Normally, undergraduate research is conducted in an academic setting but it may also take place in a private company, government laboratory, a medical school, a museum, or a field station. In this section, we will take a brief look at some of the more typical settings for undergraduate research opportunities as each has its own peculiarities. These include:
- Community colleges
- Primarily undergraduate institutions
- Comprehensive universities
- Graduate Research universities
- Private industry
It is important to be appreciate the distinctive characteristics of each environment as these can significantly impact your research experience.
Community colleges are two-year academic institutions of higher learning where the highest academic degree awarded is the associate of arts. The primary responsibility of faculty at community colleges is instruction. They typically teach higher course loads than do faculty at any other type of academic institution. Until fairly recently, faculty at community colleges did not run research groups. Today there are a growing number of community college faculty involved in the supervision of undergraduate research students usually in partnership with faculty at nearby colleges, comprehensive universities, and/or graduate research universities.
Primarily undergraduate institutions is another name for college. These are non-profit, academic institutions of higher learning where the highest academic degree awarded is either a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science. Faculty at these institutions in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics may run active, research groups in their disciplines in addition to their normal teaching duties. They typically teach higher course loads than faculty at graduate research institutions. Their primary focus is usually on instruction of undergraduates and their teaching duties are usually fairly heavy and may include supervision of laboratory sections in addition to lecture and discussion sections.
Since the only students at a primarily undergraduate institution are undergraduates, research groups are generally made up entirely of undergraduates, sometimes from different academic majors, who may be at different points in their undergraduate degree program. Occasionally, you may find a postdoctoral student who is interested in ultimately pursuing an academic career at a primarily undergraduate research institution working with a faculty member at a primarily undergraduate institution. Since there are only undergraduates in the research groups at PUIs, this means that undergraduates carry out all aspects of the research projects being investigated by the faculty.
Comprehensive universities are non-profit, academic institutions of higher learning where the highest academic degree awarded is usually a master’s degree. Faculty at these institutions in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics often run active, externally funded research groups in their disciplines in addition to their normal teaching duties. Their research groups are often constituted from undergraduate majors and graduate students working on their master’s degree. Faculty at comprehensive universities typically teach higher course loads than faculty at graduate research institutions – course loads that are similar to those of faculty teaching at primarily undergraduate institutions. Their teaching duties are often split between undergraduate and graduate (advanced) courses in their discipline and may include laboratory sections as well as lectures.
Graduate research universities are non-profit, academic institutions of higher learning where the highest academic degree awarded is usually a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). Faculty at these institutions in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics are normally very active and interested in research in their discipline. Most run active, externally funded research programs in their disciplines in addition to their teaching duties. The personnel in research groups at graduate research universities are constituted from students with a wide range of academic experiences including postdoctoral students, graduate students (both masters and doctoral), undergraduates and technicians. Undergraduates involved in research at these institutions often work in partnership with an advanced graduate student or a postdoctoral student. Faculty at these institutions typically teach fewer classes than faculty at comprehensive universities or primarily undergraduate institutions and their teaching duties are often split between undergraduate and graduate (advanced) courses in their discipline. Faculty at graduate research universities normally teach only lecture sections of courses. First year graduate students typically receive financial support for their education in exchange for teaching the discussion and/or laboratory sections of the undergraduate courses. This support is often referred to as a teaching assistantship. Following the first year, many graduate students receive financial support in the form of a research assistantship. Research assistantships are usually made possible through grants to the faculty member and allow the graduate student to devote his or her time more fully to their research.
The goal of private industry is to make a profit. This has great significance in terms of what scientists and engineers do in companies and how they work. Since companies exist to make a profit from products there are often fairly rigid deadlines for the accomplishment of projects. The structure of a typical workday may also be a bit more formal compared to that of a research group in academics. Scientific and technical resources such as instrumentation, equipment, and reagents in industry may be better than that found in some colleges and universities.
Most scientists and engineers working in companies today work as members of interdisciplinary teams that may include experts in business, law, advertising as well as technical experts representing a wide range of scientific and technical disciplines. Sometimes there may be only one scientist or engineer providing/representing the expertise of that particular discipline on the team. Consequently, strong oral and written communications skills and excellent people skills are very important in the industrial workplace. These teams typically work on targeted research projects of relatively short (six-months to a year) duration for which there are very firm deadlines.