Getting Started with Research

Research is the systematic investigation of a particular topic to learn facts and draw conclusions. Research is work to acquire new knowledge. Research is a careful inquiry. A science professor may define research in terms of the scientific method. A philosophy professor may define research in reference to a particular philosopher. Regardless of how you define research, it’s an experience many undergraduates hope to obtain. At Johns Hopkins, research is an integral part of the environment.

Research in the Natural Sciences

1. Consider your reasons for doing research

There are many good reasons for doing research. You might be looking for ways to apply the skills and knowledge you’ve learned in their classes in a real context. Or you may be genuinely interested in a topic and want to see how you can get more involved. One of the reasons not to do research is because you feel you have to or that it’s expected. Forcing yourself to do something will show in your end product and will negatively reflect on you as a researcher.

2. Brainstorm possible research areas

Investigate issues or subjects that pique your interest and find out what kind of research is being conducted in those areas. Also look into what you’ll be physically doing for your research experience. Many biological labs involve a lot of pipetting and minute work that isn’t for everyone. Other labs require a lot of programming and data manipulation. Sometimes students participate in clinical research, which is mostly patient interaction. How do you want to be conducting your research?

3. Find a research opportunity

Once you know the topic and type of research you want to do, start looking for available research opportunities. Attend research seminars and symposiums on campus and check the campus message boards in your department. You can also visit the faculty page of different department websites, where faculty will list their research interests and current projects. If applicable, read the papers or journal articles they have published.

From this research, compile a list of professors with whom you’d like to work. Don’t worry if you have a lot or just a few. Write down the name of anybody whose research makes you want to learn more. Keep in mind that some academic departments require that students have a combination of knowledge of the subject and practical skills (like computer programming) before they can begin research. Please consult with the faculty in the department where you want to do research if you have questions.

4. Email professors

Email the professors with whom you’d like to work. Address them by their honorifics (usually Dr. —-). Introduce yourself (your full name, your major, and your year), politely explain why you are interested in their research (if you’ve read some of their papers, you could briefly discuss what you learned), and ask to set up a time to meet at their discretion. Don’t feel pressured to attach a resume yet. You can bring that to the interview.

It may take a while for professors to reply. Sometimes they may write back only to notify you that they don’t have room in their lab or are looking for students with more experience. Don’t be discouraged! Instead, go back to steps 2 and 3. If a professor writes back and recommends another professor, thank them for the referral and contact the new professor. Do not feel that they are pushing you away; in fact they’re trying to help.

5. Meet with professors

Create or update your resume and bring it with you to your meetings. Business attire is not required, but make sure you are dressed appropriately. If you are a freshman or sophomore who has never done research before, focus on showing your genuine interest for the research topic. Many professors are looking for younger students to train so they can eventually take on their own independent projects in subsequent semesters.

At the meeting, present your individual goals. Are you looking for only a low commitment, observational role to see what research is like, or are you looking for hands-on experience? Students who have more familiarity with the topic may be looking to be involved in a publication or taking on their own sizable project within the lab. Be honest, and tell the professor explicitly what you hope to gain from the experience.

6. Make your decision

The interview is a two-way street and the perfect opportunity to figure out if you and the faculty member will work together well. Do your personalities complement each other or collide? Are they willing to let you explore your interests? Will they consistently be around to interact with you?

Consider seriously your decision, and make your choice. Be sure you are able to commit the time and energy required to do well. As you get into research, you may find it to be very different than what you expected.

Research in the Humanities, Social Sciences, & Math

1. Consider your reasons for doing research

There are many good reasons for doing research. You might be looking for ways to apply the skills and knowledge you’ve learned in their classes in a real context. Or you may be genuinely interested in a topic and want to see how you can get more involved. One of the reasons not to do research is because you feel you have to or that it’s expected. Forcing yourself to do something will show in your end product and will negatively reflect on you as a researcher.

2. Find a topic that interests you

When you come across an idea, theory, or concept you find interesting in class, note it as a potential topic. Studying abroad is another way to get research ideas. Conducting research is generally a long and exhaustive process, and you don’t want to be laboring over something you don’t find exciting. Keep an open mind and don’t jump at the first research idea that comes your way.

As you narrow your scope into more specific topics, investigate what has been done before. Your research needs to be original, so you don’t want to devote a lot of time to something that’s already been extensively studied. Keep in mind that some academic departments require that students have a combination of knowledge of the subject and practical skills (like computer programming) before they can begin research. Please consult with the faculty in the department where you want to do research if you have questions.

3. Find a faculty adviser and funding

Once you have a topic, you will need to find a faculty sponsor. This person will help guide you through your research project, prompting you along the way and making sure you stay on track. One way to find a faculty sponsor is by visiting your department’s website. Often faculty list their research interests and their current projects. You may also want to ask professors you have had for class.

Email the professors with whom you’d like to work. Address them by their honorifics (usually Dr. —-). Introduce yourself (your full name, your major, and your year), politely explain why you are interested in their research, and ask to set up a time to meet at their discretion. Create or update your resume and bring it with you to your meetings. Business attire is not required, but make sure you are dressed appropriately. If you are a freshman or sophomore who has never done research before, focus on showing your genuine interest for the research topic.

If applicable, make sure to tell the professors about your funding or for what funding you are applying. The interview is a good opportunity to figure out if you’ll work well together. Consider these factors: Do your personalities match? Do you think you’ll work well together? Can the professor devote time to actively help you?

Be flexible. You want a faculty sponsor that will be the most useful to you even if that means choosing someone whose experience is not necessarily the closest to your project.

4. Start networking

As you conduct your research, look for experts in the field you’re studying. These people will have valuable insight on your topic and may also provide an opportunity for a field experience. Field experiences are especially crucial if you will be researching in a foreign country.

Make a list of experts that would be most helpful. After studying their work and publications, send them an email introducing yourself and discussing briefly your research project and how it relates to their work. Don’t be afraid to ask for their support or advice, and make sure to mention your faculty sponsor.

5. Refine the purpose and methodology of your research

As you research, begin to narrow down the purpose of your research and its methodology. There are no preset methods in the humanities, social sciences, and math, so you must figure out what you are measuring and how to do so as accurately and objectively as possible.

If you are doing research with live human subjects, you will need to get Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, which is an ethical evaluation of your research. Getting IRB approval will also help you in narrowing down your research to specific, achievable methods. Your faculty sponsor will be able to help you determine if you need to proceed with the IRB.

6. Collect the data and write your paper

Collecting data may mean anything from evaluating responses from interviews to analyzing the work that was done during a field experience. Create the final product, which is usually in the form of a thesis or paper.