This article is based on a session presented by Lori White, Iona Black, Evette Castillo, and Marion Schwartz at the National Academic Advising Association's national conference held in Ottawa in October, 2001.
Undergraduate research is important and popular for many reasons. First, it counters the charge that large research universities ignore undergraduates in favor of graduate students and faculty research. Far from posing a conflict, research has become an important way to integrate young scholars in the community of learning. Second, it motivates undergraduate students to become independent thinkers, to see themselves as creators of knowledge. Third, in certain professional tracks, research experience has become a necessity: seniors in many fields find that the best graduate programs are closed to them if they do not have research experience to show their potential for scholarship. The question, then, is not whether our undergraduates will do research but how to best facilitate undergraduate research opportunities and to help students realize the benefits of collaborative and independent research at the undergraduate level. This short paper is a summary of the findings from a 2001 NACADA National Conference presentation titled The Role of Advising in Undergraduate Research.
For institutions that do not have comprehensive undergraduate research programs, one of the first challenges is committing institutional time, energy, and resources to the development of such a program. Although most institutions have a number of individual faculty members who invite students to participate in various research projects, the benefits increase exponentially if the whole institution invests in the idea of undergraduate research. For example, Stanford University, concerned about the relatively low numbers of students participating in undergraduate research, developed an advising office called Undergraduate Research Programs (URP). The Stanford URP Office provides comprehensive information to students about undergraduate research opportunities and allocates resources to individual faculty members and students, as well as to departments, to support undergraduate research opportunities. As a result, undergraduate research has taken off. The stronger and more visible an institution's commitment to supporting undergraduate research opportunities, the greater the likelihood that faculty will think about working with undergraduate students in this regard and will include undergraduate students (in addition to graduate students) in the development of external research grant proposals.
Additionally, as more faculty become interested in including undergraduate students in research projects, the diversity of potential research opportunities for students grows as well. The strong visibility of an office for undergraduate research programs or of an institution's efforts to engage students in research increases student exposure to the concept of undergraduate research and may have other positive effectssuch as boosting the actual number of undergraduate students who participate in research. As more students participate and become excited about their research experiences, they may influence an institution's willingness to devote resources to supporting and facilitating this particular aspect of undergraduate education. A number of Research I universities such as Stanford, Yale, and the University of California, Berkeley, use their undergraduate research programs as a recruiting tool for undergraduate admissions, as a way of distinguishing their respective undergraduate programs from those of highly selective liberal arts colleges. Academic advisers can enhance an institution's commitment to undergraduate research by advocating the importance of such programs to the overall undergraduate experience and helping to develop advising programs to facilitate student engagement in this important activity.
Once faculty begin to offer research experiences, students need accessible, reliable information about them. At the minimum, the institution should provide to students a list of professors who are inviting undergraduates to work with them. Berkeley's undergraduate research website provides descriptions, special programs, information about funding, publication opportunities, deadlines, search strategies, etc. Berkeley has also created a listserv for undergraduates who want to receive up-to-the-minute information. Penn State's undergraduate research site publicizes current research opportunities for undergraduates. At Yale, a faculty member is specifically tasked with guiding selected young scientists toward research placements. While the Yale research program is limited to selected students, the idea of doing research often spills over to other students, and the university tries to accommodate them.
Because research is a more focused activity than pursuing a schedule of courses, students must be carefully advised about matching a research project with their skills, talents, and academic and intellectual interests. Perhaps a student interested in biotechnology could simply read a list of lab openings to find a professor who is working on gene splicing. However, a personal encounter can better develop the synergy between students and faculty. Stanford invites students to share ideas with senior faculty in small seminars that often provide the starting point for research projects of mutual interest. And collaboration is not just intellectual. Iona Black, a chemistry professor, researcher, and academic director of the Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) program at Yale, insists that matching temperaments may be more important than matching interests. Students who are just exploring the discipline may not have firmly fixed academic commitments, but they may have very fixed character traits that do or do not mesh with a certain professor. It may be more important to work with someone who likes your work ethic than one who does your kind of spectroscopy.
In fields outside of natural science, imagination is also a factor. The Berkeley undergraduate research website urges students to read through all of the project descriptions because so many are interdisciplinary. A student who is intrigued by the Aztecs might expect to work with an anthropologist only to find that the Spanish department has a professor of Mexican folklore better suited to her interests. In working with aspiring researchers, the adviser needs to make time for wild brainstorming as well as disciplined searching, because the brainstorm may lead to a better mentor.
At this point in the process, the adviser must know both the student and the research mentors very well. On the one hand, he or she has to help students assess themselves and their readiness for research on a professional project: Have I read the literature sufficiently to make a credible proposal? Do I have the laboratory skills to do what needs to be done? Am I ready for the time commitment that group work will entail? On the other hand, the student should also assess the professor: What exactly is this person going to demand of me? How do graduate students or previous undergraduates talk about this person? While an adviser should never steer a student away from a particular faculty member, he or she should encourage students to get as clear a picture as possible of what the research position will require.
