The UROP Advantage

Time and funding may tight, but U-M Institute for Social Research faculty are beginning to tap a free resource that’s making research a little easier. The Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) creates research partnerships between students and researchers, providing faculty with free support from undergraduate assistants. The program employs more than 1,300 first- and second-year students working with over 800 faculty members across campus, and it handles everything from paying student wages, providing academic credit options and managing paperwork. It also provides supplementary funding for out of pocket expenses incurred from sponsoring UROP students. Logistics are handled by the UROP team, leaving little work for faculty members in need of help.

Survey Research Center (SRC) Professor Dan Keating and Research Investigator Edward Huntley have successfully recruited a series of UROP students to help them with the Adolescent Health Risk Behavior (ARHB) study. The students each volunteer 8-12 hours a week during the academic year conducting literature reviews, conceptualizing research questions, coding data and completing basic statistical analyses. The students are mentored during weekly sessions that address research methods, and are encouraged to participate in lab meetings. Their work is presented as a poster at the multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Symposium at the end of each school year.

“Working with the UROP students has been a positive experience for us,” says Huntley. “Their contributions have been fundamental to successfully launching the study and exploring tertiary interests that we hope will blossom into future lines of related research.”

Many of the UROP students have maintained contact with the AHRB researchers and extended their work into an independent study. Kevin Grimaldi, who joined AHRB as a sophomore in 2014, turned his work on alcohol risk related behaviors into an independent study, which was later developed into his honors thesis in psychology. Grimaldi presented his work at two national conferences – Society for Research in Child Development and Society for Research on Adolescence – and was accepted into the Accelerated Master’s Degree Program in developmental psychology. He plans to continue the research focus he started as a UROP assistant.

Fabian Pfeffer, an SRC research assistant professor, began working with a UROP student last year. The student assembled and cleaned data files. In the process, she acquired and applied some basic data programming skills. Pfeffer believes that the UROP students, who are carefully selected through an application process, are generally highly motivated, smart and curious.

“What helps set many UROP students apart is that they also come well prepared to work in a research environment, a testament to the impressive operation run by the UROP staff,” says Pfeffer.

In periodic seminars, the students are educated about what faculty members will expect from them, how to meet their needs and communicate effectively. UROP students are also offered training opportunities targeted to the needs of a particular project. The researcher defines what those needs are in the project proposal. Pfeffer believes this preparation facilitates many aspects of the research mentorship and benefits both parties. He has already signed up for another UROP student.
Valentina Duque, a postdoctoral fellow in the Populations Studies Center (PSC), used UROP students to assist with her project examining the effects of the Colombian Conditional Cash Transfer program, Familias en Acción, on student achievement test scores at age 18. The UROP students produced a handbook-style table that organized the past literature on major social program interventions, described the data and methodology used in each of the papers, and highlighted any heterogeneity in outcomes between different groups. The students also wrote a paper that summarized the overall findings of the literature they had. The goal was to identify what had been done in the previous research and what was yet to be investigated.

Duque says she was able to enhance her students’ research skills while making progress on her project. She offers the following tips for future UROP advisers:

  1. Set weekly or bi-weekly meetings to check students’ progress and work.
  2. Communicate early and often about deadlines. Students may not be aware of the implications of committing to a particular deadline.
  3. Provide examples to clarify expectations for deliverables. She gave her students a sample summary of a paper so that they knew what she wanted.

Linda Young-DeMarco, an SRC research associate lead, and Arland Thornton, research professor in SRC and PSC, manage their UROP students through regular one-on-one instruction with the lead research associate and weekly research discussions led by the primary investigator. Students can explore their own research questions related to the topics being studied in their project on social and demographic change among Native Americans.

UROP students often move on to do great things in the field. Courtney Kennedy, a former UROP student for Political Studies Research Professor Michael Traugott, has been very successful in the public opinion field. She is the director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, and chaired the American Association for Public Opinion Research committee reviewing 2016 pre-election polls.

Traugott looks to continue using UROP students to aid his research. “We were just awarded a three-year MIDAS grant and will be submitting a position description for help from UROP students in the fall,” he says.

Learn more about UROP online