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Undergrads Who Do Hands-on Research More Likely to Pursue STEM Doctoral Degrees

biology student taking water sample

A new study found that college students who participate in undergraduate research experiences are more likely to seek advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields.

Researchers at Auburn University and four collaborating institutions tracked 176 demographically similar students who had applied to field-ecology or field-biology training programs across the U.S. through the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) initiative. Half of the applicants were accepted to the programs, and half were not. Those who took part in the programs, the study found, were 48 percent more likely to pursue STEM-related doctoral degrees than those who were not selected.

Students in the REU program receive a stipend (and often free room and board) to participate in 10-week summer research projects at a particular institution over three consecutive years. Participants gain hands-on research experience led by faculty mentors.

"Our assumption for a long time has been that conducting independent undergraduate research under the guidance of a faculty mentor prepares students for success in STEM careers," said Alan Wilson, Auburn School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences associate professor and lead author of the study, in a statement. "Our data support that assumption. They show that the product is real, that it can make a difference—for the students, their mentors and the reputation of their universities. We hope our findings will increase future students' interest in learning how to 'do' research and encourage more college faculty to invest their time and energies into mentoring."

The full study, "Assessing Science Training Programs: Structured Undergraduate Research Programs Make a Difference," appears in the journal BioScience and is freely available here.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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