Are University Professors Doing Their Job if Undergrads Do Not Know How Research Works?

April 10, 2011

The question is posed by a new post from funkdoctorx:

The issue here is that the public does not understand what professors really do and how research works at the University level. Now, if you are a professor or postdoc reading this, think way back to the time when you were a first year graduate student. Remember how much there was to learn about the way the academic world, and academic research worked? Did you have much, if any, idea of this from your time as an undergraduate? I know I certainly didn’t grasp this at all. Even as a young post-doc I’m still working to understand how the system works despite being at it for 5+ years.

I was no different.


Now admittedly, I may have been more clueless and distracted than many who blundered on into graduate training in the sciences. And things may have improved in the past [cough, cough] years. But I have never gotten the impression in any of my subsequent dealings with undergraduates, including science majors in departments with vigorous research reputations, that we are doing a heck of a lot better these days.
Not even in the biggest research Universities.
This is why when the little voice in my head says “Dude, lighten UP already with the careerism and grant funding stuff, they are just undergrads for Greg’s Sack’s Sake!”….
I ignore it.

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22 Responses to “Are University Professors Doing Their Job if Undergrads Do Not Know How Research Works?”


  1. I also had no real concept of how research works until I started Graduate school. My daughter, on the other hand, was lucky enough to land a lab job with prof and was published as a junior.

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  2. Angela Says:

    I didn’t really know how research worked as an undergrad either, felt like I barely figured it out in graduate school, and stumbled through the dark submitting my first fellowship proposal. Should I have been taught how it all worked? In hindsight, I think it would have made things a lot easier, but it would have also made me step outside my idealized notions that research is all innovation, creativeness and grand leaps, instead of the reality of small, incremental steps, with truly creative work being few and far between. How could one teach the workings of the research world to an undergrad, without demoralizing them with the whole publish or perish culture, before they are barely getting started? Maybe its nicer to be just a little bit ignorant, for a little while longer. But I think its definitely something that should be figured out at the start of graduate school.

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  3. becca Says:

    What I did understand as an undergrad:
    *All of the rewards for careers were based on research productivity- teaching was superfluous
    *Professors worked very hard pre-tenure, and mostly worked hard post-tenure too
    *Peer review, which keeps the whole enterprise relatively honest, is basically a pro-bono thing
    *Journal publishers were largely greedy for-profit enterprises (I only knew this because they had been compared to textbook publishers, who were a much easier to understand enemy)
    *publishing is critical
    *Required coursework and other formal parts of graduate school were hardly worth mentioning compared to in-lab training
    *graduate school was an apprenticeship
    What I didn’t understand:
    *”soft money”
    *so many postdocs, so few independent jobs
    *an income at the median for the country being so depressing for people with PhDs and so many years of ‘training’
    *no grants = may as well not have tenure, because your job will evaporate
    So even as an undegrad I would have understood how silly it is to evaluate profs based solely on tuition dollars brought in while ignoring grant dollars. What I *wouldn’t* have understood was how professors might see themselves as variants of small-business quasi-independent innovators separate from their universities. (of course, such a view of professorships is self-indulgent inasmuch as professors expect lawyers to review their MTAs, secretaries to make sure their graduate students actually get paid, or custodians to actually keep their labs functioning… or any the other people that universities keep on hand to keep things running).

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  4. David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. Says:

    In a word, no.

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  5. Bob Roberts Says:

    Absolutely none of the senior pay grades within my University discuss teaching – so you cannot blame an academic for concentrating on the things that *are* measured – income generation and papers.
    If people want teaching to improve they have to get *management* to actually make this stuff important to academics.

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  6. An undergrad considering a career in research would be wise to do their homework, but I see no reason why a working knowledge of research culture should be part of an academic degree.
    Not all science graduates intend to go into research, and for them an appreciation of how the scientific method works in theory is sufficient.
    A more vocational degree like a research masters, or a stint as a technician, provides a reasonable taster for a wannbe grad student who has not worked in a lab before.

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  7. Why do so many people feel they need to be taught everything? Much of what I know I figured out myself.
    It always amazes me how many new PIs are clueless, despite having been in close proximity to a PI for over 10 yrs. As soon as I thought I might want to be a PI I made it my business to know what my boss and others did all day. Some undergraduates do a term in the lab and still don’t really appreciate what a grad student does. The smart ones make it their business to learn what they can from grad students and others before applying to grad school. This is not stuff you should be teaching!

