Seeing themselves in the field: How SISRM takes undergrads behind the scenes of research
SSDs Summer Institute in Social Research Methods exposes students to the ins and outs of social science research through coursework, workshops and hands-on experience
By Sarah Steimer
Television commercials that promote higher education tend to hew closely to the same formula: Students in scrubs represent medical programs; someone in a laboratory holds a beaker that suggests chemistry coursework in action; ballet dancers and musicians give performances from the arts college.
But how do you visually represent the social sciences? And how can you help young students conceptualize their potential in the field?
“Students often don't know the nitty gritty details of what it takes to set up a research project. Getting your feet wet and jumping right in is the best way to just learn what the process is, there's no other way to really fully understand it. I love that combination of getting the training and then also getting the practical experience with a real life research project.”
— Eman Abdelhadi, assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development
Since 2018, the Summer Institute in Social Research Methods (SISRM) in the Division of Social Sciences has been helping answer this question. The program uses a three-pronged approach that consists of methodological courses, daily workshops on the practice of social scientific research, and — should students so choose — a research assistantship that provides hands-on experience with University of Chicago professors.
The result is a better understanding of research methodologies and how the work has real-life implications. And it also helps to further integrate undergraduates into the university’s research networks — which in turn provides additional support to its researchers.
“Part of the reason this is so exciting is because students take what they learn in the classroom, take the awareness that they've gained from the workshops, and put it to action in helping a faculty member do their research,” SISRM Director Paul Poast says. “When you're at a prominent research university like the University of Chicago, this is really what you should be leveraging.”
Each of the three aspects of the Summer Institute helps the undergraduates connect with the division’s core research mission. At the end of the program, students have gained the critical analysis skills necessary for a broad range of career aspirations and academic endeavors.
The goal of SISRM courses is to give students an applicable skill — specifically, to give them a basis of knowledge in a breadth of research methods and the ability to use those methods.
“The biggest takeaway for me has to be the immense diversity of roles within social science research. Apart from the various fields within social sciences that I already knew of — economics, psychology, etc. The important work in archival research, conservation, and at the IRB (Institutional Review Board) or libraries (UChicago or elsewhere) was a surprise. I think it is incredibly helpful to have a more complete and mindful approach when considering work in the social sciences.”
— Zak Sadak, SISRM student
The courses provided through the institute include the sort of quantitative, statistical methodologies you may typically think of when you hear the word “data:” computational social science, econometrics and statistical inference, for example. But the institute also offers perhaps less obvious research methodology courses, such as ethnographic methods or archival methods (a planned course for 2022).
“The main idea is to help students recognize that the notion of data in social sciences is not just a large spreadsheet,” Poast says. “The reality is that the word data is much broader. When you have a document in your hand, that's data. When you have done an interview and gained insight from talking to someone, that's data. It's about making sure that we as an institute are representing all the ways in which data is collected in the social sciences.”
The courses offered through the institute can also count toward the requirements for students’ majors. The goal is for the undergrads to not only gain a skill, but to help them advance toward their degree as well.
Whereas the courses help develop a skill or a knowledge of how to acquire data, the workshops are geared toward helping students understand what, exactly, UChicago faculty are doing when they undertake a research project. The workshops are what differentiate the institute from a summer curriculum, Poast says.
The workshops occur at lunchtime during the institute and include a weekly Faculty Chalk Talk, which spotlights a faculty member’s research and what disciplinary methods they use. For example, a professor may describe how they gained approval for a survey, how the survey was created and then how it was conducted. Any faculty member who does social science research can participate.
“[The program] might bring in students from less traditional backgrounds who would like to know more about research but may not have had the opportunity. That's a great benefit to the university as a whole to expose students to the research process, but also allow faculty the room on our research team to add members.”
— Alessandra González, assistant professor in the Department of Economics
Other workshop sessions are geared toward the practicalities of doing research. Students may learn, for example, how IRBs grant approval for projects, or how librarians collect and cultivate information to help scholars.
Then there are the field trips (which, of course, went virtual with the onset of the pandemic). The students are exposed to how research may be integrated and applied in the real world. A field trip to a museum, for one example, illustrates how computational research methods may be integrated to determine what artwork receives the most attention from visitors. The trips illustrate the wide applicability of the research methods they learned about in their coursework — and that it goes beyond the research conducted at a university.
Undergraduate students are eager to get involved in faculty research projects, and professors are interested in getting assistance for their work. There isn’t, however, always a clear path to connecting these parties — but SISRM serves as a sort of research matchmaking service.
When students apply to the institute, they have the opportunity to also apply to be a research assistant. They indicate which class they would like to take, along with the type of research they’re interested in. Students needn’t have any prior research experience — but that’s the point of the institute: to learn about the methodologies.
At the same time, faculty have the opportunity to request research assistants for their projects, describing the work to be done and which class would relate to their needs. The institute then matches students with faculty.
“I have my set list of tasks and things that I would like them (the RAs) to do, but one of the most exciting things about working with them is when they have the ability to just go off and test things out themselves. … It’s a mutual experience where I'm learning from them and they're learning from me. I provide the structure and the space through the more structured tasks.”
— Patricia Posey, Provost's Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science
Eman Abdelhadi, an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development, began her own research journey as an undergraduate by assisting professors, which she says gave her a lens into academia. Her own research of late focuses on women removing their hijabs, as well as second-generation American Muslims’ experiences in their communities.
“On the professor's side, you often need research assistants or student collaborators to push projects forward that you otherwise wouldn't necessarily have time to do,” Abdelhadi says. “Working with students is a way to also just hold myself accountable. I was excited that students were getting broad training, and that I could then follow up with practical examples.”
One of Abdelhadi’s RAs, Michael Guilmette, applied his course on virtual ethnographic research methods to the online, interview-based research he assisted on. “As a rising second-year,” he says, “it was challenging to find summer opportunities that didn't require prior experience in research. But SISRM actually gave me the opportunity to build that research experience from scratch.”
The program is a holistic approach to diving deeper into the research methodologies inherent to social sciences. Students have the opportunity to not only learn the skills themselves, but to see the work in action and even get involved with faculty projects. It offers a far deep and nuanced look at a potential career in the social sciences — far more insight than a 30-second commercial could ever provide.