Information for Faculty
Undergraduate research has been a growing element within Northwestern (and wider academia) for years. The benefits to students have been well documented: increased fellowship awards, more prominent placements in graduate programs and professional enterprises, and an increased ability to think critically and problem solve effectively. However, left largely unstated are the benefits to the faculty members who mentor the students.
While being a mentor certainly involves time and energy, we believe that the returns far outweigh those factors. By getting involved, you may find yourself with additional resources for your project, with help conducting tedious yet important facets of your work, and/or with an ability to expand a project in a new direction. In addition, you help to further the knowledge and experience of students in ways almost impossible to achieve in the classroom. During the most recent Undergraduate Research Grant year, 96% of the students responded that they would recommend the program to their peers – 93% would recommend it very highly.
Faculty mentoring plays a huge role in that experience, as seen through exit surveys received in June of 2010:
“My advisor was excellent. She provided the perfect mix of insightful advice and hands-off encouragement. I felt well guided, but also free to explore my research as I saw it.”
“My advisor is a top-notch scientist, who is still willing to take 45 minutes out of his day to explain how to do an experiment. My ‘in lab’ advisor is remarkably productive, efficient, and knows a lot about how to get things done. They’re a great team to work with.”
“My advisor did a great job helping me to deal with unexpected problems.”
The work that students do is, to say the least, very impressive:
This site is designed to help explain the different types of research experiences that you may be approached about (or look into yourself) as well as to provide resources and links to the specific programs at Northwestern. If you have any questions about how to use this site, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Types of Undergrad Research
There are three main ways that you could get involved with undergraduates doing research.
1. You may be asked to write a letter of support/recommendation for a student’s grant application or program.
Some programs ask for faculty to simply write letters of support, such as the Undergraduate Engagement Grant or the Circumnavigator’s Travel-Study Grant. In writing a letter, it is important to always connect the experiences that you have had with this student to the specifics of the environment/program seeking the recommendation. In other words, try to take your knowledge of the student and contextualize it in a way that will be relevant to the people reviewing it.
Always be honest, as you want to ensure that students do not end up in programs or in places that they really aren’t equipped to handle. Use hyperbole sparingly; instead speak in concrete terms about your experience with this person.
In cases of grant applications, make sure that you have read and can sign-off on any proposal created by the student. If you have doubts or concerns, raise them with the student first, allowing them the opportunity to revise.
Make sure that you always read and respond to grant/program specifics outlined by the people seeking the recommendation. Avoid generic letters, as they offer little insight and can even undermine candidacy. A lukewarm, generic letter is often interpreted as either a lack of knowledge of the student or a lack of support for this specific program/proposal.
2. You may be asked to serve as a mentor/advisor on a student’s independent research project.
At times, you may be asked to serve as a formal advisor for a student’s independent research project, such as with the Undergraduate Research Grant program. In some cases, the research will have originated with you, but in others, you may be the specialist in the student’s area of interest.
While you will undoubtedly still be asked to submit an endorsement of the student and project, these experiences will require more time and commitment. You will need to be part of the process of helping them draft a research proposal, particularly ensuring that the methodology and scope are sound and realistic. With programs like URG, there are often strict timetables for submitting endorsements, so make sure you check carefully the guidelines for each program.
Depending on the project, you may see the student regularly (in a lab setting) or very rarely (only for brief check-ins or email correspondence). As long as the student is getting the support s/he needs, the confines of that relationship are up to you and the student. Most programs will ask the student for some sort of summary of findings, which will require your endorsement as well.
The goal of these programs is to provide students with a safe monitored environment in which they conduct what, for most of them, will be their first research project. It is inherently pedagogical, in that we hope students learn not just about their topic, but also proposal writing, dealing with inevitable problems, and writing up findings. You are a resource for them in these new seas of research.
3. You may ask a student to work with you on your own research project.
You may find that you could use the help of a research assistant, and there are programs on campus to provide support, such as the FARA program and the newly piloted Undergraduate Research Assistants Program. In these cases, the research is completely yours. In the process of having them help you code interviews or access archives, there is also the pedagogical moment of teaching the student about the research process and methodology.
These opportunities are often foundational for underclassmen, as it can provide them an in-road into what actual research is like without having to create an independent project. While there is certainly training and oversight elements to having an undergraduate assistant, most faculty come away impressed by the depth and quality of the work done by the students.
With these types of programs, it is normally the faculty member who submits the study and seeks to gain funding for the research assistant, although the specific hiring is always left to the faculty member. At times, faculty may have students in mind for the position, but in others, faculty have been amazed by the pool of capable and qualified students available to assist them.
All in all, helping students get involved with research is a deeply rewarding exercise, and one that can offer great benefits back as well.
The most important aspect of supporting a student’s undergraduate research ambitions is to make sure you know the restrictions and expectations of the program. Sending a blanket letter of recommendation may actually hurt a student’s candidacy if the program requests the answering of specific questions. So:
Rule #1: Always check with a program’s web site and/or coordinator for specifics.
Here is a partial list of opportunities popular with undergraduates [links]:
- Academic Year Undergraduate Research Grants
- Summer Undergraduate Research Grants
- Undergraduate Language Grants
- Global Engagement Summer Institute
- WCAS Grants for Undergraduate Research
- Hess Undergraduate Research Fellowships
- Lund Scholarships for Global Reporting and Research
- School of Communication Research Grants
- McCormick Research Opportunities for Undergraduates
- Circumnavigator’s Travel-Study Award
For more opportunities, see our “Research Opportunities” page:
Rule #2: Be aware of deadlines and timelines
Due to external reasons, many of the deadlines are fixed and non-negotiable, so make sure you are aware ahead of time what expectations are for submitting your materials. Here is a calendar link to the deadlines for all Provost Office grants.
Rule #3: Write/advise appropriately
Student proposals are often assessed by the clarity of the writing, and recommendations are viewed the same way. Make sure that your advice is in line with the expectations of the program. Below you will find a link to the proposal writing guide offered to students; make sure your students work from this template (if applicable to their program/grant). Also, make sure that the writing that you do is focused and direct. The advice given to proposal writers also applies to faculty recommenders as well. Here are links to some helpful resources:
Rule #4: Don’t Be Afraid to Say ‘No’
While we encourage faculty members to engage with students in undergraduate research, we realize the constraints of time. If you won’t be able to fulfill the obligations of the program, you don’t do any good for the student involved. For example, if you fail to get your URG endorsement in before the Committee meets, then that student’s application will not even come up for review. However well intentioned you may have been, the student will not receive funding. Most programs do have flexibility built in, so check with the program coordinator to see if accommodations can be made, if needed. However, make sure before you agree to help a student that you will be able to follow through with the commitments required.