Undergraduate Research: The Catch

So, looking at the SRI studies of undergraduate research and its effects, it seems like the solution to a lot of problems. Involvement in research has been shown to increase student interest in science careers and increase the likelihood of graduate school, regardless of the race and gender of the student or the race and gender of the faculty mentor.

While this is undeniably really good news, suggesting that we don't actually need to radically re-invent the way we deal with students in order to change the demographics of science, it's almost too good to be true. There's got to be a catch, right?

Right. There are two catches, really:

  1. It's very difficult to effectively involve undergraduates in research.
  2. Undergraduate research is not particularly well rewarded in the current academic system.

Taking these in order:

1) It's very difficult to effectively involve undergraduates in research. This is true on a lot of levels, mostly because undergraduate students, by definition, do not have the same background as graduate students. They're not as well prepared to do independent work, and in some cases, they don't really have the background to do research at all. This is particularly true in theoretical physics-- you can always find some experimental project that involves fairly mechanical tasks like tightening bolts or making small electronic circuits, but people who do pencil-and-paper theory have to be really clever to find projects that allow students to make meaningful contributions.

Along with this, there's the fact that undergraduate students tend to require a good deal more supervision than graduate students. They ask a lot of questions, and need to have their work checked on a regular basis. This can eat up a lot of time, and requires a good deal of patience. You need to be calm, patient, and positive in dealing with students, even when they break stuff, or don't understand something after you've explained it three times already.
That can be really tough, particularly for some of the people who go into science.

(With the exception of one memorable breakdown (which is more a funny story than anything else), I've managed to contain my temper around my students. Kate gets to hear a lot of ranting, though-- she's way too good to me.)

Finally, there's the fact that even senior undergraduates aren't full time researchers. They have other classes to take, and other activities that they're involved in. They're not like graduate students, who can reasonably be expected to be putting their full efforts into the project they're working on.

Taken all together, a good undergraduate is about half of a third-year grad student, in terms of research productivity-- on a minute-by-minute basis, they can be as productive as a grad student who's just getting their feet under them, but you only get them for half the time (full-time in the summer, and on a more limited basis during the academic year). A bad undergraduate research student is a dead loss.

Which brings is to:

2) Undergraduate research is not particularly well rewarded in the current academic system. At a small college like Union, tenure and promotion decisions are made on the basis of teaching and research, and undergraduate involvement in research occupies a weird middle ground. It's sort of like teaching, in that you're training students to do research, but it's sort of like research, in that they're doing, well, research.

This puts it in an odd place, with regard to the evaluation of faculty actiity. It doesn't really count as teaching, because the time we put in on supervising student research projects is counted as part of our research activity. It doesn't really help with research, though, in that progress tends to be much slower when students are involved.

This surprises a lot of people, particularly from the humanities, who assume that students must be a help in research, making it easier to get things done, but that's not really the case. A really exceptional student moves things along, but as I said above, a good undergraduate is half of a young graduate student. I've been lucky enough to have some very good students working with me, but to be perfectly honest, the progress of my research would be faster if I just chased them out of the lab, and did everything myself.

If research is evaluated primarily based on publications, as it is, undergraduate student involvement can be a real drag on your measured productivity.

So if it doesn't count as teaching, and it doesn't help with research, why do it at all? Well, because of the benefits noted in the SRI studies-- getting students involved in research is good for them, and it's good for science in general. I'm not teaching at a small liberal arts college because of the financial rewards, I'm doing this because I believe in it. I believe that the opportunity for students to do research is one of the best things we have to offer for science majors, and it's my job to provide that opportunity. And I really enjoy working with students in the lab, even if it does slow the pace of progress.

But this is the situation we're in-- the only people who are really committed to getting undergraduates involved in research are True Believers, and there aren't that many of us. Which means that, even in light of findings like these, it will be really difficult to dramatically expand the involvement of students in research, unless we can make some changes in the academic reward structure.


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We love to get students, even the non-stars involved in research, say as sophomores might be ideal. However, there is a tension for untenured faculty, particularly for theory. It is more efficient to do the calculations yourself rather than start a student off with some basic stuff and work up. I've tried to do a parallel track, OK you need to write a program to do THIS, and we'll do some work on WHY thats what we need to do, and hopefully by the senior year or graduation, they start to see the whole of the situtation. I did this when I was untenured, but expectations for papers here is higher for tenure than when I was hired, and new people really have to think about this. No brainer to take the really bright students, but the others, you almost have to advise the new faculty to not take too many, and not to get overwhelmed by sheer numbers too.

