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I'm struggling with deciding to which type of school to go in order to gain a better research experience. Basically, the research experience is the most important factor for me to decide my college, since I want to be a strong applicant in PhD admission. Most reputable, research universities are far larger than LACs (liberal arts colleges), and they (except for top schools like HYPSM) are not so friendly places for those who want to conduct their own research and engage in research from Sophomore or even Freshman. To get rich research experience, I want to be involved with research as early as possible and not only during the summer but also throughout a year. Just for example, Reed College has mandatory Senior thesis like Princeton, and profs are eager to help even Sophomores to do their research. However, in research universities, I can take graduate-level courses and touch with cutting-edge research as a research assistant. So, I can gain more advanced knowledge than those in LACs.

Could you tell me your recommendation both for me and those who have the same aspiration?

*If my question is too vague, please just compare UC Berkeley/University of Michigan vs. Reed College/Carleton College. I'm sure this will be a good comparison, since the quality of the students are almost equal.

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    My main focus is in PhD admission, which, I believe, is one of the main focuses of this website. So, I asked how to gain the best research experience in order to perform well in the admission. – Math.StackExchange Feb 25 '14 at 8:21
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    Undergraduate research is on-topic: meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/666/… – ff524 Feb 25 '14 at 8:32
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    Undergraduate research is on topic, as is graduate admissions (in many fields undergraduate research is an important factor in the admissions decision). – Ben Norris Feb 25 '14 at 11:17
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I went to a small liberal arts college and worked at a large university lab, that had undergraduate interns. From both experiences I agree that it is the lab and not the school that matters. However, there are conditions that you will be more or less likely to find, depending on the type of school. In general liberal arts colleges will give you more personal attention and large universities will have more resources. Funding at liberal arts colleges is focused on undergraduate education and funding at larger universities is focused on research.

Personal Attention:

Liberal arts: A lab is led by a principal investigator or PI. Liberal arts colleges often do not have graduate students or have few graduate programs. So, at a small liberal arts college you will work closely with your PI and get to know them well. I left my college with great letters of rec that helped me overcome a poor GPA (due to a medical problem in my first two years) and get into grad school.

University: The undergrads were trained by PhDs and post docs and had little contact with the faculty. Post docs and PhDs can often be great teachers, though, since they either are students or were students recently and might be able to anticipate the student's perspective. At a university, they will normally write your letters of recommendation and the faculty will sign them.

Independence:

Liberal Arts: All of our grants were training grants, so the emphasis was on teaching, as opposed to producing results. This means you will get to do more independent work. I got first hand experience with the equipment (EEG) and techniques (analysis of FMRI and EEG data) that few undergraduates get to use. Additionally, I know of at least two of my friends who published, as first authors, in major research journals. This is not uncommon in my school.

University: The undergrads had to learn a program that is no longer used by most labs in the field. There was little room for mistakes (all of the labs grants were research grants), so the undergrads were given the task of modifying previous work and really did not develop any understanding of how the program actually works. However, this lab was an older lab. I also believe students at an older lab at my undergraduate school had a similar experience, where the methodology they were taught was not consistent with current standards in the field.

Connections:

They are pretty equal in this area. Liberal arts college professors often collaborate with people at larger institutions and can connect you with other labs. I have friends who got summer jobs at Stanford and CalTech this way. At the large university, one of our undergrads got to go to Oxford for the summer, because of the professor's connections to a lab there.

Equipment and Resouces:

Liberal arts: We did not have access to some of the most expensive equipment (an MRI, for example). However, one of my professors also worked at a local university that had access to an MRI and we got to use it there. Ideally, you should get some lab experience at a major research university, so you are exposed to techniques that require more expensive equipment. You can do this during summer internships. Getting more experience at different labs will look good on your application.

On that note, a liberal arts college is more likely to have grants that will help students study at other institutions. My college had several such grants for student research grants. Additionally, all senior thesis was funded by the department. The senior thesis funding and one of the summer fellowships both require students to focus on their own original ideas. In most fields the first author is the person who had the idea for the project. This is how undergraduate students were able to become first authors.

University: Universities will have the best equipment, but they are less likely to have funding for student research. The institution I worked at had grants for students, but they were only for work at that university. They also had no specific grants that would allow students to propose their own projects, based on their own ideas.

  • Your comment made me realize how LACs' focus on funding on their undergrad students is beneficial for the students who are really dedicated to research. There seems further more opportunities in LACs, so I will go to Carleton rather than UCB, even if I will be accepted to both. Although I thought publishing in research journal is almost impossible for undergrad students, it seems quite possible in LAC. – Math.StackExchange Feb 26 '14 at 0:51
  • My observations are based on my own experience, which did not include Carleton or UCB. In high school, I decided to apply to a bunch of LACs, because I believed that, in general, LACs had more resources for undergraduates. However, each school will differ. I would keep an open mind and check with the departments and schools. Have undergraduates ever published with faculty? Do they have an undergraduate capstone or thesis project? Are labs normally open to projects proposed by undergraduates? Do fellowships and internships for undergraduates allow for off campus mentors? – neuroexpat Feb 27 '14 at 1:46
  • I spent vast amount of time for collecting such information from my favorite LACs. They basically have mandatory Senior thesis requirements and programs which encourage dedicated students from Freshman to Senior to conduct their own research. They have strong biology courses, and some of the LACs are known for their academics which are the most rigorous in the nation. Fellowships and internships for undergrads allow for off campus mentors. I know that Reed and Carleton have produced many students who succeeded in publishing their thesis, but I'm not sure about others. – Math.StackExchange Feb 27 '14 at 2:10
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I wouldn't say that any university "type" is universally better or worse for gaining undergraduate research experience. The culture with respect to undergrad research varies so much, even within one school.

My advice is to look up the Biology faculty in the schools you are considering, and identify those you would be interested in working with. Do your homework - don't just spam the entire department. Then email them:

Dear Professor {X},

I am {applying to, accepted into} the B.S. program in Biology at {University}. I am interested in pursuing a PhD in {specific area related to X's research} when I graduate, and am hoping to start doing research early in my B.S.

I am very interested in your ongoing research on {subject area}. {Say something intelligent about subject area that demonstrates your ability to contribute.} Do you take on undergraduate research students?

(I highly recommend reading the tips here for contacting a prospective research advisor: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/advice/prospective.html)

By doing this, you'll get a good sense for where you're most likely to have undergraduate research opportunities, and a head start on finding a potential research advisor.

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