How to Tackle Research Topics “Beyond Your Depth” as an Undergraduate

Civil and Environmental Engineering graduate student Meiqi Yang working on lithium extraction in a lab.
You may not feel as confident as CEE department graduate student Meiqi Yang looks here working on lithium extraction, but as you do more research over time, you’ll feel much more comfortable as you progress. Photo Credit: Bumper DeJesus (2023)

When doing research as an undergraduate, sometimes the work you are doing and topics you study may be very familiar to you, other times you may be totally unfamiliar with what is going on. Maybe you even have some previous experience but the topic of the project is way above anything you’ve done before—you might be working with a physics professor on something really advanced like quantum field theory or condensed matter, which you have never taken a class on and are expected to now work on and understand what’s going on during your project. This can happen a lot in any field, not just STEM, where your professor may have spent years studying something that you are expected to contribute to after having taken maybe a few classes in it, if that. Some professors may work more often with graduate students, so they may assume that you know “basic” things about your field that you as an undergrad have just encountered for the first time: you could be working with an Art History professor who focuses on Late Antiquity, and they start throwing around terms and common symbols that you aren’t able to easily recognize. 

Regardless of the circumstances, this situation comes up a lot in undergraduate research. The fortunate thing is that tons of professors are willing to work with students who have no prior experience in the subject, but you still have to wrestle with “catching up” as you try to somewhat understand anything that you’re actually doing. Here are some tips to try to get acclimated with difficult, unfamiliar topics that may be well above your current depth as an undergraduate.

The first thing that many advisers do is give you some background information—papers, books, etc.—to go over before you start. These can be dense, long, or both, and fortunately you usually aren’t expected to completely understand everything the first time you read it. As you go, take notes as reminders of some of the key points of what you think are the main takeaways of the paper (and especially parts that are relevant to your project). Keep in mind that this isn’t like a reading for a class—you aren’t trying to fully understand everything 100%, and you certainly aren’t trying to skim to get the bare minimum to be able to contribute to a discussion. Your goal is to get familiar, and having lots of questions for your adviser while being unsure of what things mean is okay! If you’re still concerned that your questions are too basic or make you seem unknowledgeable, you can frame your question as “I understood this idea, but I still don’t get this one part…”

If you find yourself in a situation where your adviser is a bit hard to get ahold of and meetings are sparse, try to search other sources for answers to your questions. Or, if you are working with a professor who has grad students (or other students in your group), try asking them. Even simple questions are good to ask to make sure you have the right understanding of the basics, and maybe that burning question you had is something someone else already asked that professor before. Though don’t ever be scared to ask a professor a question when you get the chance, they won’t belittle you, and they will probably be thrilled to talk about their work! You can save up a bunch of questions you have in your notes to ask them all at once when you finally get to next see your professor, if you don’t get the opportunity to meet frequently. Doing this can also give you the chance to consolidate your questions, or your questions might answer themselves as you continue your research.

Never be afraid to ask questions while working, especially in a lab setting, as it’s always better to be safe than sorry when working with equipment that could harm you or whatever you’re working on. Whoever is working with you will be glad you asked to double check.

There’s a first time for everything, and every researcher at some point gets thrown into a new topic they know nothing about: it’s no reason to worry or be deterred from the project. Your advisers are there to guide the direction of your project, and they’ll help you push forward, even if it seems daunting and out of your depth at the moment.

— Xander Jenkin, Natural Sciences Correspondent