Why undergraduate research matters:
Almost without exception, candidates for nationally competitive scholarships, fellowships and other experiential learning opportunities should be engaged in some kind of undergraduate research regardless of discipline. This is most certainly the case with opportunities like the Fulbright, which requires an explicit grant-of-purpose detailing a well-planned research or project proposal. Opportunities like the Rhodes, Marshall, and Mitchell also expect to see research as a part of the undergraduate experience given the advanced and compressed post-graduate degree structures in the UK and Ireland, all of which require significant independent research. The Goldwater takes as its primary focus undergraduate research, as does the Udall, Whitaker and NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Even opportunities like the Truman, which focus on public service, expect undergraduates be capable and comfortable dealing with the basic tenets of research methodologies, data-collection, conversant with primary source materials, and by all means, capable of executing strong, well-written proposals.
“Undergraduate research" can take any number of forms depending on your discipline. As a general rule, it should draw you out of the traditional classroom and challenge you to reach beyond the confines of your major, disrupt the boundaries of your discipline, make you a tiny bit uncomfortable, and compel you to ask questions you may not otherwise ask. If you are STEM student, this may happen in a laboratory or as part of a research team; if you are in the social sciences, perhaps this means translating your studies into a community development project or working through difficult policy issues; if you are in the humanities, you may be asked to assist a professor in developing an extended bibliography for a new book or collaborating on an interdisciplinary project; if you are in music, theatre or studio arts perhaps you are engaged in a new approach to methodologies in dance, researching historical instruments, or putting together a senior exhibition. Of course, your undergraduate research can also take the form of an honor’s or BA thesis but even then you are encouraged to make it your own and attempt to make the most out of your experience so as to benefit from the research experience.
Here are few guiding principles (and a definition) taken directly from the National Council on Undergraduate Research:
What exactly is undergraduate research? The Council on Undergraduate Research recently published “Broadening Participation in Undergraduate Research: Fostering Excellence and Enhancing the Impact,” by Drs. Jeffrey M. Osborn and Kerry K. Karukstis. According to these authors, four common threads run through every undergraduate research activity on campus:
- Mentorship. A serious, collaborative interaction between the faculty mentor and student, in which the student is intellectually engaged in the scholarly problem or project;
- Originality. The student makes a meaningful and authentic contribution to the scholarly problem or project;
- Acceptability. Employing techniques and methodologies that are appropriate and recognized by the discipline with a problem or project that includes a reflective and synthetic component;
- Dissemination. Includes a final tangible product for which both the process and results are peer-reviewed, juried, or judged in a manner consistent with disciplinary standards.