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The Council for Undergraduate Research defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.”

Q: What is undergraduate research?
A: Though many people falsely assume that only professors or graduate students are involved in research, in reality research is integrated into many of our undergraduate academic courses and is featured as the capstone experience in a number of majors. Undergraduate research runs the gamut from biology research in a laboratory to music performance at a senior honors recital. While “research” may conjure images of white lab coats or stacks of leather bound library books, creative activities expand the definition of research to a modern and interdisciplinary realm. From 2D artwork to live performances to artistic historical investigations, many Vanderbilt students expand their academic experiences to a stage, a gallery, or popular media. Many of our undergraduate students also conduct interdisciplinary research across majors, fields, and schools.

Research can also take place in many places and at many times. Vanderbilt offers an exceptional number of opportunities for undergraduate students to do research over the summer, but many students also partake in research right alongside their classwork in Fall and Spring semesters. And although many students do research right here at Vanderbilt, many students also travel to other universities, other cities, other countries, or are supported by types of institutions like government laboratories or privately owned corporations and foundations. Finally, students are not limited by class year, as students from all four years regularly partake in research.

Samples of recent undergraduate research projects and creative activities include:

  • Examining the relationship between speech patterns and language in music
  • Traveling to New York City to study performing art as a form of activism
  • Measuring lung cancer cell growth and drug response in different tissue environments
  • Comparing the acoustic properties of speech for preschool students who stutter and those who do not
  • Studying corruption in Latin America to predict the public’s acceptance of a military coup
  • Working on an archaeological dig in Peru
  • Assisting a visiting art professor build bikes with battery powered stereos
  • Using an unpublished 15th century book from the Vanderbilt library collection to see how the text and images support women’s devotions in the Middle Ages
  • Shadowing and analyzing the behavior of school principles in different school settings
  • Creating and updating Wikipedia articles for the Vanderbilt Library Special Collections

Q: Can any student do undergraduate research?
A: Yes!  It all depends on how proactive you wish to be.  Some programs or departments have requirements (class standing, GPA, etc.) but there are plenty of additional opportunities to supplement or complement department programs. Talk to your professors, classmates, and advisors about your interests and passions.

Q: What opportunities are available to undergraduates?
A: Opportunities are so common and varied that it is hard to list all of them comprehensively. Most students who show an interest find research opportunities with professors and graduate students. Some students work for a few hours per week for a semester or two, just to try it out. For other students, research is the focus of their Vanderbilt experience by the time they are juniors and seniors. Research opportunities exist on campus for students in any school and any major. Some students spend their summers doing research through programs like the VUSRP, and others pursue research opportunities off campus at government labs, industry labs, or at other universities.

Q: Are undergraduates allowed to conduct research outside of their chosen major or school?
A: Students are encouraged to pursue research that may be outside of their major or even outside of their school. Involvement depends on the discretion of the professor conducting the research and not on a student’s declared major and minor, though students are encouraged to consider what they will bring to a particular research project.

Q: Are there opportunities for students to conduct research at the Vanderbilt Medical Center?
A: Absolutely! Students can pursue medical research opportunities through the Health Professions Advisory Office. Some students read about professors’ research projects in the Medical Center on the Vanderbilt University Medical Center website and email professors directly to find out if they can be involved. Students also may apply for clinical research projects through the Vanderbilt Clinical Research Connection.

Q: How soon can I get involved in research as an undergraduate?
A: Some proactive students get involved in research as soon as the second semester of their first year, but most students who participate in research get involved after their first year. Though it can be tempting to jump into doing research right away, students interested in research are encouraged to spend time reaching out to professors and to students with research experience to find the opportunities in which they will be the most passionate and gain the best experience, instead of committing to whatever opportunity seems most convenient right away.

