Why you should hire more undergrads for your lab

Hiring undergraduate researchers improves outcomes for your students—and your research department, John Trant writes for University Affairs.

According to Trant, an assistant chemistry professor at the University of Windsor, a student's "undergraduate" status may lead some to underestimate his or her capacity to grow and learn in a lab environment. Trant, who currently manages 17 undergrad researchers, argues that these misconceptions can cause students to miss out on valuable experiential research experience.

Pulling from experience managing his own research team, Trant identifies what students—and faculty members—stand to gain when they bring undergraduate students into the lab.

1: Prepare your students for professional success

At Trant's lab, first-year science students build the technical skills needed to succeed in the lab environment. Senior undergraduates take on mentorship roles and gain project management experience, he writes. By their third year, many undergraduate researchers have boosted their resumes and improved their chances of publishing their work, he adds.

More universities are restructuring their course offerings to encourage student participation in high-impact practices like research and internships. Students who participate in experiential learning opportunities learn to apply academic concepts in the real world, explore their strengths and interests, and better understand concepts, Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun wrote for the Washington Post in 2015.

Read more: How Harvey Mudd College uses hands-on experiences to get more women into STEM

2: Grow your students' network

In the lab setting, undergraduates can find mentors among other undergraduates, graduate researchers, and post-doctoral fellows, Trant writes. The friendships undergraduate researchers build can support them throughout their personal, academic, and professional life, he adds. 

3: Boost your faculty's research output

Hiring undergraduate researchers drive innovation and boost faculty research output, Trant argues. During his first eighteen months at UWindsor, Trant submitted 43 grant submissions, published seven papers, coauthored 30 conference presentations—while mentoring over 20 student researchers, he writes. In his experience, training an undergraduate student researcher early on can provide faculty members with up to three years of research support, he adds (Trant, University Affairs, 1/16).

Related: How to transform student employment into meaningful career development


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