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  8. leigh Says:

    i was fortunate to do research for 2/3 of my undergrad time. it gave me a nice jump start in grad school, not to mention made me a viable candidate to the big-name places with my no-name degree.
    there was still an overabundance of cluelessness, regardless. we all have learning curves…
    bottom line, ignore that voice in your head. at the very least present an undergrad-level version of careerism. for greg’s sack’s sake.

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  9. jmr Says:

    I’m going for my second bachelor’s with hopes to go to grad school after I finish. I’m at UW-Milwaukee and I just found out that there is an undergraduate research program. I applied, was accepted and now I’m just waiting to hear back from the program that’ll have me. When I was talking to the woman who connects students with the research programs she mentioned that some of the programs I’d picked for my “favorites” actually hadn’t had students apply to them yet, which blew my mind. So, I think there are options out there for students, but they just might not have heard about them or are actively seeking them out. I’m really excited to start this program, but with all the political shenanigans going on here in WI it looks like I’ll be doing this for credit instead of sweet, sweet moolah. Oh well…it’ll be fun and I’ll make some good contacts and learn about the whole process.

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  10. Dr Becca Says:

    I think Dr Funk’s original point was that college educated non-scientists don’t know how academic research works, not that aspiring scientists don’t learn early enough. It’s a good point–if the public doesn’t get it from their college professors, their idea of what science research is will most likely come from mainstream media, which I imagine most of us would consider to be substantially off-base.

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  11. APS Says:

    I explicitly explain to undergrads that their professors do research whenever I get a chance. I’ve been to some “lunch with the professor” programs – they’re a great opportunity to explain to undergrads what research life is like. Some young ones don’t even know their profs do research!
    Not that this is strange. I certainly had not much on my mind other than typical college student things like, rock’n roll, when I was an undergrad! I was in a different discipline, different continent, different point in life. That’s normal.
    They need to be explicitly told. In class, I invite guest lecturers and highlight that they are lucky to learn the material from people who are right now doing the top research on this! I mean maybe it sounds dramatic, but it’s true. But the kids don’t know, so you gotta point it out.
    I think it’s real important to mentor undergrads in research. In the lab, I include undergrads in everything. They start helping out with a project and then can develop their own projects. Some have risen to the responsibility beautifully. They even write mini-grants applying for undergrad funding. It’s very cute. They totally are part of the process in the lab.

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  12. I became an undergraduate in a leading UK
    Chemistry Department 55 years ago and perhaps the best way for describing what I
    learnt (and did not learn) about research is best illustrated by discussing a
    final year project which led to my going on to do a Ph.D. in this area of
    Chemistry.
    The project was an investigation into a
    recently published paper on a chemical compound called benzimidazole. The author
    had carried out a theoretical calculation to predict its chemical properties and
    had quoted 6 experimental papers which “supported” his findings while ignoring
    perhaps 200 papers in the literature which failed to support his calculations.
    Even worse four of the quoted papers were not really relevant and another was
    followed by a correction which had been “overlooked”. My project was to
    investigate the 6th reference.

    What I learnt at this stage: OK the
    paper was so wrong it could only be explained by fraud – but it soon became
    clear (particularly when I started on my Ph.D.) that many theoretical papers
    quoted experimental results without understanding the experimental
    limitations. In addition many experimental papers measured the properties of
    the chemicals they had synthesized and quoted theoretical papers without
    understanding the theoretical assumptions or the bounds of the measurement
    techniques. The result was that I became very cautious of automatically
    accepting papers which didn’t feel right. I also set myself very high
    standards of proof – which meant that quite a bit of interesting research
    has never been published because I was not satisfied that I have proved it
    to my own satisfaction.
    What I didn’t learn: I failed to
    understand motivations behind the scientific rat race for publication,
    promotion, prestige and funding. To become a successful “scientist” it is
    essential to put a strong positive spin on your research. It also helps to
    develop a strong social network- ideally including some of the “peers” that
    could be reviewing your papers or grant applications. (As someone who had
    been seriously bullied at school, my personal ambitions were low and my
    ability to develop effective social support networks was poor.)

     The probable reference was to a first
    page reference to a 200 page long paper in German. The 19th century chemist had
    pioneered the use of a nitrating mixture of very strong acid and typically had
    boiled chemicals in this mixture for an hour and then reported on the result –
    which (if I remember correctly) was about 20% of one product and 80% a tarry
    mess. I found that if you took a very much weaker acid, froze it in dry ice, and
    added the benzimidazole I had 100% of one product almost instaneously. This
    showed the theory was wrong – and also that the Victorian chemist has been
    repeatedly applying a technique without understanding its limitations.

