Undergraduate Research Assistants and Scholarly Productivity

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Winter/Spring 2017 issue.

The Teacher-Scholar

Elizabeth A. Bennion, Indiana University South Bend

One of the responsibilities of our lives as teacher-scholars is to teach students how to be scholars. Research papers, methodology courses, and intensive writing courses can all help students to develop their reading, writing, and research skills. Requiring students to read, summarize, analyze, criticize, and synthesize academic journal articles in courses across the curriculum is another way to develop essential skills while teaching them about the discipline. Employing undergraduate research assistants is a less utilized, but particularly valuable, way to mentor students in the area of scholarship.

The benefits are tremendous. Carefully selected undergraduate students can increase research productivity for the faculty member, while preparing students for future work in the academy and beyond. Students can manage databases, conduct literature reviews, draft sections of a research paper, and edit book chapters. My research assistant, Xander Laughlin, has done all of this and more. Without his help, my scholarly output would be drastically reduced as I balance my research time with a heavy teaching and service load. Importantly, this arrangement has proven to be mutually beneficial, as Xander describes in his essay printed here

I encourage all faculty members to consider working with undergraduate research assistants. Students can sign up for an independent research course or be hired as hourly or work-study students. Faculty should have specific projects in mind, assign specific weekly tasks, set specific hours, and plan to check in with the student every week. Ideally, faculty should select a student, like Xander, who is detail-oriented, responsible, and self-motivated. A student who works quickly and efficiently, asks for additional tasks upon completion, and seeks opportunities for co-authorship is ideal. Some tasks may be more difficult to delegate than others. An undergraduate student cannot be expected to do the work for you – or to work without active feedback and mentoring. Sometimes the faculty mentor may find it difficult to keep up with a diligent task-oriented student! Still, the time invested is repaid may times over in increased productivity. Co-authorship and mentorship offer many rewards for both faculty and students. It’s a winning combination – well worth a try!

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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