Digest No. 11 - August 2023

STEM Success with Undergraduate Research Experience

Gilmore, J.; Vieyra, M.; Timmerman, B.; Feldon, D.; and Maher, M. 2015. “The Relationship between Undergraduate Research Participation and Subsequent Research Performance of Early Career STEM Graduate Students.” Journal of Higher Education.


While participating in undergraduate research can provide benefits to students’ college experiences and performance, it is primarily designed to enhance their preparation for conducting independent research at later stages of their careers. This is especially important for STEM students considering the predicted shortfall in STEM researchers the U.S. currently faces.

This study sought to establish whether participating in undergraduate research predicted increased ability to conduct research over the first year of graduate school among STEM students and, if so, what elements of the undergraduate research experience were most important. The authors gathered 58 students from three diverse institutions. All students were entering their first year of master’s or PhD study and were actively conducting research in a STEM field. To assess their research skills, students were required to write research proposals in the first weeks of their graduate program, and to revise them at the end of their first year of graduate study. The proposals were evaluated by two expert STEM researchers using carefully designed and validated rubrics. Students were also interviewed to determine if they had conducted research as undergraduates, and if so, how those experiences were structured, their duration, their degree of collaboration, and other characteristics. These interviews were coded to create different characterizations of each student’s undergraduate research experience (e.g., short duration, low autonomy, high collaboration, high motivation, etc.). Whether a student had conducted undergraduate research and what that research experience was like was then correlated with their graduate research skill level as determined by their scores on the research proposals they had drafted.


While this study could not control for student self-selection into undergraduate research, nonetheless, participating in undergraduate research predicted higher scores in nearly all research skills examined by the research group at both the beginning and the end of the first year of graduate study. Several factors appeared to play an important role in these group differences. Specifically, the total duration of undergraduate research was linked to improved research skills in graduate school, with longer research experiences corresponding to higher skill levels. Furthermore, students that were given more autonomy over the research experience (for example, those who were allowed to create their own research question and choose their own methods) appeared to begin their graduate studies with stronger skills.

With that said, this study was unable to discern whether having the opportunity to control more of the undergraduate research experience led to students becoming more skillful researchers, or merely if more skillful undergraduate students tended to be given more control over their research experiences on account of their skill. Potentially, undergraduate research experiences where students are brought into a project that is already conceptualized and underway may be less effective than projects that are student-initiated. Finally, the size of the research team the undergraduate students were a part of appeared not to play a role in their development of research skills.


Including research experiences in the undergraduate curriculum for STEM students may be beneficial to their later research skills. Campus leaders should consider ways to include such experiences in the undergraduate science curriculum in a structured manner, and in a way that increases the duration of such research beyond the typical single semester project. Leaders may also wish to develop an office of undergraduate research if not already in existence on their campus, or to partner with more research-intensive institutions if their own institution provides limited research opportunities. However accomplished, faculty that facilitate undergraduate research should be offered incentives for doing so and should receive significant training in research mentorship and undergraduate student support. Experiences like undergraduate research that map so well onto future career opportunities within STEM fields are important to identify for non-STEM fields to determine if similar types of benefits can be mirrored.


Joanna Gilmore is the director of assessment and evaluation with the Charleston County School District.

Michelle Vieyra is an associate professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Southern Carolina-Aiken.

Briana Timmerman is a freelance educational consultant.

David Feldon is a professor in the Department of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences at Utah State University and director of the Utah State University STEM Center.

Michelle Maher is a professor of higher education administration at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.


Blanton, R. L. 2008. “A Brief History of Undergraduate Research, with Consideration of Its Alternative Futures.” In R. Taraban & R. Blanton (Eds.), Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs in Science: The Transformation from Student to Scientist, 233–246. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lave, J., and Wenger, E. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thiry, H.; Laursen, S. L. and Hunter, A. 2011. “What Experiences Help Students Become Scientists? A Comparative Study of Research and Other Sources of Personal Professional Gains for STEM Undergraduates.” The Journal of Higher Education, 82.4, 357–388.