"Research Accessibility as Activism":Addressing Inequalities in Undergraduate Research Opportunities
Written by: Liam O'Toole
What is Research Anyways?
The average person’s understanding of “research” tends to be misrepresented in the wider culture, and understandably so. The term is commonly used in graduate-level academics, but undergraduates and those outside of the post-secondary education system often lose sight of what research truly is. The common conception of research is in a laboratory setting, and while this is sometimes the case, it does not exclusively define what researchers do. Yes, some research may involve people wearing white lab coats and mixing chemicals in beakers over Bunsen burners. Others envision researchers to be venturing out into the wilderness, taking samples from the landscape to run further analyses on. Those familiar with psychological research may describe extensive interviews and behavioral testing. While all the above conceptions of “research” are not necessarily inaccurate, it misses the point of what research is all about: original contributions to the field and identifying gaps in current literature.
At the heart of research is the investigation of a query not yet fully explored; that is to say, making novel contributions to an academic field. By way of a sound methodological process, researchers and academics synthesize new knowledge through either data collection and analysis, or by using currently available data to create original analyses. Beyond this rudimentary definition, “research” looks hugely different between academic disciplines. Those in the natural sciences are often concerned with taking a positivist approach to research and yielding verifiable
results, while those in the humanities tend to care more about the logic and rationale of a normative analysis (and even these summaries are major oversimplifications). For those of us in the social sciences, research tends to take a methodologically pluralist approach; that is to say, a variety of approaches to research are often used. Every academic field and individual researcher have their own hypotheses, methodologies, and epistemologies. Even so, the broad goal of all research is to contribute new knowledge to the world, no matter the methodology used and no matter how niche those contributions may appear to be.
I have been quite lucky to participate in research at the undergraduate level through independent studies, an honors thesis, and presenting my work at conferences. However, those experiences were only actualized through my own persistence and guidance from supportive professors. It was their personal dedication to student success, not the environment, which allowed me to enter the world of undergraduate research. In the winter of 2021, I had wanted to learn more about how to get involved with research efforts because I was passionate about selected topics in my field. Unfortunately, if you are a student who does not have any familiarity with research norms, it takes much investigation and guidance to figure out how “the game” of academic research is played. The arena of research in higher academia is mystifying to undergraduates, a difficult world to enter even for high-performing students. This argumentative essay describes the reasons that undergraduate research is important, the barriers to entry for students, and how universities can mend socioeconomic inequalities in research accessibility.
This essay articulates a type of “research accessibility as activism” model. The work in this essay should also be of particular interest to PISA members and those enrolled in political or international studies as a topic of academic inquiry, since it describes the inherent political, social, and class inequalities present in our collective undergraduate experiences.
Why Undergraduate Research Matters
Academia has an inherent bias to favor those whose parents hold graduate degrees and have a middle-class income. Although the academy has come a long way from the days of the stereotypically elitist, pipe-smoking faculty, there is a systemic issue with the North American admissions process. In a world where we are continuously attempting to mend socioeconomic inequalities, the discrepancies and biases which favor wealthier researchers matter quite a bit. These discrepancies heavily impact graduate admissions and the retention of PhD students. In 2021, researchers from UCLA, University of Colorado and the Santa Fe Institute found strong correlations between the socioeconomic status of parents and the educational attainment of their
children. Researchers estimated that academic faculty in the United States are up to 25 times more likely to have had a parent with a PhD than the general population (Morgan et al., 2021,p.4). The same study also found that, among those surveyed, the median proxied household income of the average faculty member’s childhood home is 26.3% higher than the median surveyed among the public (p.5) and 51.8% have a parent who holds a graduate degree (p.4). Such findings suggest that one’s upbringing, generational wealth, and the educational credentials of parents play a significant role in determining the chances of one becoming a professional researcher at the post-graduate level. I am unsure if similar findings are available in a Canadian context, but I presume that the results would reflect that of the United States due to the proximity of academic norms and levels of income inequality. This is not to say that graduate admissions are an unattainable feat for students without degree-holding parents, but it is to say that those students may have to work harder than some of their peers. With degree-holding parents often comes higher household incomes, and with wealthier parents comes less financial stress, increased access to social capital which enriches a child’s education, and the potential to attend a private school (whether at the primary, secondary, CEGEP or post-secondary level). If your
parents do not hold a graduate degree and have an income below the national median, the likelihood is that you will have less favorable chances of acceptance to graduate school, as per Morgan’s study cited above.
