Getting undergrads engaged in research

Jul 05 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One of the more surprising things about this job for me has been the difficulty I have had engaging undergraduate students in research. It's not as though I didn't have experience on this front before starting here - I supervised undergraduate researchers as both a Ph.D. student and a postdoc, with good results. Nevertheless, it has taken me some time, not only to recruit the students, but to find the right projects for them. With multiple very different projects happening in the lab, it should be easy to slot the students in, but this is not the case.

Part of the issue is the training. In most cases students who come into the lab need a substantial amount of training before we trust them with working unsupervised. That puts a burden on either myself or the lab member who will be working with them. If they learn quickly and become an asset, the training quickly pays off. But we have had pretty high rate of students who either are not careful enough to be trusted or decide that the reality of this work is not what they thought they were signing up for. It doesn't seem to matter how much I explain what we do, many still seem to be surprised by the work.

So far, the best luck I have had with undergraduates in the lab are those I have brought in early. If I can get them before their third year, not only is the training effort easier to commit to, but they can get engaged at a deeper level in a project. A year or nine months is just not long enough for them to see the forest for the trees. Two years, on the other hand, gets their heads in it enough to see the broader picture and gain more of a sense for why we do what we do. It is also enough time for them to take on their own project, rather than working in conjunction with a grad student to push something to fruition.

It would be interesting to hear what other people do to get undergraduates not just involved in the lab, but engaged in what is going on.

13 responses so far

  • Pat Brassard says:

    I didn't have the occasion to work with a lot of undergrad students yet. However, I was asked by one of them, earlier this year, to be his supervisor for a 2-semester research training course. I have to admit that eight months is pretty quick to become interested in research. Luckily, he had the opportunity to work on several interesting aspects of research, not only the boring ones.

    Altough I agree that training can be time consuming, I like the idea of contributing to the student's decision of pursuing graduate studies.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I've had some success with students who had taken my ichthyology class. Two undergraduates and I published a survey of the fishes of a local creek. Two others and I published a study on food habits of the Northern Studfish. Another undergraduate published with me on some South American fishes, and went on to have a career in that area. I had a couple of others who worked with me on interesting things which never developed into publications, All the above benefited from their research experiences.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm not saying that the students don't benefit from their experience - I am a product of a good research experience as an undergraduate, so I know how important it can be. I also realize that letting students find out that research is not for them is another useful thing.

    The issue I raise is finding the right balance between what is of benefit for the students, vs. what helps the lab. Ideally, both would come out ahead, but we haven't had that happen with several of the students that have come through.

  • Namnezia says:

    I usually get students that have taken my Neurobiology class, typically sophomores. I ask people to start in the lab during the first semester of junior year as volunteers, that way I can see if they are a good fit, and they can decide whether they like research. Also they are free to commit as much or as little time as they want, obviously the more time they commit the more likely they will want to stay or will be asked to stay. After that semester they usually take the lab for course credit and begin their honors projects, most of it getting done in the summer before and first semester of senior year. The good undergrads usually end up as authors in lab publications, some even as first authors.

  • Dr. O says:

    My grad mentor team-taught a first year biology course for undergrads in the honors program, and she would recruit interested students during that first year. Almost every single one of them was amazing and stayed through until their senior year, netting 1-2 publications. Having access to the all honors program students right as they came through the university's doors helped immensely of course, but she also spent a lot of time developing the course with a few other profs. One of those cases where the output ended up exceeding the input.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    My teaching is geared towards upper level and graduate students at the moment, making it very difficult to recruit in the first couple of years of a student's career.

  • Like Namnezia, I mostly recruit out of my sophomore level undergrad class. I find that the students I know from class work out better than unknown students. Many of my undergrad researchers are looking for letters for med school, so they tend to be fairly responsible. I like having students doing research for credit also, since they make a commitment to do a certain minimum number of hours in the lab. That said, my worst student was one who I took for a research for credit project without prior experience with this person. I will never do that again. When this person left, it was addition by subtraction, so there are certainly worse things than having trouble recruiting students into your lab!

  • PUI Prof says:

    Undergrads are the sole source of labor for my lab, and my teaching load is such that I simply don't have the capacity to do a lot of hand-holding. I need students that can be shown once or twice and that's it. I have had a wide variety of students but they seem to fall into three categories:
    1. Really excellent students. Typically juniors that have done well in their physics and molecular biology class and have the ideas behind our techniques down pat. They are well organized and can work independently, and do so, making the right decisions in vague situations.
    2. Students I get too early. I had a student recently that I had to spend 30 minutes showing them how to pH a solution and how to use a pipettor properly. Moreover, they just want to know the sequence of how to do the technique and are concerned about getting the "right" answer. These are sophomores typically.
    3. Overinvolved students. These students are in a bunch of clubs and activities. They may have the skills and knowledge necessary but lack the blocks of time needed to devote to the experiments. They shortcut or leave great cells behind to go to their band practice or whatnot.

