Reading Ethnographies



Participation Observation Exercises


IRB Applications

by Shuang Frost

IRB (Institutional Review Board) is an independent department exist in every research university in America to sanction studies that use humans as research subjects. At Harvard, they are called “Committee on the Use of Human Subjects” ( You will need official approval from IRB before any of your human-related research could begin. So, start preparing as soon as you can!

Talk to an IRB specialist: once you have a rough idea of your research question, fieldwork site, and methods, we suggest that you schedule an appointment with an IRB specialist. Simply email or call their office, explain your discipline and research goal (for your undergrad thesis or something else), and they will match you with an expert in this field. The IRB experts are there to help researchers go through the review process, so ask them any question you have. They will let you know [1] the process of IRB review; [2] whether your research might need a review; [3] if yes, proximately how long it will take. If your research deals with vulnerable population such as elderly, children, patients, and etc., it is likely that you might need a full board review – the highest level of IRB review, which might take 2-3 months.

Get Ethics Training: Before you embark on any human-related research, you will need to get standard ethics training. You could either do in-person training or online CITI training. More information could be found at “Undergraduate Research Training Program” page ( If you have taken ANTH1610: Anthropological Research Methods or attended IRB lectures, it is likely that you have already received ethics training. It could substitute the required training; ask the IRB specialist about the substitution process.

Find a Faculty Sponsor: Undergraduate students need faculty sponsors to go through the IRB review process. You are encouraged to find a faculty sponsor as soon as you can. Faculty members at Harvard are often very busy. You need to provision some extra time for their responses.

Submit Review Documents: If your research is deemed necessary for IRB review, you receive notifications from IRB specialists about documents you need to prepare. You will submit these documents online; and reviewers will get back to you if they need further clarifications or additional documents. When describing your research methods, think carefully about issues such as potential risk, benefits, and privacy. If your research is conducted in a different language than English, you will need proof for your fieldwork language ability.