The reason that I begin this section with a discussion on graduate admissions is because the path to a professional career in research begins with adolescent and undergraduate educations. Even for students who do not pursue academic careers, research experience at the undergraduate level can develop marketable skills in critical thinking, data analytics, and technical writing. Taking advantage of the research-oriented resources on campus should still be of interest to students who intend to pursue a career in the professional world. However, not all students know if the world of research is right for them, and many are not even aware that it is a
world they can participate in.
Conventional wisdom regards undergraduate research as a good way to attract students to professional research careers, begin developing the skills necessary for research, and to give them a leg up in graduate admissions. In 2007, three cohorts of scientists studied the effects of undergraduate research on the students’ intentions to apply for graduate school before and after conducting research. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education summarizing the studies reported that over 80% of the undergraduate researchers surveyed did not change their mind about pursuing graduate studies, and only 3.5% said that the experience encouraged them to
pursue graduate studies (Guterman, 2007). These experiences also appear to be representative of primarily undergraduate institutions such as Bishop’s University, or as they are commonly referred to in the United States, “liberal arts colleges.” There is some contention over what to label these institutions, as the number of institutions that can be labeled as “liberal arts” schools has dwindled in recent years (McPherson & Schapiro, 1999, p.47). One student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania noted that the “most significant” takeaway from conducting research is that it “didn’t change my mind” about applying to graduate school, implying that the students conducting research were doing it as a means to attend graduate school, not to expose new
students to research. “Those results may be due to selection bias: Students who do research, particularly those who have won competitive grants to support them or those at highly selective colleges like Penn and Haverford, tend to already be among the strongest students, and may have already given thought to future science careers” (Guterman, 2007). Though I am fond of my institution, Bishop’s does not have the reputation of other liberal arts colleges such as Penn and Haverford, whose prestige can be considered on par with that of the Ivies. If an undergraduate
student has decided that they want to apply to graduate school, then conducting research is a fantastic way to prove to graduate admissions that they are familiar with the research environment. However, efforts to promote undergraduate research are failing to capture another section of students entirely; passionate students who may very well have great contributions to offer academia and may love conducting research, but are not even aware that research is something they can participate in.
Barriers to Entry (The Problem)
Asymmetric information regarding undergraduate research opportunities is
simultaneously our most abstract and insurmountable barrier to entry; “abstract” because it isn’t a barrier that’s readily apparent, and “insurmountable” because there is no obvious solution. The general disregard some academics have for the apparent value of undergraduate research is a barrier to access that is not commonly discussed because some may not even consider it to be a barrier. There exists a pessimistic community of academics who do not regard undergraduate research as being valuable solely on the merit of it being research conducted by undergraduate
students, sometimes citing their lack of academic training as a reason to disregard research efforts. While a lack of formal training is a valid critique to make of aspiring researchers, it does not illustrate why undergraduate research itself is not valuable. If students are not sure how they can write independent studies or theses, what skills they would need to acquire to become a research assistant, or find the funding to finance their own research (if they are not working under a professor who has already secured funding), then how do we expect potentially brilliant undergraduates to become great academics? This is a barrier that also has a socioeconomic bias
against low-income students, first-generation students, and others who are less likely to have parents with graduate degrees. As mentioned in the first section, there is empirical evidence to suggest that students who have academic parents – or at least parents who hold a graduate degree – are far more likely to enter the world of research because they have already been familiarized with it. Publishing, the peer-review process, the grant writing process, and research are not regarded as mystifying concepts to most of these students, but instead their parent’s profession. For the rest of us, it is an entirely new world.
There are other barriers (ones that are less abstract) that tend to be specific to small liberal arts schools with primarily undergraduate populations. One advantage of being a Bishop’s student is that the attention of faculty is almost solely focused on the undergraduate population, so we reap the full benefits of the opportunities that are available. The disadvantage is that there are fewer of those opportunities to go around without an active graduate school and the culture that comes along with it. Liberal arts colleges are not “on the map” the same way that major institutions are, so we are not favored when it comes to networking or receiving grants to finance undergraduate research assistantships. Without an active graduate culture, undergraduates have no exposure to graduate student peers to expose them to the research environment, so research instead becomes exoticized as “the thing they do at those other schools,” even if schools like Bishops do have an active research environment. There are fewer academic publications hosted in liberal arts schools than at research-focused institutions, another factor which removes students from the research culture and “exoticizes” research. The material and cultural benefits
from having a graduate-level research environment at one’s institution severely impacts the ability to break into first time research experiences.