It is not the most efficient way to do research, I have spent tons of time giving lectures on two level atoms interacting with quantized fields, undergrad or terminal masters folks just get useful, then they go! So you go back to the starting point again. It has cost me in terms of overall number of papers, grants, etc, but that is why I came here, for a nice balance of teaching and research, and involving students in research.

We do make students sign up for independent studies hours, so we can document to the powers that be that we are spending time on this. It doesn't quite fit in the teaching or research area, but sort of covers both. In the department that is highly valued, and the upper levels are OK with it, but for tenure decsioions, if you can get an NSF grant and not work with students, or work with students and get pubs with them, but maybe Phys. Rev. A instead of Phys. Rev. Letters, well maybe you should rethink that.

The largest impact, if any, I will make on science is the training of undergrads and terminal masters students, its really fun to watch folks grow and do well in grad school or at a job.

I don't know how we did it, but here research is the holy grail. The administration wants as many people to do research as possible, and gives you ample opportunities to show it off after you do it. Maybe Stanford is doing something right? I'm not involved in the administration side so I can't tell you.

Computer programming can be the theorist's equivalent of tightening bolts: without much of a learning curve, you can hand undergraduates a pre-existing code and get them to run it with different parameters and analyze the output. Later they can start to understand the underlying physics and to modify the code. But this doesn't help the "pencil and paper" theorists you mention.

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 01 May 2007 #permalink

Being a teacher would be a helluva lot easier if you just didn't have to deal with all those damn students, wouldn't it?

I've been lucky enough to have some very good students working with me, but to be perfectly honest, the progress of my research would be faster if I just chased them out of the lab, and did everything myself.

This is my experience as well, and I've heard this from a wide variety of places.

I still think it's worth doing, because research should be a part of a physics education.

I would say that the #1 reason undergrads are less productive than (at least) 1st-3rd year grad students is the time. Even if a grad student is taking classes and TAing, they tend to have more time to focus on research than the typical undergrad.

I did have one undergrad one year (who is now a grad student in Colorado who spent a tremendous amount of time doing his research his senior year. A few grad students commented that he was doing more research than they were. I think he was a little frustrated that he didn't get more done... but when a post-doc from my group first talked to him, she said, "damn, he's done that many supernovae in the time that the rest of the SCP did, what, none?"

The #2 reason is background. By the time they're in their 4th and 5th years, grad students really ought to be creative collaborators. Yes, they still need mentoring, but they should be helping you push your research in directions, or at least make contributions, that you wouldn't have been able to come up with at all without their help. I think I have yet to have something like that come out of an undergrad. And, I have yet to have an graduate students of my own finish a PhD, so I've only seen a little bit of that from grad students. However, as a post-doc, I definitely saw it out of graduate students working at LBNL with the SCP.


I'm a undergrad bio major at the University of Cincinnati and I started working in a cell bio lab at the beginning of this year. I work under a professor at the UC college of medicine and he has encouraged me to do independent research even during the interview process before I got the job. I've found that the professors who are involved in the independent study program are very helpful with students. I will say, however, that the university does a poor job of educating students on the opportunities available to them. If I hadn't taken this job I probably never would have considered it an option. It seems like you have to know someone to get "inside" or something...

..that's my two cents, just thought I'd share my experience as a current student.

I sort of agree with Rob, but he doesn't quite hit the reason (in my opinion) that grad students are typically better than undergrads for research. Grad students are there for a very different and much more focused reason. Even the most motivated of undergrads, being pushed and mentored and whatnot, is not training professionally in their field the same way grad students are. And, as Jorge Cham discusses in his roving talk, it's not like it gets easier the further up the academic ladder you go.

To inject anecdote, I got into it with an undergrad here a couple of years ago. Despite her father being an active researcher (not to mention a department head on campus), she branded me an asshole when I wouldn't concede that undergrads have as hard a path as grad students. Sure, there are undergrads who put in as much blood, sweat, and tears as grad students, but undergrads are not pushed and evaluated in the same way, simply because grad students must meet different goals to progress. The closest thing undergrads have is honors thesis research, and if that don't work out, well there go your honors (as opposed to "Yeah, you failed your defense. Here's a party favor (the MS), now get lost."). Amusingly enough, I saw her a couple of weekends ago, very briefly. Why so brief? She's now a grad student and has extremely little time to spare between her classes and lab time...

My god, that was going off-topic. Need sleep...