What Is Undergraduate Research & Creative Activity?

PhotoGalleryNet-Research-triptych.pngThese are scholarly activities that seek answers to real questions, make claims, address issues and ideas, and express artistic visions.  All students can engage in research and creative activity.  The national nonprofit Council on Undergraduate Research defines it as "an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline." This is broad because there is no one approach or method to undergraduate research. There are opportunities in all of your academic and creative passions.  One way to define what counts as research and creative activity in your discipline is to find out what scholarly work your faculty are doing.  On your department website, click on faculty pages to see how they describe their productivity as scholars.  Do they mention publications, performances, presentations, studies, or labs?  What kinds of questions or problems do they address through these?  The methods scholars use to formulate and answer these questions will vary widely by field.  Undergraduate scholars may work in faculty labs to improve agricultural outcomes, for example, conduct social science surveys or field work, design art exhibits that explore key issues, or edit and publish a literary journal.  Whatever your field, there are opportunities to build on past knowledge and methods to add something new.  

Your research and creative activity can be structured in many different ways.  Your major may require a scholarly thesis or capstone project.  You may complete an Honors capstone project that involves research--a thesis or internship with a research component.  You may find work in a faculty lab, join a research program at NMSU, or apply for a summer research experience like an NSF-REU.  Or your major might offer an Independent Study, Directed Research, or guided research course, like BIO 309. Whatever your route, the Center for Undergraduate Research & Creative Activity is here to help you explore your interests.

Click here for more information about the Honors Capstone Project, which can be pursued in any field.

Why Should I Do Research/Creative Activity?

Research and Creative Activity—at their core—are about passion and exploration. If you are interested in something, it is natural to want to learn more about it, but what happens after you have exhausted your textbooks (and Wikipedia, too)?  Whether you are joining forces on a faculty research team or designing an independent thesis project, research and creative activity is the way to know more and know more deeply.  Research and creative activity involves critical thinking, synthesis of ideas, detailed analysis, and evaluation. Undergraduate research and creative activity helps you develop transferrable skills that are applicable no matter your future career goals – whether you plan your next steps in industry, graduate school, an independent career, or anything else you may pursue. It is a great way to help you stand out as a candidate for work or internships.  These projects develop skills and qualifications that are needed in almost any career, like confidence, creativity, problem-solving, teamwork, networking, project-management, hands-on experience, and more.  They will also familiarize you with basic tools, skills, and methods in your discipline as a foundation for your work as a professional in your field.  Although you are in the driver's seat, undergraduate research and creative activity are supervised by a faculty mentor who knows your field and wants to help you get started in it.  Faculty mentorship is another important reason to engage in these activities: this is an opportunity to get to know faculty in your field well and for them to get to know you well and help you identity your potential.  Mentors can be a very informed and persuasive advocate for you in applying for research programs, graduate admissions, and jobs.

This is an opportunity to lean in and see first-hand how scholarly work in your discipline is done.  For many students, this confirms that they are on the path into a field they will love working in every day; for a few, it helps them redirect to work they will like better.  Either way, this is a chance to find out now whether a field will be a good fit for you.

Studies of undergraduate research and creative activity suggest other benefits, too: students who engage in these activities report higher satisfaction with their degrees, learn more, have higher GPAs, and are more likely to finish their undergraduate degrees.  Many earn stipends by applying to research programs, course credit towards their degree plans, and/or distinctions in Honors.

Does My Research Need to Be in My Major?

Research can happen in any discipline, regardless of major or career plans. The only difference is that techniques and methods may differ between fields. Research can happen anywhere – on a cluttered bench in a scientific laboratory and in the dirt of the great outdoors, in the dusty archives of a historic library and on a computer screen in your home, in our neighboring communities and in lands abroad. Honors capstone projects can be an opportunity to reach a higher level in your own field or to explore interests outside your major.  No matter what kind of environment research occurs in, you will be working with the support of a faculty mentor who is an expert in your field.

When & How Should I Start?

There is never a wrong time to start pursuing knowledge, but some fields may have expectations for their students. For example, lab mentors invest a great deal of training and time in undergraduate researchers, and in some cases those who get an early start as first or second years may find that they get the farthest--sometimes even opportunities to co-author--by their senior year.  Other opportunities may only be available to upper-division students, building on preparation in lower-division coursework.  But it is never too early to start learning about research and creative opportunities, meeting potential faculty mentors, and brainstorming what questions you want to explore.

In other words, best time to start is right now! Remember, finding a project that interests you and a mentor for it take time. Don't worry about rushing into things, your project is yours and can evolve with your interests. Some students and projects may need more specific knowledge from advanced courses or work experience before they are ready to pursue research they are interested in. The more you know about your project, the better you can get a sense of how research could fit into your goals. Our office staff and resources can help you brainstorm ideas and decide what makes the most sense for you.

To get started, go to Developing Your Interests and How to Find a Faculty Mentor.  Also see Research Opportunities for postings about research programs, internships, and summer opportunities.

What Commitment is Involved?

That’s the beauty of individual research—it can be as much or as little as you want. Your project’s scope is largely what will determine the commitment involved. We encourage projects that take between 5 and 10 hours a week, so that you are making substantial discoveries but still have a rich extracurricular life.

Still Have Questions?

We are here to help! Email our director, Dr. Tracey Miller-Tomlinson at tomlin@nmsu.edu to schedule an appointment.


Photo Credits: Juried Student Art Show in Williams Gallery, photo by Robert Yee; Professor Elba Serrano, in yellow, works with students in her lab, photo by Darren Phillips; Michael Murphy presentes research at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts Symposium, photo by Robert Yee.