Undergraduate research experience will allow you to develop professionally and personally in ways not possible through traditional lecture and laboratory courses. According to the Council on Undergraduate Research, you stand to gain deeper knowledge of research techniques and processes, opportunities to apply classroom learning in real-world contexts, practice with experimental design, significant use of scientific literature, excellent networking opportunities with faculty members and professional researchers, and first-hand insight into making valuable contributions to a field of study.
With curiosity and an open mind, you will soon discover that there are various resources available when searching for an undergraduate research experience. The key is taking the time to EXPLORE and find the opportunities that best fit your interests. The information on this site is intended to 1) help you understand how Independent Research/Independent Study projects work here at St. Olaf, and 2) help you learn how to search for alternative research opportunities through established research programs or in industry.
An important message for Oles: Undergraduate research is not just for the natural sciences!
Undergraduate research could involve...
Research can be used to generate new knowledge in ANY scholarly discipline! Students in the Social Sciences,
Humanities, and Arts are encouraged to seek out and explore research opportunities.
What is Independent Study (IS) and Independent Research (IR)?
IS/IR at St. Olaf College refers to research that allows you to investigate issues of personal interest. IS/IR is not a substitute for any regular course but a special kind of educational experience. You identify an issue and coordinate your project with a St. Olaf faculty member. To pursue IS/IR, you must have some prior course work or other background learning relevant to the proposed independent project. Independent work is a privilege extended only if those involved agree that you are prepared to benefit, that the proposal is well planned, and that the burden is not too great on the faculty supervisor. Individual academic departments may have additional guidelines which can be found at department websites.
Sophomores, juniors and seniors in any major may pursue IS/IR credit at St. Olaf. Generally speaking, IS projects are 200 level and involve inquiry and background study of a topic of interest to you. Independent Research projects are 300 level and involve the formation of an experimental design, collection of data, and interpretation of results. You present IR results to others to show any discovery or new knowledge on the topic.
What is Directed Undergraduate Research (DUR)?
From the Academic Catalog:
396 Directed Undergraduate Research
This course provides a comprehensive research opportunity, including an introduction to relevant background material, technical instruction, identification of a meaningful project, and data collection. The topic is determined by the faculty member in charge of the course and may relate to his/her research interests. Prerequisite: determined by individual instructor. Offered based on department decision.
During the academic school year, DUR opportunities are listed in the Class and Lab section on the Student Information System (SIS), course number 396. Students are encouraged to discuss these opportunities with associated faculty, as space is limited to few students.
There are multiple advantages of undergraduate research, including:
- Knowledge of the methods of research
- Completion of an independent research project of personal interest
- Connection with professionals in the field
- Development of problem-solving and other transferable skills
- Career/vocational reflection
- Exposure to graduate school programs in some cases
Do I need undergraduate research to continue to graduate school?
Although undergraduate research may not always be an explicit requirement for graduate schools, the strongest candidates for admission have exemplary immersion within their chosen fields. Often one of the best ways to demonstrate this is undergraduate research. Those considering a PhD program in the natural sciences should consider undergraduate research a requirement for graduate study. Ask admissions personnel from graduate programs of interest whether undergraduate research would be beneficial for admission. St. Olaf faculty members are also a great resource for learning more about how graduate schools value undergraduate research experience.
Since St. Olaf is not nationally known as a "research university," will I be at a disadvantage in applying for research positions?
St. Olaf offers excellent research opportunities for students during the school year and summer. Talk with faculty to see who is conducting research. If you are looking for a position outside of St. Olaf, your education can be one of the best assets you have as a candidate for research. Employers and graduate schools view liberal arts students as better equipped in problem-solving, critical thinking, and written/oral communication skills relative to students at larger research universities. Your liberal arts education often places you outside your comfort zone and emphasizes interdisciplinary experience. Your ability to demonstrate your skills in a wide range of academic and professional environments will set you above other candidates.
Can I get academic credit for undergraduate research?
Research opportunities for academic credit are determined by academic departments. Check with a department's Academic Administrative Assistant or with faculty members to see if research is supported or available. Research outside St. Olaf could be counted as an academic internship. Find more information about registering for academic internship credit here .
You can start your search by exploring and evaluating your discipline of study and research interests. Resources and opportunities will vary greatly depending on your academic interests and goals. Generally speaking, you can start your search by exploring which sector(s) you may want to work within (e.g. private, nonprofit, government), as well as which field(s) hold opportunities (e.g. higher education, industry).
Here are a few examples to consider:
- Higher Education
- Course-based: upper-level courses in many majors offer research projects in the curriculum. Consider in particular those courses which integrate academic civic engagement (find examples here).
- Summer research: opportunities available at St. Olaf and other institutions and organizations (e.g. Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) through the National Science Foundation (NSF)).
- Partnering with non profits, government agencies or representatives, or community organizations in need of research assistance.
- Research assistant positions with for profit employers, typically posted on a company's website.
Identifying your goals will also aid in the search process for a research experience. Knowing the answers to these questions can provide the basis for the start of your exploration. You don't have to have answers to every question right away!
- What do I hope to accomplish with undergraduate research?
