Study links undergraduate research experiences, pursuit of STEM doctorates

College students who participate in hands-on, faculty-mentored research en route to their bachelor’s degrees cite multiple personal and professional benefits the experience delivers, from strengthening their time-management, critical-thinking and communication skills to developing one-on-one connections with distinguished faculty.

But a new analysis by scientists from Auburn University and four collaborating institutions suggests the value of structured research programs for undergraduates extends to society as a whole by encouraging participants to seek advanced degrees in scientific and technological fields — often referred to as STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

In an article published June 13 in the journal BioScience, the researchers reported that college underclassmen who take part in summer research training programs — specifically, in this study, the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU, initiative — are 48 percent more likely to pursue STEM-related doctoral degrees than demographically matched students who apply but are not selected.

“We often assume that involving undergraduates in research improves their training as scientists, but had little evidence to back up that assumption,” said Todd Steury, a School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences associate professor, who contributed to the study. “This study demonstrates that undergraduate research really does improve their education, in at least as far as their desire to pursue advanced degrees and their ability to generate scientific output.”

Steury said pursuing doctoral degrees is not the only benefit of undergraduate research. “Students who had undergraduate research experiences had more publications, gave more presentations and won more awards than the students that applied to doctoral programs but had no research experience.”

Steury also said that the results of the study may encourage faculty members to pursue more undergraduate research assistants.

Tucker Batley, a sophomore majoring in forestry, said his undergraduate research experience studying the impacts wild pigs have on water quality has lasting benefits. “Working in the research lab has benefited me by giving me hands-on experience in the field and I believe it will boost my resume in the future.”

Written by Maggie Smith

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