Academic Growth and Professional Development through Undergraduate Humanities Research

While various colleges around the country cut undergraduate humanities majors and resources in favor of tracks they deem more career-oriented, we would like to argue that conducting research in the humanities gives undergraduate students vital professional skills. We base this argument on an analysis of undergraduate researchers in the humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), from 2000 to 2018. These researchers, who are now alumni, suggest that their undergraduate research experiences, in addition to giving them important academic competencies, played influential roles in preparing them for a variety of careers.

The narrative that the sky is falling and the humanities are in crisis is by now a familiar one (e.g., Hayot; Schmidt, “Humanities”). Whereas some scholars argue that efforts to justify the humanities undermine their intrinsic value (e.g., Fish), others provide compelling justifications of the field (e.g., Adams; Long). This essay, while falling into the realm of justification, does not concentrate on administrative arguments about the value of the humanities but presents the benefits of learning and scholarship in the humanities from students’ points of view. In our study, the students argue for the value of conducting in-depth research projects in the humanities.

We had originally conceived of this study as part of a larger effort to assess UCLA undergraduate research programs while analyzing student academic outcomes. What soon became clear, however, was that students not only indicated various academic benefits of undergraduate research but also suggested that their undergraduate research experiences provided a range of crucial professional skills and opportunities for personal development. After taking a brief look at the current undergraduate research and humanities landscape, we include our findings below. As we will see, undergraduate research can strongly influence students’ postgraduate paths, helping them identify their interests while developing key academic and professional skills and fostering personal growth.

Perceived Outcomes and the Prioritizing of Majors

In recent years, various governors, legislators, and university administrators have advocated for providing more resources for select academic programs, most often STEM programs, and fewer for humanities programs. Institutions such as West Virginia University; Marymount University; the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point; Stony Brook University, State University of New York; and the University of Tulsa have cut or publicly considered cuts to humanities majors (Pettit; Roberts-Grmela; Nguyen; Flaherty; Huiskes). Arguments for prioritizing STEM fields are often based on perceived career outcomes, with STEM studies characterized as more career-focused, job-friendly, and crucial for the economy (Cohen; Alvarez; Knox).

[S]tudents not only indicated various academic benefits of undergraduate research but also suggested that their undergraduate research experiences provided a range of crucial professional skills and opportunities for personal development.

While humanities proponents note that STEM majors are crucial and valuable, they observe that humanities majors also gain important skills sought by today’s employers. Defenders of the humanities point to competencies cultivated in humanities classrooms, including critical thinking, written and oral communication, and problem solving, which correspond to skills employers value (“STEM Education”; Gilbert; Marcus). A 2020 American Association of Colleges and Universities survey found that employers prioritized the competencies noted above (Finley), and a 2019 National Association of Colleges and Employers report revealed that employers rated critical thinking and problem solving, teamwork, and oral and written communication as three of the four most essential needs in employee skill sets (Job Outlook 33).

We know that humanities students gain a wide variety of competencies through their studies, and specific evidence as to these gains can only bolster this argument. This is where we turn to undergraduate research. Numerous studies document the benefits of undergraduate research, although most of these studies concentrate on STEM fields.1 One study finds that only sixteen percent of the literature on undergraduate research concerns non-STEM disciplines (Haeger et al.).2 However, this sixteen percent of the literature helpfully explores both theoretical and practical topics of concern to undergraduate research in the humanities. Various of these studies, for instance, examine the unique characteristics, considerations, and challenges of undergraduate humanities research in comparison to research in STEM and other disciplines (Schantz; Grobman; Wilson; Dean and Kaiser). David Lopatto compares undergraduate research experiences and outcomes among students in humanities, social science, and science disciplines (“Undergraduate Research as a Catalyst”), while John Ishiyama evaluates student academic and professional gains from participation in undergraduate humanities, social science, and arts research. Others offer valuable case histories and examples of undergraduate research projects, collaborations, and course-based experiences in English (Kinkead and Grobman), history (Corley; Johnson and Harreld; Stephens et al.; Falk Gesink), theater (Blackmer), and multiple humanities disciplines (Sand et al.).3 In addition, the Council on Undergraduate Research has established an arts and humanities division, and various edited volumes on undergraduate research have appeared in the last decade or so, including Creative Inquiry in the Arts and Humanities: Models of Undergraduate Research (Yavneh Klos et al.), How to Get Started in Arts and Humanities Research with Undergraduates (Crawford et al.), and Undergraduate Research in English Studies (Grobman and Kinkead). While the above-referenced studies and resources add valuably to our knowledge of undergraduate research in the humanities, additional studies on non-STEM undergraduate research are, as Heather Haeger and her coauthors declared in 2020, “desperately needed” (67). With this study, we aim to provide additional insights on the academic and professional skills undergraduates gain through humanities research. In comparison to Lopatto’s and Ishiyama’s outcomes-oriented analyses, this study focuses specifically on undergraduate research outcomes in the humanities.

