Jake, Chad, and Rob have posted about a newly published study about the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates. The quick version is that involvement in research (at least in science/technology/engineering/mathematics disciplines) seems to boost the student’s enthusiasm for the subject and confidence, not to mention nearly doubling the chances that the student will pursue a Ph.D.
I’m going to chime in with some observations of my own:
1. Making knowledge is different from learning knowledge.
One of the important things undergraduate research can do is give a student insight to the activities behind the production of the knowledge she has been learning in class. There’s a way in which this can be unexpectedly frustrating — it’s hard to get research to work, and thus your attempts to build a wee chunk of new knowledge may founder, something that can especially bug the student who has an easy time learning stuff from textbooks or class. However, a research experience can also make you attentive to the labor, ingenuity, and moments of good luck behind all that solid knowledge in your texbooks.
2. Scientific research can turn on creativity.
Figuring out how to approach a problem in the lab — one that no one else has solved — can be fun. For the student who thought being good at science was a matter of having a good memory and a solid sense of the underlying principles of a subject, seeing the role creativity can play is frequently a joyful awakening.
3. Not all undergraduate research experiences will make you love science.
There’s a world of difference between engaging in research for which the principal investigator takes a hands-on approach to mentoring you (or at least communicating with you) and in research where you’re essentially a human measuring device or summer lab-slave for a graduate student. Similarly, the impression of science you get from a lab whose members regularly discuss different aspects of the project with each other and try to give assistance where they can is quite different from what you’ll get from an overcrowded lab whose members engage in pitched battles for scarce bench space.
As an undergraduate, I did research in three different lab settings. In two of those, my enthusiasm for research and my respect for research teams grew. In the third, I saw what amounts to the “DON’T” picture. (“Oh, you don’t need to bother with the required radiation safety training,” said my PI. “Just use my film badge.”) If that problematic lab had been my only undergraduate research experience, I’m not at all certain I would have pursued a Ph.D. in chemistry.
4. Partaking of more than one research experience gives you more idea of the different ways science is practiced.
This is more than a matter of good PI/bad PI. Being exposed to different research groups that work well together yet have their own dynamics gives you useful information about the community of science. As well, getting to mess around with different theoretical and/or experimental approaches and techniques adds to your skills and to the different ways you have of thinking through research problems.
If you can pick up research experiences at different institutions, or in non-academic as well as academic settings, that gives you even more information about the varieties of environments in which science is done.
5. Undergraduate research hardly ever prepares you fully for graduate research.
A good undergraduate research project is small and reasonably self-contained, the sort of research you can reasonably accomplish (most of) in a year or less. It gives you a taste of what it’s like to carry out research, to (perhaps) choose your own problem or design your own approach to it, and to say (and write) something sensible about the results you actually got. However, at least psychologically, a research project deemed worthy of a Ph.D. feels much bigger. More is generally left up to the grad student to work out herself, and it feels like the results need to be Really Important.
This is not to say that undergraduate research doesn’t help cultivate skills and attitudes that can help with tackling graduate research. Rather, I just want to note that having all that undergraduate research under your belt doesn’t automatically make your thesis project totally easy or free from scariness.