Undergraduates who engage in research learn to apply what they know to new ideas. They develop new analytical and reflective skills and have experiences which help identify future career paths. Plus, there’s the thrill of discover. However, it can be intimidating to get started, especially when most undergraduate courses don’t explain how to do research. These pages are designed to help you get started, but the most important resources will be your professors.
- Benefit from research
- Find a research mentor
- Find a research topic
- Do background work
- Find funding
- Choose research methods
- Evaluate your own work
- Write the final paper
- Make an oral presentation
- Give a poster presentation
Benefit from research
In order to get the most out of your research experience, you want to make it an immersive activity. Make a schedule and stick to it, which will help you balance your many obligations. Share your work with others by talking about it and making professional presentations at meetings such as UIS StARS. Be sure to include your research on your resume. In other words, brag about yourself. For example, by registering your experience at the Council on Undergraduate Research website, graduate schools will seek you out.
Find a research mentor
You will need to identify a faculty member to serve as your research mentor. Start by thinking about what general topics really interest you. In some cases this may be your major, but it doesn’t have to be. Review the list of faculty in that area, and schedule a time to talk to one or more professors in person. Talk about your interests, coursework, experiences, career plans, and how much time you have available. Find out about the professor’s specific interests and if they have any current research projects. Think about whether you would feel comfortable working with that professor; be sure your personalities are compatible. Don’t feel bad if the professor declines to serve as your research mentor. There could be lots of reasons, including a lack of time.
If you and the professor agree to work together, be sure to lay out all the expectations up front. Neither of you want to be surprised later by some misunderstanding. You may be asked to do some background work and/or write a proposal for your research. Talk with your mentor about what that will entail. If there are costs associated with the research, determine if finding those funds your obligation or the mentor’s. Will the research result in professional presentations and/or publications? How much time will you need to spend, and where will the work be done? Will you need to enroll in one or more courses? Be sure to ask lots of questions.
Find a research topic
Your research mentor might have some specific ideas about research topics, but keep in mind that it has to be something that you’ll love. Because of that, some of the best topics will be ones you come up with on your own. You’ll need to do some background work to focus your topic, because it’s easy to be overly ambitious when you first start out. Use your research mentor as a sounding board to choose a focused topic that can be done at UIS and in the time you have available. Keep in mind that you might have a good idea, but there are natural limitations as to what can be done.
Some hints to find a research topic:
- Dig deeper into a subject covered in one of our courses.
- Find ways to extend previous research, for example by applying existing methods to new areas or situations.
- Attend special events and professional conferences such as StARS.
- Read or listen to major media sources to learn the emerging issues which may need further study.
- Plan research around a needed product such as a map, model, technique, protocol, policy recommendation, etc. Talk with potential users (policy makers, government agencies, scientists, non-profit agencies, citizen groups, etc.).
Do background work
Once you identify a research topic, you need to dive into the background – in most disciplines called a literature review. A good literature review will convince your mentor that you know the topic well enough to pursue it, show that you are not doing something already done, and establish that you are doing something worthwhile. This allows ensures that you understand how previously published research relates to each other and to your work.
A general web search will get you started on the background, but you will need to begin reading the primary literature. Google Scholar is a good resource not only to find references, but to link to articles available on the internet. Better resources are the research guides maintained by Brookens Library. The library offers periodic orientations that can assist you in using the research guides and finding the books and articles you need – whether they physical exist at UIS, are accessible in electronic format via the library website, or available through interlibrary loan.
Some research will only cost time. Some research will cost millions and your research mentor will laugh when you suggest it. Part of your mentor’s obligation is to only let you start a research project that can be completed with available resources. Your mentor may have funds available or know of sources of grants. UIS has a few grants available on a competitive basis to students. Because most sources of funds have far more people requesting money than they have money available, you will normally need to write a grant proposal when asking for money.
There are many different formats for grant proposals, but meticulously following the grant’s guidelines is critical. Granting sources will normally immediately reject grant proposals that don’t follow the guidelines, regardless of the research you plan to do. If you can’t follow the guidelines, it suggests that your research will similarly lack that attention to detail.
Be sure to have several other people read your grant proposal before you submit, and listen to their feedback. If they misunderstand something you were trying to say or don’t immediately see the value of your research, rewrite the proposal until they do.
Choose research methods
The type of project you do will determine what methods are appropriate. For example, if you’re investigating a small amino acid, you don’t need to use a high resolution mass spectrometer. On the other hand, if you’re interested in an isotope effect, then you will need the high res mass spec. Your faculty mentor’s experience in the field will best guide you in selecting the best methods for researching your topic.
If your work involves human subjects (like conducting a survey) then you need to follow extra rules. These are explained at the Institutional Review Board’s website. You’ll need to take time to review the rules, get trained through an online tutorial, and submit your research methods for review by UIS’ IRB before you can start your research.
