When thinking about possible colleges to attend, you consider many factors, such as small class sizes, a large number of majors and disciplines, and study abroad and internship opportunities. But, one aspect you might not have considered is the potential to conduct research.
Data from the University of Michigan suggests that research at the undergraduate level offers students, professors and even the universities an advantage in preparing students for post-graduate studies and lifelong success. In addition to providing students with crucial skills, engaging in the pursuit of knowledge through inquiry also offers a higher potential for success during the undergraduate years.
Here are nine reasons that undergraduate research matters for students as well as for faculty and universities.
1. Undergraduate Research Provides Students with Real-World Skills
The content that is taught in college classrooms is essential to students’ success in attaining their degree and applying it after graduation. Foundational knowledge in core skills and in their declared area of study are necessary for progress and mastery of the content that is then applied in postgraduate work or in their careers. When students have the opportunity to engage in research with their professors, they learn real-world skills and get a head start on applying that learned content to new situations.
In collaborating with faculty to discover new knowledge through shared inquiry, students learn how to ask questions and what questions to ask. This important skill is needed for effective problem solving and leadership in the workforce. Additionally, students learn how to interpret the answers and data that they collect. The ability to analyze and synthesize information is a higher-level cognitive skill that will serve students well in any role they take on following their undergraduate education.
2. Reporting on Research Findings Improves the Way Students Communicate
The ability to communicate effectively is essential to thrive in a collaborative work environment, especially in a position of leadership. To prepare students for postgraduate success, many colleges place an emphasis on core courses that hone written and oral communication skills. A built-in undergraduate research component is another effective way to improve the way students share information professionally.
When communicating findings from a study, students are challenged to determine how much information to share and which data is the most important to include. Similar to other written work that students submit, data and conclusions derived from the research must be evaluated, considered and carefully selected so that the reader receives only accurate and pertinent information about the study.
Additionally, students learn to develop their professional and academic voice. The format information is shared in about a study must be consistent, informative and factual. Learning to write and share information in this way is an opportunity that students would not receive without participating in research experiences.
3. Students Learn How to Engage in a Professional Environment
In addition to learning how to write with a professional tone, students who participate in undergraduate research also gain experience working in a professional environment. When participating in a study as researchers, students must act and behave like employees of the faculty member leading the inquiry. They must take direction from their professor and follow the specific parameters of the research design. Additionally, students must work collaboratively in collecting and assessing data and developing their professional voice while also respectfully engaging in dialogue with other students and faculty members.
Participation in research also teaches students to take responsibility and initiative for their own learning. Students are accountable to the other researchers on the team, much like they would be in the workplace. They must accomplish their portions of data collection and analysis for the research to be conducted faithfully and consistently. While these skills can be addressed through collaborative academic projects in the classroom, the hands-on and multi-faceted nature of participating in research opportunities like those at Moravian College more accurately mimics and reinforces the expectations of a professional work experience. For undergraduates, this one on one interaction with senior faculty members is simply not an option at larger universities.
4. Students Learn and Develop Resilience
Another important skill that students learn through doing research is resilience. More often than not, engaging in an ethical, university-approved study presents challenges, obstacles and at times failure to prove a hypothesis or even to get the research funded and started. Studies can be rejected or require revisions, and students might face many struggles when carrying out procedures and collecting data.
From these experiences, students realize that failure is part of the learning process and only a minor setback. They learn to see obstacles in their education and work as opportunities to be creative. They also learn to approach these obstacles from a different angle. Through this process, students develop problem-solving skills that will help them succeed in their future workplace. All of these skills help to increase students’ resilience in their academic and professional environments that professors and employers will appreciate.
5. Research at the Undergraduate Level Offers More Freedom
One of the benefits of engaging in research at the undergraduate level is a sense of freedom. Unlike in graduate school, when research is required for the completion of a degree, students in their first four years of college have the freedom to explore lines of inquiry without the stress and pressure of delivering results from unique and precise research studies. The process of investigating an inquiry is the most important component of undergraduate research. For example, in the Cornell College physics major, the freedom to choose an area of interest for a study is also a hallmark of research at the undergraduate level.
6. Participating in Undergraduate Research Can Increase Retention
Undergraduate research not only helps students develop key skills for post-graduate success but also helps students stay in college to finish their degrees. According to the results of a University of Michigan undergraduate research study, students who participated had an overall higher retention rate than peers who did not. This was especially true for African American males who graduated at an increased rate of 19 percent when participating in research during their undergraduate academic experience.
These effects were likely seen because of the commitment, engagement and collaboration that undergraduate students experience during research. Participating students reported a more comprehensive understanding of their chosen disciplines through the deep inquiry and thorough investigations they completed, which encouraged their success in the classroom.
Additionally, undergraduate students who engaged in research viewed their professors and other members of the college as supports and positive influences on their academics, increasing the likelihood that these students will reach out for academic help or get involved in the campus community. Overall, these findings show that research provides undergraduate students with the knowledge and support to persist and succeed with their education.
7. Alumni Maintain a Connection to Their School
Students who participate in research during their undergraduate years are also more likely to remain connected to their college following graduation. Because of the positive relationships that they develop with faculty members through their shared projects and inquiries, students who participate in programs such as undergraduate research opportunities at DePauw University are likely to maintain connections with the faculty and the college in their post-graduate endeavors.
These students are also more likely to be involved as alumni and to contribute to the university, either through endowments or internship and job opportunities for students. This helps students to secure faculty recommendations for graduate school and network to attain jobs with employers who are connected to the college. Additionally, this mutually beneficial relationship allows the faculty and the school to continue expanding their academics and research through interest and donations.
8. Students who Engage in Undergraduate Research Continue Their Educational Pursuits
In addition to graduating and remaining connected to their alma mater, post-graduate students more frequently seek research and advanced degrees when they have engaged in undergraduate research. These students are more likely to continue on with their education to pursue medical, law or PhD degrees or participate in research opportunities following their undergraduate studies. As a result, these students have the benefit of increased knowledge and schooling to help them advance in their chosen careers.
9. Faculty can Create a Unified Approach to Education
While students reap a host of benefits from participating in research during their undergraduate years, faculty members also have the ability to create a rich learning experience for their students. Through leading undergraduate research, faculty members can bridge the gap between classroom instruction and real-world application. Methodologies, theories and content might not come alive for students during a lecture course, even in the context of a small class size, so the opportunity to engage in related inquiry with the students allows conversations and learning experiences to dig even deeper.
Additionally, research opportunities with undergraduate students allow faculty to study with students who are as passionate about the topics as they are. As noted above, more flexibility is given for students to participate in research during their first four years of college, permitting them to follow their passions instead of having their areas of inquiry narrowed. Faculty members are able to collaborate, discuss and gain new knowledge in a shared area of interest with their students while the students have the opportunity to learn from experts in their field. It’s a win-win-win situation for students, faculty members and the university.
The number of liberal arts colleges making research opportunities available for undergraduate students is growing. In addition to providing a host of benefits to the students who participate in these experiences, faculty and universities also reap rewards from these programs, in turn delivering a better educational experience for all students.
As you search for a college that is the right fit for you, consider those that offer undergraduate research programs to give yourself the opportunity for the most well-rounded experience.