Researching Undergraduate Research

As a university with a specific undergraduate research center dedicated to the humanities, arts, and social science disciplines (the UCLA Undergraduate Research Center for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences), we are uniquely positioned to examine undergraduate research in non-STEM disciplines. Our work began with an effort to investigate the effectiveness of our center’s research scholarship programs from 2014 through 2018. In an initial study, we examined survey responses from over 150 undergraduate research program participants across the humanities, arts, and social sciences (Kistner et al.). We noted that, in comparison with students who did not participate in undergraduate research, the research program participants reported statistically significant better outcomes in a variety of areas, including critical thinking, desire for lifelong learning, and ability to communicate effectively in writing. These results were intriguing. Not only did the undergraduate research students demonstrate more confidence in their academic skills, a result we had hypothesized, but they also reported greater proficiencies in skills that specifically matched the employer needs noted above.

As a second study, to explore the influence of undergraduate research on students’ postgraduate trajectories, we surveyed alumni of our two biggest research programs, the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program and the Undergraduate Research Fellows Program.4 We reached out to 1,145 alumni who participated in the research programs between 2000 and 2018. Despite a large number of email addresses that were no longer active, we received 182 responses. Because we were particularly interested in the responses from undergraduate researchers in the humanities, we then selected the subset of 67 humanities majors for further analysis.5 After removing the students who had participated in the programs in 2018 but had not yet graduated at the time of the survey, as well as the students (mostly double majors) who did research in a nonhumanities area (e.g., a psychology lab), we were left with the responses of 58 humanities researchers, from 2000 to 2018. And their responses were illuminating.

From “Intellectually Formative” Experiences to “Invaluable Personal Growth”

The postgraduate trajectories of the fifty-eight humanities students were highly diverse. Their current and previous positions include some fields often deemed humanities-related (e.g., “Humanities-Related Employment”): publishing, law, grant writing, technical writing, nonprofits and social justice advocacy, and various positions in museums and theaters. Many of the alumni work in education, as university faculty members, high school teachers, educational consultants, university program managers, and other types of instructors. And numerous others are in fields we may not envision initially when contemplating the trajectories of humanities students. We count among the group multiple finance and financial project managers; a software engineer; an IT director; technology designers and specialists; health and political policy analysts; a nurse; entrepreneurs who founded consulting, baking, and construction firms; and an employee of the aerospace industry.6 Eighty-three percent of the alumni are currently or were formerly in graduate school, ranging from MA and PhD programs in the humanities, social sciences, and arts to JD programs, MEd programs, MFA programs, and MS programs in nursing and in biomedical science.

“Food had always been a passion of mine, and research opportunities at UCLA showed me that food could also be a serious area of study and work. I got to spend my undergraduate career exploring what that could look like and in turn use that experience to launch my career.”

Thus, our students provided a variety of answers to the tired question at times posed to humanities majors: “What are you going to do with that?” (Deresiewicz). We also asked them how their personal experiences in conducting undergraduate humanities research and participating in an undergraduate research program helped them decide on their career goals. Over 48% of the respondents said that their humanities research experience made a “big difference,” and over 36% said it made at least a “little difference.” Slightly under 14% said it made “no difference.”

Conducting undergraduate research is evidently impactful, and our questions to the students then concerned exactly how it was impactful. Numerous alumni credited their humanities research experience with helping them identify their interests and consequently solidifying or changing their career paths. Some noted that research reinforced their desires to go to graduate school and into academia, giving them confidence in their choices. One former student, now an assistant professor, observed that his research experience “deepened [his] commitment to diversifying the academy.” Others credited their research experiences with leading them to a variety of careers. One respondent observed that changing his research topic led him to a different career path, while another stated, “My undergraduate research, and one of my research partners in particular, led me to my current job.” An additional respondent, who studied depictions of cultural authenticity in culinary tourism, declared: “Food had always been a passion of mine, and research opportunities at UCLA showed me that food could also be a serious area of study and work. I got to spend my undergraduate career exploring what that could look like and in turn use that experience to launch my career.”

