What is undergraduate research?
Is research available to all Arts and Sciences’ students?
When should an undergraduate become involved in research?
Can freshman become involved in research?
How does a student prepare for involvement in research?
How does a student find a faculty mentor?
How do undergraduates do research?
How is research conducted and what students are expected to do?
What should a student expect from a faculty research mentor?
What opportunities do undergraduates have to present their research to the University and professional communities?
What is the value to an undergraduate of becoming involved in research?
What does the A&S Office of Undergraduate Research do to help students interested in research?

What is undergraduate research?

The Council on Undergraduate Research, a national organization, defines undergraduate research as “any inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original, intellectual, or creative contribution to the discipline.” This sets a high mark for success.  Undergraduates may not attain this goal, but they and their faculty mentors work together in a process that improves the student’s learning and contributes significantly to new understandings of important issues.

Is research available to all Arts and Sciences students?

Yes, the College encourages all students in all majors to engage in research. Their research may take many forms but the end products are deepened learning, enhanced understanding of their disciplines, and improved ability to communicate. All students should discuss their opportunities for involvement in research as early as possible with their academic advisors and with the A&S Office of Undergraduate Research.

When should an undergraduate become involved in research?

The sophomore or early in the junior year is the optimum time to become involved in research. Why? Undergraduate research takes time and builds on coursework and experiences at the University. It is desirable to view it as at least a two-year project during which the student decides on an area of research, connects with a faculty mentor, and moves through several steps in the research process. Transfer students who enroll at the beginning of their junior year are encouraged to seek help immediately if they wish to be involved in research.

Can freshmen become involved in research?

During the first year, students can make progress toward defining research interests as they participate in a Freshman Learning Community (FLCs), a living-learning community, or take a Freshman Seminar. Most importantly, they are expected to enroll in General Education courses in disciplines of interest.

All of these courses and experiences introduce students to faculty, disciplines, and research questions. The student’s college-level academic advisor is helpful in directing students to the Office of Undergraduate Research for assistance, and the student’s major advisor can explain research opportunities in the major courses.

How does a student prepare for involvement in research?

The most important way is to engage fully with coursework, perform well in courses, and enjoy the opportunities for learning, in and out-of-class, available at the University.

  • In some areas, it is valuable to have experience with relevant computer programs, such as SPSS and UNIX.
  • Get to know faculty members and their research interests. Each A&S department has a website that identifies faculty and their research interests. These are excellent resources for interested students.
  • Attend workshops sponsored by the A&S Office of Undergraduate Research, the Career Center, the Writing Center, and the Gorgas Library.

How does a student find a faculty mentor?

Students can approach a faculty member to discuss involvement in their research or enrollment in a research course.  If students would appreciate some help in finding research opportunities, they are encouraged to fill out the application for an undergraduate research position, submit it to the A&S Office of Undergraduate Research and get help in finding a mentor.

How do undergraduates do research?

Research opportunities are pervasive in the curriculum and also are available through special programs.  Here is a list of research entry points.

Regular courses with substantial research requirements

The most common way for students to start their undergraduate research is through a course. Research is part of the content of many courses offered in the different majors of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Independent study courses

It is also possible for a student to register for an independent study course in a particular discipline and to do research with the faculty member who is responsible for that course. This is the best vehicle for a student who has an interest, shares that interest with a faculty member and finds that they would enjoy working together on the topic.

Departmental Honors Programs

Several A&S majors offer honors programs for students pursuing that major. These honors programs are available to students whether or not they are members of the University-wide Honors College. Almost all of the departmental honors programs have a research and thesis requirement.   The majors with honors programs are biology, chemistry, English, geology, history, philosophy, physics, and psychology.

Research contracts

Faculty whose research is supported by grants from funding agencies outside the University often involve students in research and are able to pay the students stipends.

Special Programs

Special programs, especially those offered during the summer months, are good ways to start an involvement in research. These summer programs afford the opportunity to get a quick start on research.  The College also has a special program for new faculty who are interested in working with undergraduates on research.

