Research and Scholarship and the |
Mission of the Research University
This session explored the benefits and drawbacks of involving graduate students in mentoring undergraduates who are engaged in research and scholarship, from the perspectives of two institutions and of both the sciences and the humanities.
the following questions:
One of the main barriers to involving graduate students as undergraduate research mentors is the reluctance of many graduate students to take on an additional responsibility. Faculty members and graduate students view assisting in undergraduate research in fundamentally different ways. From the perspective of faculty members, mentoring undergraduates allows graduate students to work towards their own publications, to prepare themselves as future scientists, engineers, professors, etc., and to obtain hands-on teaching experience in their fields. From the perspective of graduate students though, all activities-including working with undergraduate researchers-must ultimately lead to a job. In short, it takes a far-sighted graduate student to recognize the potential benefits of working with undergraduates.
Furthermore, there is a disparity in the hiring process between research institutions and institutions serving primarily undergraduates. Data collected from job advertisements in the natural sciences and the social sciences suggest that both institutions expect applicants to have publications and teaching experience. The real disparity occurs with requirements for experience at the level of supervision and/or training. The majority of new faculty job listings at undergraduate institutions specifically mention skill and/or experience in teaching, while research institutions rarely ask for previous supervisory experience. The question arises, "What is the advantage of seeking opportunities to gain supervisory experience for graduate students if these skills are not actively sought by research institutions?" At the same time, it should be noted that most graduate students will find at least their first jobs at non-research institutions, so it is in fact to their benefit to gain this kind of experience.
Some disciplines lend themselves more readily to incorporating graduate students than others. The research-group model is easier to envision in the sciences than in the humanities. Because much research in the humanities is performed on an individual level, bringing together groups to address problems is rare and fewer successful examples are available. Although there was agreement that the humanities can learn much from the science research model, it was also agreed that more sessions like this one need to be organized to specifically address the unique problems of research in the humanities.
Another issue raised in the session was the benefit to undergraduates in doing research. Although there was consensus on the value of undergraduate research, some participants expressed concern that the effect of involving undergraduates in research might be to push them towards graduate school and/or a certain profession where the market might already be saturated. Others in the group came to a different conclusion, suggesting that the research experience could be a valuable part of undergraduate education even if the student then decides to pursue a different field. Clearly, these viewpoints on the intent of a given undergraduate research program should be considered during its creation. Closely related to this question was the issue of at what point in his/her career an undergraduate should pursue an independent research project. Most participants felt that earlier was better and that creative problem solving at the research level should be encouraged early in a student's developmental process.
Funding: Graduate students already carry a tremendous workload. Most graduate students perceive assisting in undergraduate research as something extra. The failure of universities to provide adequate funding for graduate student mentors leads to ethical problems in terms of labor issues and practical problems in terms of enticing graduate students to engage with undergraduate research.
Using what is already in place: One of the challenges that we face is how to tap into the network of research institutions that already require training and supervisory skills in their new hires. If there are a handful of research institutions that already actively encourage the development of mentoring or supervisory skills in their graduate students, then we need to take steps to ensure that other institutions can make use of these already existing programs to shape their own vision of involving graduate students in undergraduate research.
Examples of Effective Programs
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), the Office for Undergraduate Research has a variety of mechanisms for enabling graduate students to become involved in mentoring undergraduate research. These include:
of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) has established two Undergraduate
Research Centers (URC), one for students in the sciences and one for students
in the humanities and social sciences. The Centers provide fellowships
for undergraduate researchers and sponsor presentation opportunities such
as conferences and journals.
David Martinez, a graduate student in English, spoke of his experience mentoring students as they studied Chicano/Chicana culture. It began in a classroom setting in which he worked closely with three or four students, initially focusing on Chicano/Chicana literature. He noted that the undergraduates quickly developed their own research interests, moving into specific areas of Chicano/Chicana culture. Although his work as a mentor began somewhat informally, it has now become a paid position that may be extended to other graduate students as alternative funding to the traditional research assistantship.
In the Ecology and Evolution program at the University of West Virginia, students go through the entire research process in an inquiry-based research-related course. The students work in groups. Each group identifies a problem and writes a proposal. The TAs and faculty then review the proposals. Approximately 60% of the proposals receive funding. The unsuccessful proposals must be rewritten and resubmitted for review. Once funding has been granted, the group does the research and writes a paper based on the format of the Journal of Ecology. The papers are then presented in the form of an oral presentation (for the best projects) or a poster presentation.
At Rochester Polytechnic Institute an inquiry-based course was developed for freshmen. The students select a bacterial system or a fast-growing plant system. Working in groups of 3 or 4, the students pick a question and form experiments. Both undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants supervise the research. At the end of the semester, each group presents a poster, and the TAs grade the poster presentations.
Recommendations to the Reinvention Center
Work towards institutional changes so that mentoring experiences are recognized in the hiring process. One of the main obstacles that we face is the question of long-term benefits for graduate students. Until departments are willing to consider mentoring experiences in the hiring process, graduate students will be reluctant to participate.
Disseminate information about existing programs, particularly through links on the Center's website. In addition, further conferences on undergraduate research in general and graduate student participation in undergraduate research in particular will allow further discussion of the issues that were covered in this panel.
Encourage communication. One of the most striking things about this panel was the desire of graduate student mentors to share their experiences and the desire of administrators and faculty members to hear those experiences. At future conferences sponsored by the Reinvention Center, it may be worthwhile to have an entire panel(s) led by graduate student mentors so that administrators and faculty members can benefit from an even more in-depth discussion of the problems and challenges facing graduate students as they become involved in facilitating undergraduate research.
Enter into conversation with other studies of graduate education such as those done by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Carnegie Foundation. At the most basic level, the issue of involving graduate students in undergraduate research must be part of the national trend towards rethinking graduate education. Linking graduate involvement in undergraduate research to this national dialogue is a necessity.
Encourage collaboration between disciplines. The model for undergraduate research in the humanities is quite different from that in the natural sciences. Rather than remaining isolated within our own disciplines, collaboration will yield benefits for all involved.
Requests for Follow-Up and Further Information
If one of the most basic obstacles to encouraging graduate student participation in undergraduate research is that of funding, the Reinvention Center can study the ways in which graduate students can be remunerated for their services. How do different departments and institutions provide funding for such activities? Are their fellowships available at the state and national levels to fund graduate students as they engage with undergraduate research projects?
A study of how undergraduates benefit from working with graduate students may be helpful in shaping attitudes about such projects. How have undergraduate students, particularly those who chose not to remain in the field in which they did their research, benefited from the experience of working closely with a graduate student?
University of California
at Los Angeles