Debunking the MYTHS of Undergraduate Research

Misconception #1: Research is only for the sciences/ labs

A. Research at its core is about learning how to learn within a discipline. Research is how we create new knowledge within all disciplines. In humanities and social sciences, research is often referred to as scholarly activities or professional scholarship, but remains a critical inquiry process. Investigating phenomena, ideas, theories, texts, social structures, behaviors and culturally significant events and practices are the types of exploration, analyses, and evaluation that scholars in the humanities and social sciences perform as research. Thus, many research opportunities exist in the humanities and the social sciences. Research in the humanities and social sciences comes in many forms: a traditional research paper, an honors thesis, a conference presentation, a community project, a collaborative class project, or creative processes in writing, arts, and performance. The visual and performing arts also offer creative answers to research questions that are significant to the human experience.

Misconception #2: Research is only for the “best” students with the highest GPAs.

It is easy to tell yourself that only people with perfect grades can do that work and make those presentations, but it is false.  Doing research is a valuable way to learn.  Since a big focus of undergraduate research experiences is about process, learning through research has been demonstrated to have greater effects on students struggling in classes.  This is partially because research and classes do not always require same skills or student strengths since research is about exploring the unknown and finding new solutions rather than seeking confirmation of the “right” answer.  The evaluation tools are not the same and thus require different approaches.  Undergraduate research is a high impact practice because it impacts ALL students and helps build confidence in their ability to learn and succeed.

Misconception #3: Students who do research knows all the answers “QUICKLY”

Research is a process of scholarly investigation—so often we see the results of weeks, years, or a lifetime of work summed up in a single sentence in a textbook and think of the end result as the research when actually it is in the process that led to that piece of information that research happens.  Research is time consuming, and often frustrating as things don’t works as they are expected to, but can also be incredibly rewarding when you add something new to the vast store of human knowledge. 

Misconception #4: Student researchers have to solve all the problems by themselves

Faculty mentorship in the research process is very important.  Too often novice scholars get misled into thinking that “ownership” of the project means isolation and individual efforts.  Collaboration, mentorship, and support are all important during the research process.  Sharing ideas and then receiving and using feedback to improve your ideas are essential to the research process.  Support from colleagues and friends also helps make the frustrations feel less lonely.  Collegial support can help keep you motivated and focused.  Finally mentorship brings wisdom and a broader view.  Sometimes a researcher can get lost in their focus on a tree missing the forest around them.  The mentor helps refocus on broader context and can help save time and energy through their experience.

Misconception #5: Research can be scheduled like a class

Although you can and should set aside specific hours of your week to work on research, there will be many times when your project will hit unexpected snags—perhaps you come upon a passage that is particularly difficult to translate, or an antibody doesn’t work like it is supposed to, or the person you are supposed to be interviewing leaves on an unexpected trip.  A researcher needs to be flexible, and accept that the project may go off in unexpected directions—that’s one of the frustrating and exciting parts of the process. Some weeks you might be able to make only limited progress, while other weeks you may advance by leaps and bounds. Successful researchers become good at managing their time and are able to keep an eye on the progress of the project as a whole rather than getting too tied up in the frustrations of one piece.

One other piece to remember, especially when just starting out, is that whatever time frame is suggested by the protocol or your mentor, it will take longer.  Maybe even twice as long.  As you get more experience, you also get faster.  Nonetheless, the sustained focus and thinking needed to be successful in research doesn’t easily fit into short (i.e. 50 minutes) defined time blocks.

Misconception #6: The only thing that matters in research is the results/data

Doing research, especially at the undergraduate level, is about learning the process, dedication, and values that encompass the entire research experience. Simply put, this unique learning experience is about doing research.  While results/data output are what you work to produce, it is only one part (and arguably a small part) of the overall learning experience.

Misconception #7: You shouldn’t talk about your research project until you know all the answers

You will NEVER know all the answers.  That is why there is a “re” is research.  Every answer produces multiple new questions.  The longer you wait to talk about your research with a mentor, colleague, or friend, the harder it is keep making progress.  The dialogue, especially between mentor and student, is essential for refining ideas, learning the process, and gaining the wisdom that will help you find success in your research.

Misconception #8: The answers to research questions are known/should be known before you start

It is rare that our research is entirely exploratory. We usually embark on our research projects with a set of expectations related to the question we choose to pursue. Sometimes we have competing expectations and the purpose of our work is to help resolve this tension. If findings do not end up matching with expectations, this is perfectly acceptable. Often these projects end with thoughts about how these null findings might help inform the next project.

Misconception #9: My professor will worry about/plan for all the ethical aspects of my project

The role of the professor is to help you structure your research experience and make sure you are equipped with the necessary skills to carry out the project. The learning experience becomes much more robust when you take ownership of the project, makes decisions, make progress and check in with your professor from time-to-time to report on developments. It is far less desirable for all those involved and the learning process to require directions at each step.

Misconception #10: My professor will tell me exactly what to do and when to do it

If this were true, it would defeat the purpose of an undergraduate research experience.  The experience is about the process more than the results.  Your professor could probably do the same work a lot faster than you because of their experience.  So they might guide you and help you, but not dictate exact specification to you.  Your professor is a good researcher because they made mistakes and learned from them.  The same experience with mistakes and challenges is needed for you to grow and gain independence as a scholar.

Misconception #11: My professor and I are the only people who care about my project

Research can only flourish when it is shared with others. Its purpose is to enlighten and help others in their own projects. Even when you are the only one working on your project, you are still a member of a bigger community of researchers. You just might not suspect that at first. Chances are that somewhere at another college or university in the nation or even somewhere else in the world, someone is working on a related project. Sharing research with people other than your professor can seem intimidating at first. However, the feedback you receive from others can be very important for improving the quality of your research, for honing it and thus making it more meaningful. Unless your research has been exposed in a larger venue, you simply do not know whether anybody cares about your project or not. Chances are that there are people out there who do care and who are curious about your project. As a serious researcher, it’s your duty to find out.

Misconception #12: Research can be accomplished in cramming sessions like studying for an exam.

Research is at its heart a process that takes time. A deep and thorough understanding of the primary literature in your area is something that can take years to develop, and certainly can’t be forced through a couple of cramming sessions. Each new piece of information you read or hear or discern through experimentation is added to all the other pieces already floating around in your head—eventually those pieces start to take on a recognizable shape, but that process takes slow and steady work. It may seem like a monumental task at first, but if you keep at it, your work will pay dividends.

Misconception #13: Research is only for the “upperclass” students who finished all their coursework in the major and are going to graduate school.

It is easy to convince yourself that only people with lots of experience can be successful in research, but it is false.  Doing research is a valuable way to learn and the earlier you start, the more open to new ideas you tend to be since you’re not constrained by the perceptions of existing knowledge.  Since a big focus of undergraduate research experiences is about process, learning through research has been demonstrated to have greater effects on less experienced students.  This is partially because research allows newer students to learn while doing and to have tangible connections between their learning and their research.  Also as mentioned above, research takes time and skills develop over time. The sooner you start, the more time you have to become proficient.  While those “bitten by the research bug” often head to graduate school, the professional skills you learn through research are important to a wide range of careers. Research builds career readiness skills that the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) advocates for every undergraduate to gain through their college experience.