Undergraduate Research at Baylor

Begin with a Conversation

If you have the desire to engage in research--beyond the classroom--but do not know how to proceed, begin by having a conversation with your mentor-professor or adviser. You could also examine your department's website to discover the faculty members who research and write on the area of specialty in which you are interested and contact them for an appointment. The key here is to talk--with a professor, department chair, undergraduate studies director, adviser, mentor. Initiate a conversation, express your desire to begin researching, and share your ideas. Something extraordinary could happen.

Why does undergraduate research matter?

Learning to do research in a particular field of study will provide you tools to engage issues and to solve problems. Whatever the discipline, when your intellect, imagination, and that fascinating field of study begin to form connections, your journey will turn off the well-traveled highways of academic life and lead you toward the lanes and by-ways that invite your discoveries. Such exploration becomes integral to some students' way of life in college. This delving into a subject becomes not just a research project for some students but a path that opens onto a world of interesting and important questions they want to pursue as a career. You may make a contribution to new knowledge as a researcher. Perhaps most importantly this exploration will enable you to learn new things about the face you see in the mirror. Finally, it is the linking of research fields to your sense of calling and purpose that is the most exciting aspect of all.

Then the work you do as a researcher is not something performed only so that you can graduate; it is something you want to do because it is building a foundation for your professional life. When that happens, your research becomes integral to your identity, your "calling," or your reason for being. If you maximize your undergraduate education at Baylor, you will be prepared to line up your skills, your talents, your interests, your values, and your sense of a meaningful trajectory for your life by the end of your senior year. And you will be ready--through the world of work or advanced degrees--to think critically, to engage questions with energy and confidence, to contribute to new knowledge, and even to make discoveries that will help us build a better world.

How does undergraduate research enrich the Baylor experience?

(1) Courses that introduce general research methods and allow you to participate in project-based research will help you cultivate relationships with professors, allowing them to become mentors for you--not solely instructors of a particular subject. Indeed, scholarly projects created through faculty and student collaborations contribute to a sense of partnership between the mentor and the student. Together, by setting a problem to be solved, they discover, examine, assess, and share new knowledge, or they design projects that introduce students to the basic practices that are consistent with a particular discipline. In either or both situations, not only will you acquire foundational skills on which you will build as you progress toward your professional dreams, but also you will discover much about yourself: your strengths, weaknesses, and preferences so that you are then able to pursue confidently your professional aspirations.

(2) We find that students who complete independent research projects are often energized to maximize their education. Opportunity begets opportunity at Baylor, and an independent study course done exceptionally well can give you a sense of ownership in your education that only self-directed study can supply--as it further distinguishes you as a student in your department who is capable, resourceful, and ideal for special programs/initiatives.

(3) As you develop relationships with the professors in your department, you will gain knowledge of your department's inner workings (i.e., its honor society, clubs, guest speakers, workshops) and become a vital part of a scholarly community. Such involvement will allow you to develop the leadership skills, confidence, and savvy to participate in the larger conversation of your discipline through national meetings, conferences, and perhaps even publication.

(4) Supportive environments within departments foster a climate wherein students are encouraged to become engaged learners. When you are invested in your department and active in its pursuits, the leap into the competitive world of national scholarships is much easier: you know whom to ask for letters of recommendation; you know who will read and respond to drafts of your documents; you know who will sit down with you and weigh the merits of graduate programs in light of your academic interests and scholarly goals. Such knowledge is invaluable.

What are the traditional routes to undergraduate research across disciplines?

(1) Laboratory research in sciences and engineering.

(2) Field research in the natural and social sciences and in some of the humanities.

(3) Data analysis in business.

(4) Text-based research in the humanities--both primary and secondary sources.

(5) Creative projects in fine arts and humanities.

What steps should a student take to become an undergraduate researcher?

Foremost, you must learn which professor(s) is actively engaged in the area or subject in which you are keenly interested. Think about the courses you love the most. If one of your professors is doing work that you think is fascinating, consider reading an article on the subject he or she is researching (you might discover one written by your professor) and then make an appointment to go to the professor's office to talk further about how you might become involved in that project or another project.

