The research marketplace

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When and how did we start doing research? What obstacles to entry did we face? Was it the research that we wanted to do?

Unfortunately, the current model of finding a research project for undergraduates and income graduate students is pretty bad.  It boils down to this… an undergraduate gets the guts to talk to whichever professor they are most comfortable talking to, goes and asks them if their are any research opportunities. Then, the professor comes up with something quickly since they have limited availability. The project is assigned, and work begins. The amount of mentoring is hit or miss based on many factors.

This is not an ideal way to get undergraduates involved in research. There are many issues, but here are the main ones I hope to address:

Information asymmetry:

  • Professors don’t know the capabilities of the students very well, nor the students exact interests.
  • Students don’t know enough about the field to know the full range of potential projects, they do not have intuition for the amount of time and effort any individual project will take.

Social Pressure:

  • Professors for the most part really want people to be involved in their field, so they are likely going to try to come up with a project, any project, for the student to do, but they are pulling from their own expertise and for something that relates to their field of research
  • Students went out on a limb to essentially ask a professor for a mystery project, they have a significant amount of social pressure to accept whatever is offered, even if it doesn’t match their interests.

Obstacles for entry, why DON’T students ask for projects in the first place:

  • Professors are at the top of the power structure in academic research, they are intimidating
  • Women are less likely to approach male professors, who make up the majority of professors in many fields

These issues can be addressed through the create of an efficient research market place that matches students seeking research with research projects overseen by professors.

In economics, a market place works well when buyers and sellers are efficiently matched and where there is information transparency. Everyone needs to know what exactly is being sold and what exactly is being offered AND what all the other possible deals are. A well functioning market is better for everyone.

In bioinformatics and computation genetics, one advantage of our field is that we are data rich and labor poor. What this means is that there is more than enough work for everyone to do, but not enough people to do it all. This is important because it means that “ideas” the initial drivers of academic research, are not heavily guarded.

I propose the creation of a website to act as the market place. Research ideas can be posted by professors, but also by post-docs and graduate students. The ideas that are posted will be things that the poster is interested in, but does not have time to work on themselves but would be willing to either mentor on or collaborate on with other researchers with more time.

A part of each post would be a detailed description of the idea, the time likely involved, the difficulty level, skills required and back ground reading.  This is where market transparency is worked on.

Importantly, the contact person for each post is not necessarily a professor, but could be a graduate student or post-doc. This means that people can find projects that interest them, that they have the skill set for, and that have mentors/collaborators whom they feel comfortable approaching.

Hopefully this transparency will help break down the barriers to entry and facilitate a greater number of students becoming involved in research.

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