Conflating “research experience” with student “drive”

Today, I woke up to a really good Small Pond Science post about the relative shortage of summer undergrad research experiences. I made a comment on Twitter about how while research experience as part of an REU or lab can be valuable, it shouldn’t be the operating filter when accepting people into a graduate program. People pushed back on this idea, implying that lack of research experience on a CV reflected a lack of drive in a student.

My big serious question to you is: do you really think anyone applies to a PhD program without having an incredible amount of drive?

 

Perhaps I am not the best person to say this, because I’ve done two REUs and one summer tech position abroad. I have /lots/ of research experience–or, at least, it looks like I have lots of research experience. But I have to ask: who do you think hears about REU opportunities, and why? Whenever I have participated on panels on REUs/external research experiences at my alma mater, I was the only person of color on the panel. I also found both REUs that I won (and indeed, the five overall that I applied to) through my advisors in undergrad who direct emailed me the opportunities as it came through the academic grapevine. If I hadn’t fallen into my advisors’ good graces, I don’t actually know if I as a first-gen Latina would’ve found out about REUs at all. Others have echoed this sentiment; or have brought up exclusionary requirements for most REUs around documentation or the extreme competition for limited spaces (see replies to this thread).

Additionally, a lot of the comments on my tweets seem to imply that finding research opportunities are easy. This is categorically not true for people who don’t have the socioeconomic backing of their family, or the feeling of middle class entitlement required to feel confident talking to professors outside of class or cold-emailing PIs. Even when my professors finally did coax me to cold email PIs at the end of my freshmen year looking for research opportunities, I was told that I didn’t have enough experience to work in the lab. First gen and POC students also often have to contend with choosing between volunteer research experience or having a job that supports their needs on campus–when I was fishing tampax out of abandoned dorms summer of my freshman year, or working multiple jobs on campus to cover my needs, I definitely wasn’t thinking about doing research for free. I was remarkably lucky to have close to full ride at Kenyon–in total I only had to pay about 5K overall for my schooling. Other POC and first gens are not as lucky; and its unfair to penalize them for lacking research experience when they might be looking poverty in the face if they don’t work during undergrad.

The last sticking point for me re:research experience is how much even PIs who teach undergraduate labs seem to discount labwork and independent projects done as coursework. There is apparently even graduate schools which explicitly ask for students not to include lab coursework in their graduate applications. To me, this is even more ironic, since may sophomore and junior year students use those same lab coursework skills on the CVs to get the immaculate REU experience that PIs seem to want.

 

I think this points to a bigger issue in academia-that everyone wants a “high-quality” student, but no one wants the work that goes into actually creating one. What a lot of people actually seem to mean by “high quality” student, is that you want students who can largely run solo without much effort on behalf of the PI. The good track record of having research experience-either by volunteering in labs, working in a lab in undergrad, or REUs- is a virtue signal that the student in question will need relatively little effort from you to succeed and pump out labwork and papers for your lab. This isn’t how we should be approaching mentorship in STEM, nor is it the best way to find and foster the brightest minds for the next generation of academics.

 

If you all are going to start using research experience as an unwritten metric for grad school admission, then y’all need to sit and consider what that means. And, if we are actually going to diversify the academy; then we need to start realizing that access to things like research experience doesn’t reflect the actual motivation of the student. Any student applying to graduate school is already signalling that they are willing to put in the work to get there. If you want them to lay out their traumas, familial situations, or otherwise in order to make up for a “lack of research experience”; ask yourself if you would probe wealthy/middle class students about how they managed to have multiple research experiences. If you wouldn’t, that means you are equating access with merit and hard-workingness, which plainly isn’t true.

Things could be really different for me right now, had I not been a part of PINEMAP in 2015. I likely would’ve never ended up doing any research,won subsequent REUs and research jobs,  never switched majors, and never applied to graduate school. With how a lot of graduate programs and PIs act, even if I had applied to graduate school I wouldn’t have gotten in. And I don’t think that’s okay. I think we, as academics, can do better than letting talented students fall through the cracks.

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