Among the various extracurricular opportunities offered at most universities, research seems to be one of the most underrated, given its numerous benefits. According to a 2017 study conducted by the Computing Research Association, 72% of undergraduate students had not participated in formal research, with the majority of those having no plans to do so. I imagine that the large number of students not conducting research can likely be attributed to the fact that many of them associate research with STEM fields. However, research exists and matters in all fields and, especially at a prominent research institution like the University of Michigan, there are countless opportunities for people in all areas of study to participate. Regardless of major, everyone should get involved in undergraduate research.
When considering research, most imagine labs filled with microscopes, mice or test tubes containing colorful, bubbling liquids. In other words, many people think of research as a luxury limited to the natural sciences. This mindset, though, could not be further from the truth: Research opportunities are very much available in just about every field. “Still,” you may think, “it’s only really beneficial to those in STEM fields.” Again, this is not the case. Undergraduate research has been found to be equally beneficial to both science, technology, engineering and math, and non-STEM majors. Research in such fields may not look the same, lacking the microscopes and test tubes, but it’s still just as important.
Research is commonly experimental in both the natural and social sciences, meaning researchers will manipulate an environment to look for causal relationships in variables. Conversely, research in the humanities tends to be observational, allowing researchers to look for correlations between variables in existing data. The inability to manipulate variables generally prevents observational research from finding causal relationships, but the correlative relationships that it aims to discover still provide important insight into various topics, advancing the existing body of knowledge. Observational research can be conducted with surveys, content analyses and case studies, among other methods. Because the data comes from preexisting sources in these methods, they can be used in just about any domain, including literature, history, art and even the natural sciences.
So, research is possible and important in all fields, but why should undergraduates pursue research opportunities? Firstly, involvement in research builds both written and verbal communication skills. Research is a cycle: People make discoveries, share their discoveries with others in their field and those who learn of these discoveries can use the new information to make more discoveries. Therefore, a big part of research is communicating one’s findings to both the academic community and the interested general public. People involved in research learn to communicate complex ideas concisely and in easily understandable terms, skills transferable to almost every career.
Additionally, research provides many opportunities to expand one’s network. Sharing research often involves attending field-specific conferences, as well as reaching out to others conducting similar studies. Such experiences allow for creating meaningful connections with others in your area of interest, opening the door for mentorships, internships, job opportunities and insightful conversations that can spark an idea for a new study.
Participating in research also offers good practice for working in both individual and team environments and taking direction from others without direct supervision. These skills are important to possess in most career fields, so having research experience on your resume is an asset, regardless of your plans for the future, helping you to stand out from other candidates.
Before my senior year of high school, I had no intention of being involved in research during my undergraduate education. However, I conducted a year-long study for a class during the 12th grade and found that research was something I really enjoyed, so I knew I wanted to get involved while in college. Fortunately, I ended up at one of the best universities for research in the United States, which made finding research opportunities for research pretty easy.
Since arriving in Ann Arbor last August, I’ve been a student in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, and I’ve had an absolute blast. Working as a research assistant in a lab dedicated to a specific interest of mine has allowed me to find mentors in my field of interest and learn more about the community surrounding the field.
By attending frequent lab meetings, I’ve become acquainted with the other researchers in the lab, to all of whom I feel comfortable reaching out and asking questions about research and plans. I’ve also learned about their projects and plans for the future, which has helped me formulate some of my own ideas. Additionally, I learned of and attended a virtual conference on new research in my field, providing me with an inside scoop on the community’s latest findings and exposing me to other prominent researchers in the field.
Furthermore, through conducting research, I’ve learned multiple valuable and transferable skills, such as concisely explaining complex ideas, data analysis, formal research writing and the creation of clear visual aids that assist in the communication of findings. In communicating with my mentor, my UROP peer facilitator, lab members, my family and friends, I have been forced to develop multiple ways of sharing my research. Some of those are short, and some are long, some for those familiar with the field and some adapted for people outside my area of investigation.
Perhaps most importantly, though, I’ve gained insight into how I want my future to look, which is arguably one of the most critical aspects of the undergraduate experience. I had never considered academia as a potential path suited to my interests, but learning from so many others who have chosen a career in academia has awakened me to the possibility of spending my life making and sharing discoveries. I feel that a big part of college is figuring out what you do and don’t like; in that respect, research has been an incredible opportunity for me.
With its many benefits and broad scope, I would recommend undergraduate research to anyone, regardless of major or interest. At a school like the University, there are research opportunities for people with any amount of research experience, in any field of study and with any career aspirations — and they are beneficial to everyone who participates.
Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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