High school students often pursue special hobbies and curiosities outside the classroom. Playing your favourite sport, participating in a community service project, or engaging with the visual arts are some of the many ways you can enrich your extracurriculars.
However, are some of your interests more academic in nature? For example, do you find yourself engrossed with the complexities of the human microbiome or amazed by quantum relativity and entanglement theory? Do you often speculate on the events that led to the Great Depression or the history of civil disobedience, or simply desire to understand the theory of perception?
Whatever the case may be, some of the topics that interest you do not fit into the typical extracurricular activity or project box. If you have a couple of months to pursue an academic interest, you should consider doing so by conducting an independent research project.
While research can be challenging, it is enormously gratifying to create a project that contributes to your knowledge. An independent research project will help you showcase your intellectual interests and research skills to your teachers, family, friends and, most importantly, strengthen your application to college.
You may initially find the idea of researching on your own a very daunting process, but breaking it down into simple, manageable, and time-bound tasks can help you complete the research.
Here is an outline of the process you need to follow as a high school student who is keen on conducting independent research:
Topic of Interest
As you have already decided to conduct your research independently, you might have a topic or area of particular interest that you wish to explore. The first step to successful research is narrowing down your research topic. Though some topics such as ‘Cancer Biology’ or ‘Corporate Finances’ are fascinating and complex, narrowing your topic to ‘Biological processes underlying Breast Cancer initiation’ or ‘Methods to minimize non-performing assets’ lets you focus on a particular issue within the field. Tweaking your research interest into simple quantifiable research topics can help you complete your research and pave the way for your future studies and career prospects.
Learning from the existing research
Identifying existing research that helps you support your interest and ultimately contribute to the context of your research topic is paramount. To successfully add context to your research, you must diligently collect, read and interpret published research texts such as articles, journal papers, documentaries, book or video/ audio reports, textbooks, and dissertations. You must review the existing literature critically to help place your research within the context and justify the need for further study.
Find a mentor
It is easy to get distracted if you don’t have someone to guide you or help you find answers when you feel stuck. To improve your research process, you must find yourself a mentor. You can ask your school teacher to be one or approach a professional outside of school. Before you officially approach a professional, you should familiarise yourself with the potential mentor’s work by visiting their affiliated University websites and reading about their work. You could also read through their LinkedIn to know the kind of initiatives they contribute to. Be very clear about your interest in working with them. It is advisable to prepare a list of informed questions you would like to ask them. For instance, you could ask them about any complex concepts you encountered in your research or questions about a specific research article you read recently. Engaging in discussion about your research interest can convey your enthusiasm to pursue research while building a genuine rapport with your mentor. Finding a mentor can be difficult at first, but be consistent in your approach.
Once you have found your mentor, it is time to set goals and divide your research into manageable tasks. To do this, list out every step of your research project. Be as specific as possible. The list can include background research, research question/ hypothesis formulation, research method, step-wise phases, an outline of the research paper, editing and publishing the work, etc. Set a completion date for each task and work backwards from your completion date to develop a realistic timeline for each task. You may use Google calendar or other tracking apps to keep track of your progress and ensure that your research does not affect your school commitments.
Conducting the research
Start by collecting high-quality research materials from your school or local library. Use online research tools such as Google Scholar to find peer-reviewed articles. You can also subscribe to some online research databases such as Ebsco or JSTOR. These databases provide digital copies of various research journals, both current and archived. You should be wary of pages like Wikipedia that appear to be fact-based resources but have content from unfiltered users. Take careful notes and compile your research in an organized manner. Conducting thorough and systematic research will make the research writing process more manageable.
Writing it down
Once you are done with the research phase, you should get ready to organize your paper. Critically go through your research and check how the outcomes support your initial objective. Now is also an excellent time to get in touch with your mentor and work on their feedback. Don’t be too rigid on your findings and conclusions. Allow your research to guide the flow of your paper, not the other way round. Prepare an outline for your paper and start writing. Break the writing phase into smaller tasks so you don’t feel overburdened. A research paper usually ranges from 15 to 30 pages depending on your subject, so it is crucial to maintain a steady pace.
Publishing your research
Before publishing your research, make sure to edit your draft. You can ask your mentor to help edit your paper. You may also request a family member or teacher to revise the draft. After several rounds of editing, you are now prepared to publish your work. Though publication may seem like an official completion of your project, you can publish your paper in various forms. Review your final draft before you decide to publish your writing. It may be published as a blog, research article, a book of findings, a podcast, or even a video or a vlog. However, you decide to publish your work, keep in mind that it should reflect your learning and abilities. Remember that you should be proud of your first professional work.