This story about the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at Ole Miss shows how the undergraduate thesis required of honors students can help them in their search for postgraduate employment–and how the honors focus on undergrad research can be a model for the university as a whole as it seeks to find the best jobs for grads.
Students Get a Mentor for Engaging in Intellectual Curiosity
By Rebecca Lauck Cleary
April 23, 2012
OXFORD, Miss. – The undergraduate thesis is a hallmark of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi. Now, students will have someone available to assist them with getting started on their projects.
That person is Jason Ritchie, the new assistant dean of undergraduate research at the SMBHC.
Exploratory research has been a required component of the Honors College since its creation in 1997. Most students begin their research in the junior year, leading to a thesis in the senior year, although some students begin earlier. The thesis is an opportunity for students to devote time to exploring topics that particularly interest them in their fields; it’s a chance to learn to ask questions as the discipline asks them and to answer those questions using the methodology of the discipline.
Undergraduate research is vital to a student’s training, said Honors College Dean Douglass Sullivan-González.
“The SMBHC is deeply committed to the role of independent research in preparing our students to be citizen scholars,” Sullivan-González said. “When the leaders of the future start tackling tough issues, we want them to be trained to look closely and clearly at what’s really going on when things look ‘knotty.’ We expect our students to be leaders in finding creative, effective solutions to public challenges.”
Since 2000, Ritchie has been assistant and associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Ole Miss and was named the Cora Lee Graham Outstanding Teacher of Freshmen in 2007. Before that