Fledgling Professionals: Undergraduate research is a bittersweet practice that pays off while excessively burdening students

By: Michael Petrany

All I want for Christmas is a good grade on my senior thesis. This time of year is always one of frenzy, whether of the commercial or academic variety. The latter hits closer to home here at Xavier: many of us are less concerned with wrapping presents than with wrapping up term papers and thesis drafts, sending off abstracts to conferences and editing manuscripts for possible publication (fingers crossed). All of these things, it seems, are necessary (but not sufficient) to get on the “nice” list of academia. Specifically, unless you want coal in your stocking, or a string of rejection letters from graduate schools, professional programs and potential employers, you must engage in that obligatory pursuit, the Holy Grail of academic success: research experience.

I think it is reasonable to say there has been a shift in the role of research in post-secondary education over the past few decades. Where it used to be the case that only full-fledged professors were judged on the basis of their scholarly productivity, that bar has been pushed earlier over and over again.

First it became such that in order to get a good teaching job, you had to be “productive” in grad school: publish multiple papers in respectable journals, present at conferences and carve out an aggressive research agenda. Now, that sensibility has migrated into undergraduate education as well, and so in order to be accepted into a good grad school, college students must take on the same pressures.

Our colleges (Xavier included) are becoming increasingly professionalized, such that if one’s course of study is completed without having made a “meaningful contribution,” then one is frequently held to be lacking.

It is undeniable that undergraduate research holds a number of benefits. Speaking as someone who currently has the (mis)fortune of two separate senior theses to write, I can certainly point to a number of things I have gained from my research experience: an appreciation for the effort that lies behind the simplest advances, depth of insight into novel problems, structured and creative thinking, familiarity with setbacks and, of course, supreme expertise in some extremely minute, hyper-specific topic. Most notably, it can open one’s eyes to the joys and travails of research and asking questions, whatever the subject, and is thus essential to discernment of whether a life in the academy is an appealing prospect at all.

All of this is to say that clearly research has a place in college, even if the value is less in what we produce than in what we learn from the experience. But my fear is this: just as final projects distract us from the “reason for the season” this time of year, an excessive focus on student research productivity may also direct our attention away from the true goals of undergraduate education. I am no Latin scholar, but those who are tell me that liber, the basis of “liberal arts,” means “free.” Our education should liberate us, characterized by open engagement of ideas and the freedom to explore our interests and passions, wherever they take us. We are lacking that freedom when we are so burdened to produce, compelled to manufacture some novel idea or interpretation, to make a strong claim whether we feel strongly or not and ultimately to do something “worthy” of publication or presentation — or at least a poster session. How can one be original when one has barely scratched the surface in understanding those who have come before? To be original and new — that is, I think, the current paradigm of academic success, rather than to be attentive, thoughtful and earnest in pondering different ideas.

Thinkers all the way back to Aristotle have characterized the true life of the mind as “leisurely.” While I certainly doubt that Aristotle had in mind Netflix and hot chocolate, I am certain that manic productivity for productivity’s sake would be even further from the golden mean.

A professor once confessed to me: “The world needs another article like it needs a hole in the head.” Sometimes, I wholeheartedly agree. However, I do know that the world (and the academy, for that matter) does need more educated, sincere, well-rounded individuals, and our undergraduate education should reflect that need. Much more could be said on this issue, of course. But I’m afraid I simply don’t have the time to reflect any further – because I really need to get back to those theses.

Michael Petrany is a senior from Huntington, W.V. He is a double major in biology and philosophy.