Furthermore, in terms of launching their careers, approximately half of the respondents said they discussed their undergraduate research experiences in a job application cover letter and job interview. We wondered if these fairly high numbers could be attributed to the respondents currently in university academic positions, as respondents pursuing careers in academia, for instance, might be more likely to discuss previous research experience. To test this theory, we divided the students into two groups: those in university academic positions (current college and university faculty members and current graduate students) and those not in university academic positions.7 We found that the respondents not in university academic positions were just as likely to discuss their humanities research in a job application or interview as those in university academic positions.8 While some of this result may be due to graduate students who did not submit job applications (having gone straight from their time as undergraduates to graduate school), it does not negate the fact that over half of the respondents not in university academic positions discussed their humanities research in their job search, presumably considering it a notable and applicable part of their experience. One former student observed that a coauthored undergraduate publication had “opened many doors,” while another declared, “Despite my lack of relevant work experience, I believe my current employer noted my involvement with the [Undergraduate Research Scholars Program] as a kind of employment. My participation . . . showed that I could handle the required responsibilities and workload.”

The alumni then credited their humanities research experience with developing a number of academic skills, which they declared have served them well in a variety of areas. They responded that they gained analytical, problem-solving, and information literacy skills through their research, including the ability to think logically about complex problems (71%), acquire information on their own (76%), solve problems independently (71%), approach problems creatively (59%), and understand scholarly findings (78%). One former student credited his research experience with “allowing [him] to ask the right questions, synthesize and analyze information, and make informed decisions” in his career. Another noted, “I do research regularly as part of my job. The skills I gained [at UCLA] through research . . . have absolutely been helpful as I sift through what information is relevant and what information is simply interesting.” A third respondent pointed to the continuing value of his undergraduate research: “As an attorney I think back to my time at UCLA when I am writing my legal briefs, where my organization and references to sources are rooted in my undergraduate research experience.” Additionally, over half of the alumni cited their ability to communicate effectively in writing as a benefit of their research experiences. Their open-ended responses then enumerated various communication skills, with one person stating that he stood out in his profession through his ability to “articulately share [his] perspective and knowledge,” while another declared, “The ability to delve deeply into a topic has made me a much more effective communicator in the professional world than (quite frankly) most of my peers.”

While we had anticipated many of the alumni reporting gains in the academic skills detailed above, we had not anticipated their enthusiasm regarding the role of undergraduate research in their personal growth and development. These responses were in fact the most pronounced, with the greatest number of alumni noting that through their humanities research they gained more confidence in themselves and their abilities (84%), developed their intellectual curiosity (90%), and learned self-discipline and time management skills (79%). One respondent credited her research experience with building her “self-confidence to take charge of a project,” while another declared it gave him “the confidence to push through on difficult yet substantially rewarding tasks.” Many others also cited persistence as a key outcome. One former student stated he learned the most when his research “fell flat,” while another, when asked what she gained through her research, proclaimed, “Patience! Working toward something diligently even when you don’t see an outcome every single day.” In addition to many comments reflecting on time management skills, the alumni also responded that they acquired valuable self-knowledge and awareness. One respondent observed, “In my case at least the experience is sort of intellectually formative in the sense that I learned quite a bit about how I think and work which has all sorts of implications.” Another stated, “The experience expanded my understanding of literary research to the point the field seemed limitless in its potential to extract, redefine, or question the status quo by raising a platform on which to deconstruct responses to similar events in the past.” Interestingly, the alumni suggested that what they valued most was not the academic competencies but the more personal and immeasurable effects of the research experience.

The alumni working in university academic positions did highlight slightly different skills than those not in university academic positions, and some differences reached statistical significance.9 Among these differences, respondents in university academic positions were more likely to state that their humanities undergraduate research gave them skills to find and evaluate sources, collect and analyze data, and communicate effectively in writing. Many also declared that without their research experiences, they would not have pursued graduate school or have been as successful in graduate school. Those not in university academic positions were more likely to cite decision-making skills and leadership skills as key benefits from conducting humanities undergraduate research. Both decision-making and leadership skills were highly valued on the employer surveys referenced above.

