Expert educational consultant Mark Montgomery goes to the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara to advise students that when you hear that a lot of a school’s undergrads are doing “research,” don’t take it at face value. Try to find out what “research” really entails.
So here at the University of California at Santa Barbara, it was pointed out to us that about 50% of students here on this campus engage in research. And again, because this university is dominated by the undergraduate population — 19,000 out of 22,000 students are undergraduates — 50% of those students are doing some sort of research. That’s really impressive. But then I started to talk to our tour guide about her experience in research, and I asked how that really works. Of course when I hear “research,” I’m thinking, “Wow, cool, these undergraduates are working with Nobel laureate professors, they’re working alongside these professors in their laboratories or doing research with them.”
Well, as it turns out, in the biology department in any case (that was the department where our tour guide was from), I asked her how it worked and she said, well, the graduate students are hired by the professor dependent upon the research grad that the professor pulls. And so they have a certain amount of money and they can hire a certain number of graduate assistants. Then, if the graduate assistants want, graduate students can then hire undergraduates to work for, not the professors, but for the graduate students to help them in their work in the lab.
So it is true that you can get experience in a laboratory as an undergraduate at a place like UCSB. But again, it’s really important to understand, what does that really mean? Undergraduates at a research university are going to be at the bottom of the pile in terms of the hierarchy in the research pecking order. This student that we did talk to, she mentioned that her project, she was actually hired by the professor because the professor was more interested in maintaining the quality of his lab and really wanted to know who his undergraduate assistants were. So she had to be vetted and she had to apply to the professor. But the tour guide was clear that in most cases, the undergraduate researchers are working for the graduate assistants. So again, there’s a hierarchy. This is very different from, say, a liberal arts college where there are no graduate assistants at all where a student — because of the lack of graduate assistants, the student is going to work with the professor. Now, the research project may not be as prestigious, it may not be as well-funded as one here at UCSB because this is, again, a major research university in the United States.
So when you’re deciding what’s important to you, and when you’re thinking about research as one of those factors, please make sure that you ask the questions to understand how the structure of that research is, how do you actually get one of those jobs? And for whom will you actually be working in the department that you’re most interested in? Because if you just assume what the admissions offices and the nice, fancy, pretty brochures tell you, you’re not necessarily going to get an accurate picture of what it takes for you to get that research job and what kinds of work you’ll actually be doing.