The ten “unwritten” rules of getting involved in undergraduate research

Title: Cultural capital in undergraduate research: an exploration of how biology students operationalize knowledge to access research experiences at a large, public research-intensive institution

Authors: Katelyn M. Cooper, Jacqueline M. Cala, and Sara E. Brownell

First author’s institution: Arizona State University

Journal: International Journal of STEM Education (2021)


To say my path into undergraduate research was typical would be an exaggeration. Sure, I attended the required weekly sophomore seminars where faculty talked about their research and the Society of Physics Students research talks but I didn’t find my lab through them. Instead, I found the lab I would later do research in by volunteering to be a research subject in one of their problem-solving studies to get extra credit for one of the physics courses I was taking.

Given that most physics (and more generally, STEM) labs are not doing research on human subjects, how do undergraduates typically find and secure research opportunities? That’s the subject of today’s paper where the authors propose ten “rules” for getting involved in research as an undergraduate.

So what’s the big deal about doing research as an undergraduate anyway? Well, just like exercise offers many benefits for your health, participating in undergraduate research has been linked to a variety of positive outcomes including enhanced learning and critical thinking ability, improved perceptions of career options, and greater interest in pursuing a graduate STEM degree.

But as my academic advisor channeling her inner Boromir put it, one does not simply get involved in research. Instead, students need to first know that research is an option, why it is worthwhile to do research, decide to pursue a research position, find such a position, and then secure the position and join the lab. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: A typical path for an undergraduate student interested in joining a research lab. (Figure 1 in paper)

To analyze this process and how students engage in it, the researchers proposed the idea of “scientific research capital,” or the economic, social, and cultural resources students have that might be helpful for gaining a research position. The idea is that because there are unwritten rules (or more technically, the hidden curriculum) in academia, students with more scientific research capital may have more knowledge of those rules and also be more able to apply those rules to secure a research position.

To test that idea though, we need to know what the rules are. To find out the rules, the researchers interviewed 43 undergraduates currently involved in research at a research-intensive southwestern American University and also 42 undergraduates who were interested in doing research but hadn’t yet landed a position.

The researchers then asked each student about their research position, focusing on how the student found research positions and what they did to secure the position. The researchers then identified strategies the students listed in their interviews. Any strategy that was mentioned by over 15% of the participants was then considered a “rule” for getting involved in research.

The Ten Rules

Overall, the participants mentioned ten strategies for finding or securing research, 5 for each.

In terms of finding research positions, over 80% mentioned using online university resources such as faculty websites and university databases to learn about positions and nearly two-thirds of students mentioned talking to instructors of their classes about research positions. The other three rules also involved talking to others about research positions including academic advisors, graduate teaching assistants, and other students. Each of these was mentioned by no more than a third of the students.

Students were less knowledgeable about the rules of getting a position. While 60% expressed the belief that students are supposed to express interest in the research topic regardless of their actual interest, less than half of the students expressed using the other four rules. These included doing background research on the lab by looking at its website and recent publications, getting to know the faculty member leading the lab by taking courses from them, attending office hours, or exchanging emails, asking questions about the lab’s work during an interview instead of just answering questions, and reaching out to multiple faculty.

Cool, but does knowing the rules matter for getting a position?

This study wasn’t designed for causation so we can’t say whether knowing the rules causes students to be more successful in getting a research position. But we can see whether researchers are more likely to know the rules than their peers who hadn’t secured a position.

When it came to the rules of securing a position, those doing research were more likely to know the rules than those who weren’t doing research. Of the five rules around securing a position, only building a relationship with the faculty member leading the lab didn’t show a statistical difference. Each of the other four strategies showed at least a 30 percentage point gap between those doing research and those who didn’t.

The finding research rules on the other hand did not show any statistical differences.

While a 30 percentage point gap might sound large, we need to keep in mind that the researchers determined whether students knew a rule based on whether they talked about it in their interview. The researchers didn’t explicitly asked students about the rules because they didn’t develop the rules until after all the interviews were complete. This means that students might not have mentioned a rule because they didn’t know it or because they forgot to mention it.

What do we do now that we know the rules?

If we were to follow the deficit model, we would start teaching students these rules so they know what to do. As you might have guessed by the term “deficit model,” this approach isn’t necessarily the most favored because it places the blame on the student for not knowing the rules rather than on academia for operating under a system of unwritten rules. Even if we start to share the rules more widely, there are concerns that those with more scientific research capital who already benefit under the current system would be the ones most likely to be taught the rules and the problem could become worse. Yet, the authors acknowledge that despite the concerns, educating students on the rules is likely the most viable, immediate solution to increasing access to research.

Longer term however, the researchers suggest researchers move away from unwritten rules for selecting students to join their lab and instead, make any expectations or rules explicit. For example, if a faculty member advertises a position through the department listserv and expects the applicant to express interest in a certain type of project, the advertisement can explicitly ask the applicant to include in their application why the project is of interest to them or what work the lab is currently doing is of interest to them. By doing so, the previously unwritten rules of expressing interest and doing background research on the lab have been written out, providing a more equal opportunity to all students.

Figures used under CC BY 4.0.

One comment

  1. There is also research to be done on how undergraduate research can begin to scaffold graduate research and how undergraduate can navigate actually participating in research. As an undergraduate in the early 90s, I worked in at least three labs, including one for multiple semesters, but never learned how to do my own research. This became a problem in grad school, when my advisor didn’t bother to teach me how to do research, either (and there was no method course).

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