Research

Website: uraf.harvard.edu/home

Phone: (617) 495-5095

Email: undergradresearch@fas.harvard.edu

One of the strengths of Harvard is the variety of research opportunities it offers undergraduates. However, one of the strengths of Harvard undergraduates is the immense diversity they embody! Each Harvard student comes with a unique set of prior experiences, current interests and future aspirations. This means: when it comes to research, different students may be thinking about different things.

Some students’ prior strengths may have encompassed non-research activities and they may begin considering research after they come here, during any part of their Harvard trajectory. Other students may have an existing interest in research in general or a particular topic and may be wondering about how to locate the appropriate opportunity through which to conduct research. Yet other students may have extensive prior experience in conducting research and have clear ideas about which specific research avenues they want to pursue.

Depending on where you are in your exploratory journey, you may wish to skip to those sections below that suit you.

To answer this question, it is helpful to i) understand what it means to do research; ii) become familiar with the benefits of pursuing research as an undergraduate; and iii) reflect on your personal goals.

What is research?

One way to think about research is that it is a set of activities undertaken to produce new knowledge about the world. However, ‘the world’ is complex, and different disciplines are interested in different aspects of the world. Consequently, the ‘set of activities’ a discipline undertakes to conduct research varies tremendously depending on the aspect of the world being studied. A biologist scientist may be interested in understanding the mechanisms through which a toxic affects communication between neurons in the brain, and therefore research this by running experiments in a lab. An historian may be interested in understanding how attitudes towards racial inequality shifted in 18th century London, and therefore research this by reading 18th century letters and diaries in a library archive. A sociologist, on the other hand, may want to understand the impact of social media on parent-child relationships in contemporary America, and research this through a combination of interviews with people, surveys, and statistical analysis. Thus, ‘research’ can be focused on very different aspects of the world; and may involve a very wide range of activities.

Benefits of doing research as an undergraduate

Harvard undergraduates who pursue research do so for a variety of reasons: deepening knowledge on a particular topic of interest; acquiring skill in a method of data collection or data analysis; building relationships with faculty; exploring a concentration; considering (or preparing for) thesis research; considering (or preparing for) graduate school; signaling-value for graduate schools or prospective employers; or simply being productively engaged outside classes or during the summer. Each of these is a valid motivation for considering research. However, there is also another--and perhaps the most important--benefit of research. The process of conducting research yields insights into the very entire enterprise of ‘knowledge-production.’ And this leads to a shift in how we relate to knowledge as well as the world around us. For example, after understanding how neuroscience is advancing knowledge of neural pathways, we may acquire a different perspective on health, sickness, and medical practices. Or after conducting interviews with Bolivian farmers to understand their daily struggles, we may begin to feel differently about how governments design and implement social policies. Thus, conducting research helps us reflect on ‘how all of us collectively come to know (or not know) our world.’ For some undergraduate researchers, this may lead to a long-term commitment to producing new or better knowledge about that aspect of the world that interests them. But for all undergraduates, research experience lead to a more critical, intelligent, and thoughtful engagement with the world we live in and the societies we inhabit.

*NOTE ON FUNDING: Harvard makes concerted effort to ensure that students are not hindered from pursuing term-time or summer research due to financial reasons. Check here to find out about the ways in which you can find support for pursuing research.

Next steps: self-reflection and resources

At this point, it may be worth stopping to reflect on the following questions: Are there particular aspects of the world that interest (or bore) you more than others--what are they? Are there particular kinds of activities that you enjoy (or dislike)-- what are they? What are your goals for your Harvard and post-Harvard trajectory? Jot your thoughts on a piece of paper, or make mental notes, then discuss the overlap between your interests/goals and research with faculty, proctors, TFs, peer advisors, etc. To see the full range of resources available to you, and for suggestions on how to proceed, consult the information provided by the Office of Undergraduate Research & Fellowships.

Finding an appropriate research opportunity requires familiarity with the range of avenues through which research can be pursued during term-time as well as the summer.

Avenues for pursuing research

Courses. Many existing courses at Harvard and neighboring schools (where you can cross-register) have a strong research component. Further, you also have the option of designing a research-intensive independent-study course. (Conversely, some students first find a substantive research opportunity, then petition to get academic credit for it; check here for additional information).

Study-abroad. Some study-abroad programs (either term-time or summer) involve courses or project-work with a strong research focus.

Research assistantship. Many opportunities exist to work (for pay or voluntarily) with researchers working on a topic that interests you. During term-time, these are with researchers affiliated with Harvard and other neighboring institutions; during the summer, you also have the option of exploring research assistantships at other US locations as well as abroad.

Research internships. Internships--usually pursued during the summer, though sometimes also during term-time as well--with government agencies, multilateral agencies, think-tanks, advocacy groups, or even industry/private sector may be research-focused. (However, whether this research is academic in nature or not, and whether it contributes to your intellectual growth, will depend on the specific nature of the research involved and its linkages with your coursework at Harvard).

Research programs. Usually offered during the summer, research programs at Harvard as well as other locations induct a cohort of undergraduate researchers, almost always through a formal application process. They run for a particular time-period are usually focused on a particular topic or field. These programs can provide extremely substantive learning opportunities because, in addition to conducting research, they often provide community-building, an explicit focus on student-learning, and may even provide room/board or stipends for living expenses.

Thesis research. Most concentrations offer the option of doing a thesis, for which students conduct research on a topic of their own interest under supervision of a faculty thesis advisor. Depending on the concentration and the topic, this research may be conducted in junior year, in the summer between junior/senior year, or in senior fall.

*NOTE ON FUNDING: Harvard makes concerted effort to ensure that students are not hindered from pursuing term-time or summer research due to financial reasons. Check here to find out about the ways in which you can find support for pursuing research.

Next steps: digging deeper to locate specific opportunities

The process of locating the appropriate research opportunity will require you to find out more about each of these options and what they have to offer, then figure out which option is best-suited for your particular goals at this stage of your Harvard trajectory. The Office of Undergraduate Research & Fellowships (URAF) provides additional information about each of these research options here. Additionally, use URAF’s tips on this page for suggestions on which resources to use in order to explore particular options further and eventually find or design the opportunity most appropriate for you.

Harvard provides a wealth of resources to support undergraduate research: advisors, online information, funding support, etc. Which resources may be most useful to you depends on the specific opportunity you are trying to explore. The Office of Undergraduate Research & Fellowships is a good starting point to find out about the range of resources across campus and beyond. In addition to in-person advising]] (during regular office hours or by appointment), URAF has made available on its website: an overview of key resources that support undergraduate research; information on specific opportunities and tips for next-steps; as well as suggestions for finding funding support for your research.

Many opportunities are announced over House lists, so keep your eyes peeled for those.

The Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (URAF) administers a variety of research opportunities, including four 10-week summer residential research programs, each with a distinctive acronym, designed to stimulate creativity and community.

BLISS

BLISS (behavioral laboratory in the social sciences) offers you the chance to work on faculty-led social science research projects on campus or in the neighboring communities.

PRISE

The Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE) gives you the opportunity to pursue research in the life, physical/natural, engineering and applied sciences.

(PRISE photoblog: https://www.behance.net/gallery/PRISE-Photoblog/1703015)

PRIMO

Program for Research in Markets & Organizations (PRIMO) offers you the opportunity to work closely with Harvard Business School faculty on research projects ranging from business strategy to social media, from innovation management to private equity. 

SHARP

The Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program (SHARP) offers you the opportunity to work on research projects with Harvard-affiliated faculty and researchers and library and museum administrators. The Harvard Art Museum Summer Fellowship is part of this program.