Getting Started in Research FAQ

Find answers to commonly asked questions about getting started in research here at WashU.

About getting started

How can I get started in research?

The key to getting started in research is finding a subject you are passionate about and making connections with faculty who share that interest. Get to know professors, teaching assistants, and upperclassmen in your courses or in some of the departments. Find out what kind of research is happening on campus and how students get involved. Take advantage of what's going on around you. The University is full of lectures and colloquia every week. You never know what topic might spark your interest!

This fall, you can start out by coming to OUR-sponsored events like the Undergraduate Research Symposium and meet faculty and student researchers in all disciplines. In the meantime, you can do background research on WashU faculty.  Identify potential faculty research mentors who are working in a field of study that interests you.  All WashU faculty members have brief descriptions of their research interests in their biographies on their department websites. You could reach out to them and request to have a phone or video conversation, or just get some reading recommendations.  How you find a mentor may vary slightly depending on your field of interest, and this is a step you should probably pursue once you are on campus. You can learn more about the process on finding a mentor on our website here.

Can I conduct research as a first-year student? Are there specific courses we need to take before starting biology/medical research? Are there first year opportunities for research in humanities? How quickly can I get started?

A student can get involved in research as a first-year in a lot of different ways. That being said, it is important to emphasize that the timing of when a student gets started often varies significantly by discipline. For example, typically in the lab-based environments, you may not need any experience and a lab group will bring you in and teach you techniques.  You will work at those for a while and then learn new ones, and you will essentially grow up in the lab-based environment.

In the Humanities, by comparison, the mode of inquiry encourages the student to evolve their level of understanding in courses first before taking on any kind of research experience. Doing this enables you to understand the discipline first and then go on to opportunities for research within your area of interest.

Keep in mind that different academic fields pursue research with different methodologies, in different environments, and toward different ends. Some projects may cross disciplinary boundaries. To learn more about what research looks like in different areas, explore our Identifying Your Area of Interest tab on our website. In terms of first-year opportunities, you may want to check out the variety of first-year programs, some of which are explicitly research-focused and others that will give you a great chance to get to know a subject area and faculty member really well and will ultimately give you insight into research in a discipline.  

What percentage of students conduct research?

From our WashU Senior Survey data, nearly 60% of graduating students report that they have engaged in some kind of undergraduate research experience in Arts and Sciences. Participation does vary by school.

How do current COVID-19 restrictions impact research at WashU?

Hear how WashU undergraduates have continued to conduct research in the COVID-era, and find more information on COVID-related policies, procedures, and opportunities here

Finding a mentor

What is a research mentor?

A mentor is a faculty member responsible for guiding and advising you as you conduct your research. Different mentors hold a wide variety of positions in the University, such as professor, advisor, principal investigator (P.I.), etc. The student-mentor relationship is potentially one of the most important relationships in your academic career, and perhaps even in your future profession. Treat your search for a mentor like a job search. Be persistent and remain open to all opportunities!

How do I find a faculty mentor? What is the process of getting started in research at the med campus like?

You can start out by coming to OUR-sponsored events like the Undergraduate Research Symposium and meet faculty and student researchers in all disciplines. In the meantime, you can do background research on WashU faculty.  Identify potential faculty research mentors who are working in a field of study that interests you. 

All WashU faculty members have brief descriptions of their research interests in their biographies on their department websites, including Biology and WashU Medical School faculty. Additionally, mentors are listed with each student abstract in publications produced by the Office of Undergraduate Research. Remember, how you find a mentor may vary slightly depending on your field of interest. Learn more on our Finding a Mentor section to help you get started. 

Do you match students with mentors?

The OUR does not match students with mentors, rather, we provide tools and resources that allow you to build relationships with potential mentors. You have to be interested in your mentor’s research questions, and in order to discern if a mentor would be a good fit, you have to engage with them to see whether you would really like to work with this individual and carry out the kind of research they are conducting. Check out our Finding a Mentor section on our website to learn more. 

Funding opportunities

Who is eligible for funding through the OUR? Students from any discipline/school?

The OUR supports all WashU undergraduates in every discipline and school.

What kinds of funding are available from the Office of Undergraduate Research?

Our office has several awards that we offer for full-time summer undergraduate research experiences; the WashU Summer Undergraduate Research Award, and the WashU Biology Summer Undergraduate Fellowship (BioSURF). You can learn more about both of these programs on our website.  Our Office also provides a conference travel award for students to present their work at a national conference and an Academic Year Undergraduate Research Award for rising Seniors.  Our website also provides resources to guide you towards additional WashU and non-WashU funding and programs on the Funding & Programs page.  

What are the different research arrangements—is research conducted for credit or payment or federal work study, or is it volunteer?

