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Research Networking for Undergraduate Students

A common question I have been asked this year has been, how do I go about talking to faculty about getting involved in research? As an undergraduate student, it can seem unclear where to start when it comes to seeking out research opportunities, and especially unclear when thinking about how to broach the topic with faculty. The classic catch-22 applies. You want research experience, but you do not know how to go about talking to faculty about getting involved in research because you have never been involved in research!

I recently got hired as a part-time research assistant, an opportunity I was made aware of by another professor I had worked with. Upon contacting a different professor to ask if they would be willing to provide a reference for me, they let me know that they would have been glad to have me as part of their research team as well. My head instantly swelled three sizes. While I consider myself fortunate to have gathered the research experiences I have had thus far, the one thing I would give myself credit for is diligently networking with UNBC faculty. Since beginning my studies at UNBC, I have made a concerted effort to get to know not just the instructors in each one of my courses, but virtually any UNBC faculty member who has crossed my path. I have gone to such lengths as inviting myself to department meetings, sending out cold e-mail invites for coffee meet-ups, being overly boisterous in class, and accosting instructors as they are waiting in line at Tim Horton’s. When a faculty member is familiar with you as a person, they are likely to be much more responsive to you inquiring about research opportunities. They may even come straight to you if they have an opportunity to offer! While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend some of the shameless networking strategies that I have employed, here are some simple things you could start doing tomorrow to become a better research network-er.

1. Go to your instructors’ office hours. This is a no-brainer, but something I find most students are reluctant to do. One of the privileges of attending a small university is the potential to spend large amounts of one on one time with your instructors. Without having experienced a larger university, it can be hard to know just how good you have it at UNBC. When I was studying at the University of Alberta, I used to have to wait in line outside instructors’ offices for thirty minutes. Once I got in, they would kick me out after five. For this reason, the only times I would slink up to my instructors offices would be to collect my graded exams. At UNBC, there has never been a time where if I so desired, I was not able to talk to a professor during their office hours. If you are serious about getting to know an instructor, and allowing them to get to know you, there is no reason for you not to be attending their office hours several times each semester.

Won’t they get tired of seeing my face if I go too often?

Well, that depends. The most important thing to be mindful of is that you not treat them like an object, especially given the fact they have set aside this special time of day to put themselves at your mercy. A good way to humanize your office hour interactions with instructors is to genuinely ask them how their day is going before getting to the main business of your visit. As you get to know them a bit better, making a bit of small talk at the beginning of your meetings will start to come more naturally. A personal favourite technique of mine is to comment on one of the books on their shelf. Like, do you actually ever read these? Or are they just here for show? Mind you, I am not endorsing brown-nosery. Any lighthearted conversation you attempt to make in an instructor’s office hours should be genuine. This genuineness will create the impression you see them as a person, and not a walking grade receptacle or fire-breathing dragon.

2. Read work produced by UNBC faculty. Goodness help me if you are not already reading the work of faculty whose research you want to get involved with. Not only will this instill within you a tremendous sense of UNBC pride, it is absolutely necessary preparation should you propose to work with a faculty member, or vice-versa. If you don’t have any particular faculty member you feel you might want to work with, endeavour to reference the work of UNBC faculty in the research assignments you complete as part of your regular coursework. This is a good way of familiarizing yourself with work you might want to get involved with. Your instructors will probably love it, too. In fact, I can tell you that doing exactly this resulted (I believe) in securing the research position I previously mentioned. When writing the cover e-mail to the faculty member in question, I was able to say that I had cited their work multiple times in a paper I had written the previous year. Once again in the interview, I was able to reference aspects of their previous work that I was interested in. Obviously, if you ever secure an interview for a research position, you should learn as much as you possibly can about that faculty member’s research. In my case, I think the interviewer was impressed that I had previously taken a voluntary interest in their research.

