Undergraduate Research: Introduction

Undergraduate research allows students to develop professionally and personally in ways not possible through traditional lecture and laboratory courses. Research experiences within all academic disciplines give students the opportunity to gain a deeper knowledge of research techniques and processes, apply classroom learning in real-world contexts, explore academic literature, and form meaningful relationships with faculty members and professional researchers.

Stories of past St. Olaf undergraduate research students can be found here. They share information about their position, what they gained from their experience, and advice for current students seeking research opportunities.

On-Campus Options for Undergraduate Research


Summer Programs

Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI)

CURI is St. Olaf’s summer undergraduate research program. Occurring annually, it allows 80-90 students to engage with St. Olaf professors from all academic disciplines in a research setting. Along with research projects, the program includes weekly workshops to build skills in presentation and communication of research findings and to discuss the ethical issues surrounding research. CURI’s website has information about specific projects and application deadlines.

Steen Fellowship

Steen Fellowships for student-initiated projects expand opportunities for undergraduate research and investigation by enabling qualified students to undertake independent scholarship, investigation or creative activities in any field related to their college studies. Fellowships are intended to encourage applicants to explore intellectual and creative interests beyond the classroom. Projects should be designed and carried out by the applicant and should culminate in some sort of public report, presentation, performance or display. The Steen Fellowship website has more information about example projects, the application process, and deadlines.


Research Within Coursework

Independent Study (IS) and Independent Research (IR) Courses

IS/IR courses offer students the opportunity to work individually with a professor to independently explore a topic of personal interest. Generally speaking, IS projects are 200 level courses and involve general study of a topic, whereas IR projects are 300 level courses that involve the formation of an experimental design, collection of data, and interpretation of results. To register for an IS/IR, the first step after identifying an interest is coordinating the project with a St. Olaf faculty member. More detailed information about IS/IR courses can be found on the academic catalog website, and registration forms are available on the Registrar’s website. Information about research projects currently being conducted in each discipline can often be found on the department websites and used as a guide in forming your own IS/IR plans.

Directed Undergraduate Research (DUR) Courses

Another option for research within St. Olaf coursework is in DUR courses. These are occasionally offered by various natural science departments, on topics determined by the professor offering the course. As stated in the Academic Catalog, DUR courses “provide a comprehensive research opportunity, including an introduction to relevant background material, technical instruction, identification of a meaningful project, and data collection.” For specific information about upcoming DUR courses, ask faculty in your field of study.

Study Abroad Options for Undergraduate Research


External Opportunities

Summer undergraduate research opportunities are also offered at other colleges and universities. Many of these positions in the natural sciences are called “REU”s, or Research Experience for Undergraduates. These programs run for a few weeks in the summer and generally offer positions to a very limited number of students. Summer research opportunities for other disciplines are fewer in number, but programs in humanities and social sciences do exist.

External positions and programs can be found in a variety of ways. The following search engines and websites provide links to a wide range of opportunities:

For further options, talk to St. Olaf faculty in your area of interest, explore the opportunities listed here by academic discipline, or search the Online Alumni Directory for Oles doing research in your field of interest.


St. Olaf Funded Opportunities

Rockswold Health Scholars Program

Provides current St. Olaf students an unparalleled hands-on experience at the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in Minneapolis, MN.  HCMC is known for its dedication to providing care to vulnerable, diverse, and underserved populations regardless of their ability to pay for medical services.

Legal Scholars Program

Offers an opportunity for students to perform intensive legal research and serve in a legal support role to social impact oriented law clinics at the University of Minnesota, University of St. Thomas, William Mitchell College of Law, and Drake University law schools.  Students will contribute to the work of the clinic under the direction of the clinic director/law school faculty member, and become more knowledgeable about law and legal services while contributing to legal clinics serving diverse populations.

More St. Olaf Funded summer programs

The Application Process


Before the Application

Deadlines for summer student research positions usually fall between December and April. Timing of application submission is important, especially when the deadlines are rolling. The earlier the better – applying on the day of the application deadline is not advised. Before beginning the application for a research position, it is important to read eligibility requirements. It is also important to gain an understanding of the research project and the student’s role within that. Finally, it is advisable to express an interest in the project and discuss it with the professor or contact person listed. Once these steps are covered, the completion of the application may begin.

Completing the Application

The goal of an application is to communicate that you have the qualifications necessary to succeed in a research position and that you will provide a unique contribution to the project or program. It is important to articulate enthusiasm, personal skills, and interest in the specific program in application materials. Additionally, emphasizing the liberal arts education and skills of problem-solving, critical thinking, and written/oral communication encompassed within it is advised.

Letters of Recommendation

Contact faculty for letters of recommendation at least two weeks ahead of the due date, but the earlier the better. Choose a professor who knows you well and will write a positive letter of recommendation. If the application does not require a letter of recommendation, but instead asks you to list a reference, be sure to ask a professor before listing their name and contact information. Once references are confirmed, provide them with information about all positions you are applying for and why you’d like to pursue each position. Also give them information highlighting your past interactions with them, your skills and abilities (most importantly those relevant to the positions you are applying for), and your future plans. Some professors may request a resume and personal statement. For the natural sciences, students must fill out this form. Other professors may also have a standardized process, so be sure to ask.

Finalizing the Application and Following-Up

Carefully review all application materials to be sure all questions are answered and all instructions are followed correctly. Ask a professor to review personal statements and essays, or stop into the Piper Center to have a Peer Advisor review your application materials. After submission of application materials,  take the following steps to connect with admissions advisors, selection committees, or employers:

  • If a date is not given regarding application decisions, follow-up with a phone call or email approximately 7-10 days after the application deadline.  If application decision dates are listed, follow-up after the posted dates.
  • Ask any additional questions you may have about the research program, even while application decisions are being made. This will reinforce your interest in the program.
  • Thank admissions faculty and staff for their time in considering your application, and write thank you notes to faculty members who wrote letters of recommendation on your behalf.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need undergraduate research to continue to graduate school?

Undergraduate research may or may not be required to continue to graduate school, depending upon your discipline. Those considering a PhD program in the natural sciences should consider undergraduate research a requirement for graduate study. Other disciplines may not always mention undergraduate research as an explicit requirement for graduate schools, but the strongest candidates for admission have exemplary immersion within their chosen fields. One of the best ways to demonstrate this is undergraduate research. Further questions about the importance of conducting undergraduate research can be directed to admissions personnel from graduate programs of interest or to St. Olaf faculty members in your area of interest.

Since St. Olaf is not nationally known as a “research university,” will I be at a disadvantage in applying for research positions?

No. St. Olaf’s small student-faculty ratio allows for excellent research opportunities for students during the school year and summer. Talk with faculty to see who is conducting research and how you can get involved. If you are looking for a position outside of St. Olaf, your education can be one of the best assets you have as a candidate for research. Employers and graduate schools view liberal arts students as better equipped in problem-solving, critical thinking, and written/oral communication skills relative to students at larger research universities. Additionally, your liberal arts education often places you outside your comfort zone and emphasizes interdisciplinary experience. Emphasize these qualities in your application to give you an advantage over other candidates.

Can I get academic credit for undergraduate research?

Research opportunities for academic credit are determined by academic departments. Check with a department’s Academic Administrative Assistant or with faculty members to see if research is supported or available. Research outside St. Olaf could be counted as an academic internship. Find more information about registering for academic internship credit here .

Further questions?

Faculty in your area of interest will be the most helpful in fielding your questions about undergraduate research. However, Peer Advisors can also assist in your search and application process. Stop by to the Piper Center between 8am and 5pm to speak with one today!