Getting Started in Undergraduate Research

Zachary K. Ochoa

People hear almost everywhere that a Bachelor’s Degree isn’t worth what it used to be. Unfortunately, this is more or less the truth. With the right study habits, luck with professors, and good time management, it is really not that difficult for a good student to get a competitive GPA. This does not bode well for the individual student because, frankly, there are a lot of good students out there. So the important question then becomes how undergraduate students can set themselves apart from their peers in an increasingly competitive world.

It’s not the most complicated thing in the world to do well in classes. Most of the standard college courses require nothing more than repetition and memorization in order to pass. However, to make a contribution of your own to your field of choice is a different matter entirely. If students want to set themselves apart in today’s academia, they should pursue options in undergraduate research.

As an ambitious International Affairs major, I started out my career at James Madison University eager to stand out and go the extra mile. I did well in all of my classes but still felt that I could do more. The obvious next step was to pursue an internship. However, as a transfer student from a community college, that pathway was not very well emphasized. The answer for me actually came in the form of a class: Cross-National Research Skills. This is the class that JMU International Affairs majors take to learn how to conduct a research project. Taking this class instilled in me a passion for research; it was a clear-cut way to produce some real scholarly work and share it with the world. The curriculum vitae of a human sciences graduate that has publications on it is not a common thing for undergraduates; it’s even more uncommon than internship experience.

With all of this in mind, I have listed below five methods that have paid off for me and that I would recommend to anybody considering research:

  1. Check your College Catalog: Your department may offer an independent study course that pairs you with a professor. This is a great way to build a good professor-student relationship that will help you in the long term, as well as provide a great framework within which to conduct a research project.
  2. Check Out your University Honor’s Program: Some honor’s programs have a program in place for high-achieving students that want to do their own research. These research pursuits are typically much more demanding in terms of work load and time commitment and can even rival a Master’s Thesis in terms of achievement and prestige.
  3. Never let an A+ Paper Go to Waste: If you have written an extensive paper in your field that has received an excellent grade, keep it! There are ways to keep that paper working for you that go beyond the classroom. Search for undergraduate research journals that publish essays and theses like the ones you have saved and submit them to any journals for which your work meets the submission guidelines.
  4. Don’t Be Afraid to Do Some Independent Projects: Hard work pays off and so does initiative. If you have a project in mind that you would like to do, do it. Take your idea, find some research journals that fit your topic, check their submissions guidelines, and make sure your research manuscript fits the bill. If you do well, odds are that someone, somewhere will publish your paper and then you get a nice new addition to your résumé.
  5. Be Passionate About What You Do: If you love the work you are doing and are passionate about the subject, then you will produce work of a much higher caliber. Editors and professors can tell when you aren’t putting your all into a submission, and it will make it less likely for your research pursuits to meet with success. If you’re not going to do your best, then you will most likely not get the desired results.

These tips have helped me immensely in both my research and publication goals. I hope that you find them as useful as I did. Good luck in all of your research pursuits!

Submissions to the Undergraduate Research Journal can be made by contacting dmitstifer@kon.org