “research assistants” on research projects. These jobs will work especially well if you are a work-study student, but there are positions for non-work-study students sometimes.

There are many advantages to beginning as a research assistant: (1) you get paid; (2) the professor trains you while you are learning; and (3) if you do a good job, the professor may keep you on the project as a paid assistant if there is funding, or allow you to work on the project in return for course credit.

Volunteer in a professor’s research lab

Faculty in the natural sciences and some in the behavioral sciences like psychology have research laboratories. Many faculty members will allow undergraduate students who are enthusiastic about research, responsible, and conscientious to volunteer in the lab for a few hours a week to gain experience.

Faculty will be more interested in giving you lab access if they know you, so it’s best to try to take classes with a professor so he or she can see what a good student you are before asking if you can volunteer.  After volunteering, you may acquire a more responsible position where you take an active role in the research and are invited to be an author on research papers presented at conferences and on publications in professional journals.

Participate in a summer research experiences

You can broaden your horizons by going somewhere else to do research for the summer or during the long semester.  Many organizations and agencies offer summer research experiences, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Labor, and more. 

If you're in the Honors College, announcements about such opportunities are regularly sent out on the Honors listserv. For more information, visit Resources for Students and Faculty.

Contact Faculty Members

Dr. James Duban, the director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships, will help you prepare your application for prestigious national awards, including applications for summer research experiences with the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Smithsonian Institute and the like. Dr. Duban’s email is

Review suggested readings

Here are two books you should read: Duban, James. (2005). Be a College Achiever: The Complete Guide to Academic Stardom. U.S.A.: Trafford Publishing.

Lipson, Charles. (2005). How to Write a BA Thesis: A Practical Guide from Your First ideas to Your Finished Paper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.