Dear Undergraduate Researchers: Don’t Expect Help

Jacob Isler

Two years ago, I began my first independent study. If I were to say one thing to my past self, it would be, “don’t expect help.” The research project would take sixteen months to complete, with two of the months being utterly wasted trying to gain the support of the University. I felt like I was failing each day, being ignored or rejected from every professor, conference and journal I reached out to. This wouldn’t change until I made a fundamental shift in my mindset.

I lowered my expectations. I stopped expecting a reply from the professors I emailed, I stopped expecting my research partners to help out, and I stopped expecting the University to support my efforts. See, when our institution says that it supports undergraduate research, it seems to just support you giving professors free labor. The faculty I've spoken with consider the undergrad research grant programs to be a joke due to how little funding they have.

What finally allowed me to succeed was a change in mindset.  I stopped banking the success of my projects on the generosity of others and took matters into my own hands. Rather than begging professors to sponsor my research (a necessary step for most university-affiliated scholarships and journals), I began applying to journals and conferences outside of UT that didn’t require such a sponsorship. I was eventually accepted to one of these, and by the end of my first semester at university, I was a published researcher. Today, the paper’s view count ranks in the top one-percent of publications on Academia.edu.

Even in the scenario that you’re rejected from the lowest-tier conferences and journals, you can still get your message out there. If you have a story to tell, go guest post for Huffpost, New York Times, or similar submission-friendly outlets. Saying you’re a researcher at UT Austin and providing a well-written article should be enough to get you on a platform of that tier. If all else fails, self-publishing websites like ResearchGate or WordPress are an adequate starting point for generating interest and a following.

Getting on these additional platforms is beneficial either way — publishing research is not the end goal; having an impact is. Unfortunately, the journals that do accept an unsponsored paper probably aren’t going to spread your work far and wide. When I realized this, I took matters into my own hands once again. I started an educational blog and YouTube channel dedicated to the subject of my research and tangential phenomena. Whenever I feature someone else’s research, I send them an email introducing myself and my work. Sometimes, I get a response, and sometimes, that turns into an interview for my channel. On one occasion, an interview turned into a greater partnership, and today, I’m leading a study alongside world-class professors from Stanford and Yale. In essence: using social media to share and publicize your work may go beyond what any journal could do for you. And whatever you produce, send it to the experts of the field. Your passion and productivity will be a distinguishing factor. 

Regarding funding, for your first couple studies, you’ll probably have to make it work on a zero-dollar budget. That’s fine — thanks to the internet, there’s a lot you can do without money. Once you’ve proven that you can lead, operate, and publicize a project, professors and the University may be more willing to offer support. Crowdfunding could also become a viable option.

The current situation isn’t necessarily the fault of current professors and faculty. Everyone is locked into the system — the only way the professors can do their research at their current level of funding is by enlisting hordes of unpaid undergrads desperate for research experience. And I can only imagine the amount of unpaid labor our current professors had to give their instructors to get to where they are today. But in many cases, undergrads cannot both follow the system and conduct the research they’re passionate about. If you’re a student who feels trapped in the system like I did, all I’m trying to say is: there’s another way.

Everyone, good luck with your research. Take matters into your own hands, use modern media to surmount bureaucracy, and make an impact.

Isler is a sophomore psychology student from Vienna, Virginia. He is a contributing writer.