So I'm a scientist: How do I "do" research?

Okay, I’m not actually a scientist, yet. I’m a 2nd year electrical eng. student.

This is one of those things they never teach you in school - how is research actually done? If I have an idea I want to test, a trend I want to investigate - how do I go about doing it?

One thing I’ve always been interested in is meteorology, and one thing I’d like to investigate is the oft-noted tendancy for rain to temporarily cease immediately after a lightning/thunder event. I certainly don’t have the ability to do the research on my own. Now, there are some meteorology courses at my Univ. would it be acceptable for me to outright approach one of these profs and ask them what they think?? Is this an “appropriate” thing to do?

Sometimes I see news stories that feature something about students doing some unique research with a particular prof from Univ. XYZ…how are these arrangements made? Are the students just random friends with the prof and so the guy’s just helping them out? Is there a formal process one takes for this?

Specifically I’m addressing the issue of multidisciplinary research - I’m not a meteorologist so would I even “get my foot in the door”, so to speak?

Is it something I could conceivably do, but I’d have to wait for grad school?

(PS. My particular weather idea isn’t critical here; I’m just using it as an example.)

The Scientific Process

The Scientific Process(es)

It’s pretty rare to just strike out on your own original project until you are at a pretty advanced stage. Even post-docs are generally part of a larger ongoing research project that is building on previous work.

Does your degree require or offer the option of doing some sort of honors thesis? You might be able to combine something in your discipline with meteorology to come up with a project.

Ask around. Most faculty members would be reasonably happy to talk with you about your interests during office hours or a scheduled appointment. People actually doing research in that area may even have the funds to hire you as an assistant on a project.

Yes, yes, yes. I know all that…that’s not what my OP was asking.

Sorry, that reply was meant for astro.

cher3…that makes sense. So it may actually be fruitful to schedule an appointment with profs and discuss my interests, even though I’m just a loley 2nd year student?

Trigonal, do not fear. The fact that you are thinking about such things means you are not “lowly”.

During my second year (at an engineering school, but I was a biology major), I took a genetics class. It was interesting and I learned a bunch but I wasn’t the best student in class. The prof was this short guy with an attitude problem, and I was always too afraid to strike up a conversation with him after class. Which was just fine with me–I thought–since I didn’t need any help anyway. I had a B average.

Well, right after I turn in my final exam, he pulls me to the side and asks what I want to do with my life (no joke). I say I want to go into the environmental sciences. Then he asks if I want to do research over the summer. Even though this guy had never said one word to me all semester, suddenly he wanted me of all people to work in his lab!

Long story short, because of that guy I’ve been doing research for the past six years. I’ve been published and won awards…and in just a few months (fingers crossed) I will be getting my Ph.D! When I was a second-year in college, I never dreamed that this would be how my life would turn out, so just think of all the opportunities that are out there for you!

My advice to you is to take a meterology class next year. About mid-way into the semester, propose your question to the professor. (I say wait a while because you want the prof to think they’ve inspired your question). Once you’ve established a professional report, ask the prof about research being conducted in the department. He or she may invite you into their lab or recommend you to another lab. You may start out washing glassware (or whatever grunt work), but then gradually you could be put on your own project.

You’re just a second-year, which means you really need to get one discipline figured out before you go “multidisciplinary”. However, if you’re just interested in doing research, find a lab–any lab–that is remotely related to your major/interests. My undergrad research was nothing like my grad school research, but my early experience taught me how to do science, how to do research, and what it is like being a scientist. These are general lessons you can take anywhere.

Most research universities and college have programs that match undergrads with faculty mentors who do research. Many of them are paid opportunities. If the above advice doesn’t work, I would look into something like this.

Yes, just go up to some professors, describe your background and interests and ask for advice. It’s perfectly acceptable.

Unfortunately as an undergrad, it’s difficult for you to just come up with your own research topic and get paid to do it. It may be possible to arrange a seminar/tutorial type deal where you get a professor to guide you through your research and you get course credit for it. It may be easier to find a professor who already has an idea for a project and is looking to hire a resarch assistant. It’ll most likely be grunt work (number crunching or boring field work) but you’ll still get valuable experience and connections and get paid for it too.

