Sunday, November 13, 2016

Did you do research when you were an undergrad? Well.. it was a different time.

Dan is a high school student who has worked with me and is now an ugrad at College Park

DAN: Bill, did you do research when you were in high school?

BILL: No, things were different then, there wasn't really a mechanism for it. Or, as you young people would say, it wasn't a thing.

DAN: When as an undergrad did you begin to do research?

BILL: Well, I never did research as an ugrad either.

DAN: Then how did you get into Harvard? Did they accidentally put your folder in the wrong pile?

BILL: Good question. I'll ask my adviser if he recalls what went wrong back in 1980.

DAN: Really? You'll ask him?


Okay, the real question here is:

At some point (before 1980) doing research at an ugrad in college was not really a thing many people did.

And now its quite common.

What changed? Is the change for the good? I'll phrase my thoughts and questions in the form of a question (the opposite of Jeopardy).

1) Are there more magnet schools and more ways to funnel students into research early?

2) Do computers allow students to to more research than they could have back before (say) 1980?

3) Is the phrase `HS research' a bit odd-  it is more learning then doing?

4) Is there a cycle going on- since more students are doing research, more have to do research to keep up in order to get into grad school? Is this even an issue for college admissions and/or scholarships?

5) Has the quality of research at HS science competitions increased ? Ugrad research? Grad student research? Prof research?

6) Does having HS or ugrads do research with you increase or decrease your productivity? (That depends on the students of course)

7) Do colleges give faculty kudos for guiding HS or ugrad research? (That depends on the school of course)

8) Are there more grants for ugrad research then before 1980? Are REU programs fairly new?

9) Does an ugrad now NEED to have done research to get into one of the top X grad schools? If so is this a good thing or not?  Does this hurt those without the oppurtunity  to do research? Do REU programs help alleviate this problem?

10) Are students entering grad school knowing far more than they used to?

11) Some magnet schools REQUIRE HS students to do research. Is this a good thing?

12) I've been using 1980 as a reference for no good reason- when did HS research and ugrad research increase? Was it gradual or was there some big increase over some X years where X is small?


  1. "Does an ugrad now NEED to have done research to get into one of the top X grad schools? If so is this a good thing or not? Does this hurt those without the opportunity to do research?"

    Unsure about the first two questions. But as a current CS master's students (with both a CS ugrad and some industry xp), with no research experience before last summer and currently applying for a PhD in CS, most people (including professors) that I talk to tend to tell me that having more research experience would have boosted my application a lot. Result: I am not even considering applying to top 5-10 schools to gamble my time and money over chances.

  2. It is true that in top programs, you need some very strong indication that you'll be a successful researcher. While there are other measures of excellence (say, a Gold Medal in Math Olympiad) either industrial experience (with some strong support for creative coding) or some research experience is almost a must. Or you need to write something very creative. After all, there are zillions of cool REU programs in the summer. If you never felt the need to explore stuff, why would we assume you're going to be good at it?
    Superb letters and an explanation for other summer projects (need to make money, climbing the Kilimanjaro, building home in Appalachia) are an reasonable substitute...

  3. At my school (a top-15 program), I see lots of applicants with strong grades but little-to-no research experience who get admitted, especially if they are from the US.

    Research experience certainly can help, though, especially since it provides another letter.