Participating in iSchool Research
Your entire education has involved learning knowledge and skills that researchers have already discovered or invented. Take, for example, the CSE 142 programming language class or our INFO 200 Intellectual Foundations of Information courses. Every part of these courses is knowledge that has been carefully investigated by researchers for decades. You're learning the answers to questions that researchers like those at UW posed long ago and spent decades investigating.
In contrast, research concerns questions for which we have no answers. For example, one unanswered research question we investigate in the Information School is “how can we stop fake news from spreading?” We don't know. There are lots of ideas, but most of them don't really work. Because we don't know the answer, trying to find an answer is research. If we were to ever find an answer, that would be a major discovery, and it would no longer be research. Instead, we'd start teaching the answer in INFO 200.
The University of Washington is one of the most research-active institutions of higher education in the world. Its tenure-track professors, and many of its teaching-track faculty, are pushing the boundaries of knowledge every day. The Information School is part of this rich landscape, fueled by faculty, research staff, and doctoral students. We are leading the discovery of what information is and its role in the world, but also defining its role through new information technologies and experiences. Examples include inventing apps that get kids to spend more time outside, modeling how rumors spread online, and inventing new touchscreen gestures.
Undergraduates can participate in this discovery. Maybe you're curious about careers in research and want to gain experience before deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. Maybe you're just interested in supporting research before you enter the workforce. Both are reasonable ways to participate in research.
The university has many resources to support undergraduates in research:
- How to find research opportunities at UW.
- How to get undergraduate research funding.
- How to complete the required training to do research with human participants.
Below are several iSchool-specific frequently asked questions to help you get started.
What does the iSchool research?
The iSchool does research on a broad range of topics:
- Identifying, analyzing, visualizing and securing data for critical business decisions
- Understanding, supporting and enhancing the interactions of youth with digital information and technology
- Devising new ways to leverage an organization’s information assets to succeed in strategic goals
- Promoting digital inclusion and empowering people through training and access to digital information
- Investigating how to promote ethical work-life balance in the information age
- Making information easier to search, browse, and understand
- How to make information technology easier to access, learn, and use
The best way to find out what our faculty are researching now is to browse faculty profiles. Most of our faculty keep our pages up to date with our latest research.
What is it like to do research?
Because research is about finding answers where there are none, it can feel like stumbling around in a dark room, using your hands to search for a light. Guided by your knowledge of the room and your sense of touch, you're not entirely lost, but to find the switch, you need to wander, grasp at objects and surfaces, and navigate your way to the light. You might bump your head on the way. You might end up back where you started.
Because researchers pose questions and go where the answers take them, research can involve a surprising diversity of activities. Someone investigating how people use online forums to explore their identity, for example, might find themselves reading and analyzing thousands of online communities. Someone testing ways of helping youth battle their addictions to YouTube might conduct dozens of highly sensitive interviews with adolescents and their parents. Someone inventing a new meme search algorithm might spend a year fine-tuning machine vision algorithms to index the visual content of internet memes. As a researcher, you can't control what skills are necessary to find an answer.
Because research can take you unexpected places, researchers must constantly learn new skills, consult experts, return from dead ends, and sometimes give up. It requires immense resourcefulness and curiosity. Moreover, because research is about discovering truth and inventing new possibilities, researchers must also be patient: the impact of research may not come for decades, and you might not get credit for it. Researchers work for humanity on the scale of decades and centuries, not for the next fiscal quarter.
Is research a good way to get skills for technology jobs?
Many research skills are valuable for any career. Dealing with uncertainty, persisting after repeated failure, being objective, and clearly communicating discovery are critical to most professions.
Research can also be directly valuable to technology careers. For example, if you want to be a software engineer, and you find a research project that requires engineering software in a team, the project could be a reasonable way to practice software development. If you want to be a UX designer, and you find a research project that requires some UX design, it could be a good way to get some portfolio content. If you want to be a UX researcher or data scientist, research can be excellent practice, since both roles use methods from academic research to answer questions for companies. The benefit of practicing these skills in research is that you can do them on a small team where your contributions are really central to progress.