A student's identification of an attractive project does not guarantee that the student will be selected for the project, particularly if there are a limited number of places. When well-known professors are too popular, students can get caught in the competition. Berkeley encourages professors to work in teams so that no student who wants a research opportunity will be turned down; while one might not work with one's first-choice mentor, at least one is working on the same team on a shared or related project. At Yale some research groups/projects have expanded beyond the original program to include students not initially eligible. Additional grants and other creative strategies have made room for newcomers. As the programs have proved successful, more and more faculty members are willing to participate, making more opportunities available.
Students must also be ready for research. Undergraduates in the natural sciences often learn lab techniques in research groups. Several Penn State departments offer research methods and writing courses designed especially for undergraduates who are going to publish their research. Penn State's Schreyer Honors College has published a Web-based guide to research with general sections on such topics as data gathering and analysis, presentation, and publication. At Yale, the lab experience is carefully prepared for, not only by the student's self-assessment, but also in a summer course on doing research. This course covers such issues as searching the scientific literature, asking appropriate questions, understanding scientific ethics, and laboratory methods and safety. With this grounding, students are more likely to hit the ground running when they join a research group. This strong preparation is another reason why Yale faculty members have been so eager to engage undergraduates. Stanford provides a similar experience through its undergraduate Summer Research College (SRC). SRC is a ten-week summer residential program managed for students participating in departmental research programs and other faculty-led research. In addition to the opportunity for a focused research experience, students in SRC are also able to participate in a number of seminars, similar to Yale's program, about the how-tos of research.
It is additionally important that students be supported during their research experience. In a research group, undergraduates can take part in group meetings and can learn from faculty and graduate students the culture of sharing findings and making presentations. Questions about procedures, lab note protocols, the use of equipment, subgroup priorities, and academic integrity can all be discussed in the group. At the same time, the research group should not take over the student's life (as might be the case for graduate students), and the academic adviser may have to support students in limiting their time commitments to research projects.
For students engaged in independent research, there may be less social pressure to work but also less social support. Students who are editing a manuscript or collecting survey information may feel isolated, discouraged, or unclear about the purpose of their work. Obviously, the supervising faculty member is the first resource for the student. However, the academic adviser may take a role in helping the student cope with tedious data collection or difficult subjects.
Advisers should also be aware of money issues. What does research cost? In a perfect world, an institution would have a research budget including money for undergraduates. Through a competitive grant proposal process, Stanford offers students funds to invest in independent research projects. Yale has external monies from the Howard Hughes Foundation for Medical Education, as well as the Beckman, Bouchet, and Mellon grant programs. These funds support student research as part of existing research groups as opposed to students' independent research. Some students may be paid from their mentors' NSF grants if a specific provision for undergraduate research has been made in the grant application. When laboratory funding is involved, ordinary housekeeping tasks should not be labeled research. Washing test tubes or feeding rats is not the same as collecting data and analyzing it. The academic adviser should help students to distinguish a lab job from a research project.
Whether in the lab or outside it, students may be able to engage in research for academic credit as opposed to a stipend. Whether a student is being paid or receiving academic credit, what is most important is that the student is gaining actual research experience and not simply performing busy work for a professor or a department. The student should work with the supervising faculty member to develop a contract noting the scope of the research, the hypothesis, and the time frame and checkpoints along the way. Both student and faculty member should be very clear about how much work will earn how much credit.
Note that even the self-supporting student may end up needing money, not for compensation but to finance surveys, mailing, field work, travel, copying, etc. The faculty member may not be in a position to provide it. An alert academic adviser will be able to point the student toward an office that knows possible funding sources, internal or external.
The academic payoff for research is being able to share it with the rest of the scholarly community. In most cases, faculty mentors know the best way to present research results, whether at an in-house exhibition, an undergraduate conference, or a professional meeting in the field. Penn State holds its own undergraduate exhibition with substantial cash prizes. Penn State's Schreyer Honors College funds students jointly with their departments to attend the National Undergraduate Research Conference and encourages students in the liberal arts to publish in the Undergraduate Research Journal of the Human Sciences. Students in the natural sciences at Penn State, Berkeley, Yale, and Stanford all attend professional meetings. By the time they are seniors, Berkeley students are encouraged to take primary responsibility for professional journal articles. Students in groups will probably know about such opportunities, but academic advisers may want to encourage independent researchers to investigate carefully to find the best venue for their work.
One last point is worth making. Research is not the only form one's education will take. Bright students can still learn from course work, student activities, and practical life experience. In the role of mentor, academic advisers can help students to maintain balance in their lives by showing them how their research project fits into the overall direction of their intellectual life.
Academic advisers are a key link in the development of undergraduate research. They can advocate for administrative support. They can recruit faculty to provide undergraduate opportunities. They can design the systems that match those opportunities with promising students. They can help students discern the best projects for them. They can be aware of funding for undergraduates. They can nurture students through the process. They can encourage them to present their work to others. With the help of academic advisers, undergraduates may find that research is the most intense and satisfying part of their educational experience.
Research Opportunities for Undergraduates (Penn State)
SHC Thesis and Research (Schreyer Honors College, Penn State)
Undergraduate Research @ Berkeley (University of California, Berkeley)
Undergraduate Research Programs (Stanford University)
Yale Science and Engineering Research (Yale University; after September 2003, use www.yale.edu/stars)