Hanson: Undergraduates should consider a research position this summer

For many undergraduates, the start of spring term marks the beginning of a lengthy search for summer jobs and internships.

It is easy to see why. The pressures of rising tuition and increasing demand among employers for skilled job applicants make summer work necessary for most students.

As the upcoming undergraduate research symposium demonstrates, however, jobs and internships are not the only worthwhile student positions. On May 17, hundreds of students will gather in the Erb Memorial Union to present the results of their work and network with professionals. For many of the students that plan on attending, this event will likely be another step toward their careers of choice.

With these benefits in mind, it is important for applicants to consider undergraduate research positions as well as this seasonal round of job-hunting begins. These positions offer access to professional networks, technical skills training and publishing opportunities — all of which can significantly contribute to a résumé.

Some undergraduates might mistakenly believe that research is only helpful for students majoring in the sciences. Although it is true that research techniques are not of great use to everyone, the work environments for these positions are highly professional compared to the standard part-time job. This is a significant asset. An undergraduate that demonstrates a strong work ethic and success in a research position is hardly worse off compared to a similar student in a selective internship.

Professor Kevin Hatfield, the Director of Academic, Residential and Research Initiatives, says that the undergraduate research symposium has been working to break down the misconception that research is only valuable to STEM students.

“Early on, there was this perception among students that research is all STEM-related. Students would self-select out of research… research can help an English major no differently than a chemistry major,” Hatfield said.

Regardless of their postgraduate plans, college students can almost always benefit from the networking opportunities that undergraduate research positions present. These roles offer students the chance to work with professionals in their field, and these potential mentors can often provide valuable advice throughout the early stages of a student’s career.

The technical skills that most student researchers practice throughout their work are also helpful in a competitive job market. Undergraduate research used to be a relative rarity in the past. In recent years it has become so common among students — especially those in scientific fields — that many graduate schools and selective programs expect it from most applicants.

Hatfield underscored the importance of undergraduate research in applying to graduate school.

“I think that as graduate schools become more and more competitive, we need to build more research relations and have enough faculty hours to support more undergraduate research,” Hatfield said.

The other strong, but not always realized, assets that undergraduate research positions provide are publishing opportunities. Once again, co-authoring a scientific or scholarly paper is a feat that might not seem particularly useful to students outside of scientific fields. However, the professionalism such a paper demonstrates is almost universally helpful. Whereas most part-time jobs and internships produce no tangible product, a completed research paper can serve as a strong, immediate addition to any student’s work portfolio.

Costa Capellas, vice president of Pacific Capital Resource Group, Inc., explained at the recent spring career fair what employers look for in job applicants.

“One of the… important traits we look for in candidates is a consistent history of achievement, [whether] it be academic, athletic, community-based, and so on” Capellas said.

There is little doubt that co-authoring a published research paper, or at least significantly contributing to a laboratory, are strong indicators of achievement to both potential employers and postgraduate programs.

Regardless of their major, undergraduates should add undergraduate research positions to their list of considerations for both this coming summer and all subsequent years. The application process, be it for graduate school or a job, is highly competitive by its nature. A few years of research experience might be all it takes to get a leg up on the competition.

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