Why do research?
Independent research and study can be the most exciting academic experience of your undergraduate career. There are the “aha!” moments that everyone talks about, those moments of discovery when you find something new (or new to you), when you see the elegance of a solution, when you fully grasp an idea and its implications. There is grunt work in research too, and it’s important to learn how basic techniques and approaches to lay the foundation for more advanced work later on. How will you recognize an unusual fossil if you don’t know what ordinary fossils look like?
What’s research like in different fields?
Obviously, research varies a great deal between fields and even sub-fields. What characterizes research and differentiates it from classroom learning is that research creates something new. Whether it is creating new knowledge, providing new analyses of social phenomena or trends, rediscovering old works of art or developing creative interpretations of well-known texts, research produces something not known or understood before. Research is first-hand discovery: what you do, not what you read about or watch someone else doing. Early in your undergraduate career, your research will be fairly basic: you’ll be working on someone else’s questions while you become adept at making observations, running assays, crunching numbers, learning languages, and surveying the field. Later, when you come to your own thesis project, you’ll be learning to ask your own questions and learning how to answer them in terms that other scholars will value. Research is not just another assignment, nor is it primarily a credential for your transcript or resume. Rather, it is an opportunity to do front-line work in your field, making your own discoveries and joining the community of scholars.
When do I start? How do I undertake research?
You should start investigating research possibilities as soon as you have identified an area of interest, no matter how broad. You can even investigate research possibilities before you know what you’re interested in: some of the suggestions below will help get you started.
This is a good place to start if you don’t know yet what you are interested in, since so many research programs seek undergraduate assistants through UROP. Many first- and second year students participate in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which facilitates connections between students and research mentors, provides training and support for students in research, and hosts symposia and presentations of finished projects. You can find full details about UROP at this website: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/urop/.
Finding research opportunities on your own
Chapter VI of the LSA Bulletin (www.lsa.umich.edu/bulletin) has information in alphabetical order on all the LSA departments. You can use the entry for each department to discover which faculty are working on areas of interest to you, or even to find out what areas of research are being done here (do you know, for example, what an ichthyologist does?). Each faculty name in each department is followed by a short description of that faculty member’s research areas.
Follow up your research in the LSA Bulletin by visiting departmental (www.lsa.umich.edu/lsa/depts) and faculty web pages. You’ll find more detailed information, especially in faculty web pages; some faculty even put calls for research assistants on their web pages. Interested in an area that you don’t see represented? Go to the UM Gateway (www.umich.edu) and type your keyword into the search box. Follow the links to the web pages of faculty outside LSA: in Engineering, the Medical Campus, the arts, and the museums.
In addition to visiting departments on the web, visit their offices as well. You’ll see signs for lectures and presentations, associations and clubs for undergraduates interested in the field, announcements of conferences and symposia, etc. You’ll meet people, both faculty and graduate students. Go to departmental events; even if you don’t know anything about the topics being presented, you’ll be amazed at what worlds open up to you.
Talk to Honors Advisors
Every Honors advisor has an advanced degree in an academic field and interests in other fields as well. Some of these areas of interest are listed on the Honors website. Feel free to make an appointment to talk with any advisor about his or her field, or about the broad area in which they have done their work. In addition, these Honors advisors have been in touch with departments in the three areas of the College and can talk with you about research in those areas.
Dr. Elleanor Crown: as liaison to concentration advisors, she can advise on all fields
Dr. Scott Kassner: Social Sciences
Professor Tim McKay: Sciences
Dr. Donna Wessel Walker: Humanities
Summer can be a great time to do research. In addition to the resources above, the Career Center’s “Finding an Internship” website is a great place to find a research internship. You can visit the Career Center’s office in 3200 Student Activities Building, too: they have advisors and brochures and other resources.
Also, the National Science Foundation website offers “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” (REU). Applications are typically due at the end of Jan/beg Feb: look into this over winter break, talking to faculty before winter break.
Need financial support for your summer project? The Honors Program has some funds for students doing research. See details in the Scholarship section of the Honors website.
While we encourage you to become involved in research early in your UM career, it is the research that you will do for your Honors thesis that will probably be the capstone of your Michigan career. In fact, to graduate “with Honors” you must complete your department’s Honors concentration requirements, which usually include a thesis. The specifics of the thesis process are supervised by LSA departments, and the Bulletin and individual department websites are good first places to learn about this process. You should, however, begin a conversation about doing a thesis as soon as you meet with an Honors concentration advisor to declare your concentration. Also, talk about your research interests with faculty in your Honors courses. One of them could become your thesis advisor or point you toward faculty who share your interests.
The thesis is your opportunity to explore a question deeply. In the process of researching and writing your thesis, you will develop and polish research techniques and analytical skills that will almost certainly useful in professional or graduate school and in your career. You will also prove that you have the persistence that will carry you through a long project. A thesis is your opportunity to go beyond being a student to become a contributor to the research mission of one of the world’s great universities.