Whether it’s for medical school or graduate school, or it’s just something you’re interested in pursuing, finding research can be both a compelling and a daunting task. Especially for younger students, it can be difficult to find out what kinds of research topics you’d be interested in, or what kinds of resources you can use to get more information on these topics. This article is intended to help guide your search, so that you can start doing great work on a subject that fascinates you sooner!
There is a huge variety of research happening in the natural sciences; at UT Austin alone, the College of Natural Sciences conducting 91 major categories of research! It might seem impossible to pick from this vast array of possibilities, but the university offers several resources to help students demystify a seemingly endless web of information. One great web resource for students is the College of Natural Sciences Research Areas page; it contains detailed information about every professor currently conducting research in all 91 areas, and provides contact information so that you can easily get in touch with professors whose work seems interesting. Another common resource is EUREKA, a repository of current research happening in all disciplines at UT, even those outside of the natural sciences. This source has drawn criticism for being outdated and uninformative, but is currently being overhauled (thanks to members of the Natural Sciences Council!), so it will be a constantly improving resource in the coming months and years.
Being faced with all this information can be just as daunting as having no information at all – how do you choose from all the topics that seem interesting? There are a few ways to find out. First, if you find a major research area that looks compelling – perhaps because you’ve studied related content in a previous course, or because you strongly support the goals of the research – dig a bit deeper, and find out which professors are working on projects that might interest you. Many of these professors will have uploaded previous papers to their websites, and reading these papers can help you understand whether you’d be interested in pursuing research in a given professor’s area of interest. It’s ok if you don’t understand some of the content in these papers; many professors do research on highly specialized topics, the intricacies of which may not be covered in introductory and even upper-division classes. In addition to giving you an idea of the research a professor is doing, mentioning to professors by email or in office hours that you have studied their work indicates that you have a high level of interest and will be committed to understanding and contributing to their research in the future.
Another way to become familiar with specific research topics is to seek out and attend talks at UT in which research is being discussed. Professors regularly take the time to discuss their research in a relatively layman manner to the public and academic community. For example, the Computer Science department regularly hosts professors who discuss research in topics like Artificial Intelligence or Algorithms, and the same is true of most other departments in CNS. Even if you don’t want to work with the professor giving the talk, you can get a sense of the kind of work he or she is doing, and whether you could benefit from seeking out similar work.
Seeking out research opportunities is never an easy task, but it doesn’t have to be an impossible one either. Luckily, there are plenty of resources on campus and online that can help familiarize you with the opportunities available, and the ways to take advantage of them. An estimated 89% of undergraduates end up participating in research at some point in their careers – hopefully, the above advice helps you become one of them.