Some quick thoughts on undergraduate research.

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.

More like this

I did a fair amount of undergraduate research and it was an important part of my education, to be sure. But it helped me learn that research was not the career for me. And that in itself is worth something.

As an undergraduate, I was in three labs and hated them all. I probably couldn't have hated research more, but I somehow got into medical school regardless. Now, I find myself starting a PhD, and my former lab experiences have become, as you say, perfect examples of opportunities to learn what research shouldn't be all about.

I did summer research before my Senior year. It convinced me that I didn't want to continue my engineering training beyond my BS.

HEY! This post wasn't about underpants research!

What to say? I am shooting for grad school next year and recently have been introspective about my past undergrad research. Trying out different labs is key. I started out doing soil mite husbandry in a soil ecology lab, then went on to hunting rare fruit flies in Hawaii, a stint internship in NY studying histones, and back in a lab doing orchid virus epidemiology. A lot of the niche work that gets droped on undergrads is obscure and very niche orientated though still amazing. And like you said the PIs have been all over the place in terms of knowledge base and style, though special thanks to undergrad PI mentors everywhere! I know we can be quite the handful...

By Teddy Wilson (not verified) on 30 Apr 2007 #permalink

Great post. Back in '93 I was a junior undergrad in biology at a small liberal arts college, with very few opportunities to take part in actual research. I got lucky, though, and got into a summer research program. It changed my focus and my life and propelled me into a life of science. I went on to get a Master's in the subject I had studied, then entered a doctoral program.

I eventually left the doctoral program, though, seeing better career options in private and public biotech. 9 years after leaving academia, I work at an evil global biotech company, but I earn good pay and have interesting work inventing and developing novel products used by folks like you.

(visit my blog at

I did undergrad research in a local university-affiliated hospital, thanks to my physiology prof. My two summers in the lab got me two co-authored publications in big name journals BEFORE leaving my undergrad program, showed me how applicable my part-time job that was paying my tuition (medical technologist) was to the world of "real research", and helped me to focus on what I really loved - reproductive physiology AND medical writing. I have to thank my University of Michigan branch campus (their engineering-focused commuter campus) for helping me get to grad school, into the world of pharmaceutical research, and now into my 11th year of freelance writing. Wow....all that for only $333/term! [YES, I AM OLD!]

I switched majors halfway through college, and if I hadn't gotten involved in research in my new field (cogsci), I would have graduated with no idea what to do with my degree. Thankfully, undergraduate research was highly encouraged at my school (a private midwestern university), and I really enjoyed my experience (even though it still involved grunt work); I'm starting a PhD program this year, and I'm not sure I would be without that experience.

I've advised several parents of high school seniors to ignore modest differences student-teacher ratio in class sizes. A real key for education is access to direct research experiences. It's where you can really learn about a field. This also goes beyond science to assisting in various areas of humanities research too.

I also disagree with 5. Undergraduate research hardly ever prepares you fully for graduate research.
My undergrad research was hugely helpful. The practical skills I learned either directly benefitted me or gave me background knowledge that has greatly helped be evaluate related areas of research. Interestingly one of the more useful parts of undergrad research for me was intralab journal clubs were we picked articles that directly related to the lab's interests and ripped them apart. Few things are more educational and seeing the limitations of even good science.

nearly doubling the chances that the student will pursue a Ph.D.

Someone 'splain me how this is a good thing. There are something like ten times as many new postdocs minted every year as there are research positions for them to fight over (those are old figures, still looking for newer ones). It's pretty obvious there is an oversupply of postdocs relative to demand -- look at the price. Where else can you get a PhD and ten years' experience for $33K/yr?

If it were only that the undergrad researcher/intending postdoc faced a low-ish salary, I would happily still recommend research as a career. Given, though, that what they really face is chronic unemployment or a relatively late change of field, a playing field that's both heavily tilted and mined with politics, zero job security and a low-ish salary, I could not in good conscience recommend it, nor anything that might encourage an undergraduate to go on to grad school.