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The benefits of undergraduate research

Louise McInnes

Undergraduate students are not often valued as, or considered to be, researchers. Evidence suggests, however, that by providing undergraduates with research opportunities we upskill our students, create researchers of the future, and benefit academics and institutions. I have frequently spoken with undergraduate students who don’t think that research applies to them, and have encountered a small minority of academics that agree. The final-year dissertation is often the only research experience a student believes they have and, as Mick Healey and Alan Jenkins note:

  ‘Most UK academics see the dissertation as providing students with a capstone research experience. However, this focus on the final year ‘research experience’ may not support students in seeing themselves as stakeholders in the worlds of university research nor best support them becoming, even peripherally, members of a disciplinary research community.’
Healey and Jenkins (2009: 20)

In my role as academic skills development adviser within the University of Sheffield’s Student Skills and Development Centre (SSDC), developing and delivering undergraduate research opportunities at the University of Sheffield, I have seen the positive effect of involving undergraduate students in the disciplinary research community, particularly through the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE). This innovative scheme provides funding for students to undertake individual six-week undergraduate research projects alongside an academic supervisor. Around 130 students are supported by this scheme annually, with recent developments seeing 170 funded in 2017. The programme provides compelling evidence for the benefits of undergraduate research in areas such as skills development, with 100 per cent of students reporting enhanced skills in a 2017 evaluation. One undergraduate writes:

  ‘Participating in the scheme helped me develop several skills that will prove useful in the future – from various research methodologies to project planning and time management skills. I also gained valuable insights into subjects that are otherwise unavailable through my academic curriculum.’

These skills are not only applicable to further study, but also to the graduate jobs market. Working with the careers service, we ensure that students know how to apply these new skills in future applications for jobs and study. Many SURE students who progress to postgraduate study attribute their decision and success in part to their SURE experience.

  ‘The SURE scheme has enabled me to find my research passion. I am currently continuing my SURE research for my Master’s thesis at the University of Sheffield. Little did I know how valuable this experience would be…!’

An evaluation of the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education data also revealed a positive conversion rate of students undertaking SURE progressing to postgraduate study. In 2014, for example, 39 per cent of respondents that had participated in SURE progressed to further study, 61 per cent of them at the University of Sheffield, with the institution benefitting through student retention. Additionally, in 2017, 84 per cent of participants reported that they were considering postgraduate study.

Academics also benefit. In a 2017 evaluation, 100 per cent of academics said they would recommend the programme, with one noting that the SURE project ‘completed a wider study that will allow a research paper to be submitted that will have the potential to be returned in the next REF exercise’, and another, that their involvement in the scheme ‘produced valuable publishable data… for publication with the student as a co-author’. Many SURE students become published co-authors of academic papers, and others disseminate their research at discipline specific conferences, or at events such as the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR) – all demonstrating the quality of their work.

In response to the success of the SURE scheme, the SSDC at the University of Sheffield has developed their undergraduate research offer by creating additional opportunities for students to become part of a wider research community. These include interdisciplinary group research projects funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England that provide the opportunity for academics and students from different disciplines to collaborate, and the introduction of an International Faculty Exchange Programme to encourage international student mobility and collaboration. Providing dissemination opportunities for students is also a priority, demonstrated through an affiliation to the Undergraduate Awards (a programme recognising international excellence in undergraduate research), and a successful bid to host BCUR 2018 – a conference that has received a record 580 undergraduate submissions this year, demonstrating the growing interest in and demand for undergraduate research opportunities.

The University of Sheffield’s undergraduate research development, alongside external evidence such as the growth of conferences like BCUR, demonstrates a growing undergraduate research movement. Undergraduate research benefits students, academics and institutions. Undergraduate students can and should be valued as researchers.


Healey M and Jenkins A (2009) Developing Undergraduate Research and Enquiry, York: The Higher Education Academy.