From Student to Scholar: The Importance of Undergraduate Research

For an undergrad looking to land a job or be accepted into a graduate program, it is more important than ever to have academic endeavors outside of the classroom.  Conducting research as an undergrad is an important step for those wishing to be successful after graduation.

Melanie Hildebrandt, the Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) and an Academic Advisor for the Honors College, helps facilitate the collaboration between students and faculty for undergraduate research.  She also coordinates the Student Research Assistant Program (SRAP), handles money dispersal for travel, grant proposals, and helping students present their research at state, regional, and national conferences.  “The whole point of undergraduate research is to have our faculty working with students on things that are meaningful—related to their major and related to future careers,” said Hildebrandt.

According to Hildebrandt, having the experience of undergraduate research gives graduates a foot in the door when applying for jobs. “It shows potential employers that you can actually produce something,” said Hildebrandt.  Having a Bachelor’s degree and a 4.0 GPA just doesn’t cut it anymore.  “They want productive employees. You have to be able to transform and produce something.  I think our students that are engaged in meaningful projects can really show employers that,” said Hildebrandt.  Having produced research as an undergrad gives students or recent graduates the opportunity to give examples of those skills and characteristics listed on their resume.

Undergraduate research also gives students the opportunities to make connections with people who could potentially give them substantial recommendations.  “When you have a very close relationship with a faculty mentor who can say very specific things about your abilities and your character, that goes a lot further than the generic recommendation letter,” said Hildebrandt.  These recommendations could also come from professionals met at conferences where the student presented their research.  Presenting at conferences is not only a great networking opportunity, but also allows students to learn about graduate programs at other universities, meet other students with similar interests and gain the presentation skills necessary for their future careers.

Undergraduate research also helps students’ graduate school applications stand out from a large stack of good candidates.   “For our students to have that step up—to be able to say ‘look at what I’ve already done, look at what I could accomplish when I was an undergraduate;’” said Hildebrandt. “That’s a much safer bet than someone with a 4.0 and a high GRE score, but who has never been to a research conference and never worked one-on-one with a faculty mentor outside the classroom.”

Hildebrandt said that OUR has a lot of resources to offer to students who want to get involved.  OUR has held programs open to students about undergraduate research and plans to host programs in the future about citations, making posters for presentations and even ethics regarding research on human subjects.  OUR also hosts two major research conferences on campus: Research Day and Big Night.  Students can present their undergraduate research on Research Day and compete to win cash prizes and the opportunity to present at Big Night, a more exclusive conference on campus.  There are also several departmental conferences and interdisciplinary conferences hosted throughout the academic year.

According to Hildebrandt, it’s never too early to start this process.  Most students believe that undergraduate research is something that only seniors do, but Hildebrandt assures that is not the case. “Projects are ongoing and faculty would rather have a student that could work for six semesters rather than one or two,” said Hildebrandt.  She encourages students of all class statuses to seek assistance from OUR.  “For students who are enthusiastic and are willing to put a lot of work, time and effort into these projects with the faculty, there are plenty of opportunities out there.”

The experience of undergraduate research isn’t just about building a resume; it’s about building a future.  “I’ve seen undergraduate research transform so many of our students,” Hildebrandt said.   “They go from being students to being scholars, and that’s what people on the outside are looking for, regardless of what the next step is when they leave West Georgia.”



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