Friday, May 21, 2010

Research Opportunity Paradox

Many universities have summer internship programs for undergraduates from their own institutions and/or other institutions. In recent months I have read/heard the following from various people with varying levels of power over and knowledge about these programs:
  • Professors at small colleges care about their students and therefore, lacking grad students, involve undergrads in research. Since there are more research opportunities for undergraduates at small colleges, students from large universities should be given priority in these summer internship programs.
  • Professors at large universities typically involve undergraduates in their research. Since there are more research opportunities for undergraduates at large universities, students from small colleges should be given priority in these summer internship programs.
These statements are not as contradictory as they may seem and are therefore meaningless because each institution -- not type of institution, but each institution -- is different in whether there are opportunities for undergraduate research experiences. Each institution differs in whether a research experience is something that requires great effort to arrange or whether all students are expected to participate in some form of research and therefore there is a system in place to encourage this.

It is not possible to make a general statement like the ones above about small colleges vs. research institutions. You would need to specify institutions and disciplines.

When making decisions about applicants to an internship program with which I have been associated, we do not differentiate between students from small colleges and research universities. We look to see what courses they have taken, how they did, what they say about their interests, and whether someone at their home institution thinks they would benefit from a research experience. We do not expect students to arrive with research experience; we expect to provide them with a research experience.

Without even trying, we end up with a good mix of students from different types of institutions (small/large, public/private, prestigious/not), a gender ratio that matches the applicant pool (typically there are more female applicants than male), and a % of minority students that is low but nevertheless slightly higher than their representation in the student population as a whole.

What's not to like about these results? Apparently our program is not reaching the "right" students. We are apparently supposed to reach out and recruit students who do not otherwise have access to research experiences.

That's where the contradictory statements above come in because different people have different opinions about where the students-lacking-research-experiences are: Are they at small colleges or at large research universities? [Students from 2-year colleges have participated in our program, but most of our applicants are from 4+-year institutions.]

Of course they are at both types of institutions. Should our summer program really check to see whether the internship we offer would be the student's only chance at research? Should we institute a check-box on the application to ask students to promise that they are woefully isolated from all possibilities of other research experiences? Should we compile a list of those institutions that do a particularly bad job of providing research experiences for their own undergraduates and give preference to applicants from those schools?

I understand the importance of research experiences for students who want to continue in Science after they graduate, but, other than helping provide just such an experience for some students, I am not sure we can do more than seek out motivated and talented students who want to do an internship in our department, at our university, no matter where their academic home is.


Anonymous said...

surely if you advertise widely and are getting an appropriate applicant pool, all you can do is select the best candidates who apply. I don't think 'affirmative action' towards one particular type of institution can help here, especially if no one agrees who needs the help.

Anonymous said...

For me, as an undergraduate with ample research experience but not in the subfield I want to pursue for graduate school, summer programs at institutions with strength in that subfield are invaluable. Thus it's not just the availability of research at my home institution, but also the availability of research in that subfield

STP said...

As a professor at a SLAC, I'll tell you what our department's position is: we can provide research experiences for students, but think that students interested in grad school need to go to a research institution to see what a "real" research environment is like. Thus, we are happy to recruit students to work on projects with us, and are happy to have pre-health professions students stick with us for the summer. But any student that thinks grad school is in their future, we have apply for REU and other summer programs at large institutions. This benefits them in multiple ways: 1) they get to see what a large research group is like and interact with grad students and post docs; 2) they will hopefully be able to get grad school letters of rec from the PI they work with (may carry more weight than what we do since we are from a school that is not well known); and 3) they will be exposed to a wider variety of research in biology, since our department is fairly small.

I don't think our students deserve priority in being selected for summer research experiences, but we think it's a valuable experience for them.

Amy said...

To make things more complicated, our university tries to bring in summer students who may ultimately end up joining our graduate programs. Try defining that. We have a good program, but we're top 25 and a summer research experience with us is likely to make students more competitive for a top 10 graduate school. We get many great applicants for our summer programs, but my crystal ball is not able to tell me which will actually come back as grad students.

Female Genetics Professor said...

I am at a BigPublicU with lots of research opportunities during the school year for undergrads. We have an NSF-funded program for summer REUs in biological sciences, specifically targeted to students from schools, small or large, with few research opportunities. If we didn't target those students, we would lose the funding! We can make a few exceptions for outstanding applicants of other types. Perhaps that is also FSP's situation?

Alex said...

It does seem to me that the stronger case is the case for students from primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) rather than research universities. However, I'd need to see data to go from offering a hunch on a blog to actually criticizing your program in a formal setting and making formal recommendations.

Moreover, there are exceptions, and this is one of the places where we see a common pathology of academic culture: The desire to be absolutely fair to everyone in every case means that people will zero in on anecdotes. So if they notice a good small college with a very strong tradition of mentoring undergraduate research, and a large university where some students get lost in the shuffle, that leads them to say that you should favor the BigU students over the kids privileged enough to attend those expensive small liberal arts colleges, never mind whether there's evidence suggesting that you should systematically favor one school type or another. Conversely, if they see a well-funded lab at a big university with a mentor who takes in lots of undergrads, and they know this one person from grad school who teaches at a small college and finds it hard to do research, well, there you go.

I don't know what the data says, but I would say that to the extent that you want to have a preference you should base it on data, while leaving enough flexibility to accommodate good students whose experiences run counter to the overall national trends.

Doctor Pion said...

I'm not picking on "Alex", but I'll bet good money that the people with "varying levels of power" over these kinds of programs also "don't know what the data says"! A simple test might be to ask them for a list of institutions where fewer than half of the undergrads in Science participate in a (paid?) research experience at their home school, so you can focus on applicants from those schools. I'll bet they don't even have a histogram of the number of schools of each type where X% have done real research. Even then, a few hours of work-study time during a regular semester does not compare to solid weeks during the summer.

