Find Your Discipline

Different academic fields pursue research with different methodologies, in different environments, and toward different ends. Some projects may cross disciplinary boundaries.

The Arts

While researchers in academic disciplines work to construct new knowledge based on facts, artists and designers seek to create aesthetic works of design or performance. The creation of a new work of art – whether it is a piece of music, a sculpture, a play, a landscape design, or a poem – relies on research to ground the work in the human experience, to connect it to the work of previous generations or other cultures, or to find the best design solution.

The first step for research in the Arts is to determine the subject of the project. Perhaps you want to write a novel that takes place during the Protestant Reformation, or maybe you want to design a garden for an elementary school. Then you need to clearly identify problems you will encounter: How did people speak during the 16th century? How do children interact with natural spaces? Your research project will involve investigating the answers to the questions that arise through the course of creating your work of art. Research into cultural history or interpretation will resemble research in the humanities. Research to identify the best design to address a sociological issue may require research in the social sciences.

The following timeline is an example of how you might advance through research during your undergraduate career. To develop your personalized timeline, meet with a member of the OUR staff or talk with your adviser.

Step 1 (generally your first year)

  • Take general introductory courses across fields to explore different areas of interest and approaches to art.
  • First-year seminars give you an opportunity to explore a narrow topic in depth.
  • Attend lectures, exhibitions, and performances.

Step 2 (generally sophomore year)

  • Take in-depth seminars on artistic production and historical/cross-cultural courses.
  • Build relationships with your professors by discussing their work and your interests.
  • Participate in artistic productions and activities on campus.

Step 3 (generally sophomore or junior year)

  • Continue to take courses to hone your artistic vision and skill.
  • As you prepare for your senior capstone production, performance, or exhibition, work with your faculty mentor to determine a plan for any necessary research.
  • Consider developing a topic or finding a mentor to help guide the research for your capstone project.
  • Apply for funding to conduct research either in St. Louis, across the country, or abroad during the summer.

Step 4 (generally junior or senior year)

  • Take an independent study or senior thesis course to complete your capstone project.
  • Share your research with the WashU community.

Find out more information about capstone requirements for specific majors from department websites:

Capstone requirements vary across programs. Refer to your department website to learn more: 

Humanities

Humanists study the human experience though deep analysis of cultural products. These products – often called texts – can be pieces of literature, artwork, clothing, personal correspondence, philosophical treaties, or even altered landscapes. The scholar identifies a collection of these texts to serve as sources to answer a question about the nature of humanity. Humanists typically work qualitatively, meaning they look for data expressed through language rather than numbers. Humanities research analyzes and investigates these human creations to understand the meaning individuals and groups have infused into their life experience in different places and at different times.

Because humanities research revolves around the investigation of texts, research often takes place in libraries, museums, and archives that preserve these documents and materials. A historian may read a diary to understand attitudes about daily events. A literary scholar may seek out early manuscripts of a published novel to understand how the story developed. An art historian may travel to a museum with a textiles collection to understand intersection of form and function in clothing. St. Louis is home to many archival libraries that can provide sources and assistance for your research project.

The following timeline is an example of how you might advance through research during your undergraduate career. To develop your personalized timeline, meet with a member of the OUR Staff or talk with your adviser.

Step 1 (generally your first year)

  • Take general introductory courses across fields to explore different areas of interest and approaches to knowledge.
  • First-year seminars give you an opportunity to explore a narrow topic in depth.
  • Attend lectures in areas that interest you.

Step 2 (generally sophomore year)

  • Take in-depth seminars.
  • Build relationships with your professors by discussing their work and your interests.
  • Watch for opportunities to serve as a research assistant.
  • Take a methodology course in your chosen major if it is offered (such as History 301 or ELit 375).

Step 3 (generally sophomore or junior year)

  • After you have developed a topic that excites your intellectual curiosity, work with a faculty mentor to make a specific research plan.
  • Apply for funding to conduct research either in St. Louis, across the country, or abroad during the summer.
  • If you are planning to conduct research abroad during your junior year, work with your mentor to develop a plan before you depart.
  • If you are planning to write an senior thesis, you should follow your department’s guidelines for submitting a proposal (typically late spring).