There are a wide variety of research arrangements for undergraduates, many of which you can learn about on our website here). You can conduct research for credit, research for payment and, if you are work-study eligible, you can also have your work-study funding applied to a research position. 

The OUR provides awards for students to conduct research in the summer full-time or you can build research into your schedule as a student during the semester and research for credit by registering for academic credit through an academic department.

Research for pay is mediated directly with a faculty mentor. Many positions are paid, especially on the Medical Campus; but those arrangements must be negotiated directly with your mentor.  Our office facilitates by providing you with guidance on how to find and connect with faculty members, advise students on how to have conversations about payment or credit options, and support you once you get going with additional summer funding, presentation opportunities, and even publication opportunities.

If I am doing research for credit, how much time should I expect to devote to research? Is it possible to conduct research and be involved in other extracurricular activities (e.g., study abroad, work a job)?

There are a lot of different arrangements and ways to engage in research. Many students pursue research and study abroad for a semester or participate in Athletics. Time commitments vary significantly – from 3 hours being on the low side to 20 being an extremely intense research commitment. The amount of time you devote will be driven largely by you and your priorities, in line with discussions with your faculty mentor. You want to be on the same page about how much time you are devoting to your research work. If you are conducting research for credit, you can build research into your schedule just like you would a course. For example, you could research for about 10 hours a week for three units of credit. 

There are also arrangements where you could conduct research as a research assistant. In this scenario, a faculty person hires you to collect or analyze data. If you are work-study eligible, you may be able to apply work-study funds to your research endeavors. If you find a faculty person with whom to work, then Student Financial Services and your faculty mentor’s departmental administrator should be able to provide details on how to set this up logistically. 

Can I do research?

Can I do research outside of my major? Are there opportunities for interdisciplinary research?

Yes, there are opportunities to do interdisciplinary research, as you can see in our spotlight feature on Kayce Sorbello’s research combining international area studies and anthropology.  Kayce was even mentored by two faculty members in different disciplines. 

We've seen a dance major work with robotics professors to find a connection between two disciplines; and we’ve seen a double major education and architecture student weave her knowledge into both areas to construct a research experience. There is a wide variety of opportunities, and it is truly only limited by your imagination. If you develop an interdisciplinary interest, you will find or our Office can guide you in finding faculty across fields that you can either bring together to collaborate or you will collaborate with them as your ideas about your questions evolve. 

I am a student in the social sciences OR humanities OR public policy. Can I do research? What might that look like?

Wherever your interests lie, research is absolutely a possibility for you. Finding a research opportunity is only as limited as your imagination, because if you have a question, chances are, you can find someone who is doing work in or related to that area. Once your questions become grounded in an academic discipline, then you will have the opportunity to get connected with faculty who can help you understand what the means of inquiry in the arts, social sciences or humanities look like to help you pursue your research questions rigorously. 

Can you do multiple research opportunities, and do you have to do the same one the whole time you are at WashU?

Not only can you undertake different research experiences in your time at WashU, but in fact, conducting research in different areas or with different faculty during your four years of undergraduate study is the norm.  Your interests will likely continue to evolve, to specialize and morph in unexpected ways.  As this occurs, it is incredibly common for students to take the skills they have learned in research so far and then apply them and develop them further in a new area.  This exploration of your interests is encouraged by our office and by faculty.

Can I do research outside of WashU?

Yes. We provide information on many different opportunities for students, including non-WashU research opportunities, on our website. Institutions around the country, host Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) soliciting students from other universities to come and have a research experience at that institution as a way to potentially try out the institution for graduate school or get connected to faculty that the students might work with in post-graduate education and research. 

Additionally, our office can offer you an opportunity to do research outside of WashU. For example, we have funded students to travel to access archives, conduct ethnographic research, and work in laboratories abroad. That being said, you must keep in mind that for any OUR-funded research experience, we do require that you are mentored by a WashU faculty member.

Can I present my research or publish/co-author?

Yes. Twice a year, the OUR hosts the Undergraduate Research Symposium. This is a forum for students to present their research findings and a celebration of the diversity of research that takes place at WashU.

We also offer publication opportunities for many of our students through our WashU Undergraduate Research Digest (WUURD) and WashU Senior Honors Thesis Abstracts (WUSHTA) books. Many committed undergraduate researchers gain authorship on papers with their faculty mentors or graduate with the materials for a single-authored peer-reviewed journal article. Our Office provides the opportunity through our annual ethics workshops to help students understand what authorship entails and how it varies by discipline.  Whether or not you graduate with a publication, there are many opportunities to contribute to the forward momentum of research in a discipline, expanding and creating new knowledge that can be shared widely.

Still have more questions? Want to learn more about what research is like in different disciplines? Check out our series of faculty panels about research and how undergraduates can get involved in STEM (chemistry, engineering, math and physics), biologythe humanities, and social sciences.