Frequently Asked Questions

What is "research"?

Students conducting undergraduate research make original intellectual or creative contributions 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, an extension of existing ideas that broaden our knowledge or deepen the practice of the field. But, as long as you’re asking questions using the methodologies of the discipline, it’s “research.”

What is undergraduate research?

Undergraduate research complements your coursework. Projects are conducted under the guidance of a faculty mentor and are typically related to the mentor's scholarly work, particularly in the sciences. However, projects in the humanities may be more independent, with the mentor providing guidance in the methodology and ideas 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 who compete for grants, direct labs and research groups, 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. Duke is a Tier 1 Research University, a national research center conducting more $800 million in research expenditures annually.

Why should I consider doing undergraduate research?

You have the unique opportunity of becoming the expert in something and contributing a novel discovery to the world. 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 require some undergraduate research. And a research project can be the basis for a senior honors thesis.

Who can do it?

Research opportunities are available for all students in all disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering. Over 50% of all undergraduates will have a mentored research experience at Duke before they graduate. Research experience can begin in your first year, or it can wait until your senior year. When you start will depend on your schedule and the expectations of your research mentor.

How do I get started? 

You can get started in a number of different ways. You can ask an instructor about their research, and some faculty members will approach students who are doing particularly well in their classes. Or, if you have a specific interest, you can look for a mentor or formal program in any department at Duke, including faculty in the professional schools.

I want to explore my options for undergraduate research, but I don’t have a specific project in mind. Is that ok?

Don’t worry. Most faculty mentors don’t expect you to have a prize-winning idea. Indeed, in the natural and social sciences, where most faculty are involved in grant-funded research, your mentor will want you to plug into a specific project that is part of their ongoing research program. Your mentor will get you started on a project, teach you the tools and techniques, and provide the resources that you will need for your research.

You should bring an interest in the field, a willingness to learn, a commitment to being part of the research effort, and an enthusiasm that will carry you through to your goal of being an independent scholar.

I have a specific idea for a project that I want to do. Can I do that?

Undergraduate research must be a mentored experience. You may be able to pursue your own ideas if you can find a faculty mentor willing to provide support and guide your project. Get advice from the Director of Undergraduate Studies and contact prospective mentors. Expect to refine your ideas into a written proposal. If you need resources for your project, academic-year grants and summer fellowships are available from the URS Office.

For Credit or Pay?

Keep in mind that when a student’s research is supported through a salary, stipend, or fellowship, the student cannot also earn academic credit—but some programs offer a combination of paid research work (during the summer) and for credit research (during the academic year). Duke does not offer a co-op program where students work in industry and receive both salary and credit.

When should I start?

You have the option to explore research as early as your freshman year, but most students will wait until their sophomore, junior, or senior year to get started in independent studies, after they’ve laid a foundation in their major.

If you are interested in conducting research for academic credit that leads to an honors thesis, you should plan your path with your advisor.

Where can I get feedback on research proposals? 

Visit the Thompson Writing Program Writing Studio for feedback, or contact a current mentor.