Wednesday, April 13, 2011


At some universities, undergraduates are involved in research, are included in research group activities, and interact closely with graduate students; i.e., not just in labs or classes with graduate TAs, but in a research context. At these universities, some undergraduates routinely attend department seminars and may participate in professional conferences. At other universities, the undergraduate and graduate populations are more separate, and mix only in labs or classes in which there is a graduate instructor. At these universities, undergraduates don't tend to be as connected to the research activities of the department.

Of course, even in a department in which the overall culture involves separation of grads and undergrads, individual research groups can adopt their own philosophy, but it is easier to integrate grads and undergrads in research activities if there is a culture of interaction, in part because there may be more opportunities, e.g., internship programs and such.

If, as is the case at most universities (I think), there are talented and motivated graduate and undergraduate students, there can be many opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions. I have been fortunate to be associated with a number of such universities.

If, however, there is a discrepancy between the undergraduate and graduate programs in terms of "quality" (a vague term, I know) or attention and resources focused on one program vs. another, opportunities are missed and there may be tensions between various groups within the department. I was recently thinking of one such example of a place with a discrepancy between grad/undergrad programs; hence, this post.

Comparison of the "rank" of a university and its constituent graduate programs reveals numerous examples in which there is a mismatch between the university's overall reputation and that of individual programs. In my own field, although excellent graduate and undergraduate programs commonly coexist at the same institution, it's not difficult to think of prestigious universities with unimpressive graduate programs, and non-prestigious universities with excellent graduate programs.

When I serve on a committee that evaluates some aspects of one of the engineering departments at my university, I commonly see letters from faculty at a particular university from which it would be unthinkable to solicit a letter in my own field. If you believe that any of the various rating schemes mean anything, I am sure you can find a number of such examples by comparing university-as-a-whole rankings vs. doctoral program rankings for particular fields.

These mismatches can create stressful situations, such as in undergraduate labs taught by graduate TAs or in research groups that have both graduate and undergraduate researchers.

Two mismatch scenarios are:

1. The undergraduate program is much stronger than the graduate program in the same department. During my brief association with one such department, there were occasional problems in mid/upper level undergraduate classes when a graduate TA did not have the intellectual ability or authority to make the undergrads feel they were learning anything worthwhile. This transcended teaching ability (or lack thereof) of the TA. For example, in a number of labs, highly motivated and intelligent undergrads were "taught" by a graduate student who would be unlikely to get an A in the course if they were taking it as a student. This was very frustrating for the undergraduates, and I am sure the grad TAs did not feel good about the situation either.

2. The graduate program is significantly stronger than the undergraduate program in the same department. In such programs, graduate students, when they TA, may be contemptuous of the intellectually inferior beings who populate the undergraduate lab courses, creating an unfortunate climate of mutual dislike that is not conducive for learning. Of course there is always the potential for there to be unmotivated students in any class at any level, but if such students dominate the courses for majors, the collision of unmotivated majors with highly focused graduate students (who are also likely to be inexperienced teachers) can be severely unpleasant for all concerned.

I think that departments can overcome these mismatches by promoting an atmosphere of respect at all levels of teaching and learning, by helping TAs become effective teachers, by emphasizing that good teaching is a priority (no matter how brilliant you are at research), and by finding creative ways to integrate graduate and undergraduate programs so as to maximize constructive interactions.

So, how well matched do you think the graduate and undergraduate programs are at your institution (or at places with which you've been associated in the past)? In addition to your assessment of this, an important piece of information is whether you are an undergrad, grad, postdoc, professor, other.


Anonymous said...

I'm a life science undergrad at a Canadian research university, where I'd say the undergrad and grad programs are well matched. As a fourth year student in an honours program, I feel about on par with a first or second year graduate student in my field.

Anonymous said...

Going anonymous for this one, to protect the identities of the students in question:

Our undergrads are substantially better than most of our grad students. Most of the grad students have outside jobs rather than TA positions, so we don't see a lot of classroom conflicts. However, when I see interesting research coming out of my school, it's more likely that the students involved are undergrads rather than grads. I've had one MS student and my best undergrad had to explain things to him. That will be my last MS student, unless my best undergrad decides to hang around for an MS. (I tried to persuade him to leave for a PhD, but he's being stubborn.)

