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Long term drawbacks to undergrad research?

  1. Nov 9, 2009 #1
    I was thinking about this earlier today: The last 10 years or so has seen a steady increase in undergraduate research activity and the prevalence of undergraduates contributing to published research articles. I think inevitably this will lead to publications being required, at least informally, for admittance into the top graduate programs. I myself do not see this a problem (though prospective graduate students might :wink:). But this got me thinking - what are the potential long-term impacts of increasingly prevalent undergad research? I can identify a large number of benefits (increased research output and collaborative projects, more experienced students entering workforce/grad school, etc), but does anybody know of any drawbacks this may have, especially from the point of view of the researchers, funding, and/or the functionality of science in general?

    May seem like an odd question, but I'm keen to hear your thoughts on this.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 11, 2009 #2
    Schools in Russia expect you to write a "course report", which is a lot like undergrad research. It's not unheard of for these reports to end up in journals. I don't think this creates any drawbacks at all.
  4. Nov 11, 2009 #3
    If publications become required for grad school then it will be much more difficult for students from smaller less research oriented schools to get into grad school. My guess is that students at schools like this rely more on REUs and other research internships to get the necessary experience for grad school but it is harder to get a publication when you only work at a place over the summer.
  5. Nov 11, 2009 #4
    This seriously, seriously worries me. If you have an informal requirement that undergraduates have research experience, but don't provide the mechanism that any undergraduate that wants to research can do so, you've created a problem.

    I really think that the major research universities like MIT really need to take a leadership role in this and make it easy and possible for pretty much any school to have access to physics research programs. There's quite a lot that can be done with the internet on this. There is a historical parallel in that the high school curriculum that most high schools in the US use today was designed by Harvard in the early 20th century to make sure that they have a pool of undergraduates.

    My concern is that if we don't structure this right, it will turn out to be another gate that divides people with access to education from people that don't.

    It's a very important question.
  6. Nov 11, 2009 #5
    One problem that I see in general is that a lot of the academia forces undergraduates to focus on particular skills rather than having a well-rounded general liberal arts background. People think that a degree is a ticket to a job, and what's been lost is that the point of a degree is to give you the education that you need to figure out what to do with your degree, and that requires humanities and business knowledge.
  7. Nov 11, 2009 #6
    Another problem is that everything will become increasingly more political. It will all be about knowing people. I don't think there is much you can do about that though, I think there are some permanent flaws that can't ever be fixed. Obviously the pros will outweigh the cons considering its probably pretty political already.
  8. Nov 11, 2009 #7
    I think it's pretty political as it is right now. Knowing people is always going to be important. What's important is to make sure that everyone has a good opportunity to know the right people, and that you don't unfairly penalize someone for things that they can't control. One reason that working in student government was useful is that you learn about academic politics.

    If you know someone on the admission committee, the system is set up so that they can't easily pull strings to get you in. What you *do* know if you know someone on an admissions committee is what the committee is looking for, how the committee thinks, and what you have to do to get the stamp of approval.

    That's why I like forums like these, since it makes it easier for people to get that sort of information. Now that poses a problem in that if you have too many qualified people wanting in, it can make life more hellish, but then that means that we just have to have more places.

    I wonder how "politics" became a dirty word? Politics is about people. You can have good politics. You can have bad politics. If you have more than five people in a room, you can't have no politics.
  9. Nov 11, 2009 #8


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    I agree with a lot of what Twofish-Quant has to say here.

    I think what the original poster has identified is essentially a competition problem. With a limited number of graduate positions available it's always the top candidates who get the spots, and having a publication or two as an undergrad certainly increases your competativeness.

    One issue with "requiring" publication is something the graduate admissions committees are already well aware of and that's the fact that getting named on a publication is bimodal. In the vast majority of cases, when undergraduate students are named on publications, it's because they crunched some numbers, made measurements, took data, etc. under the direction and supervision of a professor and/or graduate students. In rare cases they have actually designed the experiment or formulated the ideas themselves.

    So what about a student who comes up with some great, publishable ideas during a senior thesis project, develops the tools for implementing them, but runs out of time to see them to fruition before graduating? How would that compare to a student who plots graphs on a spreadsheet from data collected by others who doesn't understand what the data really means, but gets named on the resulting publication?

    So you can seen then, one potential problem of publication requirements - that students of the second type are rewarded more than students of the first type. And I would argue that this is to the detriment of both the students and the graduate programs admittinng them.

    This is why weight is still placed on reference letters and personal statements.
  10. Nov 11, 2009 #9
    What I *don't* want to see is physics turn into something like MBA's. The good news about physics is that if you have the basic preparation, there are enough spots so that you can get into physics grad school somewhere. The problem with MBA's is that there are very few spots in the top schools, so you end up with horrendous competition.

    At some point internships, research and publications because just a means to get into graduate school and win a prize rather than something worth doing for its own sake. The problem is that if your main focus is to get the committee to like you, you may not end up doing that good research.

    Personally, I think that a big problem is the "winner take all" ethos that society has gotten itself in to.

    Or what about someone like me that didn't do undergraduate research in astrophysics but did a project designing education software. This really did hurt me getting into grad school, but it helped me a lot once I got out.

