What is the value of research to you, as an undergraduate, if you decide not to go on to a postgraduate degree?
“The skills that are most valued in a University graduate are the inquisitiveness, the logical approach, and the adaptability that characterise a lifelong learner".*
Research and teaching are the two principles tenets of any University. Teaching is the obvious one - as a student, you come here to learn, and you need experienced experts in your chosen field to help you get to where you want to be. Research is a bit different. While you may be introduced to it through some of your coursework, you may go through most of your undergraduate life not really knowing what research is for, how it works in a larger university/academic context, or what kind of work your tutors are doing. If you study here, you might not know that, for example, Pete Etchells is looking at the psychology of videogames and screen time, or that Rainer Elk-Anders is an expert in Russian intelligence and politics.
So this leaves an ultimate question - what is the value of research to you, as an undergraduate, if you decide not to go on to a postgraduate degree?
Research for a modern world
The skills we need to thrive in the world have changed. The internet means open access information, and expertise is much easier to come by. One minute we may be able to teach you all there is to know about something, but in the next minute, something can appear that changes the entire conversation. The flow of information is immense, and overwhelming.
The focus of a good university, then, should not be on replicating ourselves as authorities in you, but rather on teaching you to adapt to the world as it emerges. It’s not about regurgitating facts (because the facts are always changing), but in cultivating an all around ‘appetite for learning’ that will serve you best in the world as it is. Key to this is helping you develop skills like critical thinking (or learning to analyse and question what you see, hear and read), and teaching you how to take setbacks and learn from them.
The academia of the future, as I see it, is one without a hierarchy between things like ‘undergraduate’ and ‘research’ - research shouldn’t just be for the ‘intellectuals’. It is for everyone.
This, I think, is where research has its value - it is an active process of doing that enhances the more passive areas of learning that can happen with teaching. Instead of having people talk at you, or tell you facts, research encourages you to find those things for yourself.
How does academic research work?
Any smart and thriving business will constantly update it’s core product in response to the changing needs of its consumer base - it may improve the recipe, for example, or remove bugs in its software - in response to changes in industry and customer feedback. Our research is what enables us to make those changes for you. It is how we reach into the outside world and get feedback on our knowledge, so we can share that improved product (ourselves) with you.
But we don’t come to a current state of being without going through a process of trial, error and change. While you benefit from the up to date knowledge of your professors, you also have access to the process of learning that they have gone through in order to become researchers and experts. This process comes with a host of vital life skills that we can also teach you, outside of just helping you how to go through an archive or test in the field.
For example, a researcher has to do the following things on an (almost) daily basis:
- Consider both the bigger picture, and the smaller details. A research project may look to one large, overarching question, but you often have to answer many small ones before you can get there.
- Can’t solve a problem? Find another way. If there’s another word for research, it’s try, fail, try, and fail again (although ‘innovation’ sounds nicer!)
- See trends that others don’t see. Maybe the solution is staring you right in the face. Maybe something that keeps happening, or that keeps coming up in your work or life that you thought was accidental, isn’t accidental at all.
- Time and self management. While we would all love to sit in a library or be out in the field gathering material, most researchers have to learn to balance. Writing papers for publication, blogging about it, tweeting it, posting it on research websites, going to conferences, networking - we do it all.
- Grow. The person we were yesterday before we knew the thing is not the person we are now - we adapt every time we read/learn/see something new.
- Network. Research does not occur in a vacuum, nor do we exist in one. Researchers hold their work accountable by sharing and discussing it with others, or collaborating with authorities that can inform their work, and those relationships can provide additional value to you as our students.
What our research can do is to show you that you can solve any problem with a bit of investigation by embracing trial and error and cultivating an experimental or open-minded mindset. So don’t forget, while you’re here, ask your tutors about what they’re doing, and how they got there. Their insight might just be able to give you some of your own.
*Anna Wilson, Susan Howitt, Kate Wilson, Pam Roberts, “Academics’ perceptions of the purpose of undergraduate research experiences in research-intensive degree”, Studies in Higher Education 37.5 (August 2012), 515.
Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science: students looking through microscopes in a laboratory. Photograph, c. 1933. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
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