Step 4 (generally junior or senior year)

  • Share your research with the WashU community and beyond.
  • Take an independent study or senior thesis course to complete a capstone project.

Students can apply for research assistant opportunities in the following areas:

Natural Sciences

Natural scientists study physical, biological, and chemical properties and processes. They use a rigorous process of experimentation to understand naturally-occurring phenomenon and human interventions in the physical environment. Through similar methodology, engineers investigate ways for humans to better manipulate the natural world. 

Many scientists and engineers work in laboratories or groups and focus on minute aspects of a larger investigation. At the university, laboratories are operated by a Principle Investigator or PI who is typically a professor with one or more grants to pursue a project that falls under a larger scientific theme. The PI may direct the work of post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates who take responsibility for components of the project. Students enrolled in an independent study or other for-credit option during the academic year should expect to spend 9-10 hours per week in lab for each 3 units of credit, with additional time necessary for prep work, data reduction, and reading relevant journal articles. Other opportunities to serve as a general laboratory assistant may require less time.

The following timeline is an example of how you might advance through research during your undergraduate career. To develop your personalized timeline, meet with a member of the OUR Staff or talk with your adviser.

Step 1

  • Take the necessary introductory courses. Most departments have a specific sequence on their website.
  • First-year seminars give you an opportunity to explore a narrow topic in depth.
  • Enroll in a seminar that exposes you to faculty research on campus (such as Biol 181).
  • Take a course that develops your laboratory skills (such as ESE 297).

Step 2

  • Build relationships with professors by discussing their research and your interests.
  • After you have identified a topic that excites your intellectual curiosity, work with a faculty mentor to find a lab that works for you.
  • Watch for opportunities to serve as a research assistant. Talk to your adviser or department research coordinator.
  • If you are ready, find work in a lab through a for-credit research course (such as Biol 200), independent study, or Work-Study position (follow department guidelines for registration and approval).

Step 3

  • As you gain more experience with research techniques, work with your mentor to develop an independent research project.
  • Apply for funding to conduct research during the summer.
  • If you are planning to write an senior thesis, you should follow your department’s guidelines for submitting a proposal (typically late spring of the Junior year).

Step 4

  • Share your research with the WashU community and beyond.
  • Take an independent study or senior thesis course to complete a capstone project.

Social Sciences

Social science is an umbrella term covering a variety of academic disciplines that seek to explain human behavior, either from the internal perspective (psychology, economics), group dynamics (sociology, business, political science), or broad cultural forces (anthropology).

Social scientists work both qualitatively and quantitatively. Depending on the goals and methods of the research, they may seek data expressed through personal interviews or statistics. Some research may involve analyzing data from publically-available surveys. Other research may involve studying groups of people in the community. Social scientists often design a project with a control group to isolate the influence of a particular variable on individuals’ and/or groups’ behavior.

The following timeline is an example of how you might advance through research during your undergraduate career. To develop your personalized timeline, meet with a member of the OUR Staff or talk with your adviser.

Step 1 (generally your first year)

  • Take general introductory courses across fields to explore different areas of interest and approaches to knowledge.
  • First-year seminars give you an opportunity to explore a narrow topic in depth.
  • Attend lectures in areas that interest you.

Step 2 (generally sophomore year)

  • Take in-depth seminars.
  • Build relationships with your professors by discussing their work and your interests.
  • Watch for opportunities to serve as a research assistant.
  • Learn more about research methods in your field through courses (such as AMCS 375) or workshops (such as those offered by IAS).

Step 3 (generally sophomore or junior year)

  • After you have developed a topic that excites your intellectual curiosity, work with a faculty mentor to make a specific research plan.
  • Apply for funding to conduct research either in St. Louis, across the country, or abroad during the summer.
  • If you are planning to conduct research abroad during your junior year, work with your mentor to develop a plan before you depart.
  • If you are planning to write an senior thesis, you should follow your department’s guidelines for submitting a proposal (typically late spring).

Step 4 (generally junior or senior)

  • Share your research with the WashU community.
  • Take an independent study or senior thesis course to complete a capstone project.

The following websites have opportunities for undergraduate research in the social sciences: