Students: Getting Involved in Research
What is research?
Research is the process of inventing new knowledge. Whether it’s understanding how the physical universe works, studying how people behave, or developing new technologies to accomplish the (currently!) impossible, research is fundamentally about advancing what we as a society know and can do.
As a student at Olin, you have the opportunity to do research with Olin professors on established research projects or even conduct independent research with a faculty advisor.
Why should you consider research?
To advance your education. Classes at Olin help you learn fundamental concepts, but classes are just one part of Olin’s learning continuum. There is no better way to understand a topic (or to learn how to learn) than to work on advancing the state of knowledge by doing research. Working with a professor on a research project will push you to understand a particular topic in far greater depth than any class ever could. Additionally, through learning one topic in depth, you will develop your general skills at learning advanced topics: learning how to learn.
To build your portfolio. Research involves making discoveries and spreading the results. Through working on a research project, you can build marketable skills like experimental design, interviewing skills, or advanced analysis techniques. By publishing your work in papers and presenting at conferences, you can add unique and compelling material to your portfolio, which can help with landing future internships or when applying to graduate degree programs. You will also learn valuable presentation and pitch delivery skills that can serve you well in your future, no matter the path you take.
To find your calling. Inventing new knowledge is an amazing experience! What’s more, being a researcher is a potential career path worth exploring. Becoming a professional researcher has to begin with a first research experience, and you can find many opportunities while at Olin!
How do you get involved?
Like applying for any internship or job, getting involved with research requires that you go looking for opportunities. Professors at Olin (and at other colleges / universities) direct research projects, and you can look for opportunities to join those projects as a research assistant. The following are a few tips on how to find opportunities and how to apply for a research position.
Opportunities at Olin
Many faculty at Olin have active research projects! However, due to the nature of research, these are constantly changing. Most professors have a broad research area they work in, and have an evolving set of research projects that aim to answer particular questions. To learn about past examples of research projects individual professors have done---take a look at the list of Sample Projects. If you’re interested in the work of a particular professor, you can investigate them more! Most professors have their own individual research page (linked via their faculty web page or example research project page) where they keep a more up-to-date list of projects.
Olin also hosts a Fall Research Fair each semester, where Olin professors advertise current projects and seek to recruit students to work on their projects. This is a great way to learn more about many professors’ research efforts in a fun environment!
Research During the Summer
Summer is often a time when faculty at Olin focus more on their research. You can get heavily involved in research by working with a faculty member during the summer. This is an excellent way to get fully immersed in a research experience. Summer research is a full-time, paid position in which you work closely with a faculty member and other students in their lab, and enjoy living at Olin in the summertime!
Research During the Semester
There are many options to get involved during the semester. You might:
Volunteer in a lab, on a research team, or with a research advisor informally. This is a good way to try out research without a binding commitment.
Do research for 1-4 credits as Independent Study or Research. Find out more here. 2 credits for 6 hours per week is very typical, and you can take it for P/NP or for a grade. Research for credit often means that you have more choice in the direction of your research and learning goals.
Find a paid research position. This typically means you are working on an established research project for an external partner with your research advisor. Note that not all professors hire students for pay during the semester.
Different faculty have different approaches and offerings: Get in touch with them or go to the research fair to find out more.
Some students also choose to complete a Senior Thesis in research: This includes a 4 credit course completed in a student’s senior year for a letter grade and the production of a written thesis document. Typically a thesis will require additional work beyond a single class: Often a student thesis is a continuation from past summer research.
Senior thesis work must involve substantial independent work from the student, which is written up in a long (>50 pages) report called a thesis. Students usually complete a thesis if they are applying to a research-based graduate program (e.g. a PhD program), as completing a thesis is a strong signal that a student is capable of doing research at an advanced level.
Opportunities outside Olin
There are literally hundreds of research positions outside Olin! The National Science Foundation funds paid summer research positions called research experiences for undergraduates (REU’s) at colleges and universities across the country. You can check this website for more information on REU programs, including how to apply for those positions. Particularly for students considering applying to graduate school, winning an REU position is viewed as prestigious, and definitely helps you win admission to a graduate program!
Applying for a research position
Unless there is a formal application process advertised (e.g. in an REU program), most research positions require that you ask if a particular faculty member is hiring. Asking a professor to hire you can be intimidating!
You can make this a lot less scary by
- Picking a faculty member you’re interested in (whether at Olin or at a different college),
- Studying their website to learn about their work, and then
- Contacting that faculty member to say you’re interested in their work (be specific about what’s interesting about their work to you), and would like to know if they’re hiring research assistants.