One of the main things I hear when I am speaking to scientists about undergraduate researchers is: The undergrads in my department just don’t seem interested in what I do (or what our department does, or research in general). To the person who thinks this, my advice is to reassess – because this type of thinking is wrong. In this post, I will talk about some of the things that I have done, and that my department has done, to help further a culture of undergraduate research.
1. Become a department that reaches out to undergraduates (don’t ALWAYS expect them to come to you).
Over my time at UC Davis, the biggest improvement in department-wide undergraduate involvement is undoubtably driven by the work that the UC Davis chapter of the Association for Women Geosciences (AWG) has done to change our culture. At UC Davis, the AWG has begun three very relevant programs: an undergraduate mentoring program, a yearly panel discussion on how to get into graduate school, and a field preparedness program. Although I have been present for these changes, I want to recognize the real leaders of these programs: Veronica Vriesman, Elaine Young, Elizabeth Grant, Rebecca Fildes, Daphne Kuta, Dr. Sarah Roeske, and to all of the other AWG members that work tirelessly for these efforts to be successful.
Because of these efforts, undergraduate students in our department suddenly have access to grad student advice about what to do after getting their bachelor’s degree from a myriad of different experiences (through the panels and through the one-on-one mentoring). One-on-one mentoring and panel discussions are places where grad students can be open about their experiences doing undergraduate research and can encourage undergrads to become involved. It is a place where grad students can actively recruit undergrads if there are spots open in their team. These efforts have drastically increased the knowledge that the undergrads in our department have about opportunities; therefore, I encourage you to re-create some of these opportunities at your institutions.
2. Focus the unanswered questions in your teaching.
Any time you teach, or interact with undergraduates, is a great time to highlight the unanswered questions in your field. Many introductory classes focus on what the discipline “knows” about that subject. If these classes don’t then highlight what is not known, the field can seem dead. Instead, consider having regular breaks in your teaching (or during office hours) where you highlight what is left to be discovered. Doing this will illustrate to your undergraduates that your discipline is evolving. These moments are great opportunities to discuss what work goes into answering a scientific question (i.e. what measurements must be made to understand where a meteor comes from?). Additionally, discussing what is not known in your field is a great time to showcase the work that you, your graduate students, or your colleagues are doing to further our knowledge. Showcasing the active research in your department allows undergraduates to have a better understanding of what they can be involved in.
Dare I even suggest that you invite graduate students or faculty to introduce themselves to your students?
3. Representation matters (there are many, many experts on this topic out there).
Arguably, the most important barrier to students not being involved in science is that they don’t see THEMSELVES as scientists (refs 1 and 2). For our BIPOC and LGBQTIA+ students, and students with disabilities, this can be improved through representation. One way we can begin to erase the barrier for students is to highlight scientists with disabilities, and BIPOC and LGBQTIA+ scientists, doing science. You can do this in several ways. Caitlin Livsey uses biographies to highlight BIPOC scientists. Additionally, you could work with posts by the Twitter and Instagram handles: @DiverseGeologists, @WomenDoingSci, @AcessibleGEO (all with citation and permissions) to increase the diversity in stories your students could hear. As an upside, these students can follow the accounts of scientists that share their identities and their interests.
4. IGNORE THE OVERALL GPA
There are many reasons that a student may have a low overall GPA that has nothing to do with their ability to understand coursework material. When you are recruiting students, I encourage you to ignore their overall GPA in the same fashion that many graduate institutions are now ignoring the GRE. If you desire a metric to screen students applying to work with you (I would argue you shouldn’t), then I suggest you ask them about their work history. This is 100% grounded in my own biases as an undergraduate student who worked 40 hrs/week, but I am encouraged by students who bring interpersonal (job) skills to the table when working in a lab and who have been trained in time management. Of course, a student who needs to work during college may also need you to pay them to be able to work in your lab, more on that later. Other metrics you could use that are not the overall GPA are: their major GPA alone, whether they have taken a class that pertains to your research topic, or their involvement in extra-curriculars. Frequently, I have many more “applicants” (expressed interest from undergraduates) when I clearly state that I will not be paying attention to their GPA. Even students with relatively high GPA’s may not reach out because they do not think they are “well-qualified” when compared to classmates with even higher GPA's.
5. Write a job description.
In your department it might be the culture that undergrad researchers are recruited by a one-on-one discussion and then “hired” without a discussion of duties. Not discussing individual duties with a potential researcher will lead to undergraduate students misunderstanding what they are signing up for. I encourage you to consider why you want to recruit an undergraduate student. Then, (if you are faculty) discuss with your graduate students what you expect in terms of who does the day-to-day training/mentoring. Finally, write a brief description of what you think the undergraduate will do, who they will be “managed” by, and how often you expect them to be present. This will allow the student to consider their time and will help them understand who they will be reporting to. A job description can then serve as a template for a “working norms” contract or can be referred to in the future if someone is not meeting your expectations (or if you are not meeting theirs). Setting up expectations for graduate students about their role in the undergraduate mentoring process will also help everyone from getting overwhelmed, I promise.
I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.