    We have a research requirement, so students typically approach me during enrollment period. I often take more than I can pay proper attention to, so sometimes my research students are "given enough rope to hang themselves with".

  • Confounding says:

    As an undergrad not-so-long-ago who was pretty heavily engaged in research, and has worked with undergrads recently getting them engaged, I've found a few things really helpful:

    1. Modular projects. Undergrads won't really be around very long. They're useful at most as juniors and seniors, which is also when they think about these things. So have bite-sized projects.

    2. Have failure be an option. Undergrads are learning, and some science fails just because it does. Don't have your R01 depending on what an undergrad thinks - it won't help anyone.

    3. Project size. I've found probably the best bet are projects for side-projects, preliminary musings, etc. that *could* be done by a PI or grad student, but parts of whom needn't be. Grunt work, but grunt work with some leeway in the implementation. Literature searches and summaries, modest programming projects for math/CS types, etc.

    One of the projects that worked best was putting an undergrad on a small part of a project - researching and summarizing a single parameter for a model - that was straight-forward, had a decent success chance, and slotted clearly into larger work, letting the undergrad see their contribution.

    4. Flexibility. Sometimes undergrads see something they might find interesting. As long as its not hideously expensive, since its a side project and modular, you can probably afford to let them wander.

  • I advertised in my sophomore level class and at the "Women in my field" meeting. This got me two undergraduates interested, which was more than I was expecting.

    I've always taken the joke about passing the grunt work one encounters down to the person on the rung below you a bit seriously. So I've always kept an eye out for possible spin off projects that require a lot of grunt work and may not be worth my time and interest at the moment. These are easily given to undergrads, and as confounding says, it allows failure to be an option. If I'm not terribly interested, then it is okay for the undergraduate to fail, or flake.

  • Soupy L says:

    I'm an undergrad at an undergrad institution, so my experience is probably different/not very helpful.

    I actually got involved in research the spring of my first year, and am in my second summer of research on campus. A senior working on the project as her thesis trained me before leaving, so I'm not the first one to have my project, and I don't have any misconception that I'll "finish" it.

    Anyway, I think my advisor's method really works. Another undergrad did 90% of my training, and I didn't get much guidance from my advisor at all. Which of course means I flopped around a lot at the beginning. I actually completely wasted my first summer here. At the same time, I'm really happy that I have 3 1/2 years to really sink my teeth into my project. And I feel very committed to training someone else to continue on after I graduate because I want to make sure that the project doesn't get forgotten (I don't think my professor would bother to train anyone if I didn't, ahaha). And of course there's an incentive for me, because I could use someone I'm training to do bench work while I write my thesis.

    So, I think it really helped to let me flop around. My friends who work directly under grad students seem to really rely on them, and don't really have any.... loyalty (?).

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Failure is totally an option for undergrads. Why would anyone expect them to come in and immediately succeed. But I do tend to pair them with a grad student or postdoc who they help on aspects of a project. I don't have a lot of projects around that are not related to what the people in my lab are doing and don't really want to start something new up that relies entirely on an undergrad to move it forward. I think if I could get enough interested students early on, it might help substantially.

  • As a postdoc I was given three undergraduates over the course of my contract. Right from the start it was understood that I was to be their mentor as well as supervisor. I was required to find a suitable project that was enough related to my own research that there was a possibility that they might get on a paper (one did!), but not so important that I would be pressuring them. For the third one I did the interviewing too.

    I learnt a lot and it was not a burden at all, and as a first-time mentor it was good to have someone more experienced to turn to and who was looking out of us both (me and my mentee).

    Having a hands-on mentor is important for undergrads, as is feeling they can ask questions without being a nuisance. The problem is, senior PIs are rarely in the lab and when they are they never know where to find anything!

    However, grad students and postdocs need some incentive to take a vested interest in undergraduates and help them feel part of the team. I supervised a visiting scholar and a new technician because I felt it was duty as a good lab citizen, but my undergraduates were my protégé and I never begrudged spending extra time to help them out. Furthermore, there was the incentive that if their data got included in someone else’s publication my name would be included too.

    It was win-win-win. My undergraduates learnt to do research, I learnt to mentor and got an extra authorship, and my PI got publishable data and a new graduate student (a visiting summer undergrad came back for grad school!).

    So the trick is to make it a group effort so that everyone cares and the undergraduate feels part of the team.

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