How to Pick a College: Part 4 Project Support

By Alex Martel and Ishan Puri

Original research, the hallmark of academic study and a staple of graduating with honors, serves as the cornerstone of the academic world. Universities pride themselves in the groundbreaking discoveries their professors and other researchers contribute to the zeitgeist. The U.S. government itself invests in the research and development at these institutions. Sometimes high school students even try their hand by competing in science competitions like Intel and Siemans. Mentorship is key and often accessible by emailing professors who are experts in the field. Your college decision should weigh institutional support as a factor.

Research Assistantships

University researchers typically work in a research center within their respective department. For example, Biology department may dedicate attention across cancer research, adolescent development, and more topics. Professors often lead these facilities with the help of fellow researchers, doctoral students and even undergraduates. While involvement and duties are mainly tied to position and capability, undergraduates just entering the research space contribute in meaningful ways.

Universities often offer undergraduates research assistantships during the academic year or over the summer so that they can gain experience. For example work in the psychology department often consists of studies where subjects interact with a computer or perform tasks individually/cooperatively. They can be as simple as watching videos and eating chocolate to simulating prison scenarios. Research assistants then track data, run the experiment, or anything else that ensures a smooth process. Countless data points need to be sorted, meaning that working knowledge of Qualtrics (survey software) will develop. Eventually, undergraduates could create their own study.

Research Project Support

Schools vary in thesis policy with some schools requiring an original project in senior year while others leave jurisdiction to specific majors. Sometimes projects are optional and receive a special title like "honors thesis." Students receive many forms of support but besides mentorship, funding is especially critical. Work is typically done over the summer, a potential conflict for those interested in employment, and in turn universities provide grants as stipends to spur intellectual work. This is a big draw for college decisions.

Graduate School Transition

Education stages are based on degree type (bachelor, master, and doctorate) through separate but similar application processes. High school students need to work on extracurriculars, projects, relationships with teachers, testing, and schoolwork. Likewise an undergraduate will need to work on a research project with the help of an advising professor, maintain a high GPA, and score well on exams for admissions consideration -- and so on.

Some school facilitate the transition to graduate programs by allowing qualified candidates to matriculate while working on their bachelor's degree. For example, Stanford's co-term program mixes the last year of undergrad with master's level entrance. Students simultaneously complete their bachelor's degree while supplementing their education with graduate-level coursework and a potential thesis or capstone project. Degree completion requirements vary by department but flexibility and foresight afforded by this program should affect college decisions.

Stay tuned for Part 5.