November 13, 2009

Rethinking the search for research assistantships

New database would be beneficial for everyone.

Where have all the research assistantships gone? I know many departments’ budgets have been cut, but college students and graduates are increasingly willing to work for free. I think research opportunities are, in fact, there; finding them, however, may require diligent hunting and constant vigilance.

The seemingly interminable search is productive neither for interested students nor for busy professors. To find information, many students must troll the student employment and Fellowship, Research Opportunities, and Grants Web sites, parse through countless listhost e-mails, keep apprised of CAPS events, and e-mail professors. The process can prove fruitless, especially for underclassmen, who either haven’t picked majors or haven’t yet developed contacts in their fields. The situation must be similarly frustrating for professors who post opportunities through only one of the mechanisms and wait weeks for a response. So, in the name of research itself, I’d like to propose a one-stop shop database for undergraduate research opportunities.

The database could resemble the USAJobs Web site, the federal government’s online employment center. On USAJobs, users can make their résumés viewable to all potential employers, as well as search and apply for specific positions. Drawing again on USAJobs, the Web site could have a streamlined build-a-résumé system to provide fields for the qualifications (foreign language background, coursework, familiarity with software) that would pertain specifically to research. This way, professors could easily identify and contact qualified candidates based on search criteria.

The major problem facing students in search of research opportunities and professors in search of assistants is that of low connectivity. Physical science majors and pre-meds typically fare better in their searches not only because of the funding allotted to their departments but also because of the active organizations and communities that exist to get the word out. From the Society of Physics Students to the unfortunate-in-acronym Pre-Medical Students Association, lecture series and advising sessions successfully bring people together. Additionally, by the end of her second year, a science major probably will have taken more courses taught by potential employers or professors eager to recommend one. The connectivity of their communities is greater than that of those in the humanities or social sciences.

The database (perhaps ugradresearch.uchicago.edu) would vastly ameliorate the situation in the social sciences and humanities, while also bolstering the relative success in the sciences. Coming to the University of Chicago reflects a love of academics and academia for many students. So why not offer students an efficient way to find and engage in meaningful research prior to their fourth-year B.A. theses? Working under the guidance of a professor as a first-, second-, or third-year would likely prepare students for more advanced research to come.

The University’s emphasis on close reading of great books and source documents means that opportunities for students to hone their research skills in classes are few and far between. Just as math majors are expected to pick up linear algebra by osmosis, social science and humanities majors must puzzle together research skills through the occasional assignment requiring outside sources and, strangely enough, through Core Bio.

Clearly, groundbreaking research is being done at the University of Chicago. It’s time for faculty and undergraduates to effectively come together to undertake the most urgent, intellectually gratifying, and often time-consuming research projects of our day. The problem and solution lie in connectivity. If match.com can provide “a whole new world” for romance-seekers, imagine what a research opportunity database for U of C undergrads could do.

— Liat Spiro is a second-year in the College.