Undergraduate research is many things


Conversations about “undergraduate research” often involve dispelling misconceptions.

Undergraduate research is not one thing.

What is undergraduate research? It is research that involves undergraduates. That’s all, nothing else. If you want it to mean something else, you might have to spell it out.

One model of undergraduate research — that is in favor with the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) — is when a student leads a project that results in a new intellectual contribution to the field. The way many people discuss undergraduate research, that’s a high bar. If you look at the membership of CUR, then you’ll see that it’s skewed towards private liberal arts colleges. Those are places where you tend to see undergraduate research that fits the CUR definition.

At one end of the spectrum, we have Small Liberal Arts Colleges that expect students to receive high-quality advising, mentorship, and the opportunity to conduct one’s own project with substantial faculty support. Heck, some liberal arts colleges require students to do their own research this way. To make this happen, though, you’ve got to have faculty with a non-stratospheric teaching load to be able to take the time to work individually with students, and also ample support for this kind of activity. Faculty are rarely wont to closely mentor students unless it’s valued by the institution.

If you don’t adopt this particular style of undergraduate research, is it still undergraduate research? Yes, of course it is. There’s no special definition of the phrase. (There are just lots of non-special definitions that various people and organizations hold in their minds.)

Here’s a story about undergraduate research opposite the CUR-end of the spectrum. I once had a conversation with a postdoc, who said she valued mentorship highly. She said that she “mentored” about 100 undergraduates while she was in grad school. I asked them what she did with all of these students. She said that they came into her lab, anywhere with a commitment of at least a few hours per week, to run some samples. She “mentored” them on the use of the machine until they learned how to do it on their own. (All I could do was think under my breath some words spoken by Inigo Montoya.)
That’s not mentorship, of course, but that is undergraduate research. In this case, the students were mere short-term pipet monkeys. I bet it would be hard to remember one of these students a few years down the road, if they got a haircut. Nonetheless, is this a form of undergraduate research? Sure it is. It’s research involving undergraduates. Is it a high quality experience for the student? No, it’s not. (But it might be what the students wanted. I have no idea if all of these 100 students got recommendation letters from her. That would be huge. Though I can’t imagine what she would have to say about them.)

What happens in my lab is somewhere between these two extremes. I don’t have the temporal capacity to work with students in the lab during the academic year, but I do work with students on their data and writing from work that we did over the summertime. I do not invest as much time into each student as I could (and I’ve written about this before in what I think is a really good and important post). In the summer, I work with a few undergrads to develop field projects that they conduct independently.

Another flavor of “undergraduate research” is projects that students do in the context of regular coursework. For example, in my Behavioral Ecology class, students had to develop and conduct their own project in the latter part of the semester and write a report.

I didn’t — and still don’t — think of this as “undergraduate research,” it was just a course project. But the way a lot of people discuss undergraduate research as a “high impact practice” — including my administrators — this actually is undergraduate research. If I fail to claim this kind of activity is undergraduate research, then I’m underselling my efforts and accomplishments to my higher-ups. Because that’s what they think when they hear “undergraduate research.” These might have been original projects, but did not constitute publishable findings.

At the moment, faculty in my university are stuck in-between different conceptions of undergraduate research. The university wants to report success, but how do they track this success? More than anything else, they want as many students as possible to participate in research experiences. The more undergraduates doing research with us, the better it looks. My department has about 7 active research faculty and about 800 majors, so, umm, yeah, we’re not going to be doing research with more than a small fraction of our students. Unless we “mentor” that like postdoc. Which ain’t gonna happen.

So when I step into a room and say talk about “undergraduate research,” how do I know that others are thinking of the same thing that I’m thinking about? The answer is, I don’t know. Of course, all flavors of “undergraduate research” are welcome under the umbrella here at this site.

2 thoughts on “Undergraduate research is many things

  1. Yeah, the “I’ve mentored 30 undergrads” crowds is not really believable. But they have an incentive to do it — it’s all about the volume of students trained for most grant applications. Chasing arbitrary measures of impact, again, does not necessarily foster honesty.

    I rather like the “shopkeeper science” model of Fox (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/in-praise-of-shopkeeper-science). Having a reduced number of students means (probably?) higher quality mentoring (since time is a finite resource).

  2. As an undergraduate, in-course research experiences were huge for me. Like many of your students, I imagine, I wasn’t able to do research in my free time outside of class. So this was my introduction to science research, which I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. In one upper-level class, the research was designed such that the professor wrote a paper based on the research with all the students as co-authors. Different discipline (computer science), but I imagine that could also happen in ecology. I think it’s a big deal to see research in action rather than think science is a bunch of facts in a book, and so I think yes, in-course undergrad research should absolutely count.

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