Undergraduate Research: Preparing Future Leaders

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The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is known for its generous support for research, undertaken by scholars at the very pinnacle of their disciplines, at top universities and research institutes across the globe. Such research has led to treatments for deadly diseases, methods to address climate change, policies to combat social inequality, as well as interventions in many other acute problems facing humanity. Research at this level is of great value to society, and the Foundation’s resources are wisely spent. But it is also worth stepping back to think about the value of research conducted at the lowest levels of the university hierarchy: undergraduate research.

At Amherst College, where I serve as Provost and Dean of the Faculty, promoting undergraduate research is one of our top priorities. Amherst College, one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the United States, enrolls approximately 1850 undergraduates. We do not have graduate students. We have almost no post- doctoral researchers (a few science professors use external funding to hire post- docs), and only a very few lab or other technicians. Put otherwise, there is virtually none of the personnel associated with big science or other teams working on large- scale, cutting-edge research questions. Similarly, with one small exception, the college has no research centers focused on social policy or area studies characteristic of research universities. And yet we invest millions of dollars every year into funding undergraduate research opportunities. Moreover, many faculty members devote considerable time to mentoring research students. Why, you might ask, is an undergraduate institution providing so many resources to research experiences for its students?

While pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake is an excellent educational ideal, most research on campus has more practical purposes. Undergraduate research supports professors’ projects; many of the papers published by our science faculty include student co-authors. Similarly, faculty-led undergraduate research in the humanities and social sciences has resulted in co-authored books and articles published in peer-reviewed venues. The college also provides funding to small numbers of recent graduates so that they can revise their senior honors work for submission to scholarly publications. For students planning to pursue an academic career, research experiences—especially peer-reviewed scholarly publications—are invaluable in the graduate school application process. Moreover, two decades ago, the chemist and Nobel Prize laureate Thomas R. Cech showed that the research training received at liberal arts colleges led to an overrepresentation of such students in the ranks of research scientists. These are all terrific outcomes for students doing undergraduate research. But they are not the primary reason for why we focus so heavily on supporting it.

Instead, we believe that research experience offers unparalleled educational benefits: skills developed in the research process are precisely those skills that will benefit students in any line of work. Research begins with identifying a worthy problem. There are so many topics than can be researched, but why is one issue more important, more pressing than another? How does one know why one research project is more important than another? Researchers must be discerning— and then must be persuasive about why their topics should be addressed.

Research also involves posing open-ended questions. A good research problem has no potted or clear-cut “right” answer. Student researchers, like their older counterparts, can easily find themselves pursuing lines of inquiry that turn out to be dead ends. When that happens, they must come up with alternative paths of inquiry; this process takes grit, determination, patience, and creativity. Research also often fosters interdisciplinary thinking. Good researchers do not place boundaries on inquiry; drawing from different perspectives may illuminate a problem in ways not seen previously. Research fosters flexible, critical thinking skills, as well as personal qualities needed for problem solving.

Beyond critical thinking, student researchers hone their presentation skills. Like more seasoned researchers, undergraduates in every discipline have to write about what they find precisely and persuasively, and often even eloquently. At Amherst College, research students are trained in public speaking so that they can orally present their research findings at student conferences or poster sessions. Students also learn to present their research in visually attractive ways; they thus learn computer design and other visual tools so that their research can better capture an audience’s attention.

Research may involve working in teams. While this is particularly true in the sciences, at Amherst we have had student research teams in the humanities and social science disciplines. Ideally, those teams are a heterogeneous group with regard to identities—race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so on. In science labs, students across class years also work together; more advanced students train younger students in lab techniques. It is often said that the best, most productive teams involve individuals with different identities who thus each bring different lenses to a problem. Listening, understanding, and questioning respectfully are skills that must be learned. So, too, is negotiation around who will do what for the team. In our world, students who have developed the skills of working across differences will be that much more valuable in the workplace.

There are a number of other, less tangible but exceedingly important benefits of undergraduate student research. The literature on student success in college suggests the importance of “belonging,” especially for low-income, first-generation, or otherwise often marginalized communities of students. Even one strong relationship with a faculty or staff member can have an immeasurable impact on their success in college. How better to foster this result than to have students working directly with a faculty member on research, the heart of the academic mission? Similarly, forging friendships with other students greatly improves the college experience. Friendships developed during shared research experiences— just as those that occur through participation in sports teams or volunteer activities —often endure. Indeed, bonding over shared intellectual passions provides a strong basis for continuing friendship, especially in cases when there are otherwise overt identity differences.

And finally, when students do research, they own it. No one else knows the subject as they do, no one else can speak about it the way they can. Engaging in research makes students “experts.” The confidence and self-knowledge gained from achieving this is often palpable; students mature through the research process. That, in turn, leads to all sorts of benefits, not the least of which is that students always have a ready-made topic for conversation or for a job interview. “So tell me,” the interviewer asks, “about this research that you have listed on your CV….”

Faculty and others who are in a position to offer undergraduate research opportunities should consider how they can strengthen those experiences. You might assign a research project in a regular undergraduate course, or offer a research methods course. You might encourage senior thesis writing. Hire undergraduates—or more undergraduates—to work in your lab or join your research team. Work with your administration to create cohort-based programs that prepare students for research. Advocate for more funding for research opportunities, not least by offering to speak with donors about the importance of undergraduate research.

Most of all, we should all take pride in leading efforts to support undergraduate research. No doubt it has its challenges—it demands a special kind of teaching and commitment. But its rewards are great. By investing in undergraduate research we are strengthening the capacity of the next generation to be effective problem solvers in society.