Why Undergraduate Research Matters in College

The phrase undergraduate research may prompt images of lab coats and test tubes, but that’s only a narrow slice of the whole experience. Undergraduate research opportunities extend across disciplines, taking many forms and offering benefits regardless of major, experts say, noting that such work helps students develop a variety of skills that employers value.

Undergraduate research opportunities vary by college, but experts say the experience is really what students make of it.

“I think (undergraduate research) really helps students mature as thinkers and doers,” says Brian Thomas, associate dean for undergraduate research opportunities at Stanford University in California. “Many different kinds of careers are going to present students with challenges that don’t have obvious answers. At the end of the day, that is the best description of what research is all about: We’ve found an interesting question, and we really don’t know what the answer is going to be.”

What Is Undergraduate Research?

The nonprofit Council on Undergraduate Research defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” But what an undergraduate research program looks like can vary, taking many forms and methods across disciplines.

A history major, for example, probably won’t have to worry about microscopes and mathematical formulas, but he or she may complete fieldwork or engage with archival materials. What typically will hold true for all disciplines is how students approach research.

“The first part of any research experience is deciding what question you want to ask. What are you interested in? What aspects of that question are already known and where are the needs, where are the gaps for new discovery?” says Sarah R. Bolton, president of the College of Woosterin Ohio, which requires students to complete undergraduate research or a creative project in order to graduate.

Numerous models exist for undergraduate research. Some students may serve as research assistants, working under a faculty member’s supervision. Opportunities exist to conduct research domestically and abroad. Additionally, students may conduct research as part of a thesis attached to their major, while others may study independently with direction from a faculty mentor. “The core mission of a researcher, whether they’re on the faculty or they’re a budding undergraduate, is to learn a mode of asking questions and try it out,” Thomas says.

At what point during a student’s time in college undergraduate research is conducted may also vary. At Wooster, Bolton notes that students complete faculty-supervised independent research or a creative activity over the course of their senior year. Some juniors also complete smaller research projects. Bolton says there’s no single best time to conduct undergraduate research, but experience helps provide a foundation.

Thomas says there’s “no wrong time to incorporate research,” but doing so early may help students establish career goals, settle into a specific major or even help them realize that a particular discipline may not be what they expected.

The Benefits of Undergraduate Research

Beyond developing academic depth in their chosen discipline, experts say that other benefits extend from research projects.

“Undergraduate research is a platform which enables us to address larger educational goals,” says Stephanie Wallach, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. Those goals include developing a skill set that encompasses communication, problem-solving, project management, developing research budgets and making proposals.

“A lot of what we do beyond the research is enabling students to think – to gain a skill set,” Wallach says.

In addition to developing skills, undergraduate research also is an opportunity to connect with professors. While student interactions may differ based on the undergraduate research model, faculty will always be central to the project. Students can expect to work closely with faculty mentors, whether in an assistant role or doing their own research.

“Faculty are meeting at least once a week with the student,” Bolton says, explaining how independent study works at Wooster. “The student is bringing the work that they accomplished that week, they’re discussing it with a professor, presenting what they anticipate their next steps are, how they’re framing the question and how they might want to approach it.”

Faculty, Wallach says, are at the heart of undergraduate research, guiding students to the completion of the project. She says this provides students with an invaluable networking experience: “Those connections are what take you into your future.”

Though faculty members serve as a guiding hand, research projects are often the first substantive work students engage in without a syllabus or answer key. “That’s challenging for someone who hasn’t done it before, and represents a real growth opportunity for students to work in that amorphous space to have to provide their own structure,” Thomas says.

Other benefits identified by academics include helping students develop a professional identity and connecting to the community in their chosen discipline, boosting interest in graduate school, increasing confidence and intercultural competency. Scholars also note that undergraduate research can boost retention and personal satisfaction with a school.

Undergraduate research also comes with some misconceptions, experts say. One, says Wallach, is that it’s focused on science, technology, engineering and math, known as the STEM fields. A former liberal arts student herself, she is quick to point out that’s inaccurate and opportunity to engage in undergraduate research exists across all disciplines.

Wallach also wants students to know that it’s not just for career academics: “Undergraduate research is sometimes misunderstood as simply something to do because you want to go into academia, or you’re planning to go for a Ph.D. That is another fallacy.”

How to Find an Undergraduate Research Program

Prospective students who are interested in undergraduate research should learn about available options when searching for a college. Below is a list of questions to ask about undergraduate research opportunities:

  • How many students are engaged in undergraduate research programs?
  • Are undergraduate research opportunities open to all or restricted to students with a certain grade-point average?
  • How are students chosen to participate in undergraduate research programs?
  • Are there opportunities to present undergraduate research findings?
  • When can undergraduate research be conducted – and is it available to underclassmen?
  • Are there funded research opportunities for students?

Experts also advise students to review the scholarly work of faculty members to see what kind of research they’ve conducted. Students should also consider what other assets are available at a university such as dedicated research centers or interdisciplinary institutes within the college.

“I would encourage prospective students not just to look at the list of majors at a school, but also to broaden their vantage point and think about the research centers and institutes at the university as places where they may find a great intellectual home,” Thomas says.

Source: US News & World Report

By Kelli Delfosse
Kelli Delfosse