Undergraduate Research Initiative

What is Undergraduate Research?

Many of us automatically associate research with science, engineering, and health — lab coats and test tubes. But research is a process that involves asking questions and using the methods of our discipline to advance our knowledge and understanding of the subject. Although the methods used may differ among disciplines, research can be conducted in any field — natural sciences, social sciences, health sciences, humanities, and fine arts.

Many students also assume that they’re only doing undergraduate research if they’re involved in a mentored research project or independent study. However, there are many ways to develop research skills.

Research skills are gained through:

  • listening to instructors talk about their own research in class
  • attending seminars where a research talked about their work
  • learning about new developments or breakthroughs in your field of interest
  • taking an undergraduate lab or tutorial as part of a course
  • using the library to find research articles to help you write a paper
  • participating in a field trip, tour, demonstration, performance, or exhibition related to your field of study

If you are a student, chances are you've already begun learning about the research process and methods of your discipline. The skills and knowledge you develop through your coursework provide you with the tools to begin exploring your own questions, which is what mentored research and creative works are all about. 

The spectrum of research

Considering that mentored research builds on a foundation of skills and knowledge learned through other activities, it can be useful to think about undergraduate research as a spectrum of activities and learning outcomes.


Framework for undergraduate research at the University of Alberta, adapted from the Committee on the Learning Environment (CLE) sub-committee report: Teaching, Research and Discovery Learning: Recommendations for a Great University., January 2010.

Why should I get involved in research?

Even if you’re not interested in graduate school, getting experience with research as an undergraduate can equip you with knowledge and transferable skills that you can apply to almost any career.

  • You get to investigate topics that are of interest to you
  • It can make your coursework more meaningful — you’ll discover real-world applications of what you’re studying
  • You get hands-on, practical experience in your field of study
  • It can help you uncover hidden study and career opportunities that you might not have thought about before 
  • Research is a great way to network and meet new people — maybe a new friend, maybe a mentor, or maybe even a future employer!
  • Undergraduate research allows you to test the waters and help you decide if grad school is for you.

What will I do as an undergraduate student researcher?

Through research, you solve a problem, find a solution, or expand understanding (Wisker, 2009). 

As a student, you are actually carrying out small-scale research activities all the time, including drafting computer software, doing literature reviews, and assembling group presentations. However, your role as an undergraduate researcher may vary greatly depending on the type of opportunity you’re involved in and your level of experience. For example, you may start out assisting a faculty member or graduate student with components of an existing project, or you may work more independently on a project of your own.

Here are just a few examples of research undergraduate students have done: