Understanding Research

What is undergraduate research?

Undergraduate research is an opportunity for you to feed your curiosity by exploring a topic of interest, working with a mentor, and communicating your findings to others. Though some disciplines might use such as terminology “creative inquiry” or “creative activity” in place of research, opportunities exist in every discipline, including humanities and the arts, at every campus, and during every year of your undergraduate career at Penn State.

Undergraduate research can look like the following:

  • Course-based research – completing an individual or group class project designed to develop applied research skills, such as a course with a laboratory component or a course enhanced through an honors option
     
  • Program-based research – participating in a competitive program designed to offer funding or course credit, hands-on research experience, opportunity to present your contributions to the project, and/or individual mentorship, such as Geography’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Connection or the NASA Space Grant Research Internship Program.
     
  • Assistance on a research project – working closely with a graduate student, post-doctoral researcher, or faculty member on an existing project to gain valuable training in how to conduct research; the tasks you are assigned can vary in degree of difficulty or repetitiveness, but there is always something you can learn from the research experience
     
  • Individual project – exploring a topic that interests you through a project or a thesis, independent study, or creative project under the supervision of a post-doctoral researcher or faculty member

Whether you choose to participate can depend on your personal and professional goals, as well as other activities competing for your time. We encourage you to meet with our office to help you make an informed decision on whether to participate, as well as talk with your professors, instructors, and teaching assistants when undergraduate research comes up as a topic in class.

Why should I do research?

Participating in undergraduate research and creative activity enriches your educational experience by giving you the unique opportunity to be intellectually challenged in a supportive space. By engaging in research, you will:

  • Meet new people with similar interests, which can help to make this big University feel smaller
  • Receive individualized mentorship from experts, such as graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and professors
  • Clarify your professional goals (even if that means research is not for you)
  • Develop the top skills employers are looking for, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and effective communication
  • Increase your chances of earning a fellowship

When should I do research?

There is no “right” time in your undergraduate career to get involved with research. Once you feel adjusted to the expectations and demands of college, you can dive in. That being said, your research experience might look different depending on the amount of time you have left at Penn State.

  • First- and second-year students
    • Getting involved in research as a first- or second-year student will give you time to develop an understanding of your chosen topic area and refine your research interests as you gain new skills. You may also have the time to take on increased responsibilities within the project or team. Doing so can lead to strong letters of recommendations or references. Or, you may find during your first experience that your interests change and you want to move onto another opportunity. If you start with research early, you will likely have time remaining in your undergraduate career to join a new project or team if you so desire. Do not worry that what you learned during your first experience will go to waste. The skills you develop in one research experience will transfer to another and you will take from the experience what you learned about yourself.
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  • Third- and fourth-year students
    • Getting involved as a third- or fourth-year student is not too late! By waiting to have completed introductory courses, you likely will have begun to identify questions that interest you. In fact, many students with a thesis requirement for graduation do not identify their thesis topic until the spring of their third year. If you get involved as a third- or fourth-year student, you likely will have started to make connections with potential research mentors. As a result, you will be able to make a more informed decision about the kind of project or team you want to join.