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Office of Undergraduate Research

Information for Faculty

Undergraduate research speaks to Northwestern University's strategic plan, promoting beyond-the-classroom learning experiences as well as year-round learning over the summers and between quarters.

Benefits to students:

  • Increased fellowship awards.
  • More prominent placements in graduate programs and professional enterprises.
  • An increased ability to think critically and problem solve effectively.

Left largely unstated are the benefits to the faculty members who mentor undergraduate students. 

Benefits to faculty members:

  • You may get additional resources for your project (help conducting tedious yet important facets of your work and/or with an ability to expand a project in a new direction).
  • You're helping to further the knowledge and experience of students in ways almost impossible to achieve in the classroom. 

96% of NU students respond that they would recommend the program to their peers – 93% would recommend it very highly.

Student surveys have revealed the impact of faculty:

“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.”

Questions? Contact undergradresearch@northwestern.edu

Types of Faculty Involvement

Writing Letters of Recommendation

Don't Be Generic

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.

Be Relevant and Concrete

Connect the experiences that you have had with this student to the specifics of the program seeking the recommendation. 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 student.

Know the Student's Plan

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 their proposal.

Mentoring Independent Research

What is Mentoring an Undergraduate Like?

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.

You will be part of the process of helping students draft their research proposals, particularly ensuring that the methodology and scope are sound and realistic.

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 about proposal writing itself, dealing with inevitable problems, and writing up findings.

How Much Time?

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.

Involving Undergraduates in YOUR Research

You may find that you could use the help of a research assistant and there are programs on campus to provide you with support from undergrads, such as the Undergraduate Research Assistants Program.

Twofold Benefits:

  • In the process of having students 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 they provide insight into what actual research is like without having to create an independent project of their own.  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.

Rules of the Road

Know the Guidelines of the Program. Know the Deadlines.

Write Appropriately

Student proposals are often assessed by the clarity of the writing, and recommendations are viewed the same way.  Sending a blanket letter of recommendation may actually hurt a student’s candidacy if the program requires answers to specific questions.

Make sure that your advice is in line with the expectations of the program. Make sure that the writing you both do is focused and direct.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say "No."

We realize the constraints on your time.  If you won’t be able to fulfill the obligations of the program, be upfront.  If you fail to get your endorsement in before the review committee meets, for example, the student’s application will not even come up for review.