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Undergraduate Research FAQ

Research can have different meanings in different academic disciplines, but research tends to have a few key factors. First, research centers on a question the researcher or research team has:

  • Why do voters in County A tend to vote Democrat while neighboring County B voters vote Republican?
  • How much radiation can a newly designed radiation detector withstand before breaking?
  • How do tone, intonation, or syllable stresses impact sentence comprehension?
  • What is the philosophical point at which an intelligent computer switches from a programmed object to a conscious being?
  • What are the coal ash deposit distributions in relation to cancer clusters?

For each of these questions, the researcher will likely have some idea of where the research will go, but an open-ended question is key to any good research project. When you participate in an undergraduate research project with a faculty mentor, your mentor will train you in the process of research. Creative projects that fall under undergraduate research also focus on an open-ended inquiry.

These projects can be student-led or faculty-led. A student-led is a student-chosen project that the faculty helps guide the student through the process. A faculty-led project is one where the student works with the faculty member on the faculty member’s own project. Whether it be student-led or faculty-led, a mentor is crucial.

Students can be involved in research at any point in their college career, but their junior year is the most impactful time. If a student is interested in applying to graduate school, they want to have a significant research project before they apply to graduate school programs. Ideally, a student should start their first project as a sophomore and then do a more substantial research project in their junior year – this will give time for the student to refine the project through conference presentations and publication. This is true for students who want to go to graduate school and for those who want to highlight their research experience on their resumes for industry. Waiting until senior year will make it difficult to put the research experience on graduate school applications.

Students can engage in research through courses and in co-curricular settings. Most meaningful research opportunities take place outside the classroom. Students can get course credit for their research OR they can be paid. They cannot receive course credit and be paid. That is the biggest restriction for curricular versus cocurricular. Common curricular research experiences take place in 400 level courses. This is mostly confined to 476 courses which are special problems and 499C capstone senior seminar courses.

Fellows or URFs are Morehead State’s funding of research opportunities. These are paid student employment opportunities. Students are paid $9.00/hr, $9.50/hr, $10.00/hr, or $10.50/hr. These rates are generally paid based on how many fellowships they have had. This means their first year is $9.00, their second year is $9.50 and so on. Students need to talk directly to faculty and then faculty apply to have students be fellows. Faculty submit a request application, which then needs to be approved by department chairs, associate deans, and deans. Once approved, the coordinator of undergraduate research will send the information to HR through PeopleAdmin to hire the student. As part of this process, HR will have the student complete hiring paperwork.

Participating in undergraduate research allows you to develop expertise in your field of study. In class, students learn the material that is in the syllabus, but there is often not much room to explore the areas of the topic that the students are really interested in. Undergraduate research allows you to go in-depth into a topic of study that interests you.

Additionally, undergraduate research allows students to develop a set of highly valuable career skills: oral and written communication, project management, problem solving and critical thinking skills. These skills developed in the research process are quite valuable even if you do not plan on pursuing research as a full-time career.

Here is a good article on how UR maps to career skills.

Undergraduate research also offers students a few other career benefits. Many students present at conferences and publish their work. Finally, from a benefits standpoint, engaging in research is a real networking opportunity. Generally, researchers love to talk to other people who are doing work in the same area. Whether it be at conferences or reaching out through email, students can easily build a real professional network.

This is a big one. Students will often hear research, and they think will think about curing cancer or discovering a new particle in physics. It seems unattainable to them. Focus on going in-depth into the areas that interest them. Also, focus that even as undergrads, they can do research and eventually know more than their faculty. The key here is that research is about adding knowledge to the field.

Students can do research in any discipline. It is not just a hard science thing. Research is about open-ended inquiry into the questions that interest us. It is not constrained by discipline.

Research opportunities come about through networking and getting to know faculty. Faculty occasionally will try to find and hire researchers through traditional job postings, but by and large, faculty want to take on students as mentees that they know and believe in. Reaching out and getting to know faculty is key.  Faculty will often make announcements about opportunities in class. 

Start with what they know about the faculty member and their work. I suggest using Google Scholar. Search the faculty member’s name and find their most recent article. In first interactions, avoid discussing your academic personal biographical (GPA, major, hometown). When a student wants to make a good first impression with a faculty member for the purpose of engaging in research, focus on passions, and interests. A faculty member’s initial evaluation of a student will be about who the student is and less about “does the student have the prerequisite skills and knowledge to do this?” That will factor in, but faculty first and foremost want to believe in the person then they want to believe in the grades and background knowledge.

Usually, students really struggle with this conversation. You want to simply identify a list of stats about your grades or something related to your classes. When faculty ask you to talk about WHY you want to have this opportunity, you really need to be able to answer. Think about the experiences you want to have and how they’re going to help you in the future.

This one is tricky. We don’t have a database of opportunities, and no one adequately tracks what is going on. Department chairs don’t even have a great idea of what is going on within their department. The best way to learn about available opportunities is to reach out to the people who have taken on undergraduate fellows recently and to look through the list of mentors for the Celebration of Student Scholarship. Any Assistant Professor must be doing research. It is a necessary part of tenure. Associate Professor (have tenure) are less likely to do research than Assistant but still likely to be conducting research. Full Professors are the least likely to be conducting research.

ScholarWorks is a nice repository of MSU research with a search functionality.

There are outside opportunities available outside of campus as well. Research Experience for Undergraduates (REUs) are summer research opportunities for students. These occur mostly in the hard sciences. Some universities also provide summer workshops training students on how to do research. We do not have a good database on these opportunities.

No. As with most other things, experience tends to allow professors to offer more complex projects and more responsibility, but professors do not see experience as an absolute requirement.

Honors students must do 1 year of unpaid research as part of their Honors Scholarship, and after they complete their Honors Research experience, Honors students can be paid out of URF monies.

They can participate in research, but they cannot be paid for research. The official line is that because they are minors and/or lacking a high school diploma, it creates legal and liability issues for the University.

Yes, there is some money to help students with travel expenses, but it’s limited. Keep in mind that the funds are only available to MSU undergraduate students.