Undergraduate research

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Undergraduate research is the exploration of a specific topic within a field by an undergraduate student that makes an original contribution to the discipline.[1] It is a fairly recent concept in the academic community, with roots in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The creation of MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) in 1969 encouraged an explosion in popularity. Undergraduate research programs were fairly common by the 1990s. Students may work on their own, collaborate with faculty members, or seek enrollment in a research program within their field. Both faculty members and students experience advantages and disadvantages when collaborating on research. Undergraduate research can be conducted in the sciences (both biological and physical) and in the humanities. The research approach differs depending on the field and the focus. Undergraduate research is often required for acceptance into graduate and professional schools.


According to Edward Ayers[citation needed], undergraduate research is a “relatively recent” development in higher education, although it has its roots in early nineteenth and twentieth-century practice. In 1810, Wilhelm von Humboldt founded the University of Berlin, which created the model for undergraduate research. During the nineteenth century, many Americans went to Germany for graduate education. Many Americans began to call for a transition towards the German education systems, with specialized disciplines and majors. This paved the way for undergraduate education. Mentions and praises of undergraduate research could be found in journals and magazines by the early 1900s and in 1912, the University of Chicago established the undergraduate research prize in memory of Howard Ricketts. In 1969, Margaret MacVicar established the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at MIT. It was considered the first Undergraduate Research Program. The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) was established in 1978 as a faculty development initiative; its headquarters are in Washington, DC. The National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) was formed in 1987 and hosted its first conference at UNC Asheville. Recent NCUR events have attracted 3000 students. CUR and NCUR merged in 2010. Since the 1990s, many universities and colleges have instituted programs and offices[2] meant to foster research at the undergraduate level.[3] The Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly contributes to the growth and development of undergraduate research endeavors across colleges and universities by highlighting best practices, models for mentoring, and the assessment of undergraduate research. The goal of the journal is to provide useful and inspiring information about student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship from all disciplines at all types of institutions in the United States and abroad.


Undergraduate research is defined broadly to include scientific inquiry, creative activity, and scholarship. An undergraduate research project might result in a musical composition, a work of art, an agricultural field experiment, or an analysis of historical documents. The key is that the project produces some original work.[4] There are many benefits to undergraduate research including, but not limited to, real world applications, research and professional experience, and better relationships with faculty and peers. According to Heather Thiry, “Through coursework and out-of-class experiences, students described learning to work and think independently, to take responsibility for their own learning, and to take initiative to solve problems on their own rather than relying on experts for the answers.”[5] In addition, institutions find value in promoting undergraduate research to recruit and retain students and to prepare them for graduate studies[6] Undergraduate research "days" at state capitols is an effective way to showcase the effective of learning and teaching through research.[7] The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) inspired many states to create state versions of its Posters on the Hill event, which takes place each April in Washington, DC.

Disciplinary variations[edit]

Research methods vary depending on the field of study a student decides to participate in. These fields of study are more commonly broken up into humanities and sciences. Humanities include, but are not limited to, fields such as history, literature, philosophy, and the performing arts. Sciences include physics, biology, psychology, and chemistry.


The undergraduate research in humanities generally promotes the same values as that in the sciences. Such values include collaboration, unique thought, and interdisciplinary works. It differs from the sciences in that it is based more on theoretical research than laboratory research. For example, undergraduate research in the performing arts consists of the developing of new performing pieces as experimentation. Though not viewed as research in the traditional sense, this is a form of experimentation.[8] Because of this differentiation, this field of undergraduate research is not as well funded as it is for the sciences.[3] Also, there are many college students interested in studying the humanities; in actuality, more STEM-related majors take humanities courses than humanities-related majors take STEM courses.[9]

Universities have utilized course-based research since 1998, but few have applied it to the humanities. However, they have increasingly done so with time.[10] For example, since 2001, the University of Washington has established a lecture-discussion panel as well as an annual Undergraduate Research Symposium and Summer Institute with the purpose of supporting undergraduate research in the humanities; it does so through providing incentives such as funding for research. Volumes on research in specific humanities disciplines have begun to appear, particularly in English[11] and religious studies.


The science disciplines are more lab-oriented than the humanities, although fieldwork can occasionally play an important role in the research process.


