How to Start a Research Project in College

John Ramos

During our College years, we’re usually exposed to knowledge we need to master in order to perform well on a quiz or exam.

We’re asked to understand and memorize facts. We’re tested on our ability to answer questions about the study material. We share our opinion on subjects we’ve studied.

In the real world, however, critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity are much more valuable than specialized knowledge alone.

Working on a research project during your college years is a great way to fill this gap. You get to experience Science firsthand and to develop unique skills.

I am a medical student and so I chose Neuroradiology as my research field. I used computer algorithms to analyze brain MRI scans and detect pathological changes across large number of subjects. It was a crossover between Medicine and Engineering, thus forcing me out of my comfort zone. Armed with knowledge from existing literature, my mission was to find innovative ways to answer the questions no one had answered yet.

From Engineering to Psychology, there are plenty of opportunities to start your own independent project or to collaborate with an existing research group in your college.

Choosing your project

The more entrepreneurial and risk-prone students take matters into their own hands and start their own project. I’ve done this in High School and, backed by a great team, I made it work.

All the planning, thinking, fundraising and recruiting is your responsibility, but, in turn, you get full credit for your work. Successful projects can be enrolled in specialized Young Scientist contests, potencially adding lots of value to your CV.

You should follow this route if you have the human and material resources available to you. Imagine you had an idea for a new gadget, app, software or algorithm. You can definitely pursue the idea if you or your partners have the technical skills necessary to make it a reality.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly legitimate (and more common) to associate with experts who are already conducting research in your field of studies. I’m sure there are several research groups at your institution who’d love to work with curious and motivated students such as yourself.

Before deciding in which project you want to partake, be sure to do your homework and figure out who the key people are, what were their latest findings (take a look on PubMed or Google Scholar) and their main fields of interest.

The First Steps

After reflecting on the project you want to develop, it’s time to take action.

If you’re working independently, start by planning your endeavor: divide tasks, map out resources, schedule milestones and mitigate risks. Solid planning will save dozens of hours in the long run; it’s a question of organization and professionalism. Read more on Student Project Management here.

Teachers are usually excited to help. They give out advice and point you in the right direction if you need funding, lab equipment or their technical insight.

Of course, if you intend to join an existing research group, much of the planning, funding and scheduling is taken care of. Your job is to contact the stakeholders of the group and prove your value as a prospective team member.

Researchers are often eager to work with students. On one hand, you’ll do a lot of grunt work for them (but hey, that’s how it works). On the other, researchers have annual education goals and it’s of their best interest to participate in educating the scientists of tomorrow.

Don’t rely on those two factors alone, though. It’s important to prove that you can bring value to the table. Did you contribute to any other projects before? Are you the president of any club or student society? Do you have any experience working on this field before?

If your answer was no to any of these questions, don’t worry, there are still creative ways to shine. My personal favorite is to write a quality review article on the research group’s field of interest. It shows that you’re both skilled in academic writing and passionate about the subject.

Whether you get to the influential people in the group via networking or just cold emailing, be cordial and professional. Ask for their support in exchange for loyalty and your added value. An email (accompanied by your CV and a general motivation letter) would go like this:

Dear [Recipient],

My name is [your name] and I am a [your field of studies] student at [your institution].

I am passionate about Science and I am interested in participating in the [your favorite project]. [their field of studies] caught my eye because [your reason]. I would love to work with your team, if you would have me.

I’ve previously worked with [previous experience]. I think that my previous experience with this field will allow me to contribute to your projects’ success. It would also be an excellent learning experience for an aspiring scientist like me.

I have attached my CV and a motivation letter.

I am at your disposal for a face-to-face or Skype meeting. [contact details]

Thank you and best regards,

[Your signature]

Keep in mind that most key people in Science are busy and won’t answer all of your emails (they get hundreds per day). Don’t be afraid to go after them, either by phone, social media or showing up in person. Avoid getting arrested though.

Doing Science

Once you get in, be sure to:

  • Keep updated. Visit PubMed or Google Scholar regularly and search for the relevant keywords to your field. Know the theoretical concepts well, so that you can think critically and get new ideas.
  • Get organized. Schedule your week so that you can work on your project regularly. Consistency is the key for great results.
  • Be loyal. Don’t give up if you don’t get short-term results. Science has ups and downs; sometimes you’ll make progress, sometimes you won’t. Don’t abandon your team just because things aren’t going according to plan. Instead, show as much gratitude as you can.
  • Document your journey. Keeping a lab notebook or similar is standard practice for researchers. It allows you to document the whole project, from daily tasks and protocols to notes and fresh ideas.

I’ve been working as an assistant researcher for more than one year now and it has been a wonderful experience. I’m going to publish my own paper soon and my name will show up on PubMed. How cool is that?

Working on a research project is stimulating at an academic and personal level. You’ll grow as a young scientist, improve your skills and, most importantly, push the boundaries of human knowledge.

John Ramos

Author John Ramos

A medical student, entrepreneur and Science enthusiast. When outside the gym, hospital or conference halls, John does his best to keep up and running.

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