The Rewards of Undergraduate Research


Undergraduate research may seem like a natural step for STEM majors. But for social science majors, it might not be their first instinct. At a recent Berkeley Connect in Sociology event, a panel of sociology undergraduates shared their experiences entering the world of research.

Professor Kim Voss, the director of Berkeley Connect in Sociology, kicked off the discussion by speaking about the benefits of doing research as an undergraduate. “It’s different from what you learn in your courses,” she explained. “You’re creating knowledge, not just consuming it.” She also spoke about how research gives students the opportunity to develop close relationships with faculty members and graduate students.

Sean Burns, the Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarships, spoke further on this topic. “It’s the best thing you can offer on the job market,” said Burns. “You’re doing something voluntary that expresses passion, interest, and curiosity.”

John Towey, an undergraduate researcher, strongly encouraged students to get involved in undergraduate research as early in their college career as possible. “It’s the single best decision I’ve made since deciding to go to Cal,” he added. He recommended submitting an application, even if you don’t think you’ll be accepted into a program.

Giovanni Roman, an undergraduate as well, recommended having fun with your research topic. “You can shape it however you want,” he explained. His research project is on Mexican American community college students and the effect that student-faculty interaction has on their goals to transfer to a four-year university. This is a topic close to Roman’s heart, as he is a transfer student to Berkeley himself. He began working on his project through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) at Cal.

Mimi Sergent-Leventhal, another undergraduate, advised picking a topic based on your personal interests, just like Roman. Her research is on private schools. Nalya Rodriguez, the final member of the undergraduate panel, is currently a Haas Scholar doing research on the relationship between the violence during the civil war in El Salvador and the current political gang wars. She is also the student lead of the Underrepresented Undergraduate Researcher Ambassador Program, a cause about which she is quite passionate.

As far as what these panelists wished they had done differently, Sergent-Leventhal said, “Even though I started early, I should have done more of the grunt work early.” This was a commonly-shared sentiment among the panelists – they all advised starting the process of getting involved in research as early as possible.

“I just wish I’d had more of a dialogue with my friends and professors about these programs,” added Rodriguez. She wished she had known earlier that a lot of her classmates were involved in programs that she didn’t even know about. Luckily Berkeley Connect students got to learn about them at this event!

Students who attended this panel are certain to be motivated to look into undergraduate research after hearing about the rewarding experiences of their peers. One motivating reason to do research, said Burns, is that “knowledge production is a social process.” He continued, “There is a call and response dimension to the history of knowledge.” As a researcher, you get to bring something new to the table, and see how others respond to it, and for budding academics, there’s nothing more enticing than that.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant