Telling Your Research Story
If you work for an institution that not only allows undergraduate research, but actively supports undergraduate research opportunities, it’s likely a point of pride and a distinguishing feature your institution wants to promote.
Try this: select two or three institutions and search for information on faculty and student research. Can I hear a _womp_ _womp_? In my experience, research-focused pages are text-heavy, organized for a specific internal audience, and intimidating to new viewers. I get overwhelmed and frustrated navigating these sites, and I do this for a living! Imagine the experience for a prospective student.
It’s commonly noted that some of the top questions a prospective student asks are: Where will I live? What will I eat? Who will my friends be? What will I major in? It’s not that pre-college students are shallow thinkers, it’s that they ask about what they know. For many students, research is an abstract idea. This is even more true for the approximately 30 percent of entering freshmen who will be first generation college students. For these and a number of other students, the college search process will be the first time they are formally exposed to research.
Undergraduate-focused institutions need to effectively communicate their research story to a young, novice audience. Here are my top tips for doing so:
1. Make it Personal
Students entering college today live in an incredibly intimate environment. They share their personal pictures across social networks, Skype with friends hundreds of miles away, blog daily details of their lives, and pin up their hopes and dreams for a wider audience. Therefore, posting a research story with an just the researcher’s name feels oh-so-90s. Nowadays, students want to know a good deal about the individuals behind the work. Where is he/she from? What did they study? How did they get into research? They also want to know results (there’s a point to doing research, right?): Did they go to graduate school? Where do they work now? What did they learn from the research experience?
Hampshire College does a great job of making their Division III experience personal. The experience, essentially a capstone research project required of all students, is unique to Hampshire and will naturally induce a lot of questions from prospectives. Their feature page allows individuals to peruse over 20 projects per year from 2003-2011 complete with individual photos, process stories, and “share this story” opportunities.
2. Keep it Simple
Since many students are new to the idea of research, they aren’t concerned with the minute details. One of the best ways to communicate with prospective freshmen is to keep it simple. Can undergraduates do research? What does it look like?
I stumbled upon the KU prospective student research page and the first word that popped into my mind was “refreshing.” Additionally, the pathway to that information was intuitive: Homepage –> Undergraduate Admissions –> Academics –> Research. Ta-da!
3. Speak to the English Majors!
When I was an admissions counselor I would say to a room full of students “Raise your hand if you’re interested in research.” I would proceed to ask them which majors they were interested in and I received a bevy of science-oriented responses. When high school students do have familiarity with research, it’s almost always mentally associated with the hard sciences.
Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences does a phenomenal job of not only saying there’s research beyond the sciences, but also showing what it looks like. Visitors select between Research in the Sciences, Research in the Humanities, Research in the Social Sciences, and Research in the Creative and Performing Arts. To me, the message screams, “everyone does research here.” On the site there are specific research titles, images to grab the eye, and student profiles to keep it personal.
4. Be social!
Sure, students will visit your website. Common sense and some good ‘ol Google Analytics tells us, though, that the frequency, quality, and duration of their visits varies by time of year. Yet, you can be certain students are on social media outlets year round. Communicating effectively means meeting students where they are: on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube.
The University of Chicago has a pretty great research footprint on Facebook. I found the teasers, images, and likes to be so compelling that time flew by as I played around in their timeline. I’m going to guess that’s exactly what they were going for: engagement.
How does your institution communicate research opportunities to prospective students?