High school students who contemplate applying to the top universities in the United States should seriously consider getting involved with research. There are numerous fields of research, and not all of them will be accessible to high school students, though there are still myriad research options that are available, both independently and collaboratively.
Some fields lend themselves to research more easily than others, especially for high school students. Most fields will have openings for students to involve themselves in some capacity. Popular research fields include biology, chemistry, and related topics in the medical field, especially for students who want to be pre-med. Sociological fields, including political science and economics, are less popular but still well-represented.
Math and physics are harder to get involved with as a high schooler, especially in any meaningful way. Students interested in business and economics usually find other ways to get involved. Archaeology usually is not an option due to safety concerns. Finally, some fields do not offer the kind of research easily done by high school students, such as philosophy.
While you may not find research opportunities directly related to the field you want to explore, you can still find ways to involve yourself. If you are interested in the sciences, however, we do recommend trying to get involved with research, as that stands out on a resume.
The simplest way to get involved in research as a high school student is to join an existing research project. Every college or university has lab facilities because all faculty are required to conduct research and publish it as part of their job duties. This does not mean every school will have a place for high school students who wish to participate in research, but universities are a good place to start looking.
Once you have determined the fields you are interested in, your next step is to investigate what research is currently ongoing at institutions near you. Universities are good places to start, as it is harder for students to find places in commercial labs, though some of them do have internship opportunities. Look into ongoing research projects and the professors or graduate students leading them. Once you have located a project you want to work on or a professor you want to work with, you will need to take the leap of reaching out to them.
When you first begin working in a lab or with a professor, the duties you will be assigned will likely feel both dull and repetitive and will not match the excitement you may expect from research. There are two things you need to know: first, while you will likely progress to doing more independent research if you stick with it, nobody begins their time in a lab by direct experiments. Second, almost all research requires long periods of boredom before achieving an interesting result.
The way you will progress in these positions is by learning all you can. This comes in two forms: first, learning the actual techniques used in research, and the physical methodology scientists and professors use to conduct it. Second, by learning what questions to ask, and why. Research occurs when you ask an interesting question and strive to find an answer no one has found before.
When you conduct academic research, you must be prepared for many tedious and possibly boring tasks. Even the most exciting projects; astronomy in Antarctica, excavating long-lost cities in the Middle East, and digging up dinosaur bones in Outer Mongolia, feature long periods of repetitive work. There are flashes of excitement and discovery, but do not expect all research to be fast-paced and flashy. Good research takes time, and a willingness to commit to doing it right. Discoveries are not marked with a shout of “Eureka!” but rather an investigator examining data and remarking “Well that’s odd.”
This is not meant to discourage you from doing research; on the contrary, it can be one of the most rewarding things you do. The point is to set your expectations, so you enter forewarned.
Of course, you may not have the access or inclination necessary to join an active research project. In that case, you may choose to conduct research on your own. While the questions you ask and the answer may be smaller in scope and scale than those done in professional labs, amateur researchers can still make important contributions to science.
It is often easier to do independent research in the hard sciences than in social sciences or humanities. This is not to say it is impossible, but that the resources available to high school students allow for easier explorations in some fields than others.
Doing research on your own is difficult due to limited resources, and sometimes due to limited knowledge, but there are still many contributions you can make. You simply need to scale the projects you take on with the resources and knowledge you have; the more you learn, the more you are able to learn.
The end goal for most research is either publication or submission into a science competition of some kind. While it is entirely possible to just do research for the joy of having done it, having it reviewed and verified by others makes your accomplishments more credible, and easier to weigh. Which science fairs you enter should reflect the scale and scope of your research, as well as its field. More minor or harder-to-sum-up results may work better as a publication, while engineering projects are often better suited to science fairs or competitions.
if you are aiming for publication, then a possible type of research that you may attempt to conduct is negative results research. Repeating an experiment done previously, scrupulously following their methodology, and acquiring negative results, is an important parts of the scientific process. Negative results indicate that more research will need to be done on a topic and that the question may not be as closed as previously thought.
Due to the priorities of grants, however, most university labs do not devote many resources, if any, to redoing experiments to find negative results. This makes it a good niche for students who want to do independent research. Look for experiments done in the past few years, in subjects you are interested in, with setups you can replicate at home. If you cannot find the full text of an article, reach out to the authors; scientists love discussing their work, and most will share the full paper for free if you ask.
Be sure to thank anyone you contact for their time and effort spent, and if they seem especially friendly, you should ask if the original researchers have advice for your own attempts at negative results. While they may not always be able or willing to devote time to helping you, most scientists enjoy encouraging others to involve themselves in their field.
Negative results add to the pool of general knowledge by showing what cannot be done or at least cannot be done in a specific way. This prevents future researchers from wasting time by making the same mistakes.
Doing the research yourself and publishing it may feel daunting, but scientific discovery is open to all. Further, just because you are not directly working with scientists in a lab, does not mean you cannot reach out to them. You should reach out to scientists and professors who have written papers that explore similar questions to the ones you are working on, both to get their advice and for networking opportunities.
If you would like more information, please contact Genius Development. We are the largest and most systematic STEM educational institution in Asia with the most comprehensive STEAM learning system for children and teenagers, and a world-class curriculum in science, computing, finance, mathematics, languages, and music. In addition, we offer education consultancy and planning services to those who aspire to study in prestigious American high schools and Ivy League schools, with the professional expertise to ensure that they successfully gain entry to these institutions.