Inspiring Undergraduates to Pursue Researcher Careers: What Programs and Faculty Can Do
Sid P. Bacon, PhD, Department of Speech and Hearing Science
Arizona State University
Research is necessary for our discipline—not only to advance basic understanding, but also to ensure the highest quality of clinical services. Indeed, it is fair to say that research is essential for our discipline to survive: We must continue to unravel the mysteries of human communication, to understand how and why it sometimes fails, and to use outcomes of research to guide our clinical practice. To that end, we must educate all of our students to understand and value research, and to evaluate research critically in order to distinguish good research from bad. All our students must be competent consumers of research. A subset also must be producers of good research; they must be at the forefront of advancing our understanding of human communication and improving our diagnoses and treatments of communication disorders. The future of our discipline really does depend on them. Unfortunately, there are not enough students pursuing a research career. Those of us in academia are not training enough researchers. It is a problem; a very serious one. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this dilemma, but we cannot blame it on a dearth of bright and talented students. We have an abundance of such students who could be successful in a research career, yet far too few of them pursue such a career. How can we turn that around and inspire more of them to pursue a research career? Of all the research-related questions we might ask, there is perhaps no question as important as that one to our discipline.
One approach to this serious problem is to engage students in research early in their undergraduate career. Although the undergraduate curriculum tends to focus on normal aspects of speech, language, and hearing, students gravitate to our discipline largely because they have some direct or indirect exposure to a communication disorder that has led them on a focused path toward a career in speech-language pathology or audiology. Those clinical careers are rewarding and necessary, but so are research careers. But students have less exposure to research, and thus are less likely to embark on a path toward a research career. It is the responsibility of faculty to give students that exposure, to share with them the joy of research. This can be done on an individual faculty basis, in both classroom and research settings. Faculty can use the classroom to describe particularly interesting research studies, ones that have general appeal and tell a particularly compelling story. They can also explain how research has advanced not only our knowledge base, but also our clinical practice. Applied research may have a broader appeal to our students, given their backgrounds and experiences. As faculty, we should know our classroom audience and use the appropriate "hook" to encourage them to consider a research career. Within research settings, faculty can engage students in research in such ways as allowing them to contribute as study participants or research assistants. Their involvement, at whatever level, will give them an appreciation for research and might spark their own interest in research.
Undergraduate programs also can do more to engage students in research. Seven years ago we initiated a year-long seminar at Arizona State University designed not only to expose some of our most talented undergraduate students to research, but also to encourage them to pursue a PhD degree and a research career in academia. The seminar represents a department-wide attempt to address the shortage of incoming professors needed to offset the "aging professoriate," a shortage often referred to as a "crisis." The seminar is organized as follows. Early in the spring semester, faculty members identify sophomores and juniors who have performed especially well in classes (freshmen typically are not in our classes). As coordinator of the seminar, I then choose about 12 students from that list to invite to an organizational meeting, where I describe the purpose and content of the seminar and invite them to write a short essay on the importance of research and why they would like to participate in the seminar. From there, I invite a cohort of students (usually the 12 from the organizational meeting) to register for the seminar for the following fall semester. In the initial part of that fall semester, we discuss topics such as research and the research process, PhD training and how to choose a PhD program, academia and what it is like to be a professor, and the shortage of incoming professors to the academy. Following that, the tenured and tenure-track faculty present information about their laboratories and some of their ongoing research. After these presentations, students choose a laboratory in which they want to work. Once in the laboratory, the students are given literature to read on a particular research topic and are subsequently engaged in various aspects of research on that topic. Students enter the research projects from various places, such as the beginning of data collection or even of data analysis. Sometimes two or more students work on different aspects of the same project, and sometimes on different projects in the same laboratory. What is common throughout is that students must understand the purpose of the research and all aspects of that particular research project. After the laboratory experience begins, the seminar meets monthly to allow students an opportunity to share their experiences with each other. The seminar culminates in a poster session at the end of the spring semester, where faculty, PhD students, and others celebrate the success of the undergraduate students who present their research projects with a style and expertise commonly seen at national meetings. Some of these students have gone on to PhD programs and others are seriously considering that option.
However we approach the challenge of inspiring undergraduate students to pursue a research career, we should focus not only on the value of research for the discipline, but also on the personal joy and satisfaction inherent in such a worthy career.
This article first appeared in the April 2011 issue of Access Academics and Research.