Sunday, January 27, 2013

Structuring undergraduate research experience

One feature that is lacking in the UK and Ireland (and probably across Europe) is the presence of well-structured, paid undergraduate research internships at universites. I wrote a short briefing note on this a few years ago as part of background work for a study with the Irish Universities Association. It is clear that existing studies find a strong link between partaking in research internships and a range of positive student outcomes though there is much work to be conducted to establish precise causality. Furthermore, internships are generally good experiences for both the student and the research group they are placed into. As noted by many, the present system is largely based around unpaid internships which clearly is biased toward candidates without the need to use their summers to finance their study (see e.g. Guardian article, Ben Goldacre). This might have effects in terms of the type of people who break through into academic and other research posts.

There are some alternatives to the full summer internship model. For example, many research groups offer students the chance to gain research experience by helping out in the process of rolling out studies. These are generally structured timetabled unpaid jobs conducted during term and allow students to gain similar experience to a summer internship. They may also have an advantage over a summer internship if the main investigators spend significant times away during the summer. Though, a similar socio-economic skew potentially arises if such experience is not credit-bearing and students are working part-time. Another alternative (or perhaps more a complement) is a full research thesis. There is variation across degrees and universities on the nature and extent of research conducted as part of the degree requirements. A properly supervised undergraduate research dissertation would have many similar features to a research internship.

Another major alternative is to have competitive paid summer internship positions. Some research groups and universities do this on an ad hoc basis. On top of that, the possibility of centrally funded internship competitions is one that should be explored more fully. In the Irish case, the HRB runs a summer research internship funding competition (see also the SFI undergraduate scheme). Possibly the largest programme of its kind in the world is the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates that funds students to take on paid summer-long internships across the American academic system. An extended and sustained national programme of that nature in the UK or Ireland would have a number of advantages including: development of solid structure on the internship process; meritocratic entry to internship posts; early identification of top researchers at undergraduate level; knowledge-sharing across internship sites; showcasing both research labs and talented undergraduates; range of transferable skills built up by the intern group; and many other potential benefits. Any such scheme would need, at the very least, a process evaluation and an element of tracking the experiences of interns and labs. A more ambitious model could even attempt to examine causal impacts of offers of paid internship on later student outcomes. The studies to date are very promising but none, to my knowledge, puts a hard causal estimate on the effects.

The cost of the scheme depends on the extent of payment provided to the interns and the extent to which facilities need to be provided. Libraries are obviously a lot quieter during the summer and this is one potential way to host students, who can then participate in research group meetings and so on as normal. Any model of this nature would require good-will on behalf of the funders and host sites in terms of how costing modesl are employed and it is probably best if the scheme requires research groups to apply to opt-in rather than it being seen as an obligation. Some research groups can host people at all levels as part of its natural organisation. For others, it would be pointless at best or a drain on resources and time and a bad experience for the intern at worst. The research groups themselves are probably in the best position to know this ex ante. In terms of funding, given the meritocratic entry, the clear potential benefits to development of science and related benefits, it is clearly something that philanthropic agencies interested in funding higher education should consider.

I would be interested in hearing people's thoughts on this and feel free to email. Having worked between psychology, economics and public health over the last 10 years, I have seen many models of providing environments for undergraduate research experience. Some of my favourite teaching experiences have involved final year research projects and presentations and I have also found the paid summer internship model a very good experience for everyone concerned. A lot of the current debate is centering around the potentially exploitative nature of unpaid internship models and their potential to exacerbate educational inequalities. This is fair enough but the potential of these models to provide deep-level experience for the students with the highest research potential shouldn't be lost in the argument.

Reference list from original briefing: 

Alexander, B. B., Foertsch, J., & Daffinrud, S. (1998).  The Spend a Summer with a Scientist Program: An evaluation of program outcomes and the essential elements for success.  Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison. Spend a Summer with a Scientist Program website:

Bauer, K. W. (2001).  The effect of participation in undergraduate research on critical thinking and reflective judgement.  AIR 2001 Annual Forum Paper. 

Hathaway, R. S., Nagda, B. A., & Gregerman, S. R. (2002).  The relationship of undergraduate research participation to graduate and professional education pursuit: an empirical study.  Journal of College Student Development, 43(5) 614-31.  UROP website:

Hunter, A. B., Laursen, S. L., Seymour, E. (2006).  Becoming a scientist: the role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal, and professional development.  Science Education, 91, 36-74. 

Kardash, C. M. (2000).  Evaluation of an undergraduate research experience: perceptions of undergraduate interns and their faculty mentors.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(1) 191-201. 

Katkin, W. (2003).  The Boyer Commission Report and its impact on undergraduate research.  New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 93, 19-38. 

Kremer, J. F., Bringle, R. G. (1990).  The effects of an intensive research experience on the careers of talented undergraduates.  Journal of Research and Development in Education, 24(1) 1-5. 

Landrum, R. E., Nelson, L. R. (2002).  The undergraduate research assistantship: an analysis of the benefits.  Teaching of Psychology, 29(1) 15-19. 

Lopatto, D. (2003).  The essential features of undergraduate research.  Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 23(2) 139-142. 
Lopatto, D. (2004).  Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE): first findings.  Cell Biology Education, 3, 270-277. 

Lopatto, D. (2006).  Undergraduate research as a catalyst for liberal learning.  Peer Review, 8(1) 22-25. 

Nagda, B. A., Gregerman, R. S., Jonides, J., Von Hippel, W., & Lerner, J. S. (1998).  Undergraduate student-faculty research partnerships affect student retention.  The Review of Higher Education, 22(1) 55-72.  UROP website:

Ruekert, (2006).  Council on Undergraduate Research biennial meeting.  Powerpoint presentation retrieved 20th July 2007 from:

Russell, S. (2006).  Evaluation of NSF support for undergraduate research opportunities: Draft Synthesis Report.  SRI International. 

Ryder, J., Leach, J., & Driver, R. (1999).  Undergraduate science students’ images of science, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(2) 201-219. 

Seymour, E., Barrie-Hunter, A., Laursen, S. L., & Deantoni, T. (2004).  Establishing the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates in the sciences: first findings from a three-year study.  Science Education, 88(4) 493-534.  

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