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Preparing for the future

Undergraduate research projects can help students decide whether to continue onto graduate programs

Bernardo França

Every year, graduate programs across Brazil receive thousands of applications for master’s degrees and PhDs. Those interested in advancing their academic career go through a selective process that includes analysis of their résumé and previous research projects, foreign language exams, and interviews that among other things, aim to determine whether the student will be capable of completing their graduate studies within the established deadlines.

Many students arrive at this stage of their academic life with little knowledge of research methodologies and scientific logic. Others find it difficult to choose a field and identify relevant topics for a research project. According to social scientist and higher education specialist Elizabeth Balbachevsky, from the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), “students in the humanities tend to graduate without knowing how to properly structure a critical research project in their field.”

In her assessment, this is partly due to the fact that few undergraduate courses in the humanities include research methodology as part their curriculum. Balbachevsky points out that in Brazil, some fields decided to transfer this stage of academic training to master’s level. “In the human sciences, this type of research is an essential preparatory phase through which students learn to structure and develop scientific research,” she says.

To inspire scientific curiosity in students, political scientist Renata Mirandola Bichir, from the USP School of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities (EACH-USP) explains that in her department, professors encourage those interested in pursuing a scientific career to invest their time in undergraduate research projects. She emphasizes the importance of the research experience that students gain from this kind of scientific education.

One of the results is that EACH-USP students are increasingly continuing their undergraduate research into master’s and PhD projects. “We noticed that they were entering graduate programs with greater maturity and more scientific awareness of their research choices,” says Bichir. The practice is also common in the biological sciences, according to biologist Lúcia Lohmann, from the USP Institute of Biosciences. “Our students often develop their undergraduate research into a project that they can study in more depth at master’s or PhD level.”

Lohmann adds that students should be given freedom to invest in their own ideas, as long as they are in line with the research conducted by their advisors. This is crucial to providing a sense of belonging within research groups. “Every laboratory should have a thread that connects all the different projects,” she says. “That is why it is so important for students to use their undergraduate research as a chance to work in laboratories, to get to know the lines of research their professors are working on, and to evaluate how their project could relate to the other ongoing studies.”

Physicist Renata Zukanovich Funchal, from the USP Institute of Physics, explains that in the exact sciences, graduate research projects are usually proposed by a student’s advisors. “With few exceptions, undergraduate courses do not teach students enough to formulate a high-level research project,” she says.

According to chemist Elson Longo, from the Center for Exact Sciences and Technology at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), graduate students often participate in larger projects, conducting part of the research coordinated by the lead researcher. “This is because studies in the exact sciences tend to depend on a large scientific infrastructure that requires a lot of money to be maintained,” he says. “Resources are extremely tight, so many senior researchers only mentor students willing to work on projects that contribute directly to advancing their principal research areas.”

As a result, experts unanimously agree that students should begin preparing while still studying their undergraduate degree. “They absolutely must take advantage of this period to learn about their field and decide, over time, whether they really want to pursue a career as a researcher after they graduate,” says Zukanovich. Balbachevsky explains that “undergraduate research projects make it possible for students to visit and join large laboratories, interact with other researchers, gain valuable experience and knowledge, and become familiar with techniques that may later be useful for graduate research.”

“This can make a big difference in the graduate program application process,” says Bichir. Lohmann also notes that students with research experience who have published work and participated in scientific events are more likely to receive funding for their graduate research.

The benefits of scientific training could even be useful for those who do not intend to pursue a research career. Many of the skills and abilities developed during undergraduate and graduate research projects are highly valued in the nonacademic labor market, such as critical thinking, leadership skills and teamwork, complex problem solving and analysis, and time and project management. A study published in the journal The National Bureau of Economic Research in 2017, for example, found that productivity—in relation to both goods and services—tends to be higher in companies with a greater proportion of scientists and engineers with research experience, and that these gains are reflected in all employees who work there.