3 Ways to Encourage Independent Undergraduate Research

Early in my academic career, I looked down on independent undergraduate research.

I believe that in large part, this was because I saw some very bad undergraduate research as a student and as an adjunct professor. In fact, I distinctly remember when a colleague of mine brought one memorable paper in a “refereed” undergraduate research journal to my attention. The paper presented evidence from two regressions, each based on only two observations! As my colleague quipped at the time, “Who exactly refereed this?”

Clearly this was a failure of mentoring as much as anything. Since then, I’ve learned that undergraduates can do excellent research. 

The Merits of Undergraduate Research

Scaling the Ivory TowerI have found that collaborating with students on research projects is a rewarding process for both myself and my undergraduates.

Over the past several years, I have co-authored two dozen op-eds, book reviews, book chapters, and journal articles with undergraduates. In nearly all cases, these publications began as independent research projects. They only became collaborative once the student expressed interest in publication.

Additionally, several of my students have solo-authored publications in books and academic journals.

What follows are three tips for helping students advance on their independent research projects. In particular, these points are geared toward students who are interested in conducting independent research as undergraduates but are not advanced in their studies. The ordering of my tips reflects the fact that I prefer a developmental approach that tries to identify students interested in academic careers early on.

One additional caveat is in order. I am an economist, and this is what has worked best for me for encouraging young social scientists. Outside economics, the advice may vary.

Tip #1 – When encouraging independent undergraduate research, start small.

Many undergraduates are interested in an academic career but do not really know what it entails. They might approach you because they are really excited about a particular class topic or the life and work of a professor in your field. How do you mentor the inexperienced student who wants to get a taste for what academics do outside of class and committee obligations?

Having them write an op-ed is a great place to start for the following reasons.

Op-eds are short, at around 400-600 words. 

They are extremely focused.

You need to describe the issue that is in the news, give your opinion, and support it. Furthermore, you must do it all in an interesting and informative way. This fits closely with the abilities and desires of a good early-stage student who is passionate about a topic.

Op-eds force you to make your work accessible to those outside the academy.

All academics struggle with this. Writing an op-ed requires you to take several thousand words of research and condense them a way that your grandparents can understand.

For a student that is interested in a larger public policy issue like healthcare, I begin by finding a recent paper on the topic that has public policy implications. Then I ask the student to read the paper and write a 500-word op-ed tying the paper to a recent healthcare debate or issue that has been in the news. While this is not easy for students to do (or faculty for that matter), it helps students to begin to get a feel for different modes of argumentation, how to effectively simplify arguments, etc. In addition, 500 words is a fairly short assignment to regularly give feedback on, so it ensures regular revisions, minimizes your workload, and focuses student attention.

Tip #2 – Book reviews are a great bridge to larger undergraduate research projects.

Once students have successfully written a couple of op-eds, I assign them a recent book in their area of interest to review. I see three pedagogical reasons for using reviews to bridge students to longer pieces of scholarship.

First, the book review requires students to push themselves beyond what they have previously done. 

The types of reviews I ask my students to work on are the short book reviews often seen in Economics journals like the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization or the Southern Economic Journal. These are roughly 1,200 words, with 80 percent summary and 20 percent commentary.

Like the op-ed, these reviews require a careful reading of the material in question. They also demand the ability to summarize complex arguments in a limited number of words.

Second, the 20 percent of the review that is commentary gives the student the ability to contextualize the book’s arguments within some broader framework.

This could be the overall public policy debate, the scholarly debate on that issue, etc. Whatever the approach, the onus is on the student to have something relevant to say.

Third, students need some knowledge of a literature in order to engage in debates in the literature.

Recent books in a field should discuss the ongoing scholarly debate. Reading and commenting on a recent book can be like conducting a good literature review.

Tip #3 – Have Your Undergraduates Replicate Older Research Papers

After reading and writing a couple book reviews, students often have an idea of how they might be able to contribute to the literature in an area. If not, then how do you encourage students to make the leap to a full-blown research paper?

While not applicable for all disciplines or for theorists, I have found that replication studies are a great way to teach students about basic paper writing and research skills.

I ask students to begin browsing through journal articles in their research area from 25 years ago. Once they find an empirical paper that interests them, I encourage them to try to replicate and extend it. In doing this, they must draw on the skills from their statistics and econometrics courses.

In replicating a paper, students learn several important skills:

  • First, they learn such basic skills as collecting and cleaning data.
  • They often begin to develop a sense of the trade-offs researchers make when conducting applied research. Why this functional form and not this one? Why limit the sample in this way?
  • Finally, they learn how to be better writers by not doing what they observe in the papers they are replicating. They clearly label their data, explicitly state the countries included in the sample, the number of years, etc.

Conclusions on Fostering Independent Undergraduate Research

Independent undergraduate research projects are a great way for students to explore the ideas and the implications of classical liberalism. In addition, they can give the student some idea of whether they like independent research and are good at it.

Finally, it helps you if that student ever asks you to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. The research you’ve done with your student will give you a great deal of detailed and helpful information about his or her abilities.

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