Debunking Undergraduate Research As An English Major

You just finished your fall quarter of your third year, and you realize that your graduation date looms way closer than you ever remember. Now that you’re a third year, you have grown to dread the inevitable question that gradually creeps up in conversation, “What are your plans after graduation?” There are only two options you have in mind: find a job or go to graduate school. 

If you’re one of those people who have been playing around with the idea of grad school in the back of your mind, then you should seriously consider doing some undergraduate research. Graduate students spend a lot of their time conducting research in their respective fields, so graduate programs, especially in English, usually ask for academic writing samples that are 15 to 20 pages in length.

As an English major, you probably have done some research for a few papers, but you most likely haven’t yet written a 15-page paper. At UCLA, there is always so much going on, and oftentimes you may feel like you don’t even know what you don’t know. Since I’m an English major, I can only speak confidently about undergraduate research in my major, of which there are several options. 

1. Undergraduate Research Center 

If you have a great idea for an awesome research project, the Undergraduate Research Center is a good place to start. Located on the underground floor of Murphy Hall in A334, this place has a bunch of resources like papers and pamphlets about scholarship and fellowship programs that you can apply to. If you feel a little lost in the sea of papers, there’s usually a person at the front desk happy to answer any questions you may have. If you’re still lost, like I was, you can talk to the person at the front desk and schedule an appointment to meet with a graduate student to answer any questions about applying to grad school, what grad school is like and undergraduate research in general. 

This place is a little overwhelming, especially if you want to just get your feet wet, but don’t exactly have an actual project or idea in mind. Other options include enrolling in SRP 99, which is an entry-level course in research. This can be either assisting a faculty member in their research project, or being guided by a faculty member in your own research project. If you already have a research project fully formed, perhaps even already written, you can also apply to get it published in the Aleph Research Journal, an undergraduate-run journal for critical pieces. 

2. Departmental Honors Program

If you love the English major and seriously want to continue your graduate work in English, you should definitely consider applying to the Departmental Honors Program. As an UCLA student, you can only apply once, during winter quarter of your third year. The requisites are: you must have taken at least one Critical Theory course (English 120-128) by winter quarter of your third year, have a 3.5 major GPA and have at least a 3.25 overall GPA. If you’re a third-year transfer student, and you haven’t planned accordingly (AKA like me), some say you can take your Critical Theory course your spring quarter after you apply. If you do not meet the GPA requirements, you may also petition to be accepted. 

When you apply to Departmental Honors, the application asks you to write a few hundred words about topics that you’re interested in researching. Make no mistake, this program is a huge commitment. Honors Program students must enroll in the English 191 Honors Seminar the spring of their third year to learn all about how to research, how to craft your project and write a huge proposal of your research topic at the end of the quarter. Then you actually conduct your research and write your Honors Thesis the following fall and winter quarter of your senior year. 

Unfortunately, I am not in this program, so all this information I only heard from faculty members and the few students I know currently in the program. These students are some of the most brilliant, most dedicated English majors I know. If that sounds like you, and you’re already pretty set on the idea of going to grad school for English, you should definitely apply to this program. 

3. Independent Study

If you don’t get into Departmental Honors, or you just don’t prefer that kind of time commitment, you can enroll in an Independent Study. For Departmental Honors, you must find a faculty member to advise you in your research, and the professor of the Honors Seminar should teach you a bit about finding an appropriate advisor. However, for an Independent Study, you’re pretty much on your own. You should have a pretty good idea of your research topic because while searching for a faculty advisor, you should look for one who is an expert in your topic. For example, if you love 20th century American literature, you should partner with a professor who specializes in that field. 

The best case scenario would be that you took a class with a professor, with whom you developed a fairly good relationship, and you would like to pursue an Independent Study in the same field as that professor. In this scenario, that professor would most likely agree to advise you. If not, you can ask around the department: former TAs you had, professors you are close to or one of the undergraduate advisers, to direct you towards certain professors who specialize in your research topic field. When drafting a cold email to a professor you don’t know, try to suggest making an appointment to meet them or see if you can attend their office hours. It’s much easier to reject you over email than in person, so an in-person meeting would be to your advantage. Since the professor does not know you, he or she has no obligation to help you in your study; remember, they’re doing a huge favor by being your adviser. 

A lot of professors may ignore you or reject you over email entirely. Don’t feel discouraged. Independent Studies are usually for research topics that is not explored in a course in the department that you would like to pursue. If you’re passionate about it, hopefully a professor out there will tap into your passion and would like to advise you. An Independent Study would usually last one quarter, so it would be less of a time commitment for you and the faculty advisor, another advantage. There are two options for Independent Study: English 197 or English 199. English 197 is if you have a research topic in mind, but don’t have a full reading list. In this case, you would work with your advisor to draft a reading list together. If you already have a specific reading list in mind already, then English 199 might suit your purposes more. 

4. Capstone Seminar 

If none of these options sound appealing to you, there is always the Capstone Seminar. All English majors are required to take a senior seminar to graduate with an English degree. Senior seminars are generally pretty small with 10 or so students enrolled in the class, and they’re meant to bring undergrads as close as possible to what professors do in their day-to-day outside of teaching. Capstones, from what I understand, are a bit more research heavy and culminate in a large paper or project at the end of the quarter. After taking one of these, I definitely learned way more about research in English, how to make use of research resources around you and what it’s like to be a professor. If a capstone seminar’s course description is in a topic you like, all the better to sharpen your analytical and research skills in something you already have a vested interest in.