Picking an appropriate problem: Tips on choosing problems for your research students

Picking an appropriate research problem can be one of the biggest challenges in working with undergraduates. On the one hand, it is nice for students to have some say in choosing the research problem. Being involved in the selection of the problem gives the student a sense of perceived control that can result in greater buy-in than simply being told what to do. On the other hand, even very bright and relatively advanced undergraduates are generally not in a position to identify good problems and evaluate their importance, viability, and relationship to existing research.

One strategy that can be effective is for the advisor to decide on set of related problems but leave some latitude for the student to choose a specific problem from that list or offer a variant on one of the proposed problems.

In any case, as the advisor, you should be fully invested in the student’s research in order to maximize your commitment and enthusiasm for mentoring the student.

Another strategy that can work well with relatively senior students is to select some initial papers for the students to read, encourage them to find and read related papers, and then ask them to propose candidate research problems based on those papers. Sometimes students come up with wonderful ideas. In other cases, the ideas may not be appropriate for a short-term undergraduate research project.

In some cases, particularly when the research is open-ended, it can also be useful for the student to have more than one problem to think about. For example, in theoretical research it is possible that any single idea will simply not go anywhere.  Having a second related problem can mitigate frustration and allow the student to go back and forth on these problems until one of them – hopefully – emerges as being promising and fruitful.

Individual or group: The relative merits of single-student projects and group projects

Undergraduate research can be done individually or in a group. Small undergraduate research groups often work very well together. Groups of two to five students can be very productive, particularly if each student has some specific responsibility but the students are encouraged to interact with one another frequently.

Groups can also be used to maintain continuity. For example, a group that has several sophomores, juniors, and seniors allows for students to participate in the project for several years and for more senior students to help mentor the newer ones.

Whether students are working individually or in groups, it is important to meet with them frequently. In a summer research project where students are working exclusively on research, meeting with the students once per day is appropriate. During the academic year, meeting once per week is often sufficient. While graduate students can help with the mentoring, it is critical that the faculty member is involved as well.

Setting expectations: How to discuss and establish mutual expectations

It is important to make the expectations clear from the beginning. For many research projects, it is not possible to exactly define the actual outcomes, but the amount of time that students work and the structure of the deliverables can be stipulated.

To help students devote the required time to their research, it can be useful to agree upon designated work times and even a work place. Additionally, the student can be asked to keep a detailed work journal (e.g., on a shared electronic document). Many advisors ask their students to submit a work plan in writing periodically (e.g., daily, every few days, weekly) as well as short written updates on their progress.

Set up a regular meeting time and make it clear on the kind of preparation the student should do in advance of those meetings. Finally, agree in advance on other deliverables such as periodic oral presentations to you and their peers, the frequency and parameters of written reports, etc. For example, in a 10-week summer research experience, students might be asked to give two 30-minute presentations (an initial research plan and background talk, followed by a final talk) and write an initial research proposal and a final paper in the format of a conference paper.

Beyond the Research: Co-curricular activities that make research experiences more meaningful

Many research students report that one of the best parts of their research experience is in developing relationships with their mentors and peers, being part of a research community, and experiencing the research lifestyle. We strongly encourage mentors to include students in as many activities as possible such as:

  1. Research group meetings with your other students and colleagues
  2. Social events in your department
  3. Periodic meals together
  4. Informal conversations about academic life (e.g., what is graduate school like, what is it like to be a professor or a researcher, how does promotion work in academia, issues of work-life balance, etc.)
  5. Travel to workshops and conferences (even local ones where the costs may be more manageable)