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And does it depend on the type of field? Undergrads in biology can do the menial work, but what about undergrads in the computational sciences?

Are they more or less likely to benefit from undergraduate research in schools/fields where the undergrads tend to be especially self-motivated? (I don't know much about the ratio of self-motivated undergrads to non-self-motivated undergrads, but the professors I talked to at Brown and UChicago said that working with the undergrads at those schools was incredibly rewarding since they tended to be very self-motivated).

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As you suggest in your question, this likely will vary from both field to field, and from lab to lab. In the two research labs I've worked in, one engineering and one neuroscience, undergraduates did a tremendous amount of useful work. In engineering, they would help with circuit design and fabrication, as well as doing background research and presenting their findings to the group as a whole. In the neuroscience lab, they would do cellular recordings and prepare cell cultures, as well as participate in paper writing.

In both cases, the undergraduates benefitted tremendously from the experience in a number of ways; they experienced the life of a researcher, they got to perform actual research work, they published articles and conference papers, and they received excellent letters of recommendation. The lab also benefitted, in that they had a (most of the time) highly motivated student who was interested in doing work performing research, the grad students/professors had more time either prepare other experiments or write papers, and all the benefits of simply having someone else around to bounce ideas off of. All in all, if the lab is organized enough to handle the logistics of providing the students with regular (non-busywork) tasks to perform, it's a win-win situation for everyone.

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One other (minor) benefit that eykanal and EpiGrad didn't mention is internal brownie points. Faculty in my department are encouraged to collaborate with undergrads, in part because graduate admissions is highly correlated with undergraduate research experience, and in part so that the department can attract a larger pool of potential majors. Working with undergrads makes my chair/dean happy.

That's not a major reason for me, though. As your Brown and UC profs suggest, the enthusiasm that motivated undergrads bring to research can be very refreshing. And (in my experience, in theoretical CS) there's comparatively little pressure for the research to lead to publication, compared to work with graduate students (where unsuccessful research means they don't graduate).

  • this lack of pressure on undergrads to publish in TCS has surprised me. I am suppose to help supervise an undergrad this summer, and I was talking to the prof about the project. The idea seems to be "give the student something they can make progress on and something that is worth learning about for both us and the student". Instead I would have expected something like "give the student something they can push to a publication or at least ArXiv". – Artem Kaznatcheev Mar 6 '12 at 16:42
  • @ArtemKaznatcheev In my experience, the lack of pressure to publish is three-fold: 1. The undergrad doesn't need to publish. If they do, its a bonus. 2. Undergraduate projects have, IME, a much higher rate of failure/stalling. 3. There are often very low-pressure venues for the student to present work that may not even meet the standards of a MPU but still gets them what they need - departmental talks, undergrad research days, etc. – Fomite Mar 6 '12 at 17:52
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    At the beginning, the product of research is not as important as the process. In particular, it's important for budding researchers to quickly become comfortable with feeling utterly stupid, and to make that feeling inspire them instead of inhibiting them. Yes, of course, the ideal goal is a publication, but very few students meet that goal on their first attempt and that's fine. – JeffE Mar 7 '12 at 21:24
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There are two major benefits I've encountered for professors sponsoring/hosting undergraduate researchers.

  1. Grunt work.Yes it extends outside laboratory sciences - everyone has work that, while it needs to be handled with attention, doesn't necessarily need doctoral-level expertise. Parameter searches. Literature pulling. Programming implementation. All of these are valuable experiences for undergrads, give them exposure not only to the field they're interested in but the "act" of research itself, and save time for grad students, post-docs and faculty who could do these things, but instead are able to focus on the tasks undergraduates can't do.
  2. Recruitment. Promising undergraduate researchers make for decent graduate student recruits. If they're not terribly interested in pursuing graduate education, but have a knack for research tasks and mesh well with a lab, they're also prime material for lab techs, programmers, and other technical support staff.

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