- What academic goals and which career objectives do I want to work towards?
- What interests do I want to explore?
- What skills do I want to use and improve?
- How do I want to apply my academic coursework?
- When do I want to conduct undergraduate research?
- Where do I want to conduct an undergraduate research experience (consider both geographic location AND type of organization)?
In general, you would search for an established research opportunity much like you would search for an internship or job. You commonly need a resume and cover letter to apply for these positions, and may also be interviewed. St. Olaf faculty members are a great first point of contact for identifying research opportunities. They may share opportunities and also refer you to other resources.
How do I choose where to apply for undergraduate research?
Start by focusing on institutions that share your areas of interest. Identify possible mentors based on their current research interests. The faculty pages of college and university websites are a great place to locate recent studies. Additionally, professional associations' websites will offer insight into current research and opportunities to become involved. Often programs will ask you to demonstrate why you want to be involved in the field; it helps if you are genuinely interested in their studies. Know the field! Connect with other students and faculty in pursuit of similar research inquiries. Identify the recent accomplishments of professionals in the study area by attending talks and reading published work. Showcasing your awareness of the field is one of the best strategies for landing a research position. Beyond the topic, you should consider other questions related to the research experience: Will you get paid for your research? Are travel/housing accommodations provided? Will there be an opportunity to connect with professionals in the field (seminars, conferences, etc.)? Does the program include explicit exposure to graduate programs? Ask these questions in order to assess a research opportunity and your fit for the experience.
Here are some tips as you start exploring research opportunities…
- Think outside the box! There are multiple resources to search for research opportunities, including:
- St. Olaf faculty
- Site Directories by Major - view organizations where other Oles have interned in the past
- Students who have participated in a research program - ask faculty members within the department for referrals
- St. Olaf Alumni, via the Online Alumni Directory
- Professional Associations
- Department websites of other colleges/universities
- Start early! Some research programs have rolling admissions, and deadlines for summer research may fall as early as December.
- Avoid turning in your application materials on the application due date. You want to be noticed before organizations receive big stacks of applications.
- Carefully read any eligibility requirements. Make sure you have the qualifications necessary to land a research position and articulate those in your application materials.
- Match your research interests with those of the programs to which you apply. While any opportunity will be helpful for giving you first-hand experience with the process of research, positions of special interest to you will allow for deeper career reflection. Citing a keen interest in the topics will increase the likelihood that you will be selected for a position.
- Contact faculty for letters of recommendation at least two weeks ahead of the due date. Choose people who know you well enought to write about you! Make sure they are willing to write recommendations before listing them as references on the application. Nothing is more embarrassing than a faculty member receiving an email for something they haven’t agreed to do. You must coach the faculty members who provide recommendations - they want to be coached! Give them information about the research position, copies of your application materials, a summary of the skills or abilities the employers are looking for, why you are interested in the opportunity, etc.
- Connect with potential research mentors before turning in your application. Clear up any questions you have about the research program. Be thoughtful about your questions. Think about the research topics and logistical factors (e.g. regular meetings/check-ups with supervisor or relaxed mentor style). If applying to a posted position or established research program, look for a FAQ section on the website to make sure you don’t ask questions that are already addressed online.
- Come to the Piper Center and have your application materials critiqued by a Peer Advisor or professional staff member!
What types of research projects have St. Olaf students completed in the past, what have they gained from their experience, and what advice could they give me?
St. Olaf students from various academic disciplines have provided the Piper Center with narratives regarding their undergraduate research experiences. Their stories can be found here.
- St. Olaf's Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry Program (CURI) - research in the Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Natural Science & Mathematics
- Use the Academic Catalog and Class & Lab Schedule to search for course-based research opportunities
- Consider Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) courses
- Undergraduate Summer Legal Scholars Program
At other institutions/organizations:
- National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- National Science Foundation (NSF)
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- American Mathematical Society (AMS)
- Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)
What other options exist for gaining research experience?
You may also apply to do research through an established research program. This could be through St. Olaf, through another college's or university's research program, or through a research-based internship with an employer.
If you know of additional resources or if you have participated in undergraduate research and would be willing to serve as a resource for other students, please contact the Piper Center at x3268. We would like to grow this list of resources!
Opportunities by Academic Discipline
Natural Sciences and Mathematics:
- Biology and Biomedical Studies
- Computer Science
- Exercise Science
I finished my application, what next?
After submission of application materials, you will want to take the following steps to connect with admissions advisors, selection committees, or employers:
- If a date is not given regarding application decisions, follow-up with a phone call or email approximately 7-10 days after the application deadline. If application decision dates are listed, follow-up after the posted dates.
- Ask any additional questions you may have about the research program, even while application decisions are being made. This will reinforce your interest in the program. You can also use the opportunity to confirm that all of your application materials were received.
- Always make sure to thank admissions faculty and staff for their time in considering your application, and write thank you notes to faculty members who wrote letters of recommendation on your behalf.
Come in to the Piper Center with your needs or questions related to your search for undergraduate research opportunities! Walk-ins available Monday – Friday, 9am to 5pm during the academic year. Summer hours vary – call x3268.