Bora has a great run-down of how undergraduate research has benefited various students and helped them get some invaluable experience in various fields. Being that I’m (still) an undergraduate myself, I thought I would throw in my 2 cents about it and why we certainly need more of it.
I’m sure I’m not going to shock anyone by saying that my college experience hasn’t exactly been pleasant, but I do wish that I had found out about undergraduate research opportunities earlier. In fact, I wish I had found out about my chosen major (ecology & evolution) earlier, being that I bounced from marine science to EPIB (environmental politics, institutions, and bureaucracies) to e&e. Be that as it may, just about everyone is required to have some sort of experienced-based education at some point in their college career, often taking the form of an hourly position in a lab at the college or other internship. These postings usually go out through the various departments (although often they’re not as widely publicized as they should be) and in fact that’s how I got my current job, but I’ve never heard anything about opportunities for undergraduate research. Perhaps such opportunities have to get “made” by the student going out of their way to come up with an idea or by a professor wanting to start a student on a project, but to tell you the truth I had no idea that undergrads could even do research at my university until this past semester when I met someone who has done some work in taphonomy.
Part of the problem may also be that I approached the wrong people about some research opportunities. Last year I was desperate to do some actual research or get some hands-on experience so I e-mailed my ex-advisor when I was a marine science major for some suggestions. She said I should forward my resume to a particular secretary and if my qualifications/interests caught the attention of any of the staff someone would be in touch with me. No one did. Despite this I decided to ask one of my professors (who essentially was the head-honcho at a marine research station) if there was any way I could get involved with work on sharks. I’ve loved sharks since I was a kid and no one seemed to be doing anything with them off New Jersey; How many where there? Where are they going? How big are they? What’s the species diversity like? No one seemed to have an answer (and I didn’t have my own boat to go shark tagging nor the funds to charter any trips). When I explained this to my professor he merely said “What are you going to do with sharks?”, explaining that there’s really no future in such areas of study.
I ran into further bad luck when I took paleontology last semester, being that even though the professor and I would chat about evolution, dinosaurs, taphonomy, etc. after almost every class, the institution he was affiliated with was closed for updates/repairs and there was no opportunity for me to even start volunteering there. I’ve contemplated trying to become a fossil preparator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, but I’m too far away for that to work. Just as well, I don’t have enough money for train fare to volunteer or work at the American Museum of Natural History either, so it seems that I’m so close but too far from many institutions.
At this point I’m about a year away from graduating and most of my courses are ones that I have no interest in taking but must complete to get my degree (i.e. a year of physics, a semester of chemistry, precalculus, statistics, soils & society, etc.) and when I’m not in class I have to be at work to make sure the lights stay on. The fact that I’m married and the need to pay the rent prevent me from going off into the field for a month or two as well, so I don’t really have flexibility to devote to research. I’m hoping to track down some urban coyotes this summer and record what they’re doing in New Brunswick as well as find some fossils in Big Brook and other areas, but whether I’ll be able to cobble any kind of poster or paper together is anyone’s guess.
The moral of the story; I think colleges (or at least my college) need to do a better job of encouraging interested undergrads to do research and gain scientific experience outside the classroom setting. Not everyone will jump at the chance but I’m sure there are other undergrads like me who didn’t even know such opportunities existed. To any other undergrads, I would highly suggest talking to your adviser and getting involved wherever you can; it’s a lot more fun than just sitting in class and maybe it’ll even fill some requirements.
Update: Rutgers recently hosted the 3rd annual Aresty Undergraduate Research Symposium. The story, via the Rutgers home page, can be found here.