Research is not a good way to learn how to be productive in a large technology organization that is profit-focused rather than knowledge-focused. To learn how to be productive in a for-profit venture, get an internship where you work on a large team inside a software company.
Can I be compensated for helping with faculty research?
There are multiple ways to engage in research:
- You can volunteer, unpaid. Most faculty are looking for more of a commitment than this, but some may be willing to take whatever time you can offer.
- You can do an INFO 499 independent study for credit.
- Faculty may hire you for an hourly position.
- Faculty may have grants that pay you a stipend to support you while you do research. For example, faculty can request Research Experience for Undergraduate grants from the National Science Foundation, and fund U.S. citizens and permanent residents to do full-time research in the summer. The NSF also funds many REU Sites, which recruit many undergraduates to do research together over a summer.
If you're an Informatics major, you can do a research Capstone instead of a regular Capstone. It involves as much effort as our 8-credit Capstone, but may be concentrated as full-time work over a summer, or stretched across a whole academic year.
Think about whether you need or want compensation before you engage faculty about research.
How do I find faculty to do research with?
Faculty are often looking for smart, dedicated, creative undergraduates to support their research projects. Sometimes, you will want to work with someone you took a class with, which is a great entry point. Some faculty will even announce in class if they are looking for undergraduate research support. To find opportunities in the school yourself, first read the web pages of tenure-track iSchool faculty. Most faculty will have some description of their research interests, and many have considerable detail about recent research papers and current projects. Read about those projects and read recent research. If you have similar interests, craft an email to the faculty member with the following information:
- Express your interest in doing research with them
- Note what you're specifically interested in doing research about
- Share any skills you have that might be useful
- Share why you want to do research
The iSchool also arranges an annual undergraduate research recruiting night, where iSchool faculty and doctoral students seeking to recruit researchers can network with students interested in helping. We hold this at the beginning of winter quarter, in anticipation of recruiting for summer research positions and supporting research Capstones prior to the year of graduation.
It's important to note that not all faculty will be available to work with undergraduates. The only way to know is to ask a faculty member if they're willing to advise you and if they have projects with work to be done.
There are also countless research opportunities elsewhere on campus and at other universities. If you’re an Informatics major, watch the Informatics mailing list for opportunities elsewhere in the world. These usually occur in summer.
When should I do research?
There’s no right time; some students find opportunities as freshman, others just before graduation. This is especially true if you’re primarily interested in supporting research before joining the workforce.
That said, research does require skills. You may need to take a few classes before a particular faculty member is ready to work with you. INFO 300 Research Methods in Informatics is a good place to start. INFO 360 Design Methods covers methods often used in HCI research. INFO 370 Introduction to Data Science covers methods typically used in research with large data sets. All of these courses are an excellent introduction to research basics.
If you think you might want to get a Ph.D., the earlier you do research as an undergraduate, the better. Strong applicants to doctoral programs often have experience with research and multiple letters of recommendation from faculty, including at least one letter from someone who supervised you on research. The earlier you start, the more likely you'll be able to get good letters and have some record of research experience.
Should I go to graduate school?
There are many different types of graduate school, so it depends on what you want to do:
- Some graduate programs are professional master’s degrees. These include degrees like our Master of Information Management, our Master of Library and Information Science, our Master of Human-Computer Interaction and Design, and our Master of Data Science. These programs are not good for getting research experience, as they focus on training you for professions in industry.
- Some graduate programs are academic master’s degrees. They often involve coursework and a master’s thesis, which will usually be research. These can be good programs to get some research experience sufficient for applying to a Ph.D. program if you don’t already have research experience. One example of this is the Master of Human-Centered Design and Engineering, offered by our friends in the Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering.
- Doctoral programs are where you learn to do research. Unlike the graduate programs above, they have minimal coursework and mostly involve working closely with faculty and other doctoral students to answer research questions, culminating in a dissertation.
Why get a doctorate instead of a master’s degree? There are many things you can do with a Ph.D. other than become a professor.