Starting in Research FAQs

Beginning something new offers both opportunity and uncertainty and to help you navigate being successful in your first research role, the Peer Research Ambassadors have gathered strategies, tips, and advice. Structured as responses to common questions from new undergraduate researchers, the PRAs hope their insights can help fellow students confidently pursue experiences in inquiry at Rice. From how to successfully complete a literature search to keeping meticulous notes to overcoming mistakes and failed projects, below you will find suggestions for how to establish effective habits, acquire new skills, and address obstacles in research. For your questions not answered or represented below in the FAQs, you are welcome to request a meeting with a Peer Research Ambassador.

by Peer Research Ambassadors 2020-2021

Humanities and Social Sciences

What are some tips for being successful in my first research project?
  • Keep records and notes of your meetings with your professor/mentor/PI including:
    • Pre-meetings notes on questions, concerns, and goals that you want to talk about with your mentor,
    • Post-meeting notes on topics covered, feedback, new tasks, and deadlines, and
    • Personal reflections and evaluations covering what tasks you want more/less of in the project, ideas for future projects, and the impact of your project on your career goals
  • Create a project timeline to establish tasks, deadlines, and personal goals to stay on schedule
  • Write down how to utilize different skills or tools to review outside of work or refer back to if you are not using those skills often.
What should I know about doing literature searches for my research project?
  • Remember that paying close attention and being deliberate about the papers you choose initially can pay off when it comes to actually using the articles in your own paper. Start by reading and understanding the methodology and conclusions to see if a paper truly reflects the ideas you’d like to explore as opposed to choosing papers that simply look “promising.” This strategy can help you save a lot of time having to sift through articles later that you have to scrap in the end.
  • Additionally, staying organized is a huge plus! Using programs like Mendeley or Zotero can be game changers, a fact that is echoed throughout this FAQ sheet!
How can I overcome obstacles when conducting research?
  • Identify the problem first by reflecting on and writing down what is blocking your research or making you nervous. Clearly articulating the issue is the first step in addressing any challenge.
  • Reach out to your research instructor, mentor, or a professor in your field of interest to ask them for specific advice and guidance.
  • Review your research up-to-date, taking stock of your accomplishments and knowledge. Also assess your current standing in the literature; What is known? What is still unknown? How is your research contribution unique?
Who should I talk to if I am experiencing hurdles in my research?
  • Mentors are not only there to provide you with guidance on research topics, but to build a professional relationship with you. If you are experiencing difficulties with your research, it is perfectly fine to reach out via email or set up a meeting with them to discuss the problems you are facing. Communication is key in research and developing these relationships is a part of the process.
  • The Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry also has a plethora of resources for you to choose from including our Peer Research Ambassadors that are available to meet with you and discuss what kind of steps you can take to overcome your research obstacles.
What resources should I know about as a new undergraduate researcher?
  • Mendeley and Zotero for managing and generating bibliographies for academic work
  • Fondren Library’s OneSearch for general literature review and as a starting point for books and e-books, archives, videos, journals, articles, databases, dissertations, digital media, and more.
  • Dedicated topic librarians for specific research guidance.

Engineering and Natural Sciences

What are some tips for being successful in my first research project?
  • Have a reference document that details the big picture goal of your project and how your project specifically addresses this goal. Include a timeline of the project as well as all experiments that need to be performed. This process will connect the smaller goals with the bigger goal.
  • Take notes! Organization and attention to details are critical skills for researchers. There are a lot of moving pieces to keep track of in a project. Being meticulous about record keeping will go a long way in helping you stay on top of them all. Notes can help you reflect, and identify which part was wrong if an experiment failed.
    • Some specific tips to stay organized
      • Electronic documentation for all experiments and procedures you perform. These can then all be stored in a centralized location, cloud drives are ideal for their accessibility.
      • Database to keep track of references/literature. Popular reference managers: Zotero, EndNote, Mendeley.
  • Have regularly scheduled check-ins with your research mentor to help ensure consistent progress with your project. They can offer advice and assistance with troubleshooting an experiment, or identifying directions your project may take.
  • Regularly attend journal clubs or lab meetings to learn from and connect with other lab members. Some of the presentations or discussions might not seem relevant to you, but as a student researcher, it is important to have a broad understanding of the projects in your field and build your scholarly community.
How can I overcome obstacles while conducting research?
  • Adopting a proactive mindset is incredibly beneficial for researchers at all stages of their career, but especially in the beginning. If something is unclear, ask. You don’t want to be stuck waiting for someone to help you, especially if they don’t know you need help.
  • Mistakes happen. What defines the quality of a researcher is not how few or how many mistakes they make, but how they respond to them when they happen. Give yourself grace as you learn. If you make a mistake, own up to it, evaluate how to avoid repeating the mistake in the future and take the appropriate course of action to make up for the mistake.
  • Actively seek out feedback. This can help address challenges as they arise and offer course correction along the way.
  • Remember as a researcher, you have the support of your mentors, but ultimately, what you get out of it will be determined by what you put into it.
What are some common lessons beginner researchers learn with experience?
  • Mistakes happen. It is impossible to stress how important it is to know and accept this. Adopting a healthy mindset towards errors and setbacks will be tremendously important in helping you have a productive and fulfilling career as a researcher.
  • Reading the literature gets exponentially easier with experience. Initially, it may seem intimidating to dive into the literature. Articles can be dense and filled with niche terminology. However, with experience, you’ll acquire the skills and know-how to navigate literature more efficiently, and become familiar with specific terminology.
  • Take initiative and ask for more responsibilities/involvement with projects. It’s important to be comfortable advocating for yourself. If you find that you’re very comfortable managing the tasks delegated to you, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask to take on more challenging work. It might be difficult at first, but eventually the added responsibilities will become your new baseline. This is how you develop as a researcher.
What resources should I know about as a new undergraduate researcher?
  • Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is a service offered through Fondren Library to access publications that are not held at the library. If Fondren does not have journals specific to your field, use this to request a copy of articles you need.
  • Any citation management system -> Zotero, Endnote, etc.