Evaluate your own work
It can be difficult for someone to critically evaluate their own work, but that is a necessary step. Be able to acknowledge the limitations and potential sources of errors in your research. If your research involves data collection, be sure you are using the right methods of analysis. Compare your work to others. Consider any shortcomings as a potential source for future research, either by you or someone else.
Write the final paper
Most research mentors will want you to write up your work in a formal paper. Check with your mentor regarding the length and specific contents, but most papers will basically contain the same sections (with some added or deleted based on the topic):
- Introduction – What was the research question addressed, or what was the goal of the research? Why is your work significant?
- Literature Review – A good review will help convince the reader that you know the topic well enough to work on it. Show that you understand how previously published research relates to your topic and each other.
- Materials and Methods – Explain in detail how you performed your research. What was the experimental design, how was data collected, where was the work done, and how did you analyze the data?
- Results – Present the results of your research without interpretation. In most cases you will not present all the raw data (which can be included in an Appendix), but instead summarize with text, tables, and/or figures.
- Discussion – Explain what the results mean and how they are similar or different from what other workers have found. Make connections back to the research questions you stated in the Introduction.
- References – Every item cited in the text must be in the Reference, and all items in the Reference must be cited in the text. Double check. There are many citation/reference formats, so check with your research mentor about which to use.
Make an oral presentation
Giving a talk in front of an audience can be intimidating, but adequate preparation can turn it into a great experience.
- Tell your audience a story that flows logically. It can be helpful to separate into four main parts: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusion.
- Limit what you include. You won’t have time to talk about everything you did or show all of your results, so be selective and present information in summary format.
- Practice, practice, practice. It’s not necessary to memorize your talk, but you should be able to complete your presentation without notes. Practicing will also let you know how long your presentation is – and it is very important to stay on schedule. How you practice is also important. The best way is to recreate the conditions of the actual presentation: use a projector, stand up, speak aloud, and ideally you should have an audience.
- Don’t read your slides. Some people are tempted to put lots of text on slides so they don’t have to remember what to say. However, your audience can read a lot faster than you can speak. If you do include bulleted lists, each bullet should have no more than a couple words. (Plus, limit the number of bullets.
- Keep your slides simple. The font should be large and simple; figures should be clear. Avoid the silly animations that are available in PowerPoint. If you have a background, keep it simple and be sure to choose a font color that is clearly different.
- If you use a laser pointer, tuck your elbow into your side to stabilize the dot on the screen. It is distracting when the laser dot bounces around the screen and the room, and that can get worse if you are nervous.
- Relax. If you’re comfortable the presentation will be a better experience for both you and your audience. Have a good night’s sleep, eat healthy, and even including humor can make a big difference. Staying relaxed and having practiced will help in case of unexpected events such as a computer crash or blown projector bulb.
Perhaps the best way to learn to make a good presentation is to see examples of bad ones.
Give a poster presentation
Poster presentations have become much more common at professional meetings as participation increases but the amount of time available for oral presentations doesn’t. Some students consider poster presentations as a lower stress way of sharing the results of their research. One benefit of posters is that it allows for much more interaction between the author and the audience.
Posters can be created using many different software packages, but PowerPoint and Publisher are probably the most common. You can start from scratch or download templates from an internet search for poster and template.
Many tips for creating an effective poster are the same as for an oral presentation. The most common two problems are text and figures that are too small, and having too much text. The poster will be read from a distance of ~4 feet and in most cases a bulleted list will be more effective than a paragraph. Design your poster so that your audience can figure out the topic and purpose of your research in less than 20 seconds. There are typically dozens or hundreds of poster presentations going on at the same time. If you don’t grab your audience’s attention, they will move on.
You’ll be standing next to the poster and can answer any questions. That’s another reason that you don’t need lots of text. But you’ll also have people walk up to you and ask for a quick summary. So, you should have a one minute summary prepared. It is also a good idea to have something to hand out to those interested. That could be a business card or a scaled-down version of your poster. Just give your audience something to take home.
Publishing your research is sometimes considered the last step, when in fact publishing can inspire future research. Scholars have an obligation to publish because otherwise the research results are essentially lost. But there is also the personal satisfaction of knowing that research you did is permanently archived, for future researchers to use in their work.
Before you submit an article for publication, be sure to identify the list and order of the authors and the contributions each will make. While some articles will have only a single author, most, especially those that result from undergraduate research, will have at least two.
The next step is to identify the journal where you would like to publish, and there are multiple factors to consider. Your research mentor can help you decide. Some journals have specific groups of authors; Metamorphosis requires authors to be undergraduates at schools that are part of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Some journals have a geographic scope, such as the Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science. Most journals will be restricted by topic, as is the Journal of Political Science Education. Other things to consider are the costs of publishing and the reputation of the journal.
If you submit to a peer-reviewed journal (which you absolutely should do), your manuscript will be sent to two or more experts for their opinion. The editor of the journal considers those opinions and then decides whether to accept, reject, or accept pending revisions. When you receive comments from the editor, it can be useful to have thick skin. But keep in mind that those critiques ensure the quality of the work being published.