With admission to graduate programs becoming more and more selective, “undergraduate research” has become a new buzz phrase on college campuses, Georgetown’s included.
The increasing role of research on campus has been especially evident this past month, as Georgetown has played host to three undergraduate research conferences in the past 10 days.
The most recent of these was the 11th annual Carroll Round conference on international economics, which was held this weekend. The event featured 28 students who showcased 26 papers on topics ranging from international trade to education in the developing world.
“[Participants] present their research in sessions that are modeled after professional-level academic conferences,” steering committee chair Katrina Koser (SFS ’12) said. “The whole goal is to foster scholarly innovation at the undergraduate level.”
With the success of the Carroll Round series in mind, Jonathan Askonas (SFS ’13) co-founded the Walsh Exchange earlier this year. The conference debuted April 13-15.
“To our knowledge, the Walsh Exchange is the first-ever undergrad research conference for international relations,” he said.
The inaugural conference featured 14 presentations from students at six East Coast universities.
Askonas believes the exchange will benefit both students and the university.
“The Walsh Exchange will cement Georgetown as not only the place to learn the profession of international relations, but a place for undergrads to engage in meaningful research as well,” he said.
Askonas also hopes that the quality of future conference presentations will attract up-and-coming professorial talent seeking undergraduate research assistants.
“That’s the big dream,” he said.
Despite the variety of presentation opportunities available to undergraduates, getting a chance to conduct research can be a challenge. Students must forge professional relationships with faculty and compete for available research spots.
This is made difficult by the fact that Georgetown has a student-faculty ratio of 11-to-1, much higher than that of peer research institutions. The University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania both have ratios of 6-to-1 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a ratio of 8-to-1.
Tracking down a professor who is open to working with students is not always easy, either.
“I think we have a fundamental communications gap. A lot of professors conduct research, [but] unless you know them personally, you’re not able to find out what they’re doing. They may not know how to reach out to students,” Askonas said.
Askonas, who also serves as secretary of academic affairs for the Georgetown University Student Association, expressed his desire for the creation of a centralized database of research opportunities offered by faculty.
“Absence of information is a big part of why students don’t get involved in research,” he said.
Lauren Tuckley, research resource coordinator for the Office of Fellowships, Awards and Research, is working to implement a central database to house faculty requests for research assistants. Past the planning stage, the database is now under technical development, a stage Tuckley expects to be somewhat lengthy.
“[With the database] it will be much easier to go to one space, look for faculty members and look for connections,” she said.
Tuckley hopes to debut the site in fall 2012 but guaranteed that it would be available by the spring of 2013.
Even when students are able to find a professor to work with, many students face financial barriers when pursuing unpaid summer research opportunities.
“The only downside to Georgetown’s fantastic location in Washington is how challenging it can be to take on an internship full time over [the] summer that is unpaid,” Alexander Theos, assistant professor in the department of human sciences and faculty advisor for last Wednesday’s NHS Undergraduate Research Conference, said.
While several grants for independent summer research exist, Tuckley acknowledged that the university must provide more funding opportunities.
“Having more support would help a student make a choice that is more influenced by [his] academic interest than monetary interest,” she said.
Despite these recognized setbacks, Theos remains optimistic.
“When a student comes to me and asks, ‘How do I get involved in some type of independent research?’ I take a deep breath before giving them this sort of global overview,” Theos said. “The opportunities at this campus and in the greater D.C. community are mind-blowing.”