In most of the physical sciences it’s common for undergrads to do research with professors. They often don’t get paid, so the professors get free labor and the undergrads gain valuable knowledge and experience which helps them get into grad school. However, don’t wait to be recruited – if you want to do research, you need to start knocking on doors and talking to professors. You don’t have to have your own ideas for research projects – it’s much more common to do work consistent with the professor’s current research interests. Don’t assume that a Big Important Scientist would never want stupid old you to work with them. Training students is part of their job, and they don’t expect you to be brilliant or know much of anything for that matter when you first start – self-motivation and enthusiasm are probably the most important qualities. Of course, you should learn about what each professor is working on and first talk to the people whose work sounds most interesting to you.

Unless you’re really interested in a specific problem, I would ask for suggestions on what to work on. It’s rare for an undergrad to understand a field fully enough to know where to devote their efforts – some problems are already well understood, others will be too complex/difficult to be practical.

Now, back to “doing” research…

The facetious answer would be ‘persaude someone to give you a huge wedge of cash and a lab’, but read on…


Yes x 2. Most will be glad to see a student expressing interest in research. After all, most people just want to cruise thru’ their degree before getting a highly paid job so that they can purchase a car the size of Norway. (Following the research career path generally starts with a postdoc appointment where you can purchase a car with a top speed similar to Norway).

Depends, but very often (degree) courses include a research project, typically as part of the final degree / dissertation. This project is often open to student input regarding topic and such.

Doing research proper, like, nearly always involves getting a PhD. However, sticking your nose around a few profs doors will do nothing but good. Some will certainly be grateful of an (unpaid) research assistant for some dull legwork which will doubtless put you off science forever…

Wow, I’m glad to read all this positive advice! But I’m still a bit scared. I mean, there’s a few profs I could talk to whose classes I’ve been in, but I can’t imagine they’d even remember me.

And unfortunately, I don’t get any elective courses in my timetable. This is what worries me about approaching profs from other departments.

But still - it sounds like it shouldn’t be too difficult to at least get a job cleanin’ glass :slight_smile:

I remember being asked this question by someone I knew would have a better chance of learning to fly than to do research, but I gave him advice anyway. Now understand in most scientific fields you will also need access to a well-equipped lab in order to do research, but that is only part of the problem. The main thing is what to research. Now in your case, I suspect that the only things you are likely to need is access to a computer and access to records. You already have a question and that is really the most important part of doing research. Unfortunately, there are two likely things here. First there is a possibility that your anecdotal evidence is simply wrong and second, if it is correct, then someone else will have likely noticed it too and perhaps even researched it. Don’t be discouraged. Read about other research on the question and study it till you see the flaws in it and can perhaps correct it. Read till you become the world’s #1 expert on the question. If you have any capacity for doing research, more questions will occur to you and you can pursue them. Eventually, you will find that you are doing research. The advice of someone who has been there is very likely to be required, but part of a professor’s job is providing supervision. Don’t let the size of your car worry you. There is nothing like the exhilarationj of a successful resarch project . Well maybe there is something like it, but it ain’t driving down the highway at 100 MPH.

Trigonal, you absolutely don’t have to know the professor to approach them. It’s more than sufficient to say:

“I’m looking for someone to do a research project with. I read your [web page/research description/whatever] and found your work really interesting. Is there any chance you need an enthusiastic undergrad to work on anything?”

If it’s in a department you’ve never taken a class, you may have to add that you don’t have much experience. If they say they think you need a background in that field before you could do research, ask for suggestions on the best courses to take.

Seriously – get out there! Just by taking initiative like this, you’ll be in the top 1% of undergrads most professors interact with.

How is research done? Used to be, all you had to do was go in the back yard with a kite and a Leyden jar. Probably the first thing to do is to forget everything Hollywood has ever taught you about research (including, regrettably, the improbably high number of single, attractive female scientists :-).

