What is Research? Why do Research?
What is research?
Research is the systematic production of (new) knowledge about some aspect of the world. The research cycle involves a variety of phases: conceiving a research question, locating the question within the landscape of existing knowledge through a literature review, designing the method of investigating the question, getting permission to conduct the investigation, collecting the requisite data and materials, analyzing this data, inferring conclusions, presenting or writing up the results, and publishing those findings. If you choose to be involved in research while at Harvard, you may find that you are involved in any or all of those phases.
Some benefits of doing research
The main benefit of research is that it enables you to acquire a deeper understanding of how we come to know what we know about the world. This understanding can lead to a deep shift in one’s thinking and a different relationship with knowledge and the world around us. However, there are many other benefits of research for which students often choose to pursue it. These include:
- acquiring greater familiarity with a topic of interest
- learning a new methodological skill
- building relationships with faculty
- exploring a concentration
- preparing for thesis research
- preparing for graduate school
- demonstrating value for future graduate schools and employers
- being productively engaged during term-time or the summer.
Is research right for you?
Whether or not conducting research is right for you will depend on your personal goals, types of available research opportunities, and the array of other choices and alternatives competing for your time. While there is no substitute for introspection, you should complement personal reflection with the information given on this website, use our office hours, and also rely on your network of advisers (faculty, proctors, tutors, TFs, PAFs and peers) to help you think through your options and make an informed decision.
Some questions to think about include the following:
- What do you want to achieve through your college education?
- What are you considering as post-college options?
- What kinds of topics or general fields/disciplines interest you?
- Is there a particular faculty-member that you want to work with?
- What kinds of activities interest you, and what kinds of activities are you good at? (This is an important consideration, since conducting experiments in a lab is very different from sitting in a library archive -- and both are different from interviewing people in the field.)
- Where would you want to do research -- at Harvard, another US-location, or abroad?
- Do you need funding support for your research?
- Do you want to do research during term-time or the summer (and during which year of your Harvard trajectory)?
Types of Opportunities: Term-Time and Summer
Term-time research options
Many courses at Harvard and neighboring schools (where you can cross-register) have a strong research component. You also have the option of designing your own research-intensive course, through consultation with a Harvard-affiliated faculty and with approval from the relevant concentration. Contact your concentration's Director of Undergraduate Studies to ask about petitioning for research credit.
Research Assistantship/ Co-curricular activity
Outside of coursework, you can pursue research as a co-curricular activity. This could either be a paid Research Assistantship or an unpaid, voluntary activity. Most students conduct research under the supervision of a Harvard-affiliated faculty, while others find mentorship with faculty at MIT or other local research centers.
Some study-abroad programs have a strong research component. Contact the Office for International Education to learn more about these opportunities.
Most concentrations offer the option of doing a thesis, for which students conduct research on a topic of their own interest. Depending on the concentration and the topic, this research may be conducted during junior year, in the summer between junior/senior year, or in senior fall.
Summer research options
RAships are a great opportunity for students with little research experience to get hands-on exposure to the research world. Assistantships can be paid or unpaid; if unpaid, you may be able to petition for credit or apply for Harvard funding through programs such as HCRP.
Some internships with government agencies, multilateral agencies, think-tanks, advocacy groups, or even industry or private sector may have a strong research component. Contact the Office of Career Services to inquire about research internships.
Summer research programs
Research programs offer a more structured research environment and have an explicit focus on student-learning. These programs often admit a cohort of undergraduates and provide living expenses and arrangements. There are many such programs at Harvard as well as outside Harvard.
Summer study abroad
Many study abroad programs during the summer have a strong research component as part of their courses or project-work. Contact the Office for International Education to learn more about these opportunities.
Thesis or other independent summer research
Many students doing a thesis conduct their thesis research during the summer; others may design independent research projects on their own.
An important note on disciplinary differences
In most of the sciences, the research process can be meaningfully divided and distributed among a group of researchers who work collaboratively. Because of this, there are many opportunities to conduct research in the sciences. In other disciplines, such as the humanities, research projects are usually carried out individually or in small groups, leading to a relative dearth of research assistantships. If you are interested in doing research in the humanities, you will need to be proactive and diligent in finding research opportunities. You may also be expected to take more ownership of the design and direction of the overall project, then conduct it under the supervision of a faculty-member.
The Critical Importance of Faculty Mentors
While you have many resources available to you for navigating the landscape or research opportunities, the most critical component of the process involves building relationships with faculty mentors.
Why faculty relationships are important
Faculty members have years experience conducting their own research as well as guiding undergraduates in pursuing research and other opportunities. As a result, they are ideally-placed to help you look for research opportunities and funding sources, give you guidance on filling out applications, mentoring you throughout the research project, and helping you integrate that learning into your broader intellectual growth.
How to find faculty members
You can learn about faculty members through classes, websites (personal, department, or lab/research center websites), research publications, news stories (e.g. through the Harvard Gazette or newsletters of research centers), campus talks/lectures, student club activities, etc. First-year students should especially consider taking a First-Year Seminar, as those are a wonderful opportunity to engage deeply with senior faculty members.
