As undergraduate students, we are often faced with few choices for research topics for our course assignments. Although this is to be expected, it shouldn’t stop us from reaching beyond the assigned work to research topics that interest us. Remember, although we are not professors, we are still academics. And as academics, we have the agency and the access to do research on topics that interest us. For example, we could look into subjects informally through academic journals, or approach faculty members and ask them further questions about a particular topic.
As students and academics, we should not shy away from getting the most out of the expansive amount of knowledge available within the halls and on the web through our university experiences. Regardless of what discipline the research is in, it will help you to learn beyond the lectures and get more out of university, while making a meaningful connection with a researcher in your field. Even if you do not want to become a researcher in the future, the knowledge, connections, and transferable skills gained will increase your ability to receive positions in the future.
Research opportunities are an excellent way to harness some of the skills and knowledge in an academic field. As mentioned above, students are capable of discovering these opportunities just by approaching a faculty member. On some campuses, students and faculty members are taking the extra step to support one another in find research opportunities through academic research clubs.
New Undergraduate Research Club at the University of Delaware
If there isn’t a club already on the campus, students can see this as an opportunity to start one. At the University of Delaware, student Casey Polasko did just that. Through the Undergraduate Research Club, Polasko aims to make research opportunities more available to students. She also strives to counter two false notions about academic research: firstly, that the opportunities aren’t accessible to first years and, secondly, that research is often perceived in terms of science disciplines. By introducing students to the research opportunities available, the club does the first step to becoming an undergraduate student researcher for students already.
Polasko noticed, on a summer research program, that many of the researchers began accessing opportunities in their second or third year. Freshman students were missing from the equation, and therefore missing out on valuable research experience. Accessing research opportunities earlier in their academic career would allow students to have greater exposure and longer careers in academic researching. If first-year or freshman students were more aware of, and exposed to, the research opportunities on campus, Polasko figured this gap could easily be fixed.
When we think about research and labs, students may imagine lab coats and test tubes. Polasko wants to dispel this myth– that research is only for science– so she has opened up the club to students in all disciplines. In all academic disciplines, there is ongoing research taking place. Polasko helps students with the first initial step of connecting them to the research opportunities, leading each student involved to discover more about the discipline that interests them the most.
CUNY York College Undergraduate Research Club
The Undergraduate Research Club at York College of The City University of New York accomplishes the same aims set out by Polasko with a focus on different key aims that are more relevant to their campus. They recognize that every student, regardless of background, can benefit from academic research opportunities. York College is “diverse and historically black,” and the Undergraduate Research Club recognizes the need for “assisting students, especially those from historically disadvantaged groups, in securing highly-competitive research opportunities”.
When I asked why the Undergraduate Research Club is important, club representatives Ratan Dhar and Rose Deng responded, “it is important for us to encourage students to gain hands-on training” and “learn in-demand skills relevant to their academic and career objectives.” They also mentioned the crucial role undergraduate research plays in fostering connections between students and researchers; students, they said, “gain invaluable educational and professional advice.” The York College Undergraduate Research Club establishes itself as a means through which students in all disciplines can seek undergraduate research opportunities, and therefore have access to all the tremendous benefits described above.
University of Lethbridge Student Experience
To see how skills and connections are actually established, I contacted Jamie Lewis, a student researcher with Dr. Jan Newberry and Mr. Jeff Meadows at the University of Lethbridge, to get her thoughts:
Although I’m not even done my second year yet, I’ve already had the chance to do hands-on work…[and] build professional relationships with respected researchers inside and outside of my field, be invited to speak at conferences and network with other professionals.
Lewis was also personally impacted by her academic research opportunity because it allowed her to find the discipline she was passionate about and further establish her career goals. “Starting early has allowed me to ensure that I’m in the right program…in the long term, I anticipate that an early start will show my passion and dedication to future employers and graduate schools, it’ll open up a lot of doors for me,” she stated.
Undergraduate Research is Critical
The opportunities for research are available to students; the only barrier is access. Clubs like the ones mentioned above are working to remedy this by making opportunities more accessible to students from all disciplines. Getting the research opportunity is the first step and all students, from all disciplines and backgrounds, should have the ability to take this step.
Here are some tips for accessing academic research opportunities as undergraduates:
- If something from a specific course interests you, go beyond the lecture and seek out more information. When starting out, it can be hard to establish what area or subject you would ideally like to do research in. Even just doing a bit of searching into an academic research journal can quickly show you what’s out there and help you establish what you feel passionate about or want to study.
- Research opportunities are out there, ready for undergraduates to access them. Seek out these opportunities through an Undergraduate Research Club like those mentioned above. Your university’s website may also offer pages with research opportunities.
- Plenty of research is going on in every campus everyday. Students can approach professors and ask for more information about their research and research opportunities on campus. It’s also relatively simple, through the university library or online journals, to find out what any particular professor is researching. Even if professors cannot offer an immediate research opportunity to you, they would likely be pleased to share their research findings and speak about their experience researching that topic with their students.
- Connect with students, either through networks or through an undergraduate club, and ask about their experiences and how they found their opportunities. Talking to another student about the research they have done is the best way to get an idea about what the student research experience is really like. If there isn’t already an undergraduate club, you may find other people who would like to join, or create a club, by reaching out to other students doing research on campus.