Have you ever wanted to study how terrorists in Nigeria are funded? To understand the techniques of Chinese higher education? Or maybe to learn about agritourism strategies in New Jersey?
It may surprise many students to learn that these opportunities are actually right in front of them. Original research is one of the primary contributions colleges and universities give to the world. Many people make the mistake of thinking this is a task only for professors and doctoral students, but there are actually numerous opportunities for undergraduates to get involved and make their own contributions to their chosen field.
A great way to do research is through the various Research Methods courses offered at Boston College. CSOM hosts a Marketing Research course, for instance, and Research Methods and Analyses classes are offered in LSOE. Additionally, many courses geared towards specific fields like political science, international studies, psychology, and economics are available in MCAS. Statistics courses, in particular, emphasize applying data in research and demonstrate the use of software like STATA or SPSS, which are great tools for more analytical and number intensive work.
Professor Hiroshi Nakazato, Associate Director of International Studies who also teaches Research Methods in International Studies, says, “Among the purposes of a liberal arts education is to teach students how to think analytically about the world around them. And among the best ways to do this is learning how to learn; that is, how to uncover the answers yourself.”
However, he also recognizes that not all learning is restricted to the classroom. He says, “the opportunity to do lab work or research under a mentor, or doing personal, individual research, is where students really learn the material and necessary skills.” Fortunately for students, there are many opportunities for hands-on learning as well.
Many BC faculty members who conduct their own projects actually enlist students to contribute to their work through Undergraduate Research Fellowships. It counts as on-campus employment and can be done in the fall, spring, or summer. If you know of a professor conducting research that you’re interested in, ask if they need an assistant. You can also reach out to department heads or advisors to see if they can help you track down some opportunities.
For more independent projects, there are Advanced Study Grants. These are grants that BC provides specifically for skill acquisition and conducting research. Some are centered around working on a senior thesis or doing research at an affiliated university, but many students choose to use these grants in order to develop their studies in their field through summer research projects. Generally a nomination is necessary, but going to a professor with a good idea is often an efficient way to start on that path.
Christy Verhoog, MCAS ‘19, an economics major who was a recipient of one of these grants used it for her own project entitled Examining the Potential for the Growth of Agritourism in New Jersey this past summer. “I’ve always been interested in doing research,” says Verhoog, “and so I was hoping to eventually get into professors' labs.“
Verhoog intends to write a senior honors thesis and is very interested in the economics of agriculture. Pursuing this grant has allowed her to learn more about her field of study and develop her independent research skills.
Verhoog said that it’s good to get involved if students have any interest in doing research and that the research isn’t as demanding as it may seem. While the goal is to conduct a successful research project, the report is not overly demanding and the program as a whole is more about learning than producing a faultless final product.
Though Verhoog didn’t accomplish all of the goals of her project, she did gain a lot of insight into agritourism, as well as the importance of conducting background research and interviews. She is getting the chance to apply what she has learned by assisting a BC professor with his research in the coming spring, an undertaking she is probably much more qualified for due to her experience.
In addition to these grants and fellowships, many research centers at BC have undergraduate assistants. The Center for Retirement Research and the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy are just two examples of the many places that students can reach out to.
Existing student-run undergraduate publications can get original student research access to the public. There are journals for specific fields, such as Kaleidoscope for international studies focused work, or the more general publication, Elements. Most journals publish fall and spring issues filled with diverse student-created work.
Research skills that develop through a college career often culminate in a senior thesis. Some students begin developing their topic idea as early as sophomore year, and many use study abroad trips or grant funded projects to begin their thesis, even though starting that early isn’t necessary.
Each major department has different requirements, a common one of which is a minimum GPA. Creating a thesis usually occupies the entire academic year and includes enrolling in Senior Thesis I and II in each department. Though these courses aren't mandatory, taking them is certainly encouraged.
Depending on the department, a thesis can range from 40 pages to over 100. The topics may vary immensely but always look promising to prospective employers or graduate schools. Many students use their final papers to apply for fellowships or grants to allow them to continue their studies through either graduate programs or further research projects.
As Professor Nakazato puts it, research “marks the transformation from being a student to a scholar.” At BC, the opportunities to do so are abundant as long as you aren’t afraid to reach out to those with experience and not back down from the potential challenge of independence.