A Summer of Delving into Social Sciences Research

By Bianca Munguia

Because the constant evolution of technology makes data ever more relevant, developing skills in social research methods—the tools that help us make sense of this data—is essential. Such knowledge creates opportunities to understand and devise solutions to real-world problems, including those in public health, criminal justice, and economics, with applicability in a variety of different academic and career tracks.

The Summer Institute for Social Research Methods (SISRM), launched this summer by the Division of the Social Sciences, focused on advancing those skills for undergraduates and early-career graduate students via a combination of courses, workshops, and internships with University of Chicago faculty.

“We realized that undergraduates at the University of Chicago are eager to be involved in research but may not know how to get involved in a project. A significant motivation for creating SISRM was to connect faculty and these students around research projects, fostering awareness of the kinds of research in which social science faculty are engaged,” says Paul Poast, associate professor in the Department of Political Science and SISRM faculty director.

“By participating in the three facets of the program, students finish well positioned for future internship and research assistantship opportunities, strongly signal an ability to ‘hit the ground’ running in graduate research, and be more prepared for positions in the private sector after graduation,” he adds.

“It’s been wonderful to see what’s actually happening on campus beyond myself,” says Cyrus Cauthey, rising second year interested in GIS, “and to have accessibility to a community that includes faculty and fellow undergraduate students who are engaged in social science research.”

Heather Yoo, a rising fourth-year majoring in Economics, says, “The SISRM program was a deciding factor enrolling in Econometrics because it presented the opportunity to apply what I learned in class directly to research, and couples with the workshops, the program as a whole felt relevant to what I want to do in my career as well.”

During the research assistantship, students worked with faculty on relevant research projects in order to put their newly honed skills to use. Students were matched to faculty based on their interests and goals. The faculty were mentors to the students, says Poast, encouraging them to ask questions and learn from mistakes.

“The point is to gain familiarity on a new topic, software, or language. Even without mastering it, simply understanding the basics can help guide you to the next breakthrough,” says Poast.

Some assistantships continued into the regular academic year, further reinforcing the students’ new methodological skills. While students acquire these skills, faculty gain a helping hand in their own research. Poast describes it as a win-win situation, because faculty and students are each contributing to the other’s advancement.

The daily workshops added to the growing knowledge students accumulated about social science research and research in general. They covered topics ranging from improving academic writing skills, reviewing human subject research requirements, to learning about ongoing faculty research through weekly Chalk Talks.

Ciara Cronin, a rising third year majoring in History and Anthropology, finished the program confident in what she has learned.

“To take those skills and theory and see how to apply it to a 21st century understanding is exciting. Collecting this variety of data and then mapping it allows me to understand it in such an applicable way. If I decide to go to grad school, I think this has helped open more doors for me.”