    What I learnt at this stage: Much
    Science is basically data collection and analysis of the results – followed
    by publication. The German had developed a technique and “turned the handle”
    and out had come publishable results without having to wonder whether there
    were more appropriate techniques. Of course such data collection can be
    extremely important – and modern scientific equipment linked to computers
    can make it possible to collect vast quantities of data and have it analysed
    automatically to show the relevant patterns. The result can be very exciting
    – for instance in redrafting the evolutionary tree using DNA. The trouble
    was (and still is) that many post-graduate researchers (and some professors)
    are really acting as scientific technicians – with little scope to learn to
    use their imagination. I decided that such a narrow view of science was not
    for me.
    What I didn’t learn: The politics
    behind interdisciplinary research could be very difficult because of the
    need to deal with people who academic credibility was based on a very deep
    knowledge of a very narrow topic.

    Finally there was an additional unplanned
    spin-off from the project in that I was able to look at the underlying theory
    and suggest reasons why the mathematical model that was used in the paper was
    very susceptible to very minor variations in the original assumptions.

    What I learnt: Never be afraid to
    question the assumptions underlying any particular area of science if you
    feel that they are unsound or incomplete.
    What I later learnt: If you find
    what you believe are good reasons for questioning the assumptions you will
    be told that “Exceptional claims need exceptional evidence”. The problem is
    that exceptional evidence needs exceptional funding to gather and to get
    such support you have to negotiate a way through the the establishment peer
    review framework.

    What I failed to realise was that for the
    average research scientist the safest career option was to select a narrow field
    where it was possible to gather large quantities of new data by turning the
    handle of a suitable technique and get plenty to publish without having to use
    too much imagination. If you try to explore original and imaginative  ideas
    you either become very successful, but in most cases you will fall flat on your
    face and be trampled by those who put the academic rat race above scientific
    ideals.
    Some of you may think that this is a rather
    cynical view of scientific research – but looking back over the last 50 years I
    am sure I would have been far better off in financial terms if I had not decided
    to dedicate my life to scientific research.

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  13. Raskolnikov Says:

    I don’t have such a long experience in scientific research, but from the little I’ve gathered, I come to the same conclusions as you do @HertfordshireChris.

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  14. Part of the job of professors is to teach academic subjects to undergraduates. How science functions as a profession is something scientists could make clearer to those outside the profession. However, this would be best achieved as a joint effort aimed at enlightening all non-scientists how science functions as an institution. Certainly it should not be a compulsory part of the science curriculum and such knowledge should not be exclusive to college graduates.

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  15. Lynn S. Says:

    If all colleges still required foundational courses we could guarantee that students understood why scientific research requires rigorous scrutiny before it is released to the general public. They would appreciate the serious responsibility attached to making claims based on studies. It is essential that all college undergrads become familiar with the research process in a cursory way: How we get valid outcomes, why one must filter for factors which could bias results, understanding why standard deviations matter and how important it is to be sure articles are peer reviewed and IRBs are obtained for research with human subjects, etc. How can they exercise critical thinking skills if we fail to arm them with the buzz words and standard rules of research?
    If we instill the need for integrity and expose students to the problems in research such as undue influence, researcher bias, conflicts of interest, etc. we won’t have so many starry-eyed lab assistants who, as Ph.D. candidates, get indignant at the politics that intrude on decisions to fund research. A general understanding of what constitutes a quality research study is of value to college students even if their career choice is outside the sciences.
    Undergraduate students should be told that it is their responsibility as the next wave of educated citizens to question assertions that aren’t substantiated by the data. Universities who have no core curriculum by which to teach that are graduating classes of passively educated individuals who will eventually be overwhelmed by all the data thrown at them in their careers. Leaders capable of imagining the big picture and asking incisive questions are essential to getting at the truth.

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  16. @ Dr Becca – Educating non-scientists about some of the basics as to how science ACTUALLY works is indeed one of the most important things that needs to change if we are to have a more scientifically literate populace. As Lynn S. noted, general education requirements might be a way to do this. The issue here might be that gen. ed, type classes may be less likely to be taught by a scientist or someone who understands how science works.
    Overall, I think science has a public relations issue. Might be do to the fact that scientists, on average, probably aren’t the most outgoing professions. Crikey, we schlep around in a lab all day with a pipeteman as a best friend!
    Taxpayer dollars pay for the science, yet how the scientific enterprise works is completely opaque to the public at large. The question is, how to we communicate the most important and compelling aspects of science to a public that is already bombarded with so much other information. It seems to me the easiest, and potentially most influential, place to start would be the University classroom.