Q. How much of a time commitment is undergraduate research?
A: The time commitment between research projects can vary widely, although our recent survey of students suggests that most students involved in research spend between 3 to 12 hours per week dedicated to research activities. Most Vanderbilt summer programs are advertised as full-time positions (approximately 40 hours per week), so students may not be able to both do undergraduate research and take summer classes simultaneously.

Q: Am I responsible for finding my own funding?
A: Not likely. Most research projects are paid for by a professors’ research funding. Some students earn stipends through a research program or earn scholarship money awarded through programs advertised through the Office of Honor Scholarships or through other sources.

Q: Are there opportunities to publish and/or present at professional conferences as an undergraduate?
A: Yes! About 12% of students in our survey reported that they have published their research, so it is certainly a possibility! Students can apply to have their research published in the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, which is a peer-reviewed indexed journal. Also based on our survey, 9% of students presented their works at conferences that were off-campus. Students should consult with a faculty mentor about opportunities to present at academic conferences.

Q: Can I get academic credit for research?
A: Yes, in some cases. It depends on the research opportunity and the guidelines of your department. Survey results show that nearly one third of all Vanderbilt students have received some kind of academic credit for their research.

Q: Is research a required part of the undergraduate experience?
A: While research is optional at all four schools, many departments have honors programs that require research. In the College of Arts & Science, departmental honors students are required to do research. Eligibility for departmental honors varies by department and typically students enter the honors program during their junior year. At Peabody College, first-year students can apply to the Peabody Scholars Program. In this program, juniors are required to engage in an independent research project with a Peabody professor. In the School of Engineering, students in honors programs are required to do an independent study and/or research. The Blair School of Music has an honors program in Music Literature and History that requires independent study and a senior honors thesis.

Q: Why do undergraduate research?
A: Participating in research and creative activities as an undergraduate student is a hands-on way to develop problem solving, critical thinking, and professional skills. Research extends learning beyond the classroom and allows one to deepen relationships with faculty and staff, prepare for competitive graduate programs, and develop marketable skills for future employment. Plus, there is the unique thrill of doing something completely novel, fresh, and untried in your discipline! The benefits of undergraduate research are numerous. It can positively affect the educational, professional, and personal aspects of a college student’s life. (The following lists are borrowed from The Ohio State University:

Educational benefits include:

  • Working closely with a faculty mentor and other experienced researchers
  • Learning about issues, methods, and leaders in students’ chosen fields
  • Applying concepts learned in coursework to “real life” situations
  • Sharpening problem-solving skills
  • Learning to read primary literature

Professional benefits include:

  • Exploring and preparing for future careers
  • Developing marketable skills
  • Enhancing professional communication skills
  • Collaborating with others and working effectively as part of a team

Personal benefits include:

  • Growing as a critical, analytical, and independent thinker
  • Meeting challenges and demonstrating the ability to complete a project
  • Discovering personal interests
  • Developing internal standards of excellence

Below are quotes from undergraduates about what they found to be the most rewarding part of their research experience (quotes taken from VSG survey):

  • “Being part of a research group that is on the cutting edge of human knowledge and capabilities”
  • “Earning the experiences to talk about in interviews and for future job opportunities”
  • “Getting to work on something that seems really small but may have greater implications for possible treatment of certain diseases. It’s a lot of work, but in the end I enjoy going more in depth on things that I just graze over in class and am expected to regurgitate for a test.”
  • “I do research with children ages 1-4. Every second with them is rewarding.”
  • “The most rewarding components of my research were both the experience and the feeling of accomplishment.”
  • “Actively working to change something I’m interested in”
  • “Being independent and accomplishing research tasks.”
  • “Being able to design my own research project: from the question to the results”
  • “Getting to do original research, finding out things that nobody knew before I did the work”
  • “I enjoy the feeling of discovery.”
  • “Learning about interesting, unconventional, and groundbreaking material”
  • “Learning techniques that will be invaluable to me in terms of academic and research success”
  • “Meeting other people who are interested in the same things I am and figuring out how to account for different variables in human studies”