Probably 90% of research is knowing what question to ask, and as Hari Seldon noted, that means that you have to understand what questions have already been asked and answered. You have to read. A lot. Unbelievable reams of mostly unbelievably boring research. You have to know what other researchers have done in your field, not only so you can understand the issues and the unsolved problems, but also to avoid that sinking feeling when your thesis advisor says “Isn’t that problem a lot like the one Smith solved in last month’s Proceedings of Your Chosen Field?” This is a lot harder than it used to be (because there is so much knowledge to be sorted through) and a lot easier (because it’s all on the Web and you don’t have to rely on your impoverished college library to get the right journals). This step, btw, never ends. By the time you’re current in your field, another fifty papers have been published. “Publish or Perish” means only three of them are good. You have to read them all to figure out which three. After a while, you start to envy plumbers who every few months have to read the instructions on a new type of wax-free closet flange :slight_smile:

If you've already started with an unsolved problem (and you can convince those funding you that it's important), then you start applying whatever tools your field of science has in order to reduce that problem to something solvable.   You might also be able to apply knowledge from other fields to make useful analogies (e.g. DNA coding is just like binary encoding of data, sorta, kinda).

There really isn’t an actual course on how to do research, although obviously you can learn skills such as technical writing, laboratory techniques, and so on. The PhD is largely an apprenticeship – you get to work (for cheap) on a problem under the guidance of someone who’s an expert. if you’re lucky, you’ll not only learn about your field, and how to formulate and solve problems in that field, but also the minutae such as how to write grant proposals, play academic politics, and schmooze at conferences.

Look into the NSERC (URA/USRA) and NRC summer research assistanceships. There aren’t many per school, and they don’t pay all that much (currently $5625 a summer, I think) but they might be exactly what you are looking for - at least for a summer job next year! Some schools might receive similar grants/awards throughout the school year.

Also, look into enrolling into a research class in your upper years - I did a research project in Organic chemistry this past year as part of a 4th year course (Actually, the research and a presentation and paper WAS the course!)

In the meantime, go volunteer in a professor’s lab. Find out their research interests, see if they mesh with yours, and go talk to them. They might use you just to help keep things organized (cleaning glassware, restocking shelves or whatever) but you may be able to learn from them and their grad students while you do it. Most grad students would LOVE to stop working sometimes and get away with it because they are “teaching” an interested student!

Good luck!

The response may well be “Haven’t you read Soandso’s paper?” or “You’ll be lucky.”?

But don’t be put off - if you can’t find a “Wow, me too! Want to work in my lab.” try for a “Very interesting. Have you considered xxx property of thunderstorms? I’m looking for an interested student.”

Trigonal, don’t be (so) scared. Your university may have a webpage or two with ongoing research groups that desire a helping hand. If you cannot find a particular professor, start by asking the Department office if they have a list of researches who want extra help. Sometimes they can give you a brief summary of the project, and you can look at what interests you most among the possibilities. And it doesn’t have to be your department, although the professor may ask for references and coursework done. Each department has at least one professor who loves to have undergrads working in the lab, nurturing the next generation of scientists. After all, that is one of the objectives of a research university. :slight_smile:

Personal experience:

Last summer I was looking for something to do during the summer, besides my coursework. I just saw a flyer describing research opportunities in the zoology department (I’m animal sciences major). One of them interested me, I emailed the person in charge of that group, we had a couple of chats, some email, and I landed a job working with alligator brains during the summer. Made some connections along the way, including a vet. teacher who said he was interested in letting me take one of his classes.

I was not able to do research during the year (too much coursework), but during the spring I started to look for research positions for this summer. This time I first tried my department, unfortunately their summer positions were filled, and unlike the zoology department people (who I was contacting), these demanded a résumé and a formal interview. So I ditched that and returned to the zoology department. Lucky for me, a grad student had picked up where I left last year, and now I’m working in the exact same thing I was doing last time, helping a grad student study the brain anatomy, morphology, and reproductive endocrinology of the alligator. I’ll probably continue with this during the fall, alongside my regular coursework and the veterinary class with the prof. I met last year. :slight_smile:

My university also has the (limited) opportunity in which undergrads can take a piece of a grad student’s research area and develop their own thesis project.

We have NSERC/NRC positions at my school, but they aren’t open to 1st year students; so I haven’t looked into that yet (but I will be able to this year).

BTW, I’m attending the University of Western Ontario.

Anyway, I guess I’ll check out what research our meteorology profs have been getting into.

We have NSERC/NRC positions at my school, but they aren’t open to 1st year students; so I haven’t looked into that yet (but I will be able to this year).

BTW, I’m attending the University of Western Ontario.

Anyway, I guess I’ll check out what research our meteorology profs have been getting into.