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Professional skills and problem solving: the undergraduate research movement

I was recently asked to comment on “who benefits from research with students, and particularly how do undergraduates who do research benefit?” Like many of us, I have a set of answers in my pocket that I often use when I speak to colleges and universities about engaging undergraduate students in research. However, the audience for this question was not the group of like-minded peers who already believe in research as a fundamentally important thing in higher education. Instead, my audience was a skeptical member of the business community who was visiting campus. I explained that undergraduate research not only prepares students for graduate school, but that it also develops the kinds of attributes she would look for in her potential employees.

I am often dismayed by a shortage of imagination about what undergraduate research can accomplish for students and how the experience can become valuable long after that summer research project or that last poster session. Too often we think of the “next” destination for our research students as graduate school. We want them to succeed. Combine that with the fact that we know and understand the path of success we took (graduate school), and accordingly help our students get into graduate programs every year. Make no mistake; sending our students to graduate school is a good thing that needs to continue. However, many of our very best students do not want to go to graduate school; for a range of reasons, they want to move into the professional sphere. As faculty mentors, how do we help these students translate their success with us in research into an explanation of how they will be successful in professional settings outside of the higher education world we know so well? How do we “imagine” and how do we help students “imagine” these settings and what might be asked of them? How do we help them explain to employers that the research experience in and of itself aligns with the values of the range of organizations our students want to work for.

The issue becomes more salient as the undergraduate research movement looks to expand numbers of students participating by building undergraduate research into curricula. The undergraduate research movement needs to make clear the importance of embedding research into the curriculum. The notion that research is valuable and that having undergraduates participate is valuable may be evident for those of us in higher education, but it is not always evident to our students. Similarly, it is not always evident to businesses that hire our students. In fact, the value of research is an idea that is often lost in larger public conversation these days. Undoubtedly, we have to effectively talk to students and others about the “product” of research, i.e., the value of our research questions and their outcomes. However, we have to do more. We have to talk to students about the “process” of research, and how learning to state and test hypotheses, to collect and interpret data and draw careful conclusions based on that data prepares them with tangible skills they can offer the professional world.

Because the intersection of what the professional world seeks in new graduates and what undergraduate research emphasizes is not always readily apparent, we need to teach students how to be as explicit about their skill sets as they are about their research findings. Students’ work is often complex and not well understood by recruiters. It is important to help students both explain their project in a way that is readily understood, but more importantly they need discuss the skills they acquired during the process and how they would be valuable to their prospective employer. A good road map to help faculty and students hone the conversation comes from the results the Association of American Colleges & Universities has learned through its work with Hart Research (Hart Research Associates 2013). Faculty and students can tie undergraduate research directly to the qualities employers declare they are looking for. The traits employers believe colleges and universities should emphasize (more, less, and the same) with students are (percentage follows):

  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (82% more; 7% less; 11% the same)
  • The ability to analyze and solve complex problems (81% more; 6% less; 13% the same)
  • The ability to effectively communicate orally (80% more; 8% less; 12% the same)
  • The ability to effectively communicate in writing (80% more; 8% less; 12% the same)
  • The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings (78% more; 6 % less; 16% the same)
  • The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources (72% more; 9% less; 19% the same)
  • The ability to innovate and be creative (71% more; 9% less; 20% the same)
  • Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings (67% more; 11% less; 22% the same)

The line between these traits and undergraduate research is clear. Without exaggerating, most undergraduate research experiences provide students with an authentic experience of refining a complex question, being analytical about how to approach the question, harmonizing and reconciling difficult data (this includes textual documents as evidence) and conflicting information into a synthesis or conclusion. The project must be written up and often presented at a conference or meeting. Along the way, the project created new problems that students needed to solve before moving on to complete the project. Often projects are done in teams and require effective communication and interpersonal skills. Our responsibility as research mentors is to help our students articulate their work as both a distinct project and as a set of attributes they now have that they can explain to prospective employers.

Featured image credit: Student panorama created with 40 Pictures, of the Audimax Lecture Theatre at Karlsruhe. By Vins120. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This article first appeared on the Epigeum Insights blog, Tuesday 7 June 2016.

Recent Comments

  1. Jestin MANDUMPAL

    It is an important article : the undergraduates should get an opportunity to know what research means prior to their progress to Graduate schools.

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