By Jon Fink, PSU’s Vice President for Research and Strategic Partnerships
For many undergraduates, research is a mystery. Students have heard that gaining research experience is a good résumé-builder, but they don’t know how to arrange to obtain that experience, or more importantly, if it’s something they’ll even enjoy.
I recently had a chance to discuss undergraduate research on VoiceAmerica, an online radio program that mainly deals with college admissions. You can hear the 15-minute interview here. Ian Fisher, an alumnus and former admissions officer at Reed College, conducted the interview.
Fisher begins with the question, “What is undergraduate research?”
Research can be lots of things but, in essence, it is an organized way to solve puzzles in the world, either in nature, for the “hard” sciences and engineering, or in culture, for the humanities and social sciences.
Research offers a special kind of educational experience rooted in discovery; a vehicle for creative expression not unlike painting, music, and poetry, at once exhilarating and frustrating.
Research can also become a professional livelihood, providing personal identity, camaraderie, a paycheck, and a satisfying way to contribute to society.
Finally, it’s one of the main ways universities connect with commerce. Students working on industry-supported research often find a shortcut to a job.
“Is it easier for undergrads to do research at a small liberal arts college like Reed, or at a research university like PSU?”
Both types of school offer advantages. At a liberal arts college, like the one where I studied geology, students can receive more personal guidance from a faculty member, and may work with a small team of undergrads. On the other hand, the range of topics available may be more limited, and the equipment might not be the most modern.
In a research university, undergraduates are more likely to work in a group led by a professor, which can also include post-docs, research faculty, and graduate students. Each of these team members can reveal something different. The professor can serve as a professional mentor and painter of the “big picture.” Post-docs and research faculty can teach technical skills. Graduate students may be easier to ask about balancing career and personal life.
“Is there a particular personality type that is most suited for research?”
Research is like any other part of one’s education—you get out of it what you put into it. Shy students and gregarious students can all be successful researchers. The main requirement is that they be willing to ask questions—lots of questions—even if these seem obvious or “dumb.” The benefits of research can be open-ended. A student can go as deep as she or he has the time and energy for. The key is to push oneself beyond one’s comfort zone.
“How does a student know what kind of research to do?”
There are at least two answers here. First, if the student has a good idea what career path they are on, then they may seek a project that helps them advance to the next step, whether that’s graduate school, a job, volunteering for a non-profit, or traveling around the world. For a student still trying to choose, then it may be better to look for a topic that matches a longstanding passion. This was my case.
I grew up in a New York City suburb next to a small wooded park traversed by a stream. I loved spending time following animal tracks and making dams out of sticks, rocks, and sand. More than a decade later, as a college sophomore, I got a research project making a map of a prehistoric lava flow in California’s Mojave Desert. This reawakened my childhood interest in making trails and redirecting fluids, eventually leading to my career as a volcano scientist.
“What’s the best way to learn about research opportunities?”
Most academic departments have staff or online resources to help students find projects. If there’s a course the student really likes, talking with the professor after class can be a good start.
“What opportunities does Portland State offer for undergraduate research?”
Because of its close ties with public and private sector partners in and around Metro Portland, and its longstanding capstone programs, PSU provides many ways for students to engage in research.
The following websites contain more information:
http://www.pdx.edu/reu/ (Materials science and nanotechnology)
http://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/studentsymposium/ (Student research symposia presentations)
http://www.pdx.edu/mentoring-research/mentoring-undergraduates (Mentoring undergrads)