3. Don’t burn bridges. Every student could tell you of an instructor that they do not see eye to eye with. If at all possible, it is best to avoid entering into some sort of prolonged dispute with an instructor, even if they are definitely not someone you could see yourself working with in the future. This is especially important at UNBC, where a difficult student’s reputation is that much more likely to spread throughout an entire department. Granted, there are circumstances where discussing the outcome of an assignment or giving some constructive criticism about an instructor’s teaching methods is appropriate and necessary. When these situations arise, here are some best practises you ought to follow. Firstly, do not attempt to resolve the issue solely via e-mail. This will come across as passive-aggressive. The best way to resolve an issue is to talk face-to-face. You can initiate the discussion by e-mail, but if you are not willing to follow that up with an office visit or phone call, the instructor in question will have much less reason to take time to address your comment. The silver lining of such action is that, if it is just a minor quibble, the instructor may even appreciate you all the more for actually coming and talking to them. Secondly, do not blame and complain. Try to think in terms of a mutually beneficial solution or piece of constructive criticism. Consider, how will my bringing up this issue make my instructor’s life, and those of their current and future students, easier in the future? If your instructor was to change they way they handled this assignment or exam, would it result in a better teaching and learning experience for all involved? This advice only applies to matters which you consider to be subjectively academic in nature. Other matters, such as those related to academic misconduct or unprofessional behaviour, are beyond the scope of this article.

4. Pay attention to the news. Pay special attention to the news as it relates to the research interests of those faculty members you hope to work with. This may seem like an odd recommendation at first, but I have never met an instructor who did not appreciate a student who kept up with current events. I have had multiple classes where an instructor designated part of the lecture specifically to discuss the news. In others, there are often times where an instructor will bring up a news item, giddy with excitement, only to be let down by an entire class that has no idea what they are talking about. If you can be the one student who is able to chime in when this occurs, you will carve out a special place in your instructor’s heart and mind. I would argue that paying attention to the news as it relates to the course material is almost as important as completing the assigned readings or problem sets (perhaps more-so in the social sciences and humanities). Staying up to date on the news will also aid you immensely as you try to make small talk in your instructors’ office hours ;). Just trust me on this one.

5. Stay ‘engaged’ in class. I cannot stress this enough! It would be unhelpful of me to recommend that you simply ace a particular instructor’s class at will. That said, there are ways of behaving in class that demonstrate your reliability, enthusiasm, independence, and initiative. What faculty member would not want to work with a student who exemplified these qualities? While you may be hard-pressed to knock off an A+ in a particular course, there are other outputs which you have more control over. The obvious ones are showing up on time, completing the assigned readings and problem sets, and attending office hours. For online learning, staying engaged could mean turning your video on if you are comfortable doing so, muting your mic until you need to speak, and not getting up from your keyboard every ten minutes (I have been guilty of all of these things). These are fairly obvious. Some more nuanced examples include preparing insightful questions to ask on the topic of the day’s lecture; being responsive, but not rude or overbearing, to your classmates’ comments; trying to take a leadership role in group assignments; and completing any optional assigned material. In seminar courses with a participation component, doing these things will probably pay off for your grade as well.

If you can start doing all of this, I guarantee you will have a better shot at getting involved in research at UNBC. Of course, one last thing you could do is get in touch with your friendly neighbourhood research ambassadors. Send us an e-mail at : ‘researchambassadors@unbc.ca’. Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests, and we will do our best to help!

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Blog Indigenous Studies, Social Sciences and Humanities

A Summer in the Life of an Amateur Qualitative Researcher

Zach, ‘the social sciences guy’, here. Between this past April and August, I wrote a research proposal, completed an ethics review process, gathered research participants, conducted and transcribed interviews, and then compiled and analyzed data in a final research report as part of a Global and International Studies independent study course here at UNBC. I was fortunate enough to be granted this research opportunity as a senior undergraduate student. In this post, I will give a brief description of each aspect of my summer project. If you are wondering what research can look like in the social sciences, read on!

