Student-run vs. traditional projects
The traditional, faculty-driven project is the model we are all most familiar with: A faculty member with vast knowledge and expertise in one or more areas selects or is funded to study a particular topic. The faculty member then forms a study design, develops hypotheses, and recruits staff and students who may perform data collection, assist with analyses and write-ups, deliver poster presentations, etc. In this model, students gain an incredible research skill-set, have the opportunity to develop a very meaningful mentor relationship and may even find a passion or interest in the area they are studying — sometimes launching into an alternate career trajectory that may not have been considered otherwise. Finally, faculty-driven projects are funded which is a great benefit for students, and faculty are able to support them more fully.
Conversely, student-run projects start with passionate students who have a deep interest in topics or areas for which there is no obvious opportunity to become involved. These projects are led by students who seek hands-on experience and the opportunity to apply their knowledge in a setting beyond those experiences readily available and outside of the traditional academic model. The disadvantage of this model is that these projects are hard to fund, and private support is critical to sustain them. However, because these projects are not constrained by the bounds of University-driven or externally funded research, they may promote innovation and creativity beyond what might be expected in pre-planned projects. The students, through trial and error and intrinsic motivation, gain skills in project development, leadership, communication, collaboration, interdisciplinary teamwork, project evaluation and sustainability that may otherwise be hard to come by.
The varied type of work inherent in these projects prepares students for future professions by providing an introduction and exposure to a variety of careers. Students find out what they enjoy and discover where their natural skills are at their sharpest. This valuable insight is not only gained through real-world experience, it is practiced in an incredibly rewarding and therefore effective setting. Many students we have worked with continue to cite working on these projects as one of their best experiences in school.
The collaborative approach of student-led projects also has networking value. Exposure to a variety of organizations along the way helps students connect with one another, as well as with faculty. In this model, the students are turning problem-focused ideas into action-oriented solutions, and they are doing it together.
Value to the school
The student-run model is not just beneficial for students; it can be great for the University that houses them. Student-run projects provide an attractant for recruiting entrepreneurially-minded graduate students. These projects also expand and strengthen connections with other Universities and organizations through faculty, staff, organization, and community participation. They increase the potential for University research findings and publications, development and piloting of novel programs, and initiatives for training and education, all while providing an alternative student experience without increasing the daily work burden on faculty who do not have the capacity to mentor additional students.
Finally, they provide students with more opportunities and choices to complement their learning experience, enhancing their overall satisfaction with their education.