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  17. Jamie A. Stine Says:

    I have been very very fortunate to have been named a Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program Scholar (McNair Scholar, for short). This honor was bestowed upon me as a sophomore at a large public university; we’re fortunate to have one of the top ranked McNair programs in the country. The whole purpose of McNar is to get undergraduates doing research that will give us a very strong foundation for PhD level research. I’m not saying I know the way the whole process works, because I don’t, but I will be published by the end of this year, and I graduate in May. I start my Master’s work in August, and though I’m apprehensive, I am confident that I’ll be able to handle the research aspect of it.
    Our McNair Scholars at my University historically bring home some of the most competitive national and international scholarships and fellowships. In the time I’ve been involved, we’ve had no less than five NSF Fellows, several Udall and Rotary Fellows, and historically all or almost all of our scholars are fully funded when they leave our program.
    The issue: there are less than 3,000 people in the WORLD who have this Fellowship. There are 31 of us at my university. This is a tiny fraction of the undergrads who want to go to grad school or want to do research. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that while there are some very fortunate undergrads who are given the opportunity to learn how the process works before we graduate, there are so many more who go in cold. I feel like undergrads who are interested in going to grad school need to have maybe like, a research boot camp before they go to grad school, to just hit the high points of the process and kindof give them a glimpse of what they’re in for.
    I hope that made sense, I’ve ben studying biochem all evening and am a bit bleary.

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  18. Katharine Says:

    Conversely, you could be me, an undergrad who’s got a great GPA and is embarking on her third year and who just went to Experimental Biology 2011 for two days and who reads about this stuff all the time (and I even have a relative on the other side of the grant equation who tells me about some of THAT stuff – not the classified stuff but more general things – so I get a view that many don’t!), yet was probably the only undergrad there who went all by themselves because they have no lab, no poster, absolute bubkes. The only response I have ever gotten from any lab is “Sorry. We like your transcript but we’re full.”
    If you want to trade an ignoramus undergrad in your lab who has no clue how this shit works for an undergrad who’s had a long spate of bad luck with regards to this, PLEASE. LET ME KNOW.

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  19. GMP Says:

    I have of late started talking to undergrads in my classes about research and grad school. On days when I bring back their midterms and we go over the problems together in class, we usually have 10 min left at the end, which I fill by talking to them about what profs do, how grad school works, how research at universities is actually funded, that they don’t actually have to pay to do a PhD, what they need to get into a good grad school (e.g. do some research as undergrads). You could hear a pin drop when I talk about these topics. I have a set of 7 or 8 transparencies and then we cover them over the course of two classes (2×10 min, after the two midterms), and then I post it online for those who want to read it over later.

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  20. neuromusic Says:

    I think Doc Becca and Funk Doctor X are right on target…
    This conversation highlights a big part of the problem… when talking to undergrads or even high school kids about how research works, scientists tend to gravitate toward proselytizing: “You should be a scientist!” Or only looking at undergrads as “opportunities” for summer work. I think that undergraduates end up being a missed opportunity for PR and advocacy for the research field.
    When scientists get together for drinks, so many conversations seem to consist of whining smaller NIH budgets or misrepresentations of science in popular media. The typical “solutions” for the former tends to be traditional political advocacy and the latter volunteering for a day at a science fair (aka “outreach”) or blogging.
    But I have a hard time taking these arguments seriously from a grad student who goes out of their way to minimize their TA responsibilities or a prof who buys their way out of teaching undergrad courses.
    Because those undergrads are also voters. They probably aren’t as passionate about science as you are. But they are probably passionate about something. Maybe they are concerned about social justice and want to influence public policy. They are only taking BIO101 for a general education credit. But they are soon going to be our journalists, our lobbyists, our lawyers, our congressional representatives, our presidents. And when some crazy politician calls fruit fly research a waste of federal spending, we need our former students to have the scientific discernment to say, “Wait, the NIH is set up to ensure that this work is relevant to human health.” It’s in our best interest and to only pay attention to those undergrads who are excited about science and research-as-a-career is short sighted.

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  21. Marie Anne Says:

    Katherine: e-mail me at nycmars@gmail.com regarding possible summer research experience for undergraduates.

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  22. Anonymous Says:

    so now you blame your teachers for grant rejection?

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