The Life of an Undergraduate Researcher
Conducting research is one part of college that students should take advantage of. I am probably biased, but the experience of researching is invaluable and can benefit your life outside of academia. Many students wonder about the time commitment, the benefits, the "intelligence" required, how to get involved with a project, and how to manage a job, school, social life, and research. Wonder no more!
What is this "research" we speak of?
1. the academic pursuit of contributing knowledge to humanity
2. the appearance of looking smart when you have no clue what is going on
3. constantly asking your adviser and/or Google, "what's up with this thingy?"
If this definition does not satisfy you, I suggest you do your research on the definition of "research".
Author's Background: Currently involved with three research projects: one in biomathematical modeling and two in socio-economics. Taking between 13-15 credits/semester. Working roughly 15 hours/week.
The most frequent question I get asked is, "How many hours do you research?" I usually respond, "10 hours per week." Although this is my response, different undergraduate students have different experiences. Some of my peers research as little as 3 hours/week up to 16 hours/week. In order to get an accurate estimate as to the amount of time required to research, I will go over a few variables.
(1) How many research projects do you want to get involved in? Obviously, the more projects, the more time required.
(2) Are you researching with a UNLV faculty member? If so, then you may be researching more often, since they generally provide a timeline.
(3) Are you getting paid? (Yes, paid research projects exist!) If so, then your adviser will most likely expect you to research more often.
If someone asked you how often one should play the synthesizer or practice ultimate frisbee, you would probably tell them it depends- and this is my answer to you. Sometimes it feels like you are constantly busy and stuck in time, but there are many benefits to conducting research.
I'm sure that I can write a whole book on the benefits of research. Even if I personally can't, you can find over twenty books on Amazon. To keep this post short, I will briefly list my favorite benefits of research.
(1) You get to learn about stuff no one has learned yet.
(2) You learn how to be comfortable with not knowing.
(3) You understand how to ethically propose facts and new information.
(4) You improve your problem-solving and creativity skills.
All of these advantages can translate into any field or industry. There are way more advantages than the four listed here. If you want to know more of them, Sherlock Holmes can help you out.
I am putting quotes around "intelligence" because really the process of research is inherently a learning process. Researchers don't already know the conclusion of their work,* so you cannot already be learned in what you are researching. Typically, you will have to know the domain knowledge of the research project and have a proper understanding of research methodology to get started. This is what a literature review is for. Check most major academic publications, and you will find that the second section after Introduction is Literary Review, Related Works, or something similar.
If you want to work with some professors, they will most likely expect you to understand something about the research project. For example in my research on modeling signaling pathways with hypergraph theory, I had to read roughly twenty recent publications in biomathematics, signaling pathways, pathway modeling, graph theory, and hypergraph theory. (Your literary review will most likely be quite broad.)
If you are working on a team, you will most likely have a personal role in the research. My role in this project was to mathematically define the model and create the algorithm. My research partner, Javier, is a computer science major; his role was to improve and correct my algorithm, gather data, and run the data through the algorithm. At the time of this project, I was a sophomore taking Calculus III with little knowledge in biology and graph theory. Javier was a junior taking undergraduate courses.
The required "intelligence" is quoted because, really, there is a required motivation. If you are willing to learn new material fairly quick and implement this new material in research, you have the required "intelligence."
*Some researchers may know the conclusion or have a strong hypothesis, but they still have to prove their results.
How to Find a Project
I have been involved in six research projects in my first four semesters. I have only been invited to conduct research by a professor on one of these projects. I got involved with the remaining five projects due to initiative. Most professors at UNLV will respond to you if you make an inquiry about their research. Although my advice on getting involved will vary by person, below is a general step-by-step procedure to follow.
(1) Find professors that you want to research with. I would consider if you get along with the professor, if his/her research interests you, and if they produce research consistently.
(2) Read some of their papers. If their papers are too complex to understand immediately, just read the Abstract, Introduction, and Conclusion / Discussion to understand what the objective of the paper is.
(3) Email or meet with the professor, alluding to the fact that you read their paper and you're interested in their topic. Hopefully, you can schedule a future meeting.
(4) Determine if you want to conduct research with this professor. If so, express your interest in getting involved.
Hopefully, this procedure can provide a general sense of the steps to take. Good luck!
How to Manage College Life and Research
I am still learning how to allocate the proper amount of time to researching. As any academic researcher knows, conducting research and going through the process of creating new ideas and testing them is not light work. I am not able to do my research and watch TV at the same time. Personally, I have the clearest mind in the morning, so before my first few classes, I do some analysis on my algorithms or revise my papers. However, this is time I could be spending on homework or studying since my mind is at its peak. Generally, I alternate every hour between homework/studying to researching. Plus this way, I don't get too bored with any task.
I do not get to play video-games or hang out with friends every day during the semester. I just cannot find the time to work, study, research, and sleep eight hours (or hopefully more). I usually reserve the weekends as my social time or while I am on campus. If your research project only demands three hours from you a week, you may be able to satisfy the trifecta of college life: social, academic, and health. College is a great place to improve time management skills. Research is a great activity to stretch the limits of not only your problem-solving skills, but also the knowledge of humanity.
College is a busy part of life, and enjoy it! Just don't lose your sanity.
I want to end this post with some awesome quotes about researching.
"Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought." ~ Albert Szent-Györgyi
"Research is creating new knowledge." ~ Neil Armstrong
"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" ~ Albert Einstein
"If you steal from one author it's plagiarism; if you steal from many it's research." ~ Wilson Mizner**
"Research is fun." ~ Me
**This is more of a joke. I do not recommend this to be any researcher's motto.