Undergraduate research became a “thing” about ten years ago. I was skeptical of its value then, and remain so today. I recently interviewed some undergraduate students about their career plans. All were bound for grad school at some point, so many had thoughts about gaining research opportunities in their undergraduate programs. “I really want to do research,” is typically declared. Okay. What kind of research? Where? And why? And no, “to make the world a better place” is not specific enough.

I don’t mean to mock the curiosity and passion of students. I am full of these things myself. They make life interesting, and that’s awesome. Whatwesome is the way in which academic culture unwittingly glamorizes research, which can lead to crap career advice for unsuspecting students. I’m generalizing of course. “Get research experience” isn’t always bad advice. But more often than not it is, especially in the absence of a clear plan for where that research will be put to use in a paid job.

The Weirdness of Research Worship

We seem to have collectively forgotten that research is a transitive verb.[1] By that I just mean that it has to have an object or a purpose to be valuable or meaningful. So, it’s weird that so often in academia people speak of “research” as if it is meaningful in and of itself, requiring no further explanation or justification. This happens outside of universities too, but the worst purveyors of intransitive vagaries about the excitement of research reside in universities and colleges. It is this kind of proselytizing that lead students to declare their “passion for research” with little sense of what “real world” research entails, or where it will fit into their later life and work plans.

The “research passion” business might be cool for its own sake as a learning experience, but grad school is a big investment of time, money and psychic energy, over and above an undergrad degree. It’s also the place where unrealistic expectations can be forged. You start sipping the Academic Research Kool-Aid. Your profs tell you it is tasty and nourishing because they really do love it, and it’s all they know, and they really just can’t help themselves.

The culture of “research” and the pressure to aspire to “do research” and the worship of research and publishing all begin in earnest at the master’s level. It’s seductive as hell. What newcomers don’t realize, however, is that in universities, research is valued and conducted in forms that are often not appreciated or understood in other contexts. A post-grad challenge — and I am speaking from hard won experience here — is translating your “passion for research” into something you can actually get paid for.

Some of these transition-to-work issues are addressed through the growth of internship programs — Mitacs being an excellent example — that create specific structures and supports to link academic research skills to applications in non-academic workplaces. Which are most workplaces.

However, these opportunities are few and far between, and tend like Mitacs, to concentrate in the STEM[2] disciplines. In the humanities and social sciences, paid work oriented to research is more likely to be concentrated within the higher education sector, which, I’d argue, tends to funnel one’s aspirations to “do research” into the near-fantasy prospect of obtaining a tenure track job at a research university.

So Should You Go to Grad School?

Are you curious and “passionate about research”? Great. I feel you. Me too. I love research. I would rather lose a limb than my university library access. But the academic research training I received has been very, very difficult to translate into skills and experience recognized by the private sector. So call my experience a “cautionary tale.”

A grad degree costs money you may not have. It also has opportunity costs in terms of foregone work income and work experience. You owe it to yourself to ask good questions about what you’ll get out of immersing yourself in a research environment in graduate school. Very often, this environment is detached from the world of work, and your professors (bless their hearts) only know how to do their work, so they may not be able to give you all the advice you need.

Love research? Research for your post-grad end game, not just your thesis! Make sure you finish a grad degree armed with realistic expectations about your career prospects, and a good idea of what “research” looks like outside of the university environment.



[1] What do I mean by this? If grammar doesn’t get you hot and bothered, try not to zone out here. I’ll be quick. First, the intransitive verb: An intransitive verb doesn’t need an object. So we can say “she walked” because we don’t need to know where she’s going or why for this statement to be meaningful. It’s not very interesting of course. But we’re not left hanging with the sense that we need more information. Now, let’s compare the statement “She threw.” This is different. We are left with an annoying, outstanding question: what it is that she threw. If we don’t know the object or purpose of the action in a transitive verb, its basically meaningless.

[2] Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics