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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Undegraduate Research Experience

The following press release appeared on EurekAlert [Students benefit from undergraduate research opportunities].

Students benefit from undergraduate research opportunities

Many pursue advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics

Undergraduate students who participate in hands-on research are more likely to pursue advanced degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to a new study.

The study's authors state that National Science Foundation (NSF) and other entities' efforts to encourage representation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields appear to be effective.

For example, students who entered 2-year colleges were as likely as those who entered 4-year colleges or universities to participate in research. And undergraduate researchers were more likely than non-researchers to pursue a doctorate.

"This study indicates that carefully designed undergraduate research experiences motivate students," said Myles Boylan, program director for NSF's Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Program in the Divisions of Undergraduate Education and Graduate Education. "Students consider their research experiences to be effective previews of doing STEM graduate work as well as good learning experiences."
Many of the talks and discussions at the recent Experimental Biology meeting in Washington focused on the value of the undergraduate research experience. There were a lot of talks noting the correlation between students who went on to graduate school and students who did an undergraduate research project. Most assumed that it was the undergraduate research experience that motivated students to apply to graduate school.

I'm a little disappointed in these claims. As a scientist, I'm well aware of the fact that a correlation does not prove a cause. In my school, the undergraduates know that you have to do an undergraduate research project in order to enhance your chances of getting into graduate school. Thus, students who are motivated to go to graduate school will choose to do an undergraduate reseach project. I'm not sure that the undergraduate research experience is what motivates students to apply to graduate school or whether it is the motivation to go to graduate school that causes students to choose an undergraduate research project.

In my experience, the undergraduate research project is a fourth (senior) year phenomenon. Usually the application to graduate school has to be sent in before Christmas and the GRE's have to be written long before that. To me this suggests that the motivation precedes the research experience but then I'm just a scientist. What do I know about these things?

Don't get me wrong, I think research experience is a wonderful thing. My concern is that its value is being hyped at the expense of other ways of acquiring knowledge and motivating students to pursue a career in science.

At the meeting, I attended ten different talks on undergraduate research. There wasn't a single talk about how to improve the teaching of basic concepts and principles in biochemistry and molecular biology. Is this a problem? You bet. Several of the speakers revealed some misunderstanding of those very concepts and principles. This leads me to suspect that they are concentrating too much on the "doing" of science and not enough on the understanding.


  1. At my undergraduate institution most students started in their 2nd year, a number in their 3rd year, a few their first year, and even less in their 4th (senior) year. Granted this was a small liberal arts college where the research labs/projects are set-up for undergrads. At the research university I am at now, a number do start in their 2nd years though more do follow what you suggest of starting their senior year. Not sure many of them are getting an experience that would encourage them to go to graduate school.

    In the Science article on the survey they did report that most of the researchers were in their 3rd or 4th years.

    In the article they also discuss "new expectations" (i.e. those that came in not planning on getting a Ph.D. but are now planning to):
    "In the STEM survey, "new" expectations of obtaining a Ph.D. were reported by 19% of sponsored researchers, 12% of nonsponsored researchers, and only 5% of nonresearchers (see figure, page 549)."

    Still doesn't provide solid evidence favoring undergraduate research encourages students desires to continue in the science. For example, those close to the fence with regards to thinking of a doctorate when entering college but when pushed would say no at the start might still be more inclined to try research to see if grad school would be a good fit than those who would be outright no. The former group would have a higher percentage that would end up going to graduate school regardless than the latter group.

  2. I was definitely one of those who knew I wanted to get an advanced degree from the start. Wasn't sure which route to take but after taking a virology class and seeing how epidemiology contributes to the understanding of disease causation, I was hooked. I didn't actually get hands-on research experience for my honors thesis until my 3rd year of undergrad.

  3. Very interesting post. At liberal arts colleges like the one I used to teach at, the tremendous value of undergraduate research is an article of faith, one that may be true but as Larry notes is poorly supported by hard evidence. There were indeed times when I thought that focusing on "glamor" stuff like UR was a way of avoiding the much harder work of improving student learning overall. After all, UR is fun for the students, whereas the daily grind of trying to get them to thoroughly master the important concepts is not always so fun and often produces considerable student resistance. And that's unhealthy for one's student evaluations, which have become the be-all and end-all of measuring teaching effectiveness (even though they in fact do no such thing!) at small colleges in the US.

  4. I agree with Larry - in my personal experience, the motivation to go to graduate school predated any thought of undergraduate research, and predated any real knowledge of what graduate school might be like. I think I was probably exceptional in the second respect, but probably not exceptional in the first.

    This idea that exposure to research motivates undergraduates to pursue post-graduate degrees is very odd to me - none of the other undergrads that I spoke to while I was doing undergraduate research myself stated anything like that. Mostly it was quite the opposite, i.e. "I'm doing this undergrad project because I want to go to grad school". The more proximate reasons often revolved around getting a good mark (it's rare to recieve a low mark in a fourth-year undergrad research project) and getting a good letter of reference from a professor, which is a very valuable thing for both applying to grad school and for lots of other purposes (job applications, for example).

    Professors: when you take on a fresh undergraduate in your lab to conduct research, do you ask the student if they are planning on going on in academia after they graduate?

  5. the brummell asks,

    Professors: when you take on a fresh undergraduate in your lab to conduct research, do you ask the student if they are planning on going on in academia after they graduate?

    I'm interested in students who want to be scientists. It doesn't matter to me whether they want to work in a university or not. I want to reserve the limited number of spaces available to those students who really need the experience in order to apply to graduate school. I tend to avoid students whose primary goal is getting into medical school.