Revel in research, and reap the rewards

Matthew Price and Trevor Humby on the mutual benefits of giving undergraduates more opportunity to contribute to research

Research is an essential part of almost all careers in psychology. Yet despite this, undergraduate students do not have a direct opportunity to conduct their own hands-on research until their final-year research project (aside from group-based practicals in earlier years). So, can anything more be done to increase research skills at an earlier stage? Can students do more to seek these experiences? Are there other opportunities for doing research available?

Promoting good practice
To help develop core research skills, some university psychology departments now offer summer research internships for their students. For example, Cardiff University’s School of Psychology (our home School) promotes the university-wide Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme (UROP). This programme exists with the aim of providing students with four to eight weeks of supervised research work during the summer vacation prior to starting their final year, to help them gain more research experience and boost their CV, whilst earning some money. Students are fully integrated into the research groups and get to see all aspects of life as a research scientist.

Feedback for the scheme has been very positive, and the majority of students would like to extend their experience if possible. In addition to the School funding 12–14 students per year, members of staff have been successful in obtaining external funding, permitting even more students to experience this valuable opportunity. Currently, funding for undergraduate summer research is available from organisations such as Nuffield/BBSRC, the Wellcome Trust, and the British and European Psychological Societies.

Nearly 100 students have taken part in the school’s research scheme since its inception in 2005, with a range of studies reflecting the full breadth of psychological research. Thus, projects as diverse as tests of optic flow parsing, the role of social emotions in trust and cooperation, and the role of imprinted genes on brain function using genetically modified mice have all been undertaken. The success of the scheme is also reflected in the fact that a large proportion of the students have gone on to do PhDs. Furthermore, two projects have resulted in publications (one in the journal Nature!).

Teresa Rees (Pro Vice Chancellor, Research at Cardiff University) spoke of how the Cardiff programme had exceeded her expectations. ‘There is no doubt that both students and staff benefit from the scheme. The most rewarding aspect is the excitement for research generated in students being given an opportunity to be involved in real-life projects. Hopefully, some will be sufficiently inspired to become researchers in the future.’ Dr Candy Hassall, Head of Basic Careers at the Wellcome Trust agrees: ‘There is no better way to gain insight into and be inspired by the scientific process than to be immersed in the laboratory experience… These awards enable students to put into practice what they have learnt in their lectures and provide a glimpse of what a research career is like.’

Student benefits
By providing students the opportunity to see every stage of the research process from funding application through to report write-up, they are given an extra chance to practise and develop the skills needed for their final-year project and future careers and to think critically about the world of research. From our experience, the evidence suggests that our interns are more likely to be awarded a first for their project, with 60 per cent of summer students awarded 70 per cent or more (cf. 30–40 per cent of all students), and 40 per cent of our interns go on to achieve a first class degree. Therefore, by giving students an additional chance to refine their research abilities with the summer internship experience, they are more likely to have the skills required to carry out their final-year research project to a higher standard. This is obviously fruitful for staff and students alike.

Another significant benefit of a summer research internship is the chance to meet PhD students. PhD and other postgraduate students are often very separated from undergraduate students but are a potentially great source of knowledge and expertise. A summer research opportunity gives undergraduate students a chance to interact closely with PhD students, learning from their experience, and for undergraduates considering a career in academic research, this contact may prove invaluable in highlighting an accessible career path upon graduation.

Staff benefits
An enthusiastic undergraduate student who is keen to learn has a lot to contribute to a research laboratory. Data collection is time-consuming, and so having an extra pair of hands in the lab is often highly appreciated! As well as this, two minds are better than one, and students may contribute a fresh approach to research. An example of this comes from a student whose suggestion of an extra condition for a study was later incorporated into the final design. ‘Throughout my eight weeks I had a glimpse at the process behind constructing a study. As a result of my own reading and talking to the PhD student I suggested putting in another condition, which became a part of the study. It was rewarding to know I contributed intellectually to the study itself.’ Having a summer research student comes at the cost of giving regular supervision, but surely this is a small price to pay?

A call to universities and students
With funding becoming increasingly limited, more and more universities would argue that they could not afford to run such a summer research scheme. However, many funding bodies acknowledge the importance and value of undergraduate research opportunities and provide research grants in recognition of this need. Why would they fund undergraduate research?

A spokesperson for Nuffield’s bursaries programme, Sara Botting, explains: ‘One of the Nuffield Foundation’s aims is to build research capacity both within science and social science. Our undergraduate bursaries are a great way of doing that because they offer a hands-on experience of scientific research. Students get an invaluable opportunity to enhance their research skills as well as gaining an insight into life as a scientific researcher.’

While these resources are available there is not as much competition for them as might be expected which suggests that perhaps universities need to be more engaged with students about these opportunities and go to the next level to promote them further. It also suggests that students, keen on a research career, should perhaps be more willing to think outside the box and approach lecturers to help them win a bursary for research.

In sum, summer research as an undergraduate can be a rewarding and enriching experience. It is a chance for students to fully participate in the professional work of their university, and may help in deciding future career paths. With this in mind, perhaps what is required is better advertising of these types of opportunities to encourage more summer research schemes to more students – so that even more students can revel in research!

- Matthew Price is a final-year undergraduate student, co-president of the Cardiff School of Psychology Society and took part in the UROP scheme.

- Trevor Humby is a lecturer in Behavioural Genetics at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and is co-ordinator of the school UROP scheme

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