I'm told by colleagues at certain PhD-granting schools, including some fancy private schools with excellent overall reputations, that this phenomenon is a common one: Their senior thesis students are smarter and more fun to work with than many of their PhD students.

On the other hand, I was a grad student at a big state party school that is famous in our field but was otherwise unremarkable. It was generally agreed by the grad students that the undergrads in our department were smart and worthy of our respect, but the masses in our intro classes were just evidence that "kids these days are going to hell in a handbasket."

Anonymous said...

Do you really think that 'intellectually inferior beings' is an appropriate description of undergrads in your case 2 scenario? I found it very strange to read this on a blog which frequently addresses gender issues, many of which are due to inappropriate ways of (men) expressing themselves. Apart from that, I also think that grad students who would act like that are unlikely to become good PIs since they would probably lack some very important social skills.

EngineeringProf said...

Our undergrad and grad programs are well-matched (both are top-10 programs in the country, probably), but I don't think undergrad research works out that well.

I've spent a lot of time with a lot of undergrad researchers, and I try hard to incorporate them in my group's work. However, it is rare to find an undergraduate who works out as a researcher. Most undergraduates don't have the creativity or drive or background skills needed to make any noticeable progress on research. Of the remaining undergrads, many are so busy with coursework that they have only modest time for research.

I've come to the viewpoint that including undergraduates in your research program is a nice public service, but one should expect that in most cases it will not be very successful (from the point of view of research accomplishments). Perhaps this is obvious.

Given this, I can totally understand why many of my colleagues are reluctant to involve undergrads in their research -- regardless of the relative strengths of their grad/undergrad programs.

Anonymous said...

My current institution (at which I am wrapping up my Ph.D.) has a much higher reputation for it's undergraduate college than graduate school. This leads to many a snide remark from the entitled mostly upperclass undergraduates as to the intellect of the graduate students.

We have mostly international graduate students that are among the very best in their countries but many undergraduates are too closed-minded to consider this possibility and assume that the language barrier is indicative of intellect. The small proportion of domestic students that end up here were either (as it seems to me): stellar undergraduates in mediocre undergraduate institutions, mediocre undergraduates unsure about ultimate career goals, people who worked in industry for a while before coming back to grad school, or stellar undergrads who are here for specific PIs or because of two-body/family issues. Once the undergraduates get to know some graduate students they realize that while most of us didn't attend a prestigious undergraduate institution that doesn't mean that we are all total idiots.

I think that at my current institution most of the tension between graduate students and undergraduates (this is only really found in courses in which there are both and courses in which graduate students are TAs for undergraduates) could be resolved if the graduate students viewed the undergraduates less as entitled and privileged underlings and the undergraduates didn't assume all people who don't attend Householdname undergraduate institution aren't totally useless.

Also while (mostly nonpre-med) undergrads are very involved in research it is EXCEEDINGLY rare to see them at departmental seminars. Then again, it's pretty rare to find faculty and grad students as well.

Neuronymous said...

Maybe I'm biased, as a grad student, but I think our graduate program has a better reputation than our undergraduate program. This leads to some frustration in my lab. My advisor will "assign" his graduate student researchers to individually mentor an undergraduate that he has chosen at random, without much thought to the personality of the two students. There are many bright undergraduates at the university who are intelligent, helpful, and interested in the research, but they really need to be weeded out from the students who are unreliable, uninterested (in anything besides easy credit), and generally unmotivated.

My point is that even at "mismatched" universities, there is potential for good grad-undergrad relationships, but some care needs to be taken in choosing who is matched up. If, in our situation, many of the undergraduates lack the skills needed to succeed in a research lab, the advisor (or whoever is choosing the RA) needs to interview the student and figure out if he/she is a good fit. I suppose the opposite is true of an undergraduate-heavy university; only capable graduate students should be allowed to mentor an undergraduate. Otherwise, a clearly mismatched grad-undergrad relationship is frustrating to both parties.

Anonymous said...

@anon 2:07:00 AM

"I also think that grad students who would act like that are unlikely to become good PIs since they would probably lack some very important social skills."

Unfortunately, this isn't the case here. Not only do many Grad TA's routinely make fun of the undergrad students here, but the faculty teaching the courses do as well.