Finally, many alumni noted the importance of their humanities faculty mentors in preparing them for and influencing their postgraduate trajectories. Almost 78% responded that they corresponded with their faculty mentors after graduation. While 63% stated that they received graduate school advice, almost half (48%) noted that they received career advice. (This percentage holds for both groups—those working in university academic positions and those not in university academic positions.) We know the importance of faculty mentors during students’ undergraduate research projects (see, e.g., Webber et al.), and it is striking how many of the students continued to rely on their mentors for advice after graduation. Students also credited their mentors with providing postgraduation emotional support and postgraduation guidance in continued research. In reflecting on their humanities research, many alumni specifically highlighted the significance of their interactions with their faculty mentors. One student, an English major who now works in health policy, stated that “recurrent conversations” with his faculty mentor about “career prospects in the industry” played a large role in determining his career path. Another student fondly declared of her research experience, “I cultivated close personal relationships to faculty during this time, which was super enriching and meaningful for me.”

Student Successes and Undergraduate Research Programs

We see the crucial role that humanities undergraduate research has played in the experiences of our alumni, from helping them identify their interests and postgraduate paths to establishing key relationships, building academic and professional skills, and fostering personal growth and development. We do note a few nuances of our analysis: one, that alumni who were more enthusiastic about their research experiences may have been more likely to respond, and, two, that these alumni, in addition to engaging in a humanities research project with a faculty mentor, participated in a specific undergraduate research program through the UCLA Undergraduate Research Center for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Because all respondents participated in a research program that offered scholarship support and access to varied resources over the years, we are able to recommend a similar program-based model for undergraduate research, where feasible. Yet we believe our results are largely relevant to non-program-based humanities undergraduate research experiences as well, which vary in the types of research projects and university resources available. Recognizing that many undergraduate research opportunities at UCLA occur outside of the specific research programs we analyzed, we plan to study these opportunities in the future.

Ultimately, we hope to highlight the enthusiasm with which many of our respondents spoke of their humanities research experiences. Some respondents detailed the various aspects in which their humanities research background helped them in their chosen fields. One former student who works in politics observed, “Having an academic/humanist background has intrigued a lot of people I work with and separated me from all the professional degrees.” She credits her humanities research with giving her “a different lens to analyze policy.” Many others characterized their humanities research projects as formative experiences. One respondent declared that the “deep knowledge” she gained continued to have “immense value to [her] life,” while another asserted that her research “provided invaluable personal growth.”

The students’ responses highlight the numerous ways that engaging in humanities research can influence students’ academic, professional, and personal development. They point out the many aspects of their humanities research experiences that continue to be useful, and they credit these experiences with meaningful personal and professional growth. As one student succinctly put it: “Undergraduate research propelled me on [my] path.”


1 While many studies analyze STEM undergraduate research experiences in particular (e.g., Linn et al.; Russell et al.; Jones et al.; Lopatto, “Undergraduate Research as a High-Impact Student Experience”), others examining undergraduate research across disciplines tend to be more STEM-focused due to higher STEM participation numbers (e.g., Fechheimer et al.; Bauer and Bennett; Craney et al; Johnson Schmitz and Havholm). We would like to point out that an additional assessment of undergraduate research across disciplines is the work of an undergraduate researcher (Diaz-Loar).

2 Non-STEM, discipline-specific studies account for 46 of the 286 studies. These include nonhumanities studies, such as Rand; Hartmann. An additional 4% of studies are interdisciplinary.

3 Cathy W. Levenson also details an institutional structure supporting undergraduate research in the arts and humanities, and for more on mentoring best practices (from a cross-disciplinary analysis), see Shanahan et al.

4 In 2000 and 2001, the Undergraduate Research Fellows Program was called the Undergraduate Research Development Stipend Award.

5 For the purposes of this study, we define humanities as the majors included in the UCLA Humanities Division, as well as history, which is often included in humanities groupings and has seen a similar pattern of enrollment (Schmidt, “History BA”).

6 For national data on the jobs of humanities majors, see “Occupations of Humanities Majors.” Our alumni mirror the national data, in which humanities majors are employed across sectors and particularly in education fields.

7 While the majority of respondents not in university academic positions had attended graduate school, they were currently not in graduate school nor in university faculty positions.

8 The respondents not in university academic positions were slightly more likely to discuss their research in these situations, although the results did not reach statistical significance.

9 We employed chi-square tests to measure statistical significance.

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