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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What does a successful undergraduate researcher do afterwards?

So, let's say that you do a research project with an undergraduate. The student has fun, learns some useful skills, contributes something useful to the project, and maybe even becomes a co-author on a paper. So far so good.

And then that student gets a job in industry after graduation. And you have to write a report to a funding agency talking about the things you've done with students and how successful your students were. Was the project a success if the students didn't go to grad school? I'd say so, as long as the students did well on the project and learned something. The evidence for that learning might be a technical accomplishment, or piece of independent work, or it might be some sort of evidence based on techniques of educational psychology (e.g. the work of David Lopatto). Or it might be some other piece of evidence; the CUR Quarterly always has articles documenting benefits from undergraduate research.

However, we aren't talking about the general value of undergraduate research as a way of learning about science. We're talking about whether the funding agency's money was well spent on your program. If the project got scientifically significant results, and those results have been disseminated, that's certainly part of the evidence for success. However, funding agencies are also interested in training students. If a smart student goes to industry rather than grad school after doing undergraduate research, did we fail to retain some talent in the academic pipeline, or did we produce a well-trained member of the workforce?

I lean toward the second view; I see no need to clone myself by sending all of my best students to grad school. If I train people to go out into the workforce and do useful things (and make more money than a professor at a cash-strapped state school) I call that a win for the student. Now, if the student wants to go to grad school, great, but I would never try to sell somebody on it.

Do the funding agencies and professional societies agree with me? I'm not so sure on that. They talk about workforce development, but I see many discussions of the need to send more students to grad school. In fact, my inbox has at least one email on a program to get more students into grad school, and some of the externally funded undergraduate research programs on my campus are explicitly aimed at getting students to go to grad school. A good student who wants to acquire technical skills in a research lab before going out and getting a job is told "Thanks, but no thanks" if he/she applies for support through this program. (It may very well be that this student would be better off doing an internship off campus anyway, but if a smart student wants to do research with me for whatever reason, I'm not going to turn that student away on the basis of career plans.)

This would be fine if graduate programs were starved for students and the job market for Ph.D.'s had more positions than applicants. However, the reverse seems to be the case. To see the problem, go to any national conference, and in one room you'll have a speaker talking about getting more students to pursue graduate degrees (the audience may be faculty, or it may be a motivational talk for undergraduates). In another room, you'll have career advice for Ph.D. students entering a saturated and hyper-competitive job market.*

So, if a good student does undergraduate research and then goes into the workforce (and makes more money than a professor at a cash-strapped state school), is this a good outcome from the undergraduate research program or a bad outcome?

Maybe one issue here is that in some sense industry is a default: If a student doesn't go to grad school, where else will he or she go besides the private sector? So the student who does undergraduate research and goes into industry is in the same situation as the student who didn't do undergraduate research and then went into industry. How do you distinguish them? The work of Lopatto may be of some help, but in terms of success after graduation, well, tracking that student's salary and career satisfaction and technical accomplishments is hard. You won't know if your student is successful for some time, and you won't know how much of that success can be attributed to doing research. On the other hand, counting the number of students who go to Ph.D. programs is very easy: You just count. Done. Now write the progress report.

Anyway, what say the CUR members and other readers? Should grad school be the preferred outcome for students who do research? How can we measure the success of an undergraduate research program that doesn't send many students to grad school but does produce skilled people who go and get jobs?

*For extra irony, in one room you might have a speaker talking about the need to train our students to work in diverse, international environments to tackle the challenges of a global economy and global environmental, health, and technology problems. In another room, somebody will be lamenting the number of international students at our universities. I completely agree with the first speaker, and I hope that somebody introduces him or her to the second speaker, because I have a great idea for training students in an environment that has people from around the globe....

1 comment:

  1. As an engineer that never went to grad school, my experience in the private sector suggests that a Masters degree is desirable. However PHDs are only good for research (I'm assuming here that they're good for research). They really can't function outside the labratory.

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