Conducting high-quality, academically rigorous research in high school is very important. It can help you strengthen your subject areas of choice by engaging in more application-oriented learning. Research can also be a great way of narrowing down what piques your interest. You can use a good piece of research to showcase your abilities as a scholar and set yourself up for long-term success, starting from college admissions. Rome wasn’t built in a day and, similarly, good research takes time so it’s very important to find the right topic - both from the point of view of capturing your interest and for its value and relevance. We’re here to break down the approach you can consider taking!
Decide what you're interested in
This should be a non-negotiable, no matter what anyone tells you. It’s very important for you to be interested in the topic because, not only will you have to spend time on it, but you’ll also have to talk about it and even defend it. All of this happens more naturally if you are passionate about what you are doing. Don’t buy into ‘trends’ - because there’s effectively no such thing in research. If you want some passion project ideas, be sure to check here for inspiration.
Choose a topic that's manageable
The word ‘manageable’ has many elements to it. Firstly, it should cover skill sets and subject areas you are good at. You can also strike a ‘sweet spot’ between strong and weaker areas to give yourself a challenge. It may not be a good idea to do a data science project if that’s not your skill set (just because the word is going around!). The second element of ‘manageable’ is also to see whether it’s ‘researchable’. Make sure that it’s not too broad or too narrow. If it’s too broad, you may not be able to make too much headway with it, and if it’s too narrow, you may not have the expertise to deep-dive in a manner that’ll do justice to the topic. Of course, you’ll find some exceptions to this rule. Make sure you can test your hypothesis in an effective way and whether there is enough information for you to build your research on. While you may be alright doing some primary research, an entire project on a topic that has never been researched before may not be the best use of your time. Here are some examples of projects done by students in the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. We’ve also curated lists of excellent research opportunities to help you identify your passion while enhancing your scholar profile - check out the opportunities in computer science and AI, or psychology and medicine. Be sure to check out the best research mentorship programs and free summer programs for a good understanding of what’s out there.
Build a plan of execution and hold yourself accountable
Research is a journey of self-discipline before discovery! Break up your research into manageable chunks, or phases. It's hard enough to find information when there are thousands of websites out there; if you try searching for too much at once, it will take longer than necessary and make your eyes bleed from all the scrolling! Make sure each chunk/phase is well-focused by breaking down each question into smaller components (e.g., "How does x affect y?"). Estimate how much time each phase will take (be conservative and over-estimate a bit, but not so much that you can afford to slack off - this will ensure you finish what you started!). Summers are a really good time to get a chunk of the work done - gant charts are super useful for this! Make a list of people you’d like to speak with and resources you’d like to consult (super helpful while citing sources later - use a spreadsheet or any database that works for you).
If you are working specifically on a research paper, think of which journals you’d like to aim for publication and make meticulous notes on the submission formats and deadlines. Here is a useful guide on how to publish your research paper. Keep revisiting the initial problem statement, no matter what phase of research you are in - it is easy to lose sight of it when you deep-dive. Keep asking yourself what problems this research will solve. Remember that it’s the simple things you do to be organized and maintain research ‘hygiene’ that’ll ensure you turn out a phenomenal research project! A great research project can have many moving parts and get complicated. You can ensure that you are thinking along the right lines and progressing well by working with a research mentor. If this is something of interest to you, then consider our research program – Lumiere – which had 2100 students apply this past year! Our scholars have been admitted to Princeton, Yale, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, Cambridge, University of California, and Berkeley (to name a few colleges). You can find the application form here.
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.