What does “undergraduate research” mean to you?


I’ve seen people talk past one another when discussing undergraduate research. This is usually because each person in the conversation has a radically different notion about what constitutes undergraduate research.

Organizations have defined undergraduate research, but most people aren’t familiar with such definitions. Or even they know a definition, doesn’t mean they agree with it. So people use “undergraduate research” as it suits them.

It helps to know what page other people are on, right?

I’m taking stock of the status of undergraduate research on my campus at the moment, and have seen that among colleges and departments, and even within departments, people will disagree about what constitutes undergraduate research. (I happen to like the simple definition used by CUR, though it’s vague enough that folks often try to stuff more under that umbrella than will fit.)

Here are some questions you might think about or ask your colleagues, whether or not whether some kinds of undergraduate research should “count” from an institutional perspective (for purposes of educational assessment, resource allocation, faculty merit, accreditation, whatnot).

Is it undergraduate research if the student is not directly involved in experimental design and/or analysis and/or writing?

Is it undergraduate research if the knowledge generation will not be relevant to academics outside your particular institution?

It is undergraduate research if there are no plans to publish findings in a peer-reviewed journal?

Is it undergraduate research if it is not intended to result in the generation of new knowledge?

Is it undergraduate research if there are integral components of the project that the student does not understand?

Is it undergraduate research if it is conducted by students to fulfill the requirements of a regular laboratory course?

Is it undergraduate research if it’s the rote collection of data in a long-term or large-scale project that will not result in any discovery until long after the student leaves?

Is it undergraduate research if it does not involve mentorship of individual students?

Is it undergraduate research if supervision/mentorship primarily comes from older undergraduates? What about from early graduate students?


What any one of us answers to these questions really doesn’t matter. What matters is how each of our answers anneals with our peers, admins, students, and funding agencies. And when answers differ, it might be helpful to find language that everybody can agree on.

Do you find that other people use the term “undergraduate research” differently than you do? If so, how? Are there facets of this issue that other folks should consider?

3 thoughts on “What does “undergraduate research” mean to you?

  1. Terry,

    DO you want answers to the various questions? Here at William Jewell College (biology, biochemistry and chemistry) we have 2 years (Junior and Senior year) of required undergraduate research, mentored one-in-one with a faculty member and the student is involved in the process from beginning to end. It is pretty intensive but we begin laying the groundwork by having undergraduate research embedded in the undergraduate curriculum in biology beginning with their first course. Probably could not do UR like this at a larger institution but we find it really prepares students for whatever comes next. I find that most people don’t have us in mind when they want to talk about UR.

    • Paul, I think this is really impactful for students and clearly a Good Thing. There are some folks who classify less intense or less structured activities as UR. Which is fine for them – it’s just if you, me, and then are all in the same room taking about the value of UR, do we understand one another? Do they want the same resources and rewards for UR even though they might deliver less than you? Just providing more food for thought. (And wishing I was a student in your program.)

  2. I’m a graduate student at UVM and so far I’ve been impressed with what is done with undergraduate research. It could just be my advisor, but undergrads are encouraged to take on a project of their own and try to move it forward during their time in the lab. In our lab, we try to work with them for two years where during their junior year they learn the methods we use and work underneath a technician or grad student to come up with a hypothesis to do their senior thesis on (ideally, it’s a component of an existing project). Naturally, their senior year is more focused on gaining a little bit of independence to do said work. All of this includes discussions on methods to use, potential pitfalls, troubleshooting, and presenting their results during lab meetings.

    We’ve also had good luck at getting institutional support for them to be paid during the summer and lay the groundwork for their senior thesis. I’m not sure if the university is just that generous or if our lab has been lucky.

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