03/21/2013 05:19 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

Independent Research Cultivates Skills Employers Value

A recent survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace showed that employers today believe "colleges [aren't] adequately preparing students in written and oral communication, decision-making, and analytical and research skills." Freshly minted graduates may have the appropriate technical skills to do their jobs, according to these employers, but don't necessarily know how to apply those skills in a work setting. Even more disturbing to employers, new college-educated hires have difficulty conceiving original ideas and determining how those ideas might be brought to market.

I would argue that the higher-order thinking skills -- and the creative turn of mind -- that employers seek today are precisely those cultivated by a liberal arts education, especially a liberal arts education that is coupled with learning experiences gained through fieldwork, internships, research, community service and other hands-on activities. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has identified these out-of-classroom experiences as "high-impact practices" that are critical in connecting classroom learning with real-world applications.

Liberal arts colleges, including Albion College where I am president, are increasingly encouraging students to build these active learning experiences into their academic and career plans. Employers have noted the importance of undergraduate internships in preparing students to become skillful professionals after graduation. I believe that undergraduate research, when carefully focused and mentored by faculty, can also help students prepare for today's workplace by developing the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that employers desire.

Independent research, even at the baccalaureate degree level, teaches students how to:

  • Frame open-ended questions
  • Construct logical arguments
  • Design creative solutions to problems
  • Assess the outcomes of their work
  • Develop the written and oral communication skills needed to convey their findings to others

To make meaningful research experiences possible for our students, Albion College has developed programs that encourage students to further cultivate these essential habits of mind.

Our most talented first-year students are given the opportunity to work directly on faculty research through our Student Research Partners program. They learn the basics of research design and protocols and are then ready to pursue research independently.

For upperclass students who wish to explore in-depth important questions that interest them, we have established the Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity (FURSCA). Open to students in any major, FURSCA provides stipends for up to 10 weeks of summer research, as well as funding for research materials and travel to professional conferences so these students can present their work to leaders in their respective fields. We also celebrate our students' endeavors on campus by devoting a day each spring to presentations on their research and special projects.

What makes FURSCA different from many other undergraduate research programs on college campuses is its inclusivity. Our students are not only doing groundbreaking work in the sciences, but they are delving into current issues in the social sciences and pursuing new directions in the arts and humanities. So in any given year, we may have projects that include investigation of commercial applications of nanomaterials, analysis of the news reporting about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, examination of the factors influencing minority voter turnout, or development of innovative (and award-winning) ceramic artworks. Throughout this process, the students are challenged to think in new ways, explore the broader context in which they are working, reflect on the implications of their research, and explain to a larger audience the relevance of their results.

To understand the long-term impact of such research for our students, consider the story of Albion graduate Kristina Jelinek, '05. Through FURSCA, Kristina studied questions related to educational access and achievement by Mexican-American migrant youth. Following graduation, she spent a year as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar studying immigration issues in Europe. Kristina then returned to the U.S. and joined the New York City Teaching Fellows program to learn more about urban education "on the ground." After six years in teaching and school administration in New York, she now designs and delivers citywide professional development programs for educators.

Far from being simply an academic exercise, Kristina's undergraduate research helped her map her career path--and clearly has led to the valuable contributions she makes today for the students and teachers in the New York City schools. And we see examples like this one across the many fields our students enter upon graduation.

Increasingly, liberal arts colleges are connecting students' learning to the work environment in appropriate and meaningful ways. This study by The Chronicle and Marketplace is only the latest to underscore the importance of liberal arts education, empowered with real-world experience, for students--as well as for their future employers and our society as a whole.