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Research at Richmond: Why It's Different (and Awesome)

By Tom Nicholas

June 2, 2015

“Undergraduate research” is something of a buzzword in college admission these days. Like study abroad, it’s something that many prospective students are looking for (and being encouraged to look for) in a college, and it’s therefore something that most colleges are talking about.

But buyer beware. Although everyone is talking about research, the reality can vary quite a bit from school to school; and because everyone is talking about research, you need to be an informed consumer and do some careful digging to ensure you’re getting the full picture. Numbers alone don’t tell the story — what some universities label “undergraduate research,” for example, is really more lab assistantship or document review, so percentages aren’t always reliable. It’s critical for you to ascertain not only what “research” actually entails at a given school, but what is typical for undergraduate students at that school, and what is likely to be your experience.

While Richmond students can — and do — participate in research across all our departments and major fields, I’ve found that the sciences are an instructive example when it comes to research, because (a) the sciences are where most people think of research happening, and (b) the sciences are not where people typically think about liberal arts colleges providing significant opportunity. But even as I focus on the natural sciences, consider how these same principles apply to research in other areas — history, political science, music, psychology, and many more.

Here’s what makes research at Richmond unique:

1. Richmond is small enough that research positions go to undergraduate students. Research universities, though known for their research (as the name implies), typically reserve prime research positions for graduate students, meaning that undergraduate opportunities are limited, in both number and scope, to a select few students (and you shouldn’t overestimate your chances of lucking into such an opportunity — in-depth, active research simply isn’t probable for you, even at the most undergrad-friendly of research universities). But at Richmond, we don’t have any graduate students in the sciences, so professors rely on undergraduates to do intensive, front-line work in their labs.

2. Richmond is large enough that research opportunities are plentiful and significant. While most liberal arts colleges tout the absence of graduate students as a big advantage to undergrads, the availability of active research opportunities is often limited by the small size of the institution. But Richmond is twice the size of the average liberal arts college, and we have more than 60 research-active faculty in the sciences, publishing regularly and making significant contributions to their fields. Depending on the department, between 70 and 100% of science majors at Richmond participate in active research before they graduate. So research isn’t just possible for you at Richmond — it’s probable.

3. Research at Richmond is the real deal. This is not cleaning test tubes or assisting grad students in their work — this is hands-on science, using multi-million dollar equipment, creating and testing hypotheses, presenting at national and international conferences, and sometimes even publishing before you get your bachelor’s degree. (For hard evidence, see our chemistry department’s list of recent publications, where every name with an asterisk represents an undergraduate student.) Most research completed by Richmond undergrads — across all fields, not just the sciences — can easily be characterized as graduate-level.

4. Richmond students don’t just research at the graduate level, they get paid for it. Through faculty grant funding and the UR Summer Fellowships program, students typically receive around $4,000 for ten weeks of summer research.

5. Richmond students start research early and pursue it multiple years. This is particularly true in the sciences, where students frequently begin work in a lab the summer after their first year (or even the summer before their first year), and continue work during the academic year and subsequent summers.

6. Richmond students go on to top graduate schools and high-powered careers. Much like an internship, research — especially the deep, meaningful type of research completed by UR students — is great hands-on experience that helps propel students into meaningful careers. Many students even decide they want to pursue research itself as a career, and go on to some of the best Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the world.

And if you’re wondering, “Why would I go to a liberal arts college if I want to get my Ph.D. in the sciences?,” consider this: On average, liberal arts colleges produce twice as many future Ph.D. recipients in the sciences, per capita, than research universities. Let me rephrase that and say it again, in bold: You are twice as likely to earn your Ph.D. in the sciences if you go to a liberal arts college as an undergraduate. The notion that you need to go to a big-name research school if you want to get into top doctoral programs is not just a myth, it’s the opposite of reality. Not only do Richmond graduates regularly matriculate into top-ranked graduate programs in their field, but they are usually better prepared for the rigors of research, grant applications, and academic collaboration than their peers who studied at those same research universities as undergraduates. The reason? They’ve got a lot more hands-on experience.

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Tom NicholasTom Nicholas
Senior Assistant Director of Admission 

A Richmond alumnus (Class of 2007), Tom has been working and blogging for the Office of Admission since he graduated. He loves his alma mater and the city that shares its name.

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Beth Anne SpachtBeth Anne Spacht
Assistant Director of Admission

Beth Anne was a double major at Richmond (English and Latin American & Iberian Studies) and now enjoys helping prospective students discover the best of her alma mater.

Learn more about Beth Anne

The University of Richmond is a highly ranked liberal arts university offering an extraordinary combination of the liberal arts with law, business, leadership studies, and continuing education. The university is consistently named a best value in higher education by leading publications.

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