Pure Pedantry

Survery of Undergrad Research

I had the great pleasure of working in labs as an undergrad. Most of my classmates now did as well. Part of the good experience was the ability to really narrow down what type of science I was most interested in; part of it was the more mercenary goal of getting the experience that was necessary to get into graduate school.

Anyway, Science has just published a large survey of undergraduate researchers including their demographic characteristics along with what they are looking for in research (sadly it is behind a subscription wall). Particularly, the survey looks at what factors in undergraduate research correlated with the experience being positive. Money quote:

Students who participated in research because they were truly interested and who became involved in the culture of research–attending conferences, mentoring other students, authoring journal papers, and so on–were the most likely to experience the “positive” outcomes noted above, such as increased interest in a STEM career. The overall duration of research experiences and the variety of research activities also were related to positive outcomes. For example, in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, or mathematics] survey, 30% of researchers with more than 12 months of research experience reported that they expected to obtain a Ph.D., compared with only 13% of those with 1 to 3 months of research experience and 8% of those with no research experience. However, some of the commonly assigned research activities — preparing written final reports, in particular– tended to be unrelated to positive outcomes. The time of year in which the research experience took place (summer versus academic year) also was largely irrelevant.

We found little evidence of a relationship between mentoring characteristics and positive outcomes in responses to our structured (multiple-choice) questions. For example, neither involvement in decision-making nor perceived adequacy of mentor guidance was very strongly related to positive outcomes. However, in response to an open-ended question, by far the most common suggestions that students made about how to improve undergraduate research programs concerned increased or more effective faculty guidance. We suspect that the absence of strong relationships on the structured questions reflects the complexity of the mentor’s role rather than its unimportance. Respondent comments, as well as other research, suggest that mentors who are able to combine enthusiasm with interpersonal, organizational, and research skills play a large role in facilitating positive outcomes. (Emphasis mine. Citations omitted.)

Supervising graduate students, much less undergrads, can be a daunting task for most faculty members, but I like to hear that people are at least trying to find ways to support undergrad research. In some cases, the undergrads can even surprise you — being so productive that they pay you back in spades for all the time you put in.

One of the problems can be that undergrad researchers require lots of personal attention because they simply don’t know how to perform the procedures involved in lab work. When I was doing working as an undergrad, I found it beneficial to be directly assigned to a senior grad student or post-doc — someone who can help troubleshoot when things go wrong. We used to have an undergrad in our lab, so I have seen this relationship from the other side too. It wasn’t that much of a time committment, and she actually really helped me clarify my ideas on the project we were working on.

Read the whole thing. It has some interesting nuggets for those considering taking on undergrads.


  1. #1 kate
    May 1, 2007

    thx for this link – i hadn’t seen it yet and am thrilled about article!

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