Tribulations of an inexperienced researcher

Back in January, I took my first crack at conducting original research. As a student in the Global and International Studies capstone course, my task was to design a small-scale research methodology on a sustainability-related topic and implement it to the best of our (largely non-existent) research abilities. Our instructor, Dr. Tristan Pearce, emphasized that we should consider what we were realistically capable of (probably not much considering we all had zero formal research experience) and then pare that down even more, assuming that we would overestimate our own potential. Giving in to my stubborn and self-righteous nature, I chose to ignore his sage advice. I decided I wanted my research to answer the question, ‘How do domestic and Chinese international students form relationships?’. A trivial research question, I thought to myself at the time. How wrong I was. To make matters worse, the methods I devised to answer the question were even more convoluted than the question itself. I chose to take a ‘mixed-methods’ approach to my project, wherein I planned to collect quantitative data from surveys and qualitative data from interviews. Unbeknownst to me, drawing rigorous conclusions from quantitative data requires at least some knowledge of statistical analysis, which I did not possess. Trying to connect my quantitative and qualitative data complicated things even more. To make a long story short, my final research report ended up being more of a final research quagmire.

I don't know what I'm doing [chat] — Penny Arcade
Retrieved from: https://forums.penny-arcade.com/

Fortunately, thanks to the expert and inspirational guidance of Dr. Pearce, I learned a lot and was undeterred despite my ordeal. In fact, I was emboldened. Dr. Pearce generously obliged to guide me once again, suggesting a simpler research question and methodology. So, I drafted a research proposal and literature review for a project aimed at documenting the experiences of international students at UNBC, this time planning to take a purely qualitative approach.

What is qualitative research? Why is it important?

Broadly, qualitative research involving human participants is undertaken to better understand the lived experiences of individuals (Hay 2016). In presenting descriptive accounts of human experience, analyzing qualitative data can tell us things that quantitative data might not.

A common misconception is that qualitative research is less authoritative than quantitative research. Qualitative research is generalized as representing the subjective, while quantitative research represents the objective. Hay notes this generalization is too simplistic, and that quantitative research is also ‘value-laden’ and never ‘interest-free’, claiming researchers are just as likely use assumptions when interpreting quantitative data (2016). Conversely, qualitative methods are less likely to produce ‘generalizable’ findings, where one study might be applied to others (Hay 2016). Ideally, both approaches should be referenced before coming to conclusions about research problems related to human behaviour (Hay 2016).

In the case of my own research, qualitative methods were a good fit because of the ‘exploratory’ nature of the research question. Unsurprisingly, nothing has been documented about the experiences of international students during a global pandemic. Qualitative methods would allow me to ask open-ended questions to illicit descriptive answers, then try to decide which aspects of international students’ experiences were most important. A study like this usually aims to inform future research efforts, rather than draw generalizable conclusions about the research question.

Ethics review

Doing qualitative research often implies working with human participants. This means that a research ethics review process must be completed before the research can be undertaken. In the past, some researchers have employed what would now be considered dangerously experimental and exploitative research techniques (just think along the lines of high voltage, LSD, and unsuspecting young children).

Frankenstein at operating table
It’s alive!!!!! Retrieved from: http://haraldjohnson.com/its-alive/

Research ethics policies have since been developed to ensure that proposed research methodologies respect the health and dignity of research participants, and that any potential risks to the participants are adequately balanced by the potential benefits to society and the participants themselves.

Navigating ethics reviews can be a time-consuming and frustrating aspect of the research process, especially for inexperienced researchers. Research ethics boards meticulously scrutinize all applications to ensure that the proposed research aligns with requirements. Any aspect of the application which is not clearly defined or where risk is not adequately considered will result in the document being returned with suggested revisions. Thankfully, Dr. Pearce was able to provide a framework which allowed me to stumble through my first research ethics board review and retain my sanity in the process. Still, our application was returned three times for revision over a month-long period, even though the research to be undertaken was of decidedly ‘minimal risk’ to participants.

Excluding human participants from research methodologies just to avoid research ethics would be unwise in certain cases. On the other hand, an inexperienced researcher should strongly consider project timelines and access to a competent mentor before proposing a project involving human participants.

