Research can comprise virtually any form of intellectual or creative activity that conforms to the following sequence or structure:
- Pose a question (and, possibly, propose the question).
- Identify and engage an LMU faculty mentor.
- Investigate the question.
- Report on your results.
- “Level up”—“Rinse and repeat.”
A “research question” can comprise virtually any point of curiosity that interests you. There is no shortage of such points—otherwise the academe would have died out long ago! Questions can be found in every discipline, in any subject—you just have to know how to find them.
Examples of what form such questions may take include:
- Is there a market for a particular product?
- Is it possible to create a work of art using a particular technique?
- What subjects should be emphasized in a documentary that I am planning to film?
- Can a computer program be written that accomplishes a certain task?
- What effect does the environment have on a particular organism?
- How do people behave when subjected to a particular situation?
- What can a particular document or work of art tell us about a particular time period, person, or population?
Knowledge Begets Questions
The first step in getting ready for research is to first know the subject matter. In the university context, this means taking your classes, learning from them, and growing intellectually or creatively from them. Without such knowledge, you will be ill-prepared to ask the kinds of questions that lead to successful research activity.
Another component of “knowing the subject matter” that connects more directly to research is reviewing relevant literature. As a question germinates in your mind, you can start looking for information that ties directly to this question—Has this question been investigated before? If so, by whom? What kind of prior work would be relevant to my question? What information does such work provide? What information is missing? To pose your question effectively, you must be able to answer these preliminary ones first. You get such answers from courses, or from your own independent investigation.
In many courses, it is the activity in the above paragraph that is labeled as “research.” You might, for example, be asked to perform this activity for some subject area, then submit a “research paper” based on what you find. Although this use of the word is not strictly incorrect, it is ultimately incomplete: it does constitute a preliminary activity toward full-fledged research, but it is precisely that: preliminary.
The more knowledge and background you have, the better prepared you will be to pose research questions, and the better those questions themselves will be.
Proposals: “Formal Asking”
The highest form of “asking” a question is to write a proposal for what you want to investigate. A proposal is any document that expresses, clearly and unambiguously, the question you are asking, and how you plan to investigate it. This proposal should also capture the knowledge that you have already acquired (particularly the literature review described in the previous section) to show that you have the background that is needed to pursue your question successfully.
Many elements of research require that you ask your question formally with a proposal. When your research plans require money, this proposal is necessary. When approaching a potential faculty mentor (see next section), particularly if they are very busy or very much in demands, a proposal may be necessary to get their attention. Finally, for research work which is intended not just to answer some question but also to show your qualifications for an advanced degree, a proposal is an important artifact that shows precisely these qualifications (which is why, at the doctoral level, the presentation of such a proposal is frequently referred to as the doctoral student’s “qualifying exam”).
Your Faculty Mentor
In the end, whatever knowledge you do accumulate, there is always more out there, and more gets generated everyday. Along these lines, you will benefit from the guidance of someone who has dwelled in this knowledge for a longer time than you have, with experience, personal connections, and expertise beyond what you have seen at the undergraduate level.
This person is a faculty mentor. As with “research,” you may have encountered the word “mentor” before, but that is not the sense in which it is used here. A research mentor provides guidance, direction, and advice, and sometimes works as a collaborator or supervisor, or both. For the University Honors Program, this person should be an LMU faculty member: such activity is part of every LMU faculty member’s job description, for the appropriate set of LMU students.
This faculty member is your point person and your first sounding board or guide—but he or she need not be the only one. Through the LMU faculty mentor, you might meet additional experts and advisors beyond LMU, in professional circles or from other universities. They all play the role of guiding you through the posing and investigation of your research question. They will also tell you how well you are doing, and whether something needs to change. And they can do all of this because they have the expertise and experience that you are yourself are hoping to build within the subject area of your choice.
With your question posed and your faculty mentor engaged, you can begin your investigation in earnest. Depending on the discipline, type of question, and expected result, this investigation can take any number of forms. In the sciences, this may be an experiment; in business or social sciences, this may be a survey or study of a population. In creative fields, this may be a master class or focused study of a particular artist or oeuvre, typically followed by a creative work of your own.
At every step, your faculty mentor’s role is to monitor what you are doing, and to provide feedback and guidance throughout. This is why the choice of mentor is crucial, not only from an intellectual, expertise, or experiential fit, but also in terms of interpersonal dynamics. You and your mentor should work well together. Specifics will vary: you might be meeting with them every day or every month; in person or online. Your interaction may be hands-on or advisory. What ultimately matters is that your mentor helps keep your work in motion and on the right path.
Some investigations cost money.
A natural aspect of many research endeavors (although not necessarily all of them) is the need for funds. This is accepted and understood by all stakeholders of academic research, and the University Honors Program is no exception. For this, you will want to review the rest of this website for information about the funding opportunities that are available to you, as a University Honors Program student.
Many investigations do not cost money directly, but just require your time. Well, as the aphorism says, “time is money,” and so funds are available for your time too. These options are spelled out in the rest of this website.
Finally, the University Honors Program is not the only possible source of funds for your research. Inquire in your department, your college, or other offices such as the National & International Scholarship Office here at LMU, for possible funding sources for whatever work you have in mind.
Reporting on Your Results
In the end, with your work done and your answers found (whether or not they were what you expected), just as integral to the actual work itself is the dissemination of the results of your work. The most traditional form of dissemination is a paper, presented at an appropriate venue or published in a journal. There are other forms of dissemination, however, and these vary by discipline.
As a student at LMU, you always have at least one such appropriate venue: the Undergraduate Research Symposium. So, if nowhere else, you should plan, at a minimum, to eventually report on your work at that event, typically held in March every year. Here again, your faculty mentor can be of great assistance, because he or she, as an expert in the field, will be able to point you to other appropriate conferences, festivals, events, or publications which will serve as effective dissemination points for your work.
Coming Back for More
Finally, let’s say you’ve done it all—posed a question, investigated it with your faculty mentor, then reported on its results at the LMU Undergraduate Research Symposium or beyond. What do you do next? Why, pose another question, of course! Many times, such questions build on what you did before—yesterday’s research becomes today’s background information or prior work. In such a situation, staying with the same faculty mentor can provide continuity and further depth, as you yourself grow within your chosen field. These choices, however, are not set in stone. If your new question requires a new mentor, then that is fine as well.
With that, the cycle begins anew, including potentially new proposals to write, perhaps a different mentor, possibly new avenues of funding, and finally even more publications, presentations, or works of art to your name. Scholarly work is a well that never runs dry. The savvier you are about how this well works, the more successful you will be.