A Chat with the Chair: Prof. David Cunningham Talks Undergraduate Research in Sociology

Undergraduate research can be an amazing opportunity to explore topics, skills, and potential career paths - but it can also be a bit of a challenge to begin. Student office staff SaMiya Carroll interviews Prof. David Cunningham to demystify this growing area of student interest/opportunity.


What advice would you give to students who want to get involved with research but don’t know where to start?   

Students should reach out to any of our faculty. You don’t need deep experience or an extensive resume, but genuine interest is important. When speaking to professors, express where their work fits in with your interests. Professors want to help as mentors. 

What role does funding play in research? How does a student go about finding funds?  

There are two important components of research: a supportive advisor and resources. The undergraduate research office has stipends for the semester and over the summer. For sociology students specifically, we ask that students who are interested in research reach out the the undergraduate research office, and if they don't have the capacity to support, then reach out to the sociology department and we’ll try to help!  

Can we receive class credit for research?  

The sociology department offers two models of research opportunities. The first is taking a research class that allows you to do collective or individual research. The second model is an independent research study. The most important task, however, is to talk to your advisors who will help you develop the project.  

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of sociology, what if my research interests go beyond what is typically considered sociology?  

It would depend on your interests. However, the sociology department has established relationships with other departments on campus, such as Sam Fox, the law school, and Olin Business School. Advisors will help!! Sometimes you have to develop your idea and we will help you to solidify what you do.  

What does research typically look like? How will it fit into my schedule?  

For the research assistant position, make sure you have good space in your schedule (5 hours/week minimum) which is about the same as another class. For independent research, some advisors give deadlines, some don’t. If there are no due dates there's a high chance you may scale back in ambition. I would recommend setting blocks of time to do your research, as you would if there was an actual class in your schedule. Stay on top of it!  

Where has inspiration for research been generated in your experience and what you’ve heard from colleagues?  

My inspiration comes from my passion for topics in sociology, any sort of pressing issue. I’ve had particular experience in community initiatives, on-the-ground work, collaboration, and team approaches. I’ve found intermixed experiences of bringing people together who have a lot of experience and those who don’t to be very valuable. These intermixed experiences tend to give those who are early in their careers a lot of experience. Don’t feel like you have to be advanced to get involved in a project, getting involved early can pay off!  

What kind of research is currently happening in the sociology department?  

The sociology department is unique in the variety of methods that the professors utilize. Some professors are doing survey-based research, interviews, zoning, using archival records, and many other approaches. Look into different topics but be sure to consider approaches when choosing a potential professor to work with based on the kind of research and methods you’re interested in.  

Did you do undergraduate (in undergrad) research? What was it about? How did it help shape your career path?  

No, I was an engineering major and athlete. I did not participate in undergraduate research, outside of my capstone, which was pretty math-heavy. However, not participating in research as an undergrad makes me value it more now! 

How would someone know that research is “for them”? 

Try it out! It’s hard to know until you do it. Research can be messy. All the time you put into it may not always get used. Sometimes you hit dead ends. You may also need flexibility and tolerance for pivots, but the only way to figure it out is to try.  

How does undergraduate research help students post-graduation?  

Research is practical and has a straightforward set of skills through the research process. It’s good for resumes, and understanding software, applicable and transferable to many types of jobs.