Seven Potential Barriers to Engaging in Undergraduate Research for HURMS
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
There is no shortage of evidence celebrating the advantages of engaging in undergraduate research or its firm position as one of the 11 high-impact educational practices, such as the building of confidence and efficacy in students, being cited as the gateway for motivating students to pursue advanced graduate level training, particularly in STEM careers (Russell, Hancock, & McCullough, 2007), and increasing rates of retention in majors of study with high rates of attrition (Eagan et al., 2013). In their essay on the use of Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs), Bangera and Brownell (2014) discuss seven barriers that sustain the restriction of access and participation for Historically Underrepresented Minority students (HURMS):
- Awareness of Existing Research Opportunities. As faculty, particularly those of us at schools where we are expected to maintain a research program, there is an assumption that everyone knows about the opportunities for undergraduate research. We as faculty live in a world where our work or the work of our colleagues is constantly highlighted in reports and on institutional web-pages. It becomes this unspoken assumption that the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research carries the same level of awareness as knowing where the library is. However, this is not the case; in fact Bangera and Brownell suggest that awareness of research opportunities often comes later in a college student’s career, if at all.
- Awareness of the Possible Benefits of Research Experiences. Yes, we as academics and administrators are fully aware of the benefits, but we can’t assume our students are, especially if students have never met anyone previously who has participated in undergraduate research. I think about my experience as a first-generation college student and my lack of awareness for how undergraduate research worked. I did not seek out a research opportunity because it increased my likelihood of retention and pursuit of a graduate degree. There was no one in my family that could highlight the link between UR participation and career advancement. My desire to be involved stemmed from my own love of psychological experiments, fostered by participating in class labs.
- Awareness of Cultural Norms Associated with Scientific Research. Historically in my department, faculty tended to work with students they previously had in class(es). The belief was that you developed an understanding of the student’s work ethic, strengths (including the ability to follow directions, and write with integrated sources), and weaknesses over the semester(s). However, no where did we advertise this preferred path into mentored research to students. Students most likely found out about it by asking other students or through conversations with their advisor and/or instructor. Most students just waited for faculty to tap them on their shoulder after class or as times have evolved electronically tap them through email. However, over the eight years I have been at Elon in the psychology department I am noticing a cultural shift. Students, with the assistance of email courage, are now reaching out to me. Much of this traffic is the result of students in fellow’s programs who are required to work with a faculty member on research, but there has been an increase in the general outreach from students who just appear to be more aware of this experiential opportunity. I believe this particular trend has a lot to do with curriculum reframing and deliberate integration with high impact practices at our institution. BUT, even with the evolving cultural norms around asking to participate in research, I still don’t experience an increase in requests from students that are classified as HURMS.
- Perceived Barriers to Interactions with Faculty. While I finished my doctorate, I began serving as an adjunct professor. I remember walking into an elevator with students after I had finished teaching a class and a student blurted out, “Oh my god, how short are you?” The answer to the question is pretty short. I wasn’t offended by the remark; I could see the student processing my actual stature in comparison to one they perceived me to have as well as their own and they quickly followed that query with, “I just thought you were much taller – you seemed much taller when you were at the front of the class.” I think this seemingly innocuous exchange is a critically important one. I have no morphing abilities – I can’t alter my height, despite how much my youngest son wishes I could be the pink Power Ranger to his red. However, when I step into a room of undergraduates with my professor game face on, their perception of my stature shifts to align with their perception of my expertise and CV length. My research students have often commented on my reputation for being tough, demanding, a lover of perfection, and intimidating. All of these descriptions make me laugh as they remind me of my drill sergeant uncle who was in the Marines, but they are all examples of how faculty are often seen as the Wizard of Oz hologram, not the lost approachable scientist behind the curtain.