"Research Accessibility as Activism" Model (The Solution)
The “research accessibility as activism” model reframes our conceived purpose of undergraduate research projects. Instead of putting the primary focus on students who already have an expressed interest in graduate admissions and come from parents with graduate degrees, equal consideration is given to students who do not know if research is right for them or have yet to fully comprehend what is involved in the research process itself. Special attention is given to students who would typically be marginalized when pursuing research experiences or applying to graduate school (first-generation students, low-income students). We also consider biases towards racial and ethnic demographics who have historically been excluded from academia. Thus, this model is referred to as being “activist,” as it actively and intentionally attempts to mend social and economic inequalities between undergraduate students.
In the prior section, two primary issues were identified as barriers to undergraduate research opportunities, especially as they pertain to small liberal arts schools: asymmetric information among students regarding research opportunities and the functional presence of research opportunities on campus. In the summer of 2021, Linnie McGuire (‘22) and myself decided to create an academic journal hosted at Bishop’s University to address the very problems described above. We quickly assembled a small group of students from across disciplines – Virginia Marquez-Pacheco (‘25), Sheyann Foshay (‘22), Matthew Rainsford (‘22), Scott Sharma (‘23), and Jeremy Audet (‘22) – to form the editorial board for what would become the Bishop’s
Undergraduate Research Journal (BURJ). As students enrolled in distinct programs coming from diverse backgrounds, we felt that the board was equipped to take a student-centered approach to academic publishing. The journal exclusively publishes works of research conducted by Bishop’s University undergraduate students from any discipline, making the journal the university’s first ever multidisciplinary outlet for academic research. The pool of submissions for our first volume has a surprisingly large yield, one we hope will only grow in future issues as we receive more
institutional and financial support. The presence of an academic journal on-campus helps to demystify the world of research for undergraduate students in our liberal arts environment, as academic publishing is no longer exoticized as “the thing they do at other schools,” because now, it is also publicized here.
However, this only solves one of our two issues. The general student’s conception of “research” and how they can get pursue opportunities as an undergraduate remains muddied, and those of us working with BURJ recognized this as our first issue nears publication. Students who are not otherwise involved in academic research or publishing may not understand how academic publishing is unique, and unless they have academics in their family, they have no reason to
intuitively understand the process. Our attempted solution to solve the issue of asymmetric information is to host public workshops to cover topics such as the peer-review process, academic writing, how to find and secure research experience as an undergraduate, and ways you can conduct original research within your program (i.e., honors projects, research assistant openings). We are in the process of collaborating with faculty and non-student stakeholders on campus to provide students with the relevant information in these workshops. These workshops will be hosted at the introductory level, going over “the basics” as to be accessible to those who have no familiarity with academic research norms. BURJ is also considering a special issue
highlighting the scholarship of Indigenous authors. We hope that by providing open-access information to students interested in research and hosting an academic publication on campus, the research environment will become less mystified and exoticized to our undergraduate students.
Undergraduate research accessibility is not an easy issue to address, especially because I presume not everyone in academia would agree on what “the issue” itself is. No matter how institutions, faculty and student bodies go about expanding research accessibility, two considerations should be stressed; every undergraduate who wants to test the waters of academic research should have the opportunity to do so, but every undergraduate should also be made aware of what academic research is in the first place. Current conversations are almost exclusively concerned with the former part of that statement, but almost never with the latter. This conceptualization of research accessibility being a form of academic activism should take hold in other major institutions. I am grateful for the liberal arts institutions which seem more
welcoming to these heterodox approaches. However, to make long-lasting, institutional change, the large universities which produce the bulk of academic faculty and are traditionally resistant to these ideas must also adopt this approach. As accessibility to education and college admissions has become increasingly equitable over the last half century, research accessibility ought to follow suit.
Guterman, L. (2007, August 17). What Good Is Undergraduate Research, Anyway? The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/what-good-is-undergraduate-research-anyway/
McPherson, M. S., & Schapiro, M. O. (1999). The Future Economic Challenges for the Liberal Arts Colleges. Daedalus, 128(1), 47–75.
Morgan, A., LaBerge, N., Larremore, D., Galesic, M., Brand, J. E., & Clauset, A. (2021, March 24). Socioeconomic Roots of Academic Faculty. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/6wjxc