A lot of universities nowadays expect professors to be able to provide research experience to their undergraduates. i.e. in job applications for new hires. What do they actually expect- Publications? Senior projects? Funding opportunities for undergraduates? While I agree research 'experience' is a great thing for undergraduates in principal, realistically the vast majority of undergrads aren't going to be able to make progress on real problems - so how will this reflect on a new professor?

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    "a lot of universities" ? really ? like who ? I don't know of any R1-style universities (in the US, R1 means 'research focused') that "expect" professors to provide undergraduate research experience. Now the NSF does encourage this, but that's a different story. My point is that being more specific about which universities expect this might point to the right answer.
    – Suresh
    Dec 7, 2012 at 22:59
  • @Suresh - Thank you for bringing up this point. I was actually referring to universities in particular that don't have a graduate program, are looking for teachers mostly, but still ask you provide research experience for undergraduates. Im not familiar with the precise R1 ranking system, but the universities I was referring to probably aren't R1.
    – DJBunk
    Dec 13, 2012 at 21:51
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    @Suresh In my experience (biology, USA), every R1 institution is pushing to expand undergraduate research opportunities. This is part of how they present themselves as elite institutions for training the next generation of scientists. Still, this is probably a minor factor in considering promotions for a professor (next to getting grants funded and training grad students). You are totally correct that the expectations will vary by department, and I doubt that they are ever published.
    – adam.r
    Dec 2, 2013 at 19:25

4 Answers 4


Faculty in such situations might be expected to provide research experiences commensurate with the size and scope of the institution. Undergraduates usually cannot devote the time to a project that a graduate student does, so the outcomes are different. Publications are not generally expected; conference presentations are more common. Most importantly, the undergraduate gets experience working on a complex problem and develops transferable research skills. What the faculty member gets is not the same as what he or she would get from graduate students.

What an undergraduate does as research depends on the facilities, infrastructure, and culture of the institution. At a major research institution, undergraduates should be working on the same types of problems graduate students work on, but perhaps in a more limited scope. When I was a grad student, we had several undergrads in our lab, one of whom was grad student quality and got some publications. The others contributed valuable (if not always publishable) work to our projects.

At a smaller institution that maybe does not have a graduate progran (like where I am now), you give an undergraduate student work commensurate with the type of grants you are expected to write. My institution (and my department especially) does not emphasize pursuit of large external grants, and so the types of projects I can give to my students are more limited. At the undergraduate stage, the process is more important than the results. I regularly send my students to regional and national conferences, and I hope to eventually have them publish something, but I am not given low evaluation marks. However, if you are expected to apply for and get big grants, then your undergrads should be doing work at that level.

All in all, in the chemistry departments I have been a part of (large and small), most faculty have one or more undergraduates doing research and most undergraduates get the opportunity. However, not all undergraduates choose to, nor would their be enough opportunities to support them if they did. The onus is on the undergraduate to choose to do research, not on the professor to guarantee an opportunity is available to all students even if they do not want it.


My perspective is mostly Australian on this (with a bit of UK thrown in). "Research Experience" for undergrads here typically means exposure to and training in the methods of research. On one side this includes simply exposing undergraduates to the latest (important) results, but also incrementally introducing them to how to be a researcher, capped in the final year with an offering of a small research project. Such a project would not be expected to produce new results, but to demonstrate the student's capability with methodology.

Having said that, there does seem to be an implicit push to get people publishing earlier, which seems to filter down from the increased pressure to publish on academics - but that's another story.

Still, in general, it tends to be in my experience about exposure, rather than an expectation that the undergraduate will actually perform (individual) research. The ones that do are just a bonus.


Note: my perspective is from doctorate-granting biology departments in the USA

Undergraduate research experience comes in two flavors -- work-study (paid) or for class credit (often a senior/honors thesis). Both are valuable, and I expect that most departments do not have very specific expectations for professors aside from some basic effort to provide undergraduate research opportunities. Professors at these institutions are judged based on both research and teaching, and undergraduate research is just a small part of the teaching that these professors do.

You can see how universities present undergraduate research opportunities to the students (e.g. Harvard, UC Berkeley), but I doubt that you will find publications describing how these programs influence faculty promotions. Faculty can receive awards for undergraduate mentoring. Such awards are nice to place on one's CV when applying for promotions, but that this is secondary to research, graduate student mentoring, and teaching classes.

Here is my personal opinion on undergraduate research. Even if an undergraduate is only washing dishes and making media (sterile technique!), they are still being exposed to the laboratory environment and learning what level of rigor is required to do research. Given their other commitments (such as class), their inexperience, and their limited conceptual preparation, undergraduates should not be expected to accomplish anything of note. Their inclusion in research projects should be structured to support and advance the work of full-time lab members, with the expectation that undergraduates will learn from any exposure to research projects. Finally, they can provide graduate students and post-docs with the opportunity to learn how to be mentors themselves, which is an essential part of their training.


There's always the masters thesis, which in some instances might include original research. Also, at my university, some undergraduate TA's gets involved in research a bit by professors giving them some problems to work on, usually involving doing numerics.

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    the question is not about master's programs.
    – adam.r
    Dec 2, 2013 at 19:28

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