Undergraduate Research, or Undergraduate Research?


1. Should I be applying specifically for grants intended for undergraduate research?

2. Are there any short-term fellowships that I could apply for being a German science trainee who is going to work in the UK this October?

Dear GrantDoctor,I've just finished my first year at a predominantly undergraduate institution (PUI). At the urging of my colleagues I spent my first year focused on my teaching, but now it's time to get my research program off the ground. And that means writing grants. So much to do, so little time! The summer's almost over!Here's my question: Should I be applying for regular research grants, or should I try, specifically, for grants that are intended mainly for undergraduate research?Thanks for your help!Jen

Dear Jen,

Undergraduate research grants are as varied as undergraduate research. Some have primarily pedagogical aims, whereas others exist mainly to fund top-quality research. Many scientists at PUIs fund their research with regular research grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But there's nothing wrong with applying for even the most pedagogical undergraduate research grants. Which grants you choose to seek depends on the expectations of your institution and, above all, on your professional aspirations.

As you may have already perceived, undergraduate research is a two-headed beast, merging in the middle but quite distinct at its extremities, each end having its own unique character. On one extreme stands research with the primary aim of educating undergraduates. This kind of research is not principally driven by important scientific questions but is focused on professionalism and accuracy above all else. It is a sort of research rookie league (to invoke a baseball metaphor) in which the newest recruits learn the basics of the game: how to tie shoelaces, how to break up a double play, how to titrate, and so forth. In this world there are, typically, two complementary goals: to introduce future scientists to the rudiments of scientific research, and to use the excitement of "discovery" to motivate interest in material that can, when delivered in a lecture format, seem dry and uninteresting to many late-adolescents. Researchers who work at this extreme often publish in special undergraduate research or education journals, if they publish at all.

At the other extreme stands real, often important research that is distinguished from the research done at R-1 universities only by the fact that it is done primarily by undergraduates (under the intensive guidance of an overworked but extremely energetic faculty member), typically with fewer resources than the big schools can provide. A few undergraduate labs even employ postdocs. And it's not all that rare to find an article in a top-tier journal--even Science--with an undergraduate student as first author. University of California, Santa Cruz, Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood, a member of the Institute of Medicine, did much of her most important work--the work that got her into the institute--while she was an undergrad at Vassar College, as she noted in her Keynote address to the Postdoc Network/National Postdoc Association Annual Meeting back in March.

Some undergraduate institutions--and given your colleagues' instruction that you should focus on teaching your first year, yours may be one of them--don't expect you to maintain a real research program--the latter type--even if they DO expect you to maintain a research program. Indeed, at many institutions it's still possible to be perceived as spending too much time on research, and not enough on teaching and service. If your institution is one of these, you may find that an ambitious research program actually hurts your chances of earning tenure.

I was surprised when I first learned that NIH awards quite a few R01s to faculty at PUIs. But having thought about it more, I'm surprised the practice is not more common. PIs on R01s often commit themselves to no more than 10% to 20% effort; much of the work, after all, will be done by postdocs and graduate students. There's no reason why this same model can't work at a PUI, with a few differences of emphasis: Graduate students would be replaced by undergraduates and the occasional postdoc, and the balance of the PIs effort would, very likely, go to teaching rather than to other research projects. Buoyed by strong collaborations, this is a model that could be--and, no doubt, has been--very effective. If you're a biomedical researcher with a well-equipped laboratory with high aspirations, this may be the model you'll want, ultimately, to pursue.

Which kind of researcher do you want to be? Do you see research as a means to an end--the end being the education of young scientists? Or do you see yourself as a serious researcher who just happens to be working at a PUI? If the latter, there's nothing wrong with applying for grants that focus on the pedagogical flavor of undergraduate research, but ultimately you may want to aim higher.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Dear Grantdoc,I am a graduate student in biology from Germany. For my Ph.D. I found a great project in a lab in Cambridge, UK. To work there, I need a fellowship, so I applied to the relevant German foundations. Due to their application dates though, I will not receive a (positive) response before October, which is when I want to start working in Cambridge.Are there any short-term fellowships I could apply for in order to bridge a couple of months before I receive a definite long-term fellowship?Urich

Dear Urich,

In a word, "No." That is, there is no central pot of money that is available for short-term, short-notice fellowships for German science trainees working in the UK. No matter where you're from or where you're going, fellowships take time to apply for, time to review, and time to administer. Still, your situation hardly seems hopeless.

You seem confident that you'll get the fellowship you have applied for. If your confidence is justified, you should be able to convince Cambridge that it's only a matter of time until the money comes through. Under those conditions it seems very likely that Cambridge would be willing and able to provide you with some sort of internal support--a Ph.D. studentship, perhaps, or on a research project grant--to support you during your first semester at Cambridge. It is also possible that, if a favorable decision on your fellowship is virtually assured, the foundation might help to get you started a little sooner. Then, come winter, your regular fellowship will commence and all will be well.

Assuming that your fellowship comes through eventually, you could also, of course, choose to delay your arrival at Cambridge and spend the fall in Germany preparing for your Cambridge work.

Good luck,

The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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