A Successful Summer

IPR’s undergraduate research program builds lasting collaborations


Several 2013 IPR Summer Undergraduate Research Assistants take a break to have lunch with IPR faculty and staff. One of the University's longest-running undergraduate research opportunities, 2013 marked its 16th year.

This summer 34 Northwestern undergraduate students eschewed more traditional summer jobs of lifeguarding or waiting tables in favor of developing surveys and running regressions. As participants in IPR’s Summer Undergraduate Research Assistant (RA) Program, they worked on a social science research project, mentored by one of 23 IPR faculty members.

Katherine Scovic, a junior majoring in political science, worked with IPR political scientist Laurel Harbridge this summer on projects involving polarization and bipartisanship in Congress after taking a class with her. 

“It was a great experience because Professor Harbridge had mentioned her research in class, and over the summer I was able to see how that research was conducted,” Scovic said. Over the summer, Scovic coded news articles, conducted a literature review, and gathered information on congressional candidates.

A recent IPR internal survey found that faculty also appreciated participating in the program, which is now in its 16th year. It is one of the University’s longest-running undergraduate research opportunities and has led to noteworthy undergraduate scholarly contributions: More than 60 percent of faculty said the project their undergraduate RA worked on was published or submitted for publication, with 12 percent of RAs listed as a co-author on the paper. The faculty-student collaborations also resulted in senior thesis topics for nearly 20 percent of the RAs.

These collaborations also continue beyond the summer. Sixty percent of IPR faculty said they continued working with their research assistant after the program ended, and nearly 90 percent gave their research assistant career advice.

Lauren Linzmeier Russell (WCAS ’12) worked in summer 2011 with IPR director and education economist David Figlio. As an economics, math, and social science methods major, she examined the effects of school accountability on public-private school choice and residential location prepared her for a career in research.

“The most valuable aspect of the program was being mentored closely by one of the top researchers in my field of interest,” said Russell, now in her second year as a doctoral student in economics at MIT.

“I spent most of my time performing the empirical analysis for the project. This involved cleaning data, coding up regressions, and interpreting our results,” Russell said. “I had never undertaken any extensive empirical analysis before, so I spent lot of time learning how to code and implement the differences-in-differences methodology.”

Russell believes the research experience she gained through IPR is a “key reason” she received a graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation in 2012.

IPR education researcher and program director James Rosenbaum pointed out that not all of the research assistants will become researchers, but even those who went on to other professions, like law or medicine, praised the program for helping them to “understand research in a way they didn’t before.”

Bennett Silbert, a senior majoring in economics and math, worked with IPR associate director and political scientist James Druckman in 2011, examining news coverage of political campaigns.

“I gained a greater appreciation for the time and dedication it takes to produce a piece of scholarly research as well as some practical knowledge of some ways to conduct research in a rigorous way,” Silbert said. He is using some of his newly acquired research skills for his honors thesis.

During his project, he coded newspaper articles from every state that mentioned that particular state’s congressional candidates, looking for positive and negative mentions, determining the type of news article, and mining for a number of other characteristics to understand how the media talked about the candidates. Ultimately, Silbert was most grateful for the opportunity to work closely and build a relationship with a faculty member and hone his research skills—even though he plans to work in consulting after graduation.

“I consider myself lucky to have been able to learn from Professor Druckman and better understand the work he does,” Silbert said.

Scovic, who also works as an IPR work-study student during the year, echoed Silbert’s appreciation for the complexities of research.

“The most interesting part was learning how much goes into answering a research question,” Scovic said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all method or approach. I was surprised at the variety of things that I worked on; it was more than I expected going into the program.”

Click here for more information about the program.