My suggestion is to include "opportunities for research in This Area of Science" in your writing prompt for the letter of recommendation.

I'll also comment that you cannot imagine how valuable the special 2-year college program run by the DOE has been to some of my students. Life changing.

Alex said...

Further complications:

1) The divide in academia is not just "small colleges" (usually private) vs. big research universities. In between those are the large (usually public) universities that have mostly undergraduates, perhaps a few Masters students, and few/no Ph.D. students. These schools are different from, say, highly elite SLACs with big endowments and substantial research expectations in their hiring and tenure policies. (And note that not every SLAC fits that description.) So whether or not the school can offer research opportunities to its students depends on a lot more than just size and category.

2) A student isn't always better off going off-campus for the summer, even if the other lab is bigger and better-funded. Yes, yes, every REU site and related program has stories of summer students publishing papers, and those students are well-photographed. Most students, however, need most of the summer just to really get up to speed before they can contribute something. A lot of those posters are "What I learned this summer" rather than "What I contributed to science."

If you stay at your home institution, spend a summer getting up to speed, then continue to make at least some progress on the project during the school year, in the second summer of the project you can really dive in and do something. That approach, even in a less elite lab, is more likely to lead to a paper than a summer spent learning techniques and running simple experiments for somebody else in a lab that you will leave after 8-10 weeks.

Female Science Professor said...

A benefit for students of going to another institution for a summer research experience is that they potentially have someone else to write a detailed letter of recommendation if they later need that for graduate school/job applications.

GMP said...

I have to agree with Alex.
I think successful REUs are also about finding the right fit; I am much happier recruiting local undergrads whom I've had in my classes to work over the summer with me than I've been with external REU recruits. I can use NSF REU supplement money for that on my existing grants. I feel that, since REU sites are managed separately, in my experience you have a very limited pool of applicants, and I am not sure I like how the applications are solicited (i.e. who gets targeted, also the material that is requested of applicants does not help me judge how good of a match they would be).

As I said, I have had much better luck with undergrads recruited locally from my BigU after we got to know each other in class. These have been very successful joint endeavors that led to student coauthorship of papers.

I think a successful and focused REU, after which the advisor can really write a detailed letter of support, is a great plus on the student's resume, even if from the student's home institution. It's better than a generic letter from another institution.

Bagelsan said...

Most students, however, need most of the summer just to really get up to speed before they can contribute something. A lot of those posters are "What I learned this summer" rather than "What I contributed to science."

Isn't learning something "contribut[ing] to science" though? God knows I'd barely done anything in the lab before my summer research experience -- my small school didn't even offer an immunology *class* let alone a lab! -- but my learning curve was very steep, I actually managed to get useful data, and it's been a huge help in grad school (where I expect the actual contributions to science will begin.) So I don't really see that as a downside at all.

Anonymous said...

I am a faculty member at a PUI. Most of the faculty in my college (sciences) are research active, and in my department all majors are required to do a research project. There is definitely good research going on at my institution, but the atmosphere is very different from the research labs and "R1" universities where I did my REU and grad work. Since these are the places where students would continue on to grad school and potentially post-docs, I strongly encourage my students to apply for REUs at larger universities to see these places "in action".

Bonnie said...

The divide is not between small liberal arts colleges vs large research universities. The divide is really between schools that require faculty to be involved in research, vs wholly teaching-oriented schools. A top SLAC (think Amherst, Bates, Wellesley) is pretty comparable to a top research university in terms of providing undergrads with access to faculty doing research. The undergrads who really have no access are the ones at schools like "Southeastern State University", or "Such-and-such County Community College". Schools like this will typically have almost no faculty doing any kind of research, and often will have faculty teaching outside of their area(in my field, computer science, this is very true). You may find that this type of school has a heavy minority enrollment. If you target schools like these, you will be getting students who really *need* the research experience.

Female Science Professor said...

I semi-disagree. I have encountered SLAC students who have done research with professors at their SLAC and who then arrive at a BigU for grad school with no clue how to do research in this setting, almost as if they had no previous research experience. That's fine -- that's what grad advisers are supposed to teach -- and it is not true of all SLAC research projects, but see the third comment on this post (from STP) for a clear statement about the divide between SLACs and BigUs in this respect.

Bonnie said...

OK, students at SLACs might not have access to large groups of grad students and post docs, but they still are not *completely* shut out of the process the way the kids at Southeastern State U are shut out. Those kids often have never seen even a faculty member do research, and have never heard of publications or grants. These are also more likely to be kids from poor families, often the first in their family to go to college. These are the kids who *need* the access to researchers.

Bagelsan said...

I have encountered SLAC students who have done research with professors at their SLAC and who then arrive at a BigU for grad school with no clue how to do research in this setting, almost as if they had no previous research experience.

This is my deal. I went to a SLAC and did "research" there (~5 hrs/wk for one year...we got 1 entire rat a week to use... :p) and I also did a short summer internship at an Ivy League. Basically *all* of my (minimal) pre-grad-school research experience is from that internship; half the time I open my mouth around my current lab it involves the phrase "during my summer internship" because it was my *only* experience with a lot of the lab techniques, etc. that I now use.

And it was a truly wonderful experience: the first week included my boss showing me how to use sterile technique and handle mice for the first time ever, and my tenth and final week featured me presenting actual interesting *novel* histology/FACS/ELISA data to the lab (to the point where the head honcho [big name scientist] actually sat up and started asking about the results.)

It was literally invaluable to me, even though on paper I was a very privileged student, because my undergrad had nowhere near that kind of research opportunity.