• home  »
  • Research  »
  • Getting Started for Natural Sciences
JHU arches

Getting Started...

1. Consider your reasons for doing research

There are many good reasons for doing research. Sometimes a student might be looking for ways to apply the skills and knowledge they've learned in their classes in a real context, or they may want to be involved with something greater--the pursuit and search for knowledge that can benefit the world. Other students may be genuinely interested in a topic and want to see how they can get more involved.

One of the reasons NOT to do research is because you feel you have to or that it's expected. Like most things, forcing yourself to do something you are not fully invested in will not only show in the end product you create but will also negatively reflect on you as a researcher.

2. Brainstorm possible research areas

Yes, you will want to research about research! Investigate issues or subjects that pique your interest and find out what kind of research is being conducted in those areas. Do you like genetics? Are you interested in investigating Tourette's Syndrome? What would you be excited to learn more about?

Also look into what you'll be physically doing for your research experience. Many biological labs involve a lot of pipetting (using a slender graduated tube for measuring and transferring quantities of liquids from one container to another) and minute work that isn't for everyone. Other labs require a lot of programming and data manipulation. Sometimes students will get involved in clinical research which is mostly patient interaction. How do you want to be conducting your research?

Seismic Monitoring

3. Find a research opportunity

Now that you know the topic and type of research you want to do, you will need to start looking for available research opportunities. Attend research seminars and symposiums on campus and check the campus message boards in your department. Another way to find a research experience is by visiting the faculty page of different department websites. Many times faculty will list their research interests and the projects they are currently working on. If applicable, read the papers or journal articles they have published.

Compile a list of professors that you would be interested in working with. 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 about your preparation.

4. Email and contact professors

For those professors you are interested in working with, start by writing them an email. Be sure to address them by their honorifics (usually Dr. -----), and make sure to spell their name correctly. 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.

And now you wait. Remember that it may take a while for professors to get back to you. 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, keep researching and go back to steps 2 and 3. Ask around--maybe your friends know of opportunities. Keep your eyes peeled. 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, and make your decision!

Hopefully you will have a couple professors who are willing to meet with you. Create or update your resume and bring it with you to your meetings. Although business attire is not required make sure you are dressed appropriately for an interview. If you are a freshman or sophomore who has never done research before, don't worry--focus on showing your genuine and keen 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, you should present your individual goals. Some students are looking for only a low commitment, observational role to see what research is like. Others are looking for hands-on experience. Students who have perhaps a bit 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 with the professor, and tell them explicitly what you hope to gain from the experience.

The meeting with your professor is a two-way street--you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. The interview is an excellent chance to figure out if you'll work well together. Do your personalities complement each other, or collide? Are they friendly and cordial? Are they willing to let you explore what your interests are? Will they consistently be around to interact with you? Remember, this is potentially someone who will mentor you and possibly be writing you a letter of recommendation.

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 and you might have a lot of questions--read the FAQs and Tips section.