What is undergraduate research?

Students conducting undergraduate research learn the methods and practice of scholarly research. They focus on making an original intellectual or creative contribution to a discipline—from art history to economics to biology. Your contribution may be large, such as a new discovery or game changing way of thinking in that discipline. Or it may be more modest, such as an extension of existing ideas and descriptions that broaden our knowledge or deepen the practice of the field. But, as long as you’re asking questions using the methodologies and analyses of the discipline, it’s “research.”

Undergraduate research is an in-depth experience that complements learning in your coursework. Undergraduate research projects are conducted under the guidance of a faculty or graduate student mentor and are typically integrated into or related to the mentor's scholarly work, particularly in the sciences. However, undergraduate research projects in the humanities may be quite independent, with the mentor providing guidance in the methodology and approaches of the field. Either way, as you advance through your research project, you will become a more independent scholar with intellectual ownership for all aspects of inquiry, problem solving and analysis.

How does research work at a university?

Research is led by faculty, called Principal Investigators (PIs), who compete for grants, direct labs, and mentor post-docs, graduate students and undergraduates. Duke is a community of scholars engaged in original inquiry and creative expression—and you will become part of that community. The university is a Tier 1 Research University, meaning it is a national research center conducting more $800 million in research expenditures annually.

Why should I consider doing undergraduate research?

You can make significant contributions to the research effort and scholarly productivity at Duke. In turn, you will establish meaningful relationships with the faculty, deepen your academic experience, develop marketable career skills, and prepare yourself for competitive graduate and professional schools. Indeed, most graduate programs will expect to see some track record of undergraduate research as a requirement for admissions. Industry in all fields welcomes students who already have the kind of applicable job experience gained through the practice of research. And, of course, you have the unique opportunity of becoming the expert in something and contributing a novel discovery to the world. Finally, a research project can be the basis for a senior honors thesis, leading to the award of Graduation with Distinction.

Who can do it?

An undergraduate research experience is open to any student who is qualified and chooses to pursue one. Research opportunities are available in all disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering. Over 50% of all Duke undergraduates will have a research experience at Duke before they graduate. 

Qualifications for doing research depend on the nature of the project, the discipline, and the way in which you get involved. Some programs and courses may expect you to have some background knowledge or coursework before you get started. Others are intended for beginners. So a research experience can begin in your first year, or it can wait until your senior year.