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STEM Student Researchers: Where Are They?
The lack of professional relationships between STEM students and their academic professors is negatively affecting crucial research opportunities and career development.
Note to readers: This guest post is the fourth in a series of guest posts written by students who are engaging in my research program in several ways. The aim of this series is to allow my mentees to pursue their research interests while also sharing their own personal journeys in the Academy while sharpening their scholarship, scientific writing, and engaging with the public. I have lightly edited each piece as part of my mentorship, but each piece reflects the student’s current writing and capacity to discuss a personal anecdote or research topic with scholarly rigor and precision. Reaction and feedback from the public is welcome.
University is believed to be where students are presented with personal and professional opportunities to grow. This leads many to believe that one must attend university in order to move on from trivial secondary school life to a more punctual and adult realm, especially for students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. More importantly, there is a belief that university will give students the roots and knowledge they need to secure a stable job. Although there is some truth to the stability a STEM degree may provide students with, it does not acknowledge how reliable this stability truly is.
In recent years, the workforce has valued job-specific experience over just merely a degree. Employers are more likely to hire/supervise an experienced candidate over a candidate with minimal to no experience, as the former is perceived to be more knowledgeable in their duties, leaving the inexperienced feeling stagnant. Experience comes in different forms, whether that be volunteering, an internship, or an assistant position of some sort. The most common method of gaining experience among university students is through their undergraduate faculty for any available research opportunities. However, lately, I have noticed several patterns through my experiences and endeavours that leave most STEM students frustrated and worried about their future.
My name is Sanjana, and I am currently a 4th-year student majoring in Biomedical Sciences with an interest in child developmental psychology, and I can say from personal experience that the road to gaining relevant experience was not easy. As a 1st year student in 2019, I looked toward my undergraduate future with optimism but was unaware of the importance of research involvement. This experience is shared by not only my peers but hundreds of students across universities, displaying the first noticeable disconnect. As students, we are expected to personally reach out to professors and outside professionals at the start of our undergraduate studies to gain experience for our career pathways. However, students are not made aware of this crucial step at all. The lack of awareness among lower-year students on not only possible research opportunities but strategies to acquire a position, such as professional emailing and interviewing, leaves them unprepared for what lies ahead. Even if there are students who reach out to their professors, in my experience, many professors are quick to dismiss them due to the lack of academic professionality conveyed through emails and interviews. Without providing/teaching students the proper set of skills, attaining even the lowest research position is difficult. This could be fixed by incorporating several research seminars and reminders throughout the school year showcasing the different research opportunities available instead of just one or two yearly. Why such procedures are still not being considered by STEM faculties remains a mystery to me.
The second point I would like to highlight is the disconnect between students and professors/professionals. We are often told that we will “only be known as a student number”, and I find this to be true. Outside of lectures, there aren't enough opportunities to connect with a professor in an academic setting to convey interest in their research. Moreover, students may also feel intimidated, consequently resulting in them reaching out to professors via email. Students often draft up a well-written and personalized email that states their interests and goals in hopes of impressing the targeted professor. However, despite several efforts, students are often constantly met with no response, which could be due to a professor’s unavailability to answer numerous student research inquiries. However, academic professionals are not fully aware of a student's need for experience in today’s world, leading them to behave similarly to the workforce mentioned before. They opt for the students who have already gained experience rather than taking the time to shape a student to fit their needs, thus furthering the disconnect between a potentially diligent student and a professional researcher.
Along with the unfair advantage of experience, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the prevailing challenges for students. As a first-year student at that time, my primary concern was the safety of myself and my family. After adjusting, however, I was ready to continue pursuing research opportunities. Unfortunately, as per academic guidelines, universities did not allow new research trainee intake to minimize the virus spread. This was understandable at the time but came with severe consequences for STEM students. As a result, STEM students lost valuable time to cultivate fundamental research skills such as working in a wet lab, handling administrative tasks, etc., thus setting us further back than anticipated. Even so, when restrictions were lifted in academic settings (i.e. research labs), students were not accommodated or excused for that lost time. Instead, we were faced with unfair expectations from educational institutions. STEM students, now upper-year students, were expected to have self-learned the skills needed to thrive in a research setting, which was not the case. With the mental burden and increased coursework given during the pandemic, where would STEM students find the time and discipline to self-learn? More importantly, would the self-learned material be of quality and use? Although some scientific skills can be self-taught, others must be gained through experience. Here we can see the second disconnect between the STEM student body and professors.
Related to the above, a third disconnect I have uncovered is the selective nature of professors when choosing possible candidates for their research. Granted, some selectivity is needed, but this quickly becomes unfair when student candidates are chosen only from a specific pool. Here’s what I mean: in recent times, and many subsequent conversations, I have found that professors prefer, interview, and accept mostly 2nd-year students along with a few 1st-year students, rather than 3rd and 4th-year students. This occurs because younger students will spend more time at the university and will contribute longer to research than older students. This leaves mature students, who not only weren’t informed of research opportunities during their lower years but also were affected by COVID-19, with essentially no opportunity to step foot into the research realm. I have personally been a victim of this, where communication between a professor and myself would cease once my 4th-year status was known. Due to this, students are forced to seek research opportunities elsewhere, outside their educational institute, which comes with its own unique set of highs and lows. Unfortunately, this practice may result in unhealthy student competition or even feelings of resentment among students.
Branching out for research is an excellent way of accumulating more experience as well as conducting research in your field of interest. However, external institutes are also keen on hiring and supervising candidates with experience, or on very few occasions, they are willing to train and shape students who have yet to gain experience. I had always assumed that a research background was necessary to get a position until I reached out to scientific researchers such as Dr. John Haltigan through his University of Toronto faculty profile. Dr. Haltigan gave me the chance to learn from him as a new and inexperienced trainee. I was granted opportunities I would not have received at my educational institute, such as writing this essay. I finally got the opportunity to hone my skills and make meaningful connections with professionals in my field of interest. Though it took me some time to obtain research experience, I believe my persistence and the willingness of my current supervisor further boosted my confidence and work ethic. However, STEM resea
rch is not the constant it used to be as it continues to be inaccessible and unreachable to students. Changing the attitudes, perceptions, and practices of academic research and the researchers within the STEM field will be pivotal in student success as well as contributions in the various areas of the STEM industry.
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