How to connect with faculty and cultivate a mentoring relationship
Once you have found a faculty member whose interests align with yours, reach out to them during office hours or schedule an appointment. (Note: to be effective, emails should have a short, descriptive subject, be professional (with proper capitalization, grammar, formal tone, addressed by proper salutation and last name, etc.), and -- briefly, in 1-2 short paragraphs -- explain who you are and why you want to connect with them.) Once you have met with the faculty member, continue to establish regular contact, even if you are not taking their class, by visiting them during office hours or inviting them to student-faculty dinners in your house.
Remember: Don't be intimidated! Most faculty members love getting to know students and helping them to explore their field.
Research and Academic Credit
If you are conducting research and would like to receive academic credit for it, please keep in mind that research projects that are funded by fellowships or other awards CANNOT receive academic credit. (Note: in some cases, you can get funding for incidental expenses related to your research -- like traveling to present your research at a conference, etc. -- and still receive academic credit for the research.) If you have a question about whether or not your project is eligible for academic credit, please contact the appropriate academic department/concentration. (For the policy statement regarding this issue, please see, in Information for Faculty, the note titled “Student Compensation and Credit for Course Work” in the ‘Course Administration’ section.)
Research can be approved for academic credit through the following options:
- Course 91r
You can enroll for 91r. This enables you to conduct independent research under the direction of faculty. The research must be approved before enrollment by the head tutor or Director of Undergraduate Studies (depending on the academic department). The "r" indicates that the course may be repeated for credit, i.e. you can take 91r again in future semesters to get credit for additional research.The parameters for 91r, when offered, are set by academic departments, and you should discuss this option with an adviser in the department.
- Tutorials (other 9Xr courses)
These courses are designed to prepare you for thesis research in a primary concentration, which must be approved in advance by a thesis advisor in the academic department. Like 91r, the "r" here indicates that the course may be repeated for credit; however, there may be other appropriate tutorial courses within an academic department that reflect a specific course year (for instance, sophomore tutorial versus advanced tutorial).
- Independent Study
These courses are designed for research (or other academic study) not already available through regular coursework offered by the department. A plan to undertake Independent Study requires a petition signed by the Resident Dean and a faculty member/concentration official. More information about independent study may be found in the Harvard Undergraduate Student Handbook.
Ethical Conduct in Research
Ethics in research
Ethical conduct underlies every aspect of research, from conceiving the question to collecting and analyzing the data, to sharing the results. Harvard undergraduates are expected to become familiar with their discipline’s ethical standards and to conduct their research activities with the highest level of integrity and commitment to excellence. You are likely to receive information of which you should take particular note about research integrity in concentration courses and as a natural extension of lab-based research. You are encouraged to ask questions about proper practices and procedures, to be organized and accurate in all of your research activities, to get safety and ethics training early on, and to follow the directions of your faculty mentors and other research staff closely.
Policies governing research involving humans and animals
While all kinds of research, and all aspects of a project, involve ethical dimensions, these dimensions are particularly critical when the research involves humans or animals. In order to ensure ethical standards in such research, federal regulations require that such research be reviewed and approved before data-collection can begin. This regulation is strictly enforced, such that any data obtained without prior approval cannot be used for writing a paper, fulfilling coursework, or any other purpose. This stipulation -- that approval be obtained prior to collection of data -- applies not only to clinical or laboratory studies, but also to social science and humanities research involving the use of humans or vertebrate animals.
When the research involves human subjects, advance approvals must be obtained from Harvard’s FAS Committee on the Use of Human Subjects. In many cases, undergraduate students may get a waiver if the work contributes to the data collection effort of the faculty sponsor. However, whether or not the project is independent or part of a larger research endeavor, students and faculty should ascertain whether the project requires review. If your research involves working with human subjects, please visit the Undergraduate Research Training Portal (URTP) for more information on how to get started.
When the research involves vertebrate animals, advance approval must be obtained from the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) of the Harvard school in which the research is engaged. Such research -- even ‘independent’ projects -- must be affiliated with the laboratory research of a principal investigator. It is the faculty involved on the research, not the undergraduate, who is expected to obtain approval for any research involving vertebrate animals. So, please be sure to seek guidance for your research project from your faculty host. For additional information, please see Faculty of Arts and Science Research Administration Services IACUC website.
Research Integrity training
Throughout the year, URAF organizes training seminars called Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). The goal of this seminar is to offer undergraduates the foundational awareness about ethical issues involved in research. The seminar also fulfills the research ethics training obligated by the National Science Foundation. (NSF now requires that proposals specify how undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows involved in the research will be given research integrity training). URAF keeps a record of all undergraduates who have participated in this seminar (regardless of whether they are Harvard students or not). Upon request, URAF can issue an email certifying a student’s attendance and consequent fulfilment of research integrity training requirements.
Students can also peruse online course materials available from the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative. After registering and selecting "Harvard University," you may choose the RCR course for the disciplinary area of your research. Undergraduates are encouraged to complete the modules for general responsible conduct, data acquisition and management, and publication practices. (Other modules listed are intended for more advanced researchers and faculty.) Once you have completed the modules and responded to the general test questions, your record will reflect that you have completed the on-line training.
For further information
This section seeks to impress the critical importance of ethical issues in the conduct of research. It also highlights resources available to undergraduates in this regard. More detailed information about institutional and federal research policies may be found at the websites of the FAS Research Administration Services, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. Questions about undergraduate training in the responsible conduct of research may be directed to Greg Llacer.