These faculty/students with chips on their shoulders like to think we are a clear case 2 (grad program >> undergrads), whereas I actually think that the undergrad teaching just sucks - the students are actually smart and motivated if the faculty took a few minutes to teach them as well as they themselves were taught.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 1:09 AM
"On the other hand, I was a grad student at a big state party school that is famous in our field but was otherwise unremarkable. It was generally agreed by the grad students that the undergrads in our department were smart and worthy of our respect, but the masses in our intro classes were just evidence that "kids these days are going to hell in a handbasket.""

Haha... I'm a grad student at a similar school and I feel the exact same way.

@Anonymous 2:07 AM
"I also think that grad students who would act like that are unlikely to become good PIs since they would probably lack some very important social skills."

Maybe I'm using a different definition of "good," but I'm pretty sure I've met some "good" (as in apparently successful) PIs that definitely lack important social skills...

Anonymous said...

I am in a #1. Our best undergraduates are light years ahead of our best graduate students, but most of the former are focused on med school and do not get involved in research on our main campus. When I do take on one of these hotshot undergrads in the lab, it can definitely lead to some tensions with the grad students. For me, it is a demoralizing that I am investing so much more time, resources, and energy into the (grad) students who seem less motivated and maybe less cut out for a career in research. But that is how our system is set up, for now.

I was trained in a top program for both undergrads and grads that was private and expensive, but there was still some serious tension. All the undergrads had parents who paid thousands in tuition, and all the grads had a free ride. I remember hearing undergrads describe us grads as a bunch of freeloading leaches. We of course were contemptuous of the undergraduates for different reasons.

Stephanie said...

At my graduate school, I've only met a few undergrad majors, just because they happened to go into the major from an intro class. Most of the TA-ships are for intro classes and we don't seem to have much grad-undergrad interaction outside of that.

On the other hand, at my undergrad Uni we had more interactions, with grad TA's for even the classes for majors and with many undergrads attending the colloquia. I think that would be nice, but my current dept. is much bigger so it's harder to have that type of atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interesting topic. I am a tenured faculty member at a state flagship R1, which as an institution is ranked among the top public R1's. In my department, we have a decent balance between the grad and undergrad abilities -- the undergrads are excellent, maybe just a little better on average than the grads. In my field, grads usually only TA the introductory courses, so there's not a big problem with the non-majors knowing more than the TA.

But it's an interesting issue. There was definitely a lot more despair and condescension toward the non-majors' ignorance at my graduate institution where the disparity between the grads (talented) and undergrads (untalented) was huge. I appreciate your message that the educator's role is to teach, and that where the need is greatest, the impact can also be greatest.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

My undergrad, and current post doc positions are at similar schools where the match is good enough that many grads/faculty have the luxury of walking into classes knowing that they may be teaching their future colleagues. (In fact, I now work with a previous professor of mine).

At my graduate institution, though well ranked, did not have a strong undergraduate major. But because of the strength of the school in general, there were plenty of good students to be found if one wanted to set up collaborations. The problem in this particular case, though, was that the undergrads, who had never really been challenged in their major, didn't know the limits of their knowledge. While I admire this self confidence, I have seen many graduate students come to a rude awakening in graduate school that they are not the best in their field, that they have to work very hard to succeed, and quit (both male and female). I wonder how well these students, and the field are being served.

Anonymous said...

I'm anon from 1:09am

"Haha... I'm a grad student at a similar school and I feel the exact same way."

Anon at 9:23am-

Would you by any chance be studying at a school whose acronym reads "U Can Study Buzzed"?

Anonymous said...

I suppose I have seen mismatches, but it's complicated.

At one university the graduate program was strong, the undergrad program was mixed. Many undergrads used the department as a "I just want to graduate" major. Though a subset seemed to be quite good. It wasn't an issue of resources, so much as the graduate program being smaller and exclusive, whereas the undergrad program took most (but not all) comers. The undergrad program had a much wider variety of students.

The department toyed with the idea of offering separate bachelors level degrees to basically separate the students into tracks. I supported the idea, but it hasn't happened.

Anonymous said...

I am in fancy private school with excellent overall reputation.

I am in two departments. In one, the grad students are pretty good, and the undergrads may be good too but are not quantitative enough to work in my field (an earth science area where we actually want people with undergrad degrees in physics/math/engineering to do grad work, generally speaking). In the other, undergrads are probably better overall than grads - at least in the market-based sense that if anyone in the top half of the class were to apply here for grad school we would admit them all and most of them probably wouldn't come but would go to our competition.