Undergraduate research can be done through self-directed experiments under the guidance of an advisor. Most work is completed in the lab because chemists learn by working in the lab and experience is gained with the lab equipment. The students gain a greater understanding of the material while advances are made in science.[12]


It is a combination of working in the laboratory and in the environment for the purpose of better understanding the world around us.[13]


Undergraduate research for the field of physics is always hands on and practical. Students tend to focus on the “why-nots” and the “what-ifs.”[14]


Undergraduate work in the geology field has strong ties to both climatology and environmental sciences. While work takes place in the lab for analysis, there is a distinct amount of work to be done in the field like studying fossilized remains, minerals, or other geologic formations to better understand trends in the past and the future.[15]


Undergraduate research provides opportunities for independent research, professional student/teacher relationships, and experience in the field of study. Undergraduate research is a tool for students to gain knowledge about their field using their own methods and not relying on a professor or supervisor to walk them through the study. Independent research will help students feel confident and competent when performing tasks in their future career.[16] The results of undergraduate research can sometimes be published in peer-reviewed venues, such as an undergraduate research journal dedicated specifically to such work, or in traditional academic journals with the student as a coauthor.

Both students and faculty recognize the benefits of undergraduate research. Faculty from Harvey Mudd College, Wellesley College, and Grinnell College were surveyed, and listed benefits such as opportunities to work and think independently, learning through reading literature and communication, increased problem solving skills, and an appreciation of what scientists do. Student responses from this study included an enhancement of professional or academic credentials, as well as the clarification of a career path. The author of this study stated that the "benefits [students] value result from a good relationship with and expert guidance from a mentor." The greatest benefit to both professor and student is the personal guidance and knowledge shared between the two – far greater a reward than fancy equipment or a diploma.

Many graduate programs and professional schools require undergraduate research. For example, admissions boards for medical schools look for research experience when admitting students. Therefore, not only will pre-medical students benefit from learning how to apply hypothesis-based research, but they will also be more likely to be accepted to medical school if they have participated in undergraduate research.[17] This holds true for graduate programs in a variety of subjects.


Faculty members involved in undergraduate research perform two different roles. Faculty members may act as primary researchers who lead the investigation and provide support for students, and in other circumstances, undergraduate research is led by the student. In this case, the faculty member acts as an advisor to keep students on track and provide assistance when needed.


Undergraduate involvement in research may increase efficiency as well as provide other skill sets. In institutions that focus on their professors’ role as teachers, administrators reward faculty members’ involvement in undergraduate research. Some faculty members report, according to Scott Windham, that working with students on undergraduate research gives them the personal satisfaction of helping students grow and professionally develop.[18] Showcasing students’ research at undergraduate conferences highlights the hard work of the students and their faculty mentors. Faculty members might also become better teachers due to their work on cutting-edge research. Colleges may also assess undergraduate research as part of departmental productivity. Taking part in undergraduate research can help faculty members in the long run because the students they work with can train future undergraduate researchers. Colleges might also give more funding to faculty research if they work with undergraduate students.[19]


According to Scott Windham, "Publication may be limited to second tier journals if an undergraduate student is listed as a co-author."[18] As a result, in some institutions, working with undergraduate students can negatively affect tenure and promotion opportunities. Some observers report fear that undergraduate research may exploit students in order to promote the faculty member’s career. In addition, faculty members perceive that research with students may keep them from conducting their own research, will require more time or resources, or will not help them with their professional development. Many faculty members do not receive teaching credit for mentoring undergraduate research, nor do they receive any other types of rewards, incentives, or compensation. A problem also arises when the student is not prepared properly or if the student is not motivated enough.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://cse.lmu.edu/media/lmucse/contentassets/documents/Definition%20of%20Undergraduate%20Research.pdf
  2. ^ Kinkead, Joyce, and Linda Blockus. Undergraduate Research Offices & Programs: Models & Practices. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research, 2012.
  3. ^ a b Joyce Kinkead, "What's in a Name? A Brief History of Undergraduate Research. CUR Fellow's Address at CUR's 2012 National Conference at The College of New Jersey."
  4. ^ Kinkead, Joyce. Valuing and Supporting Undergraduate Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
  5. ^ Thiry, Heather, "What Experiences Help Students Become Scientists? A Comparative Study of Research and Other Sources of Personal and Professional Gains for STEM Undergraduates"
  6. ^ Kinkead, Joyce. Advancing Undergraduate Research: Marketing, Communications, and Fundraising. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research, 2011.
  7. ^ Kinkead, J. A., and the UCUR Steering Committee. “A Rising Tide Floats All Boats: Organizing and Implementing a Statewide Undergraduate Research Conference,” CUR Quarterly, 32.4, 2012.
  8. ^ Blackmer, Jennifer. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly , Winter2008, Vol. 29 Issue 2, p8-12, 5p, Database: OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson)
  9. ^ Tyson, Charlie. "Humanities vs. STEM, Redux." Inside Higher Ed. N.p., 18 Aug. 2014. Web.
  10. ^ DeCosmo, Janice, and Jill McKinstry. "Introducing Undergraduates To Intensive Scholarly Work In The Humanities." International Journal of the Humanities 3.4 (2005): 251-256. Humanities Source. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
  11. ^ Grobman, Laurie, and Joyce Kinkead, Undergraduate Research in English Studies. NCTE: 2010.
  12. ^ “Undergraduate Research in Chemistry Guide.” American Chemical Society. American Chemical Society, 2014. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
  13. ^ "Undergraduate Research." Department of Biology. Johns Hopkins University. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
  14. ^ Reid, David. "Plain Talk on Undergraduate Research." Department of Physics. University of Chicago, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
  15. ^ “Student Research: What is it Good For?” Science Magazine. HighWire Press, 31 Aug 2001. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
  16. ^ Webb, Sarah A. "The Importance of Undergraduate Research | Science Careers". Sciencecareers.sciencemag.org. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
  17. ^ "The Benefits of Undergraduate Research: The Student's Perspective - The Mentor". Dus.psu.edu. 2013-10-10. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
  18. ^ a b Windham, Scott (2013-06-28). "To Publish or Not? (Part 1 of 2) « Undergraduate Research in German & European Studies". Burgsburges.wordpress.com. Retrieved 2014-12-01.
  19. ^ a b "Faculty Perceptions of Undergraduate Research, PURM 1.1 | PURM". Blogs.elon.edu. Retrieved 2014-12-01.