Gathering participants

A strategy for how to access data is a crucial part of the initial planning process. The soundest research methodology is useless without any data. In the case of my research, accessing data was simple. I already had quite a few connections with UNBC international students, some of whom were friends of mine. You may be wondering, ‘Does using your friends and acquaintances as research participants compromise the integrity of the research?’. The answer is, it depends. Qualitative research does not need to be carried out using demographically representative samples. Some studies utilize only a single participant. Further, the participants might be already known to the researcher. The key concern is that the researcher does not exploit an uneven power relationship between themselves and participants. For example, it might be inappropriate for an instructor to use their students in a research project if participating in the research is seen to possibly affect their grade in that instructor’s course. As long as the participant sampling process follows the informed consent guidelines laid out in the approved research ethics application, many different sampling strategies might be appropriate. It often helps to have rapport with participants in qualitative research, so as long as the researcher conducts themselves professionally, including persons known to the researcher can actually be a boon to the research effort.

Interviewing participants

In the interview process, a qualitative researcher takes on the role of investigative journalist. I conducted semi-structured interviews for my project, meaning I followed an interview guide which I was prepared to deviate from if the situation called for it. In the case of semi-structured interviews, the interviewer needs to be spontaneous should the opportunity arise to delve into an important aspect of a participant’s response. There were many times where I felt like a psychiatrist, constantly asking questions along the lines of ‘…and how did that make you feel?’. After listening to my first few interviews, I was baffled by my tendency to use the word ‘like’ about ten times each minute. I also kicked myself for moving on too quickly from a question without asking a pertinent follow-up. Dr. Pearce and I discussed how a researcher looking to improve their interviewing skills might analyze how talk show hosts interact with their guests, paying close attention to when the host chooses to interject at exactly the right moment. There are many nuances to conducting a good interview, all of which come with experience, as I am sure George Stroumboulopoulos could attest to.

George Stroumboulopoulos | kelseymusicexpress
Retrieved from: https://kelseymusicexpress.wordpress.com/

Transcribing interviews

Transcribing interviews is not a glamorous part of the research process. Thankfully, it is 2020 😉 and there are many tools available which can make transcription less time consuming. Using auto-transcription software is not perfect though, so some amount of transcribing needs to be completed ‘by hand’ to retain data integrity. For the most part, transcription is a job delegated to research assistants (AKA the redshirts of a research team, for all you Star Trek fans) involved in large projects. This does not mean transcription cannot be a valuable learning exercise. Transcribing interviews allowed me to closely reflect on my own speech patterns when conducting interviews, as well as those of respondents. When it came time to organize the data, I was already familiar with some of the themes, which would not have been the case if I had not taken part in the transcription process.

Writing the report

The most daunting aspect of my project was trying to make sense of hundreds of pages of interview data, and then condense it into a concise report. I began by categorizing all responses according to my structured interview questions. I then picked out what I thought were the ‘emergent themes’ in the data. That is, the common trends in participants’ answers. Typically, multiple researchers will employ the same data analysis technique to interpret descriptive data to arrive at a consensus about what the data is saying. My project was low budget, so one data analyst would have to do. From there, I selected quotes that best encapsulated each theme to be presented in the ‘results’ section of the report. This was combined with an abstract, background literature review, description of my methodology, and discussion of results.

As an undergraduate student and amateur researcher, completing this research was a very humbling process. My final report was not flawless, but definitely work I will look back on as a building block in my journey as a lifelong learner. The process will be an instrumental learning experience for when I take on other large projects in the future. I would implore any student interested in continuing to study beyond the undergraduate level to seek out opportunities to take on self-directed research, whether it be part of an honors thesis, independent study, or research assistantship. And of course, get in touch with your UNBC research ambassadors to learn more about where to start!

1. Hay, Iain. 2016. Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. Oxford University Press

My final report manuscript as of Aug 27, 2020:
file:///C:/Users/zflec/Documents/INTS%20499/DocumentingInt’lStudentExps.Sept14.htm