Research is a systematic process that aims to create new knowledge: to discover things not previously known, to answer new questions, to devise new models and methods, or to employ, interpret, or combine existing ideas and frameworks in new ways.
Research is a core mission of the university and is closely related to other forms of creative endeavor, such as the production of original art, the invention of new technologies and devices, and the establishment of innovative entrepreneurial ventures.
Student involvement in research and creative endeavor is integral to Northeastern’s model of experiential education and its emphasis on innovation and problem solving. Here, you will find more details on the research and creative process and information on how to get started on a project of your own.
One way to get involved in research is to join a project that is actively recruiting undergraduate researchers. You can search our database of opportunities; some colleges and departments also maintain listings of research opportunities. Before contacting a faculty member about one of these opportunities, be sure to review our advice for connecting with faculty mentors.
Another way to get involved is to design your own research project or creative endeavor. Doing so entails understanding common steps in the research process: generating an idea, designing a project, connecting with faculty mentors, writing a proposal, executing the project, and sharing your results. Continue reading below for fuller explanations of each step of this process.
The idea for a research or creative project might arise from your experiences in class, on co-op, or through service and extracurricular activity, to name but a few sources. Undergraduates in science and engineering fields in particular often arrive at a research idea through discussion with their faculty mentor about how they can contribute to ongoing projects within the lab.
The next step involves turning your idea or topic into a question that can be investigated through research or creative activity. Your research question should encapsulate what your project intends to create, invent, or discover.
Try to define what it is about your idea or topic that you find stimulating or motivating. Consider why others should care about this topic—what might they find compelling?
Be sure to consider:
- Is this question arguable based on ascertainable facts?
- Does this question avoid assumptions that could bias it toward a particular result?
- Is this question novel and significant within your field? Does it point to a gap in the literature, the marketplace, the artistic conversation?
Northeastern’s world-class faculty are leaders in their fields and invaluable resources for students interested in research and creative endeavors. You may search our database to find the names, departments, and education of all of Northeastern’s faculty members, as well as to see which faculty members have mentored previous Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavor Award winners. Before contacting a professor, be sure to review our advice and strategies for connecting with faculty.
Depending on your field, the project that you propose might be an extension of ongoing work in your principal investigator’s lab, a new analysis formulated with a mentor, or a roadmap for developing a product, design, or work of art. As varied as the forms of research and creative endeavor may be, there are several common elements that make up a competitive project proposal. These elements include:
- Personal Information: This is where you establish yourself as a qualified, capable researcher, explaining how your education, skillset, and experience have prepared you to undertake the project you are proposing.
- Background and Significance: Situate your project within the existing conversations and practices in your field. How will your project contribute to and differ from the work of other scholars, practitioners, artists, and entrepreneurs? This section of a proposal provides context for your project and establishes that your work will represent both a novel and a significant contribution to your field of inquiry. Investigating the background of your project often entails compiling an annotated bibliography—a collection of essential sources that you expect to draw on in your research, where each citation is followed by a summary of the source and a description of how it is relevant to your work. The Northeastern University Libraries’ detailed subject area guides can point you to the most useful and comprehensive sources.
- Methodology: Explain, in detail, the research or creative methods being applied in the project. By describing how you plan to carry out the project, step by step, you establish that the project is feasible—both in terms of the necessary resources and the time allotted for completion. Proposals often include an explicit timeline detailing how long each phase of the project is expected to take and when milestones are expected to be met. You should also consider potential challenges that you might encounter, and how you plan to respond to them if they arise.
- Budget: Prepare a line-item budget detailing each projected expense you expect your project to incur and each expected contribution of resources. Explain the source of your expense projections (e.g., the search engine used to price a flight, the scientific supply house for equipment).
- Expected Outcomes: What do you expect the result of your project to be—a journal article, report, dataset, film, portfolio…? And how do you anticipate sharing your results (and thereby contributing to the conversations in your field that you documented in the background section of the proposal)?
Research and creative projects require more than enthusiasm—to be successful, they require content-area knowledge and expertise in the methods of your discipline. For example, these methods might include theories of inquiry and interpretation, the design and analysis of surveys or interviews, the use of specialized equipment or software, the handling of fragile archival or artistic materials, or protocols relating to the safety of researchers and research subjects.
Many departments at Northeastern offer courses on the research methods of their discipline, with the aim of preparing students to design and execute viable projects. Northeastern’s subject-area librarians can direct you to sources that cover research methods in the disciplines, and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships maintains a library of methodological resources. Methodologies that ensure the protection of human subjects and appropriate treatment of vertebrate animals are crucial to the ethical conduct of research.
The resources that enable research and creative endeavor at Northeastern are more than financial: the expertise of our field-leading faculty researchers; the workspaces, laboratories, and makerspaces of our campus; the diverse holdings and subject-expert librarians of our library; and a network of local and global connections. When funding is needed to advance a project, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships administers a number of competitive funding opportunities.
Sharing your results is an integral part of the research and creative process. The most appropriate medium for sharing your results will depend on the nature of your project’s final product—you might submit a paper for publication in a journal, a poster for presentation at a conference, a film for screening at a festival, or a business plan for consideration in a venture competition.
Undergraduate researchers are encouraged to submit their work to Northeastern’s internal research events, such as the annual Research, Innovation and Scholarship Expo (RISE).
A common place for researchers in the STEM fields, social sciences, or humanities to present initial work is at one of the regularly scheduled conferences hosted by professional academic organizations in those fields.
Some academic journals publish exclusively undergraduate research, and faculty mentors can help to identify which of these might be a good outlet for your project.
The Northeastern Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) approve proposals to do research with human subjects and vertebrate animals, respectively. It is the policy of Northeastern University that no activity involving human subjects be undertaken until those activities have been reviewed and approved by the University’s IRB. Accordingly, all university research involving human subjects must first be reviewed by the Office of Human Subject Research Protection (HSRP). The Northeastern University IACUC has the responsibility to ensure that all animal research activities are in compliance with applicable federal guidelines or regulations. Your faculty mentor will be able to provide guidance regarding whether your research requires IRB or IACUC approval. You may also contact the Office of Human Subject Research Protection or the Division of Laboratory Animal Medicine directly to discuss the requirements for your project.
Some conferences, publications, or funding opportunities may request an “abstract” of your project. An abstract should quickly inform readers about the purpose of your article, poster, or project and allow readers to assess if your work would be relevant for their purposes. The main parts of an abstract are:
- Motivation: Why do we care about the problem and the results? What is the importance and impact?
- Problem statement: What problem are you trying to solve? What is the scope of your work?
- Approach: How did you go about solving the problem? (i.e., analytic models, variables)
- Results: What did you find? Be specific.
- Conclusions: What are the implications of what you found?