Why Undergraduate Research?
While research is a vital tool for graduate students and graduate programs, unfortunately, little or no research is done on the undergraduate level. When people think of research, they often connect it with science and engineering, creating the misguided perception that it is done only in those areas. However, all areas of study sometimes require a certain amount of research or background checking of some kind. Consequently, this article provides an overview of undergraduate research and emphasizes its importance, advantages, and benefits.
A Wikipedia article provides a concise definition, history, and explanation of undergraduate research:
Undergraduate research is the exploration of a specific topic within a field by an undergraduate student that makes an original contribution to the discipline. It is a fairly recent concept in the academic community, with roots in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The creation of MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in 1969 encouraged an explosion in popularity. Undergraduate research programs were fairly common by the 1990s. Students may work on their own, collaborate with faculty members, or seek enrollment in a research program within their field. Both faculty members and students experience advantages and disadvantages when collaborating on research. Undergraduate research can be conducted in the sciences (both biological and physical) and in the humanities. The research approach differs depending on the field and the focus. Undergraduate research is often required for acceptance into graduate and professional schools.
In reading this explanation, a few key phrases stand out: exploration of a specific topic; contribution to discipline; students may work on their own; collaborate with faculty members; seek enrollment in a research program; and conducted in the sciences and in the humanities. These are just a few of the benefits that will be emphasized in this article.
Benefits of undergraduate research
The major benefits of undergraduate research include building a strong research foundation for the institution and developing good researchers at an early age. Other benefits include enhancing faculty teaching capabilities, contributing to science through research, and developing faculty and undergraduate student research collaboration. These benefits accrue to the institution, the faculty, and the student (both in graduate school and in the workforce).
Research is to innovation what gas is to an engine. Those colleges and universities that decide to commit to research will be in the forefront of innovation, and will ultimately contribute to social, technological, and economic advances. Specific benefits include:
- Bringing new knowledge and perspectives to businesses and state agencies
- Raising awareness of the institution’s advancements
- Increasing the level of competition between institution and other institutions with similar programs
- Improving business strategies and productivity
- Contributing to research and program development policy formulation
Rather than focusing on why colleges and universities should be involved in research, the more important issue should be why they aren’t already involved with it; and not just some, but all institutions. Research is basically synonymous with educating. The only difference is that while most schools typically focus on teaching existing concepts, research provides the opportunity to expand existing concepts into new and wider ranging concepts. According to the Council on Undergraduate Research, colleges and universities already involved in undergraduate research claim the following benefits:
- Enhanced innovation-oriented thinking and goal development
- Enhanced student learning through mentoring relationships with faculty
- Increased student retention
- Increased enrollment in graduate programs
- Proven, effective career preparation
- Increased critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and intellectual independence
- Increased understanding of research methodology
Faculty members who devote their time and energy to undergraduate research enhance their teaching skills and contribute to society by passing on the knowledge and innovations resulting from the research. Through mentoring students in the research process, they also benefit from better student-instructor bonding and relationships. Other benefits for instructors include:
- Opportunity to do further research in their own field of expertise. (The research done by most instructors is more or less limited to what they did during thesis or dissertation preparation in graduate school. Consequently, they enter academia never having had the opportunity to further their research or explore more thoroughly what they specialized in.)
- Recognition for work and effort outside of regular teaching, and enhancement for career advancement
- Opportunity for obtaining research funding
- Opportunity to publish
- Development of leadership skills
Undergraduate research is equally important to the student who intends to enter the workforce immediately after graduation as it is to the student who intends to go on to graduate school. Most generally, it is assumed that only those who intend to enter graduate school should know and experience the basics of research; but students who are exposed to undergraduate research learn skills that will help them in the workforce, should they decide not to go to graduate school. Additionally, those who do undergraduate research soon find out whether they are suited for a career in the sciences or other areas that require ongoing research.
The benefits of undergraduate research for those intending to enter graduate school include:
- Development of basic research skills and better understanding of research documentation and published works.
- Development of teamwork skills such as conflict management, collaboration, communication (verbal and written), creative/critical/logical thinking, dependability and reliability, flexibility, goal setting and group decision making, leadership and management (especially in a team environment), listening and communication, negotiating, problem solving, relationship building, responsibility, and scheduling/task management.
- Discovery of a specific area of interest or subject that might transform into a career or lifelong passion–identifying a student’s potential. Students who demonstrate intelligence and basic research skills should be identified and given as much encouragement as possible. Keep in mind, however, that academic achievement alone should not be the only factor for determining who would make a good researcher. A student might be extremely intelligent, but not have the temperament or dedication for conducting research. Students who display punctuality, team effort, and the ability to meet deadlines show good potential; but they also need other necessary qualities such as interest, motivation, inquisitiveness, dedication and commitment, persistence, sacrifice, desire to excel, recognition of others, and a scholarly approach to problem solving. Being a good researcher also requires the sincere desire–even passion–to be involved in research, and a dedicated interest to do the best research possible.
- Exposure to practical application of research concepts learned through laboratory work and experimentation that can’t be learned in a normal classroom.
- Preparation for further research work in graduate school by understanding the research process–the step-by-step procedure and flow of conducting the research.
The undergraduate research benefits listed above–especially the teamwork skills–are equally applicable to students who intend to enter the workforce after graduation by providing students with real-life experience that could prove useful during an internship or to employers looking for highly qualified graduating seniors. There is often some level of research involved in many workforce occupations. Just because such research isn’t of an experimental nature or conducted in a laboratory environment doesn’t mean that the skills aren’t needed. Many companies still require basic skills in collaboration, scheduling, and teamwork, which good undergraduate research can provide.
A final word
To remind the reader that undergraduate research is tremendously important is like beating a dead horse. Of course it’s important. The main issue, then, is how to drive the message home to those who would profit the most: the undergraduate students who have never given research a second–or even a first–thought. Even those who plan on skipping graduate school and entering the workforce after graduation shouldn’t be written off as unapproachable.
And who bears the responsibility for delivering the message and ensuring that it is received? The immediate answer, of course, is the faculty–especially faculty members who are engaged in their own independent research. But, like anyone else, they need and deserve a helping hand. They need the support and backing of school administrators, other faculty members in other disciplines (as part of the education team), students already working on research programs or projects, and even members of the community–in particular, business owners and leaders who stand to gain from hiring highly qualified graduates.
Chris O’Riordan-Adjah, PhD, MS, PE, is director of engineering programs and associate professor at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois. He is a professional engineer licensed in Michigan, Florida, Illinois, and Missouri, and is an independent structural engineering contractor.