Letter from the Guest Editor, PURM 5.1

The importance of undergraduate research has been embraced by virtually every disciplinary corner of the academy. While undergraduate research in professional schools represents one of the fastest growing areas (Shanahan, Liu, Manak, Miller, Tan, & Yu, 2015), numerous misconceptions still exist regarding the efficacy and viability of undergraduate research in these more “applied” disciplines. Because the practice of undergraduate research varies across disciplinary fields (Kinkead, 2003), mentoring in different professional disciplines warrants further investigation and elaboration.

The goal of this special issue is to explore these differences. The issue contains five articles that discuss mentoring across disciplines as diverse as economics, business and entrepreneurship, communications, and human services.

In an insightful dialogue on mentorship and parallel process, Esposito and Williams articulate the tensions and triumphs of a mentor-mentee relationship that spans racial and gender differences. As part of Elon’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, Williams (’15) worked with Professor Esposito to examine the influence of Hip-Hop therapy on the self-efficacy and cultural identity of elementary aged Black males. Together, Williams, a Black male mentee, and Esposito, a Caucasian female mentor, share their personal experiences, observations and insights on navigating a research project so closely related to race and gender, when these differences were also highlighted between mentor and mentee. The essay poignantly reflects not only on the challenges faced in navigating these roles, but also how open dialogue and writing about the process resulted in growth and the development of mutual respect.

In their paper, Flores, Hansen, Hagen and Hettich discuss the long-term benefits of undergraduate research in economics. Professors Flores and Hansen provide an overview of the efforts of the faculty at Minnesota State University Moorhead over the past 14 years to integrate research into their curriculum. In addition to developing a hierarchical curriculum where students apply content and skills in their capstone experience that were developed in previous courses, the faculty also agreed informally to require course-based projects such as term papers and literature reviews in most electives in order to build foundational research skills. This article is particularly interesting because little attention has been given to the benefits of such experiences at undergraduate-focused state universities. While there is wide acceptance of the efficacy of undergraduate experiences on individuals who eventually pursue graduate degrees, the authors demonstrate quite convincingly how the development of research skills benefit students intent on working in industry. The students highlight the importance of transferrable skills such as critical thinking, effective writing, creativity, conscientiousness, independence, and time management, noting that the skills developed throughout this program are consistent with the skills generally attributed to “career readiness.” Overall, this contribution underscores the importance of curricular structure in supporting the role of individual mentors. Without the structure and commitment of the department as whole, the mentoring process would focus more on the development of technical skills than broader, more transferrable skills consistent with career preparedness.

Along similar lines, in an examination of the role of research and mentoring in a service-learning-based Public Relations course at taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, Meganck, Briones, and Pyle echo the fundamental role of research in the development of professional skills. Following an extensive introduction to research methods used in the PR industry and its crucial role in both developing an informed PR strategy and evaluating the effectiveness of campaigns, students provide a local, non-profit “client” with research services that vary based on the client’s needs. Through an analysis of critical reflections from students, clients, and TAs, the authors highlight how the course helped students understand the fundamental role of research in the PR industry and its real-world applications. According to the authors, these insights are particularly valuable as the authors note that many PR practitioners often “do not see the value” in research. The analysis also revealed how the course structure—with an emphasis on mentoring—helped students build confidence in preparing for future classes, recognize the value of peer mentoring, and deal with challenges such as lack of time to fully comprehend extensive course content.

Undergraduate research occurring in a study abroad context can be both deeply meaningful and challenging. In an essay by Hatcher and Watkins, the authors share insights on the role that tailored, in-depth pre-travel planning played in students’ successful coverage of the 2014 Internet Hall of Fame Induction/International IT Fest in Hong Kong. Prior to the festival, which would last for a brief 5-day period in the spring semester, students enrolled in a 2-credit Global Communications Research Independent Study designed to provide students with the necessary tools to accomplish their research objectives. These objectives included interviewing festival participants and inductees on camera, editing videos into narratives, and uploading videos and transcripts to the Imagining the Internet website. Mentorship in this case focused on cultivating relationships prior to travel among faculty with expertise in a range of areas—logistical, historical, cultural, and methodological—all of which were necessary to accomplish the stated research goals in an international setting and with very limited time. The essay underscores the importance of advance preparation by students prior to conducting research in an international setting, as well as clarity in research objectives prior to departure.

Finally, the contribution by Baker describes a community-based research project by business students at Albion (MI) College to support the development of the Albion Accelerator, a local maker-space supporting creativity and entrepreneurship. Baker argues that undergraduate research in business serves as powerful pedagogy that not only supports the development of professionalism, but can also be done in ways that serves the needs of the larger community. The model she describes is quite unique. It encompasses multiple semesters and involves group-based research. Rather than the more traditional one-on-one mentoring model, Baker’s mentoring is done in the context of special class sections organized around the Albion Accelerator theme. According to Baker, mentoring this kind of undergraduate research is challenging for a number of reasons, including a lack of intrinsic motivation to “do research” among many business students. Ultimately, the real-world applicability of the project and the ability to contribute to the community in a positive way helped motivate the students. Client-based research differs significantly from traditional academic research; the difference, however, is arguably critical for the development of professional skills. In addition to serving the needs of the client, deadlines are introduced. Thus, students have to learn to be comfortable with research that is “good enough” given the client constraints. Overall, Baker provides a provocative model of undergraduate research that should be a model for business education.

Together, these five contributions demonstrate many of the unique challenges and opportunities of undergraduate research and mentorship within professional fields. Within the liberal arts and sciences, the value of undergraduate research in applying classroom learning to inquiry within a chosen field may be seen as obvious, especially among those interested in pursuing graduate degrees. This edition of PURM likewise underscores how the practice of undergraduate research may also be a critical component for professional disciplines—ranging from business to communications to human services—as research plays an increasingly important role in preparing students for future careers and serving as a bridge between the classroom and the real-world.

Barbara Miller
Steve DeLoach

A special thank you to our reviewers for this special edition:
Lynn Owens, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Glenn Scott, Elon University
Vanessa Bravo, Elon University
Scott Morrison, Elon University
Akira Motomuro, Stonehill college
Simon Condliffe, West Chester University

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