    This is also a problem not just with undergraduate research, but with tenure track faculty. The problem is that if you are on a deadline, then you aren't going to do any "high risk, high reward" research. You are going to focus on safe, stable things that give you predictable results, and not work on really crazy stuff that probably won't work, but can change the world if it does.

    And then you pull in the "research bias" that graduate schools have. If people get into grad school for undergraduate research, but not for tutoring, then guess what people are going to do.

    And this is why the statement of purpose is so crucial. A committee simply cannot see from the rest of an application what a student did. You got a publication, so what did you do? Or maybe you didn't get a publication but you still did good work. You can use your statement of purpose to explain what you did.
  11. Nov 11, 2009 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    If I had to guess at a trend in grad/professional schools, the tendency has been to look for candidates with (what I call) 'longer and longer track records'. That is, successful applicants decided earlier and earlier in their lives to pursue this particular vocation- research scientist (of any flavor), doctor, etc.

    So that reflects in the increasing length of resumes/CVs.

    I also think this can be taken too far- yes, it's good to have students that are focused and determined. But it's not good to have such a narrow focus so early, especially if one wants to have a *successful* research career (or success in any career at all).

    The reality is, those undergrads with peer-reviewed publications are deluding themselves if they think they have actually performed useful research. That's not to take away any usefulness of the experience.
  12. Nov 11, 2009 #11


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    I agree with what others are saying here as well. When something like undergraduate research and publications becomes a requirement for admission to graduate school, I think that may eliminate opportunities for excellent candidates who have not had that opportunity because 1) the undergraduate college they attended had limited research opportunities, particularly of the quality that would result in a publication, or 2) they, like plenty of other students, didn't start out college knowing precisely what they wanted to do after graduation, or even what major they would do, so found their interest too late to sign up for research projects that would be complete enough to be published by the time grad school applications were done. I think that often, students in this second category can turn out to be better grad students, because they haven't just floated along following a path they decided on in high school, without really considering their options. Instead, they made their decision with more maturity, and often have had to work much harder to catch up on required courses for a new major.

    Having interviewed students for grad programs, I can also confirm what Andy and Choppy are saying. There are a lot of students who have done undergrad research, but basically were hired help to do grunt work as a boost to their resume. When you ask them about their research, they can't explain much to you. In those cases, I actually considered it a point against them on their applications. If you have research experience, and can't talk about it coherently or enthusiastically on an interview, I'd rather take my chances on someone who hasn't yet had research experience than the one I know lacked the intellectual curiosity to take some initiative to really understand the project they were doing as an undergrad.

    Personally, I will only put an undergrad onto a paper as a co-author if they have demonstrated to me they understand the context of the research they helped with and really have had an intellectual contribution. Being a data cruncher without any understanding is not adequate for authorship, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many journals, and only merits an acknowledgement, not an authorship. Unfortunately, not everyone holds up these criteria and puts anyone on a paper as authors.
  13. Nov 11, 2009 #12
    Good post!
    One of my concerns has been undergraduate research. If you look around the net, you'll see one place making it seem like you're dead in the water without a ton of undergraduate research, and then another site making it seem like it's more "icing on the cake" than a necessity.
  14. Nov 12, 2009 #13
    From the outside looking in, it would seem helpful for a university to put an undergraduate's name on a publication if they knew that undergrad would be going to grad school at that same university - since that could be a discriminator for grant or fellowship money correct? Kind of like an investment that would pay the dividend when that student brings in grant or fellowship money to the program.

    Heck if an Undergrad Junior co-authors the dept could see the money the next year from Undergrad grants/etc when the student is a Senior, as he/she would have a "leg up" over other undergrads competing for the same money.

    I'm new in academia politics and am trying to learn. Not trying to be offensive.
  15. Nov 12, 2009 #14
    No it really won't. What is the discriminator for grant or fellowship money is the name of the principal investigator which is why his/her name goes on the paper, even if they've done less real work than the undergraduate. There have been some really embarrassing situations in which the PI signed his name to a paper, which later turned out to have some really serious problems (i.e. someone faked data problems).

    As far as graduate students go to bring in grant or fellowship money, all you need are reasonably intelligent warm bodies. The names on papers don't matter for grant purposes until you are at least a post-doc. It's very much an apprentice system. As a post-doc, your name will start appearing as a junior collaborator on grant proposals, and the prestige of the senior people will start to rub off on you.

    Also what gets you seriously big money is if you are important and well known enough to be lobbying Congress, private funders, and senior administration officials. The real senior people spend a lot of time traveling to Washington. Generally what happens isn't that big name scientist goes to lobby directly for their school. This *can* happen if you have a Congressman on an important committee, but it is a little uncommon.

    What usually happens is that big name scientist goes to Congress to lobby for money for say "spacecraft to do infrared astronomy" knowing that then the money gets cut up, that their university is going to get a share even if big name scientist isn't on the NSF funding panel.

    As a graduate student you aren't going to be directly involved in any of this, but it's cool to watch. One thing that is interesting is that it works a lot like the way Hollywood movies get funded.
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