If you find a subject area that is interesting, but you do not know anyone teaching in that field, contact the department to ask with whom you should meet to learn about the research area. Then email that professor to make an appointment to explore options for how you could learn more about a particular topic and perhaps become involved in research related to that field.

Examine the websites for the departments in which you are interested. It is usually easier to locate research labs and projects conducted in the sciences, but other departments will list information as well.

Broadly speaking, what path would a student follow as an undergraduate researcher?

Laura Damuth describes the experience of undergraduate research, particularly for first- and second-year students, in a 2007 essay published in Nationally Competitive Scholarships: Serving Students and the Public Good. She writes, "In the first year, the student engages in 'learning by doing'--learning why and how the faculty member does research and creative activities by assisting the faculty in completing research tasks. The student may learn such skills as how to do library literature reviews, write code, or retrieve data, work in a research laboratory or historical archive, undertake research techniques specific to a project or discipline, assist with an experiment, or work in an art studio. In the second year, the student advances to a more independent project proposed by the student and sponsored by the faculty mentor with whom the student worked during the first year. The project may be an extension of or related to the student's experience during the first year or may simply build upon skills gained in the first year. The key factor is that the faculty member sponsors and serves as a mentor for the project. Students working with faculty for two years can receive extremely strong letters of recommendation."

If you are registered for a course in research, you will follow the guidelines given by your professor. But many students want to do independent research. If you feel a bit insecure about initiating a research proposal, the following overview may help you calm your fears of the unknown. Thus, here are some of the steps you may follow as an independent researcher once you have secured a faculty mentor:

  • The first year you will probably be given fairly basic tasks by your mentor. Every student researcher has had to go to the library to check out materials or create bibliographies, has had to make copies of materials, take notes in meetings, clean up lab samples, do routine checking and monitoring of samples or laboratory experiments. As a student, you may find this is a difficult phase because you have no frame of reference for doing the work you will be asked to do. So the first phase may not be terribly exciting, but it still exposes you to information that is valuable and gives you basic skills you will refer to again and again in the field.

  • After you have been working for a professor for a month or two, however, you will understand the basics of how the lab works, what the best resources are, where the materials are located in cyberspace or in the library, and how to use your time efficiently. Maybe you will be invited to sit in on meetings among the researchers. Maybe the professor will give you some independent tasks to do that require both organizational skills and your thinking through how to move the research project forward. Maybe you will drive an expert to campus from the airport--or be invited to dinner with a faculty team who has asked an authority in the field to speak here.

By your second year in research, you may be involved in many things:

  • You may be invited to analyze some of the data yourself.

  • You may be researching and writing drafts of parts of an important study that is directed by your mentor.

  • You could be invited to attend a conference where others more advanced in your field are discussing issues that you find riveting. For that, you and your mentor will apply for a small research grant from URSA in order to fund your trip to a conference.

  • Maybe you will present a poster at a conference showing your work in progress.

  • By now you will have learned where some of the great internships in this field are offered--and you may begin to plan your summers around enriching the experience you are having on campus.

Thus, you begin to build a network of colleagues within your own university and beyond. These sorts of experiences help you clarify your goals and your identity. Then, you will also acquire the skills and the learning community within which you will build the support necessary to go forward toward leadership in an area of expertise.

What can a student contribute to the research project as an undergraduate researcher?

Faculty members at Baylor are famous for fostering student research projects. Many of them are gratified to have opportunity to work with undergraduates. Students who are beginning to do research love to discover new things, make connections across disciplines, and "live the questions." You, as an undergraduate researcher, bring excitement to the project and contribute to a culture of inquiry. We appreciate that!

You will ask great questions in the research process. Sometimes those may be questions that others have asked before but now are surfacing again. The collaboration between your mentor and yourself brings a new vitality to some traditional investigations. And new possibilities spring from the conversations you have as well as the research you do.

You bring an energy we do not always have. You are another viewpoint, another mind, and another background. As a young person, whose contributions come from another sphere, the interaction we have with you may enrich not only the dimensions of the project but also the potential ramifications from the study. You learn also the downside of research in this area, the dull but necessary parts that build skills and set the foundation for further investigations. And you become friends sometimes, colleagues certainly, with the professors who are also pursuing riddles and challenging assumptions in the area you care about. Some of these relationships are rich indeed and can last a lifetime.