But in either dept it is indeed the case that working with undergrads in research is mostly a public service; they're just not ready (and/or can't commit enough time) to make real progress, in most cases. On the other hand some fraction of them is spectacular and I have published papers with a couple of them as first authors.

Female Science Professor said...

Someone asked me by e-mail about how to 'set up a system to attract and pay good undergraduates'. This may vary by discipline and region, but a small-scale approach is to include undergrads as a budget item in proposals (I do this routinely) and then advertise or select excellent students from classes. If an excellent student comes along after an NSF grant is underway (and there is no budget item to pay the student), you can request a supplement to the grant. Once you start working with undergrads, the next generation to come along sees the great experiences their more senior peers are having, and it can be easy to keep a steady stream of excellent students interested in working with you or your research group. A more systematic way is to write a proposal for an NSF REU site and work with talented undergrads during the summer. I have done all of these, and all have challenges and benefits. Again, I don't know about other options beyond my own experiences with NSF, but perhaps readers can provide additional information.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 1:09 am- I'm not anon at 9:23 am, but was a grad student at "U Can Study Buzzed" and would generally agree with your assessment. We had lots of excellent undergraduates work in our lab, and many of them ended up authoring papers and going on to very good graduate programs. On the other hand, I wasn't very impressed by many of the students in classes I TA'd, and I think any large state school will see a similarly large range of abilities. Most of the undergrads in our lab worked for course credit during the academic year, but got paid in the summer by REU supplements from NSF or one of the various internship programs on campus (these were mostly focused on underrepresented groups).

Anonymous said...

I am at a top-100 research university that has an unusual grad/undergrad ratio (about 10 times as many undergrads as grads). This means that research groups often involve many undergrads. The top undergrads are about as good as the top grads. The bottom undergrads would never get admitted to grad school here (or, I hope, anywhere).

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about rankings on the undergrad side, but in the program where I'm a first-year grad student, it's clear that the best undergrads are far superior to the worst and even the not-quite-worst grad students. Our undergrads often get into far better graduate schools than ours. But I haven't observed that this leads to any particular conflicts. Our grad students only teach 100/200-level classes, for one thing.

Ψ*Ψ said...

At my undergrad institution, I had classes with a lot of the TAs for my upper-division labs. We were good friends (though this is not reflected in my grades). This is a large part of the reason I'm in grad school now--there are no advanced degrees and very, very few bachelor's degrees in my family, so I would have never considered a PhD without these valuable interactions. The research experience was amazing: I was not assigned to a grad student but given my own projects.

I am at the same institution mentioned by several anonymous commenters, and in general I agree with their assessment. There are exceptions, though. My research lab has seen some FANTASTIC undergrads. It helps if you don't have to work with the entitled whiny premeds. (Some of the premeds I TA'd were very bright and generally awesome to teach, though.)

CSgrad said...

I've been in three departments - my undergrad department, my non-degree-student department, and my MS department.

My undergrad school is top 10 and most of its grad programs are top 10 or at least top 20 in their respective fields. So, things were mostly well-matched, but there was a definite difference between the grads who had been undergrads at this place and the grads who had come from elsewhere. The inbred-grads struggled less academically as a group, related better to the undergrads, and were (as one would expect) more at ease on the campus and in campus social scenes. They didn't experience "I'm not the best in my field!" shock (since they went through it as undergrads), which the grads from elsewhere often did.

At my non-degree-student school, the undergrad college outranked the grad program, but the grad program is on the rise and does quite well in certain subfields. So, whatever academic mismatch there was is declining.

At my MS school, the grads and undergrads are pretty well-matched academically, but the most of the grads are international students and most of the undergrads are domestic - a lot of them grew up in the area - which leads to cultural clashes and people not relating to each other.

Anonymous said...

Like anonymous 4/13 12:22, I am a tenured faculty member in at a well regarded state institution. Our grad students are generally very good, also our undergrads. The best of our undergrads are among the best in the world. In our department (one of the physical sciences), undergrads show up for our weekly colloquia, are generally well-integrated into our research program, often present their work at conferences and write papers. Exceptions exist, but overall I think very good relations among undergrad, grad student and even many of the staff (postdoctoral) researchers. Friday afternoon happy hour helps.