A good research project starts with a good idea. A solid research idea is key because it determines the direction and sets the tone for the scope of the study.
What are the elements of a good research idea / research question?
If you are looking to solve a problem through research, then make sure you pick something that is relevant. What we mean by relevance is that it solves a significant problem or addresses an existing knowledge gap. Originality and innovation will enhance this!
The research you choose to undertake should also be feasible and you should try to find that ‘sweet spot’ between challenging yourself and still being comfortable enough to add value through your research.
Of course, there’s more and you should understand the fundamentals of Research before you start thinking of ideas. Once you have a clear research question, you would have addressed relevance, innovation, feasibility and significance. Then, it’s time to think through the methodology, ethics and reporting style.
How a research program can help in college admissions
A good research program, especially one with a mentor, can help you by adding some much-needed structure to the research and identifying providing frameworks through which you upskill yourself.
Ambitious high school students who are selected for the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs work on a research area of their interest and receive 1-1 mentorship by top PhDs. Below, we share some of the research ideas that have been proposed by our research mentors – we hope they inspire you!
1. The relationship between mental health and physical health
The complex and interconnected relationship between mental and physical health offers plenty of scope for research projects at a high school level. By studying the interconnectedness, your research can provide input on the assessment and diagnosis of various health issues or lead to the development of new treatments (for instance, can cognitive behavioral therapy improve physical health?).
A few examples in this area of research are examining the effects of mental health on a specific part of physical health such as the immune system, reproductive health, and HIV prevention and treatment.
To make it more nuanced, you could:
Explore the effect of stress on puberty and menstruation in youth from developing countries.
Study the impact of certain professions on the immune system or the role of discrimination on mental health in marginalized communities.
Assess impact of physical health on a particular area of mental health such as stress, PTSD, or phobias.
Suggested by a Lumiere PhD mentor at Duke University.
2. Human learning and memory
This is a fascinating area of research in psychology, and its importance has only grown with things like tech innovations, awareness around neurodivergence and instances of dementia, Alzheimer’s. From understanding the types of memory to memory encoding, retrieval cues, forgetting, and memory strategies — the possibilities for impactful research are plenty.
Your research could focus on specific topics like:
The changing capacity of memory with aging,
The impact of memory on decision-making biases
The questionable reliability of eyewitness testimony in courts (this is a widely discussed topic in law and law enforcement!)
An exploration of cognitive neuroscience within addiction frameworks .
Suggested by a Lumiere PhD mentor at University of Chicago.
3. Create innovative methods to study online behavior
As online behavior becomes more and more relevant, so does the need to study it. From anthropologists to economists, subject experts have focused keenly on the impact of online behavior. The field of psychology is no exception!
Methodology research projects, for example, can offer new tools to analyze and interpret online behavior. You could evaluate current research methods, develop new techniques for specific areas like data collection, or provide guidelines for a niche area of research like online behavior on Twitter.
You could also bring your computer science knowledge to the fore by using computational methods. These could include the use of machine learning to analyze online behaviors like how individuals react online to key events, or a mobile app that tracks digital activities can also be considered.
Your research can also intersect with media studies by looking at the effect of media on attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. A topic relevant to current public discourse could be the effect of media portrayals of masculinity on public perceptions of men as well as their perceptions of themselves. The end goal of research projects in this field could be to assist a social scientist in their study of online behaviors, honing in on facets of behavior like moral or political behavior, biases, online identity, and more.
Suggested by a Lumiere PhD mentor at Yale University.
4. Sensation and perception
Research in sensation and perception would study how sensory stimuli are detected, processed, integrated and how they give rise to our perceptions of the world. Research projects in this subject can be applied in a number of fields including design, communication, education, and clinical intervention. A lot of innovations in music and art therapy are grounded in this area.
If you’re interested in the arts then this field is a great way to explore topics like:
The influence of multisensory parameters on musical listening
The impact of artistic practices on cognitive abilities
The use of neuroimaging techniques to study how the brain responds to different art forms.
Suggested by a Lumiere PhD mentor at University of California, Los Angeles.
5. Neuroscience-related research
Neuroscience draws from a lot of other science subjects but focuses on studying the nervous systems and organs / physiological processes that support it. It is a rapidly growing field with great potential for independent research projects, with its impact extending into AI and robotics. Two broad pathways are available here.
Investigating the neural correlates of a particular cognitive process such as memory, attention, or decision making. A deep dive into decision making, for example, would look at neural pathways that underlie risk-taking behavior or the role of the prefrontal cortex in executive control.
Examination of state-of-art brain imaging or brain stimulation methods. The end result would look at trends or patterns, inconsistencies or limitations, and offer suggestions for future research.
Suggested by a Lumiere PhD mentor at California Institute of Technology.
6. Consumer behavior
If you have an interest in both, economics and psychology, then this is where it comes together. Psychological factors play a key role in influencing consumer behavior when it comes to purchase, use and disposal of products. Research in this field can lead to more effective marketing strategies, promotion of sustainable consumer behavior, more informed public health campaigns, to name a few things.
Some examples of specific topics include studying:
The impact of social media influencers
The effect of online reviews
The influence of product packaging on consumers’ perception and decision making behaviors
The drivers of consumer financial decision-making (i.e., debt)
Suggested by Lumiere PhD mentors at University of California, Los Angeles and University of California, San Diego.
7. Workplace psychology
As 4-day workweek experiments gain traction across the world, research in workplace psychology has become more relevant than ever. Employee motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and teamwork — there are numerous subsets of research in this field.
The psychology of technology at work, for example, can explore:
The influence of virtual work conditions
Employee reactions to electronic performance monitoring.
The study of employee selection techniques, what biases can be involved
The impact of virtual reality and machine learning on the process.
Suggested by a Lumiere PhD mentor at Purdue University.
8. Depression, anxiety, and suicide
Understanding the causes, prevention, and treatment of mental illnesses such as these can form a broad area of research for you. Examples of specific research topics include research that looks into:
The development of culturally appropriate treatment approaches, which could be done by partnering with marginalized or oppressed communities.
Issues of diagnostic measurement. Such projects can analyze existing diagnostic tools and test their accuracy across different sections of society or focus on developing new diagnostic measures that are more comprehensive in nature.
Suggested by a Lumiere PhD mentor at University of Michigan.
9. Psychopathology and psychiatry
Psychopathology and psychiatry are two important areas of inquiry in the field of psychology and are deeply intertwined with other science subjects such as biology and chemistry. Not only does it introduce you to sophisticated methods of research, but work in this field can have far-reaching effects on those who live with debilitating mental disorders.
Research projects in this field of study can look at:
The causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders. For example, your passion project could study the genetic predispositions for certain neurodevelopmental disorders.
Exploring brain and cognitive changes in people with severe psychopathology.
Suggested by Lumiere PhD mentors at University of California, Los Angeles.
10. Positive psychology
Positive psychology is a flexible field of research that can be applied to a broad spectrum of domains in life. Research projects can constitute examining the approach, its current applications, recent findings, and future potential. A few examples of more specific research areas within the field are:
The role of group identity in well-being
The effect of positive emotions on social cognition
The effect of social support on trauma victims.
Suggested by a Lumiere PhD mentor at University of Michigan.
One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you are passionate about psychology and want to do advanced research, you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 2100 students apply for 500 spots in the program! 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.
Image source: AI generated image (Deep AI)