Opportunities outside the College

Students may also look for research opportunities outside the College. For example, a pre-medical student may wish to assist in the research that is being conducted by a faculty member in the College of Community Health Sciences.

Student Employment

A student who qualifies for the University’s work-study program is encouraged to apply for the job listed with Student Financial Aid and Work-Study as an undergraduate research assistant.

How is research conducted and what students are expected to do?

There is no quick answer to this question.  There are some common characteristics to research but there are also differences in how one discipline approaches it as opposed to another.  Almost all researchers begin with an important question that is without satisfactory answers. They then review the previous research, figure out an approach that they think will provide new and more accurate understandings, gather and analyze evidence, formulate interpretations, draw conclusions, and share those conclusions.

The process is never as orderly as this makes it seem.  New evidence suggests new interpretations and can cause researchers to double back and re-think ideas. But, this makes it interesting. Also, there are significant differences in how research is organized and carried on in different discipline. One of the exciting benefits of undergraduate research is the introduction that it offers to the research culture of a student’s chosen field of study.

What should a student expect from a faculty research mentor?

Students should expect a clear statement of the mentor’s expectations for them. This can include expectations for time spent on research, meetings with the mentor, intermediate and final deadlines for the submission of work, and any other scheduling issues of importance. And, students should understand clearly how the mentors are going to provide feedback to them.

Students should expect that their mentors will assign work that is challenging for the students but also reflective of their level of preparation. For example, a student who is newly involved in research may be asked to do bibliographic work or data entry. An advanced undergraduate researcher can be a partner in the formulation of interpretations and conclusions. Whatever the specific assignments, students and mentors understand that research is part of the student’s learning.

Students should expect that their mentors will help them to see the “big picture” of which their work is a part.

Students should expect their mentors to make available any specific training necessary for the students to do what is expected of them. For example, this may involve instructions in how to safely use pieces of equipment.

What opportunities do undergraduates have to present their research to the University and professional communities?

The sharing of research is an integral part of scholarship. Undergraduates are encouraged to present their research at regional and national scholarly conferences. The University sponsors a campus-wide undergraduate research and creative activity conference each spring semester in which students present their work.  Most employ posters as their method of presentation, but there are other types of presentation. For undergraduates, the symposium is an opportunity to present findings but, because students are at different stages, it can mean presenting how research is progressing.  The experience of presentation in either form is valuable.

Here is a list of other campus presentation opportunities:

  • JOSHUA (The Journal of Science and Health at The University of Alabama)
  • Dewpoint (a creative journal sponsored by the Department of English)
  • Dance Alabama!
  • Numerous plays and musical concerts involving undergraduate students in the Department of Theatre and Dance and the School of Music

What is the value to an undergraduate of becoming involved in research?

Undergraduate research is valuable to students in many ways.  The most immediate value is that it changes the student’s experience as a learner.  Before becoming involved in research, students study the findings of others. Upon becoming involved in research, a student begins the process of creating knowledge.  Students involved in research clarify their own interests, learn new skills, develop collaborations with faculty and other students, and have experiences that prepare them for professional work.  They connect learning in different fields of study, and view their learning in broadened contexts.

Experience with research is valuable for students preparing for graduate or professional schools where research is an expectation. But research teaches skills that are valuable to any profession and to an individual’s responsibilities as a citizen. What are some of these skills?

  • The ability to think critically and draw conclusions based on careful analysis of accurate data
  • Improved communication skills, both written and verbal
  • Experience in collaboration and cooperation
  • Persistence in solving difficult problems
  • Ability to deal with uncertainty
  • Creativity in approaching and resolving issues
  • Willingness to take ownership of projects
  • Self-confidence
  • Personal responsibility for the quality of work

What does the A&S Office of Undergraduate Research do to help students interested in research?

The College’s Office of Undergraduate Research is an advocate for students who are interested in and seeking research involvement. The office also exists to help faculty to find and support undergraduates interested in research. The office offers workshops that prepare students for research, sponsors special undergraduate research initiatives, and assists students and faculty in developing research relationships.