Undergraduates are needed

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The author with one of his undergraduate researchers at the Undergraduate Research Symposium.

The University of California is a powerhouse of STEM research, whose prestigious faculty harnesses the skills of an army of graduate students and postdocs. Those young scientists are the engines of scientific progress. They build their psyches around the idea that they are the young elite of academia. No one gets to Berkeley without the benefit of research experiences at the undergraduate level.

In spite of this, many graduate students and postdocs with whom I’ve spoken are downright dismissive of the contributions of undergrads in the lab. This has lead to a chilly environment for students seeking to do research at Berkeley, while their peers at schools like Reed and St. Lawrence are literally guaranteed senior research experiences. These other schools understand that even for students not planning to go to graduate school, the experience of working in a real lab is invaluable.

Though UCB has recently improved, adding courses like CHEM-96, the SMART program, and the fourth annual Undergrad Research Symposium, we’re still a decade behind. The reticence on the part of many faculty and graduate students to be part of the solution is antiquated.

During my time at Berkeley, I’ve had the pleasure of working with two undergraduate students. I’m going to tell you the reasons why I recommend that every graduate student do the same.

1. Improved productivity

Perhaps the most persuasive reason to convince any graduate student that they need to mentor an undergraduate student is pragmatic: with more hands, more gets done. The first few weeks of mentoring a new student are rarely productive—for either new graduate students or undergrads. With a bit of training, however, a rapidly improving new scientist is contributing to the lab. Even if undergraduate students have yet to take the courses for a full theoretical understanding of their work, they can still master specific skills. The work in many labs is so specialized that even new postdocs must spend time to learn the techniques. A freshman or sophomore can equal a postdoc in the number of productive years at Berkeley.

2. More communication and presentation

An undergraduate working alongside a graduate student also means more opportunities to present that science to others: more posters, more publications, and more lines on the CV. In the hypercompetitive world of academia, those add up quickly. I can think of a particular graduate student who had her name on eight posters at a single American Chemical Society meeting. All of those accomplishments (see #1) really take on meaning, for both mentor and student, once they have been presented to scientific peers.

3. Responsibility to the next generation

As I alluded to earlier, any graduate student at Berkeley arrived here because they benefited from research experiences with graduate students. As successful graduate students, we have an ethical obligation to provide for future graduate students the same excellent experiences that led us here.

4. Learning science by teaching science

I explained previously that undergraduates are brought up to speed in research by being mentored. In teaching a student, we have much to learn ourselves. The knowledge we accrue in school has no value if we cannot explain it to others—in part by learning to develop simpler explanations of complex phenomena. The daily life of a graduate student offers few opportunities to practice—unless that daily life includes an undergrad.

5. Management skills

Finally, and perhaps most critically, are the leadership skills that we learn from working with undergraduates. Graduate students come to Berkeley because they seek careers as professors and project leaders and policy makers—jobs that require management skills. Many Berkeley professors spend the majority of their time doing work described as “management.” In spite of this, we graduate students are offered almost no opportunities to development skills as managers ourselves. But with an undergraduate student, pick up the ability to guide and lead fellow scientists—and just as importantly, how to avoid micromanaging.

As I reach the edge of graduation and the end of my time at Berkeley, there’s one thing I know for certain: I could never have reached as far, or accomplished my work so quickly, if not for the help of my students. Even the worst day in grad school is improved by the unique perspective they bring to lab.

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2 comments

  1. Ben Caplins

    I agree with the latter three points, and would doubt that most post docs and/or graduate students would argue against them. I was unaware however that “more lines on the CV” was supposed to be a motivating factor. And I was also unaware that ACS posters were a form of academic currency. I guess I’ve been doing science wrong for the past 7 years.

  2. Eric Muller

    This article appears to be a gross misrepresentation of scientific culture and especially scientific culture at Berkeley. A few thoughts in no particular order:

    1) I can think of quite a number of successful undergraduate research experiences that I have personally observed at Berkeley. What makes you think that the majority of graduate students and post-docs dislike working with undergraduates?

    2) This article seems to demean undergraduate research as a tool to add lines to a CV. A more important question to address might be: how does this “experience” help undergraduates become better researchers?

    3) A peer-reviewed publication or well thought out thesis is a better goal for undergraduates than a poster.

    4) Presenting eight posters at a conference is not more helpful to learning than presenting one poster (and multiple 3rd and 4th author posters do not belong on a CV). If an undergraduate were to present a poster, the larger benefit (in my opinion) is to have the opportunity to attend a conference and to get a greater feel for the broader scientific community.

    5) Does undergraduate research prepare students for a job who are not planning to continue with the PHD? Would an industry research experience be better? This topic should be addressed.

    6) I’m curious about the micromanagement. Is this a major issue? How do you define the line between micromanagement and providing useful guidance? What strategies do you have for good management?