Designed for success

Undergraduate research builds strong contenders for jobs and grad school

April 13, 2014 | Tina Underwood

PsychologyLab_sm1
PsychologyLab_sm1
PsychologyLab_sm1

Long before Hillary Mullett ’11 entered the graduate program in Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, she knew her way around a research lab. As early as her sophomore year at Furman, Mullett teamed with Psychology Professor Gil Einstein, Ph.D., to learn the ropes. With Einstein and four other undergrads, Mullet studied how aging affects prospective memory—the kind of memory used for remembering tasks in the future. Their results were published in Psychology and Aging, the field’s top aging journal.

At most state universities, it’s not often that undergraduates have the opportunity to collaborate with professors on research. But students at smaller liberal arts institutions stand a much better chance to join forces with their professors. Small class sizes with favorable professor-to-student ratios, classrooms where interaction is the norm and, and where engaged learning is encouraged—make for perfect conditions to reach beyond the classroom into the world of scholarly research.

Indeed, 78 percent of graduating seniors report having participated in internships and/or research projects during their years at Furman. Dr. Einstein says the story about the strength of undergraduate research at Furman is begging to be told. In recent years and across all disciplines, about 500 to 700 students participate each summer in internships or collaborative projects with faculty. “I don’t think there’s another school in the country with such a large proportion of its students actively involved in serious summer activities like that,” he says.

And others outside the Furman academic community are taking notice. A 2013 U.S. News College Compass survey polled college presidents and other high-level administrators at more than 1,500 schools to nominate up to 10 institutions with stellar examples of undergraduate research/creative projects. Among the colleges listed most often was Furman, in the company of Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and others.

But besides the impressive numbers of Furman students engaging in research or internships, the bigger story is how the undergrad research experience impacts students and adds value to their overall liberal arts education.

Says Mullett, “Working in Dr. Einstein's memory lab, I immediately began to see how research pushed me to make stronger and deeper connections to the material I learned in class. My understanding of statistics grew through conducting analyses of my own data . . . I also became a better writer and a more confident and articulate speaker.”

Einstein says the undergraduate research experience is transformative in a lot of ways. “It helps students translate the general principles they learn in the classroom to problems they’re really interested in . . . it helps them deepen their learning because they are applying the methodology, content and theories they’ve learned, and are testing those in the laboratory.”

Beyond injecting new dimensions into classroom learning through discovery, Einstein says the undergraduate research experience is essential to success in grad school or the job market. “If you are working toward a Ph.D., you’re just not as competitive with the best graduate programs unless you’ve had that experience,” he says.

Tyler Harrison ’10 says the research experience steered him toward the particular branch of psychology he would focus on, and reinforced his desire to be a researcher. Then, having worked two summers with Einstein on papers in the area of memory, Georgia Tech faced an easy decision to take on Harrison as a Ph.D. candidate studying cognitive psychology. “I had a first author publication by the time I applied to grad school, and not many people have that. I know people who are four to five years in grad school and don’t yet have a single publication . . .”

But it turns out the experience is just as valuable if you’re not going on to graduate school says Einstein. “We believe that novel problem solving is at the heart of undergraduate research, and that’s what employers are looking for. Employers are looking for students who have the willingness and confidence to tackle new problems. When students return from job interviews, even when the job has nothing to do with their undergraduate research topic, our students say the thing that set them apart was their undergraduate research experience.

Einstein says students have a ready answer for employers who say, “Convince us you can work as part of a team to solve a problem,” or ask, “How can we be sure you can articulate your thoughts and present them to a group?”

Undergraduate research also propels students to whole new levels and uncovers skills that aren’t always apparent in the classroom, says Einstein. He recalls a student who had very good but not the highest grades in the psychology department. Nonetheless, she excelled in the lab. She wrestled with a way to solve a difficult problem in the field of memory. Her excitement and resourcefulness brought her into Einstein’s office on a daily basis to proffer ways to design an experiment to test the hypothesis.

“Each time I’d point out a problem in her design, and she’d come back two days later with another idea. This went on maybe 10 times.” Undeterred, she finally came up with a great idea, says Einstein. “We did the experiment, it worked out, and it got published in our best journal.”

Later, the student applied to top Ph.D. programs, but her grades were not quite up to the level of competing applicants. Einstein says, “Her would-be advisor from the University of Toronto called and said, ‘Tell me why I should take her.’ That’s when I told her how excited and creative the student was and how she persisted with the problem.”

Long story, short—the student ended up earning her Ph.D. at a world-class university, and is now a professor at Hendrix College in Arkansas. Says Einstein, “It’s really rewarding to go through that kind of process as a faculty member—it’s great to see a student grow and develop like that.”

Einstein says the sense of accomplishment in making progress on a real problem in the field “makes students realize they are capable of doing things they maybe didn’t think they were capable of . . . it stretches them, they see success, and that’s really reinforcing.”