- Financial and Personal Barriers. A huge factor in my selection of an undergraduate institution was the financial aid package I was awarded. My mother was still paying off the college loans for my sister when I started my first year. I remember walking to catch the shuttle bus to my work study and enviously staring at the students who were going for coffee or spreading blankets out on the quad to catch the last bit of sun for the day. Once I became a resident advisor I gained a little more financial flexibility but still needed to work. I could not have participated in UR had the “tapping” by my professor not come with a stipend. For the two years I worked as research assistant, I was named an Excel Scholar. The program gave me a stipend, and my professor was given modest funds to support his research needs. Bangera and Brownell (2014) cite Malcom and Dowd (2012) who found that student debt is negatively correlated with the likelihood of pursuing a post-graduate training experience in STEM fields. This means that students with more loans, as opposed to work study funds or scholarships, are holding off on entering graduate school programs. It could also suggest that these same students are working to support themselves financially and don’t have the time to get involved with research or the ability to financial sustain themselves if they give up their paid position for often unpaid research experience – the same research experiences that produce standout letters of recommendation that are needed to gain entrance into many graduate programs.
- Assessment of Mentorship and Preferences for the “Best” students. Bangera and Brownell correctly point out that although participation in undergraduate research is hugely impactful with tremendous benefits, academia has no metric that “predicts research success.” We have historically relied on the student’s past performance and experience, GPA, and interviewing skills to determine who is worthy of investing in for a deep mentoring experience. It is what Bangera and Brownell refer to as the “rising star hypothesis.” The need to bet on a sure thing is also fostered, in my opinion, by the pressures we as faculty face to produce publishable and/or fundable material in order to obtain tenure and/or promotion. At undergraduate institutions, faculty labs are entirely populated by undergraduates who need to perform at graduate levels in order for the faculty member to be productive. Bangera and Brownell aptly point out the equity flaw in this system when they state, “there is limited incentive for faculty members to take risks by selecting underperforming, shy, or modest students with potential, thereby excluding students who may be capable of making significant contributions to a research program.” HURMS, in my experience are more likely to be characterized as modest (i.e., wait to be asked instead of asking) when it comes to participation in UR.
- Unconscious Societal Bias. We don’t like to think about it, but unconscious bias has, is, and will always be in the air. Bangera and Brownell cite the recent research by Milkman, Akinola, and Chugh (2015) on how a student’s name impacts the probability that a faculty member will respond to an email they have sent. Students with names that appear to be White were more likely to garner a response. Recognition of this barrier should challenge faculty to evaluate how they select students and critically consider who catches your eye and why. It also is a call to consider the context of the students in your class beyond your classroom.
Here lie seven significant barriers to achieving undergraduate research participation equity. Now what? How does higher education – the academy – reconstruct a mentored research structure that adheres to social equity? Perhaps it starts with asking ourselves how research is a social justice issue. I’m going to start with John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, which contains two primary principles: (1) every person should have “equal rights to the same basic liberties”; and, (2) social and economic inequities should be constructed in such a way that those with disadvantages gain the most advantage. Further, there should be persistent opportunity equality, which means that everyone has access to the same opportunities. The Rawlsian Justice perspective may not be the framework that has traditionally shaped the undergraduate research model for engagement, as evident by the barriers Bangera and Brownell highlight, but it, along with Critical Race Theory (CRT), should be.
- Bangera, G., & Brownell, S. E. (2014). Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences Can Make Scientific Research More Inclusive. CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(4), 602–606. http://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-06-0099
- Eagan Jr, M. K., Hurtado, S., Chang, M. J., Garcia, G. A., Herrera, F. A., & Garibay, J. C. (2013). Making a difference in science education: the impact of undergraduate research programs. American educational research journal, 50(4), 683-713.
- Guy, M. E., & McCandless, S. A. (2012). Social equity: Its legacy, its promise. Public Administration Review, 72(s1), S5-S13.
- Malcom, L.E., & Dowd, A.C. (2012). The impact of undergraduate debt on the graduate school enrollment of STEM baccalaureates. Review of Higher Educaction, 35(2), 265 – 305.
- Milkman, K.L., Akinola, M., & Chugh, D. (2015). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100 (6), 1678 – 1712.
- Russell, S. H., Hancock, M. P., & McCullough, J. (2007). Benefits of undergraduate research experiences. Science(Washington), 316(5824), 548-549.
Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.