Further reading[edit]

  • Joyce Kinkead, "What's in a Name? A Brief History of Undergraduate Research. CUR Fellow's Address at CUR's 2012 National Conference at The College of New Jersey."
  • Webb, Sarah A. "The Importance of Undergraduate Research." Science Careers. N.p., 6 July 2006. Web. 27 Oct. 2013
  • Lopatto, David. "The Essential Features of Undergraduate Research." Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly 23.1 (2003): 139-42.
  • Thiry, Heather, "What Experiences Help Students Become Scientists? A Comparative Study of Research and Other Sources of Personal and Professional Gains for STEM Undergraduates"
  • Blackmer, Jennifer. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, Winter2008, Vol. 29 Issue 2, p8-12, 5p, Database: OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson)
  • McNary - Zak, Bernadette, and Rebecca Todd Peters. "Defining Undergraduate Research in the Humanities, PURM 2.2." PURM. PURM, n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.
  • DeCosmo, Janice, and Jill McKinstry. "Introducing Undergraduates To Intensive Scholarly Work In The Humanities." International Journal of the Humanities 3.4 (2005): 251-256. Humanities Source. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
  • Reid, David. "Plain Talk on Undergraduate Research." Department of Physics. University of Chicago, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
  • “Student Research: What is it Good For?” Science Magazine. HighWire Press, 31 Aug 2001. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
  • Orr, Amy J. 2009. “Taking Advantage of Opportunity: Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Abroad.” CURQ on the Web 30(2): 7-12.
  • Schmitz, Heather J., and Karen Havholm. 2015. “Undergraduate Research and Alumni: Perspectives on Learning Gains and Post-graduation Benefits.” CUR Quarterly 35(3): 15-22.
  • Manak, Jennifer A., and Gregory Young. 2014. “Incorporating Undergraduate Research into Teacher Education: Preparing Thoughtful Teachers Through Inquiry-Based Learning.” CUR Quarterly 35(2): 35-38.
  • Wenzel, Thomas J. 1997. “What is Undergraduate Research?” CUR Quarterly 17(June): 163.
  • Crowe, Mary, and David Brakke. 2008. “Assessing the Impact of Undergraduate Research Experiences on Students: An Overview of Current Literature.” CUR Quarterly 28(4): 43-50.
  • Jenkins, Alan, and Mick Healey. 2010. “Undergraduate Research and International Initiatives to Link Teaching and Research.” CUR Quarterly 30(3): 36-42.
  • Cook, Matthew, and Sean Q. Kelly. 2013. “Connecting the Dots: Web 3.0 and Interdisciplinary Freshman Research.” CUR Quarterly 34(2): 8-16.
  • Brandenberger, John R. 2013. “Teaching Innovation Through Undergraduate Research.” CUR Quarterly 34(1): 18-23.
  • Pukkila, Patricia J., Martha S. Arnold, Aijun Anna Li, Donna M. Bickford. 2013. “The Graduate Research Consultant Program: Embedding Undergraduate Research Across the Curriculum.” CUR Quarterly 33(4): 28-33.
  • Carr, Katy S., Stephen D. Davis, Stella Erbes, Constance M. Fulmer, Lee B. Kats, and Melissa Umbro Teetzel. 2013. “Developing First-Year Students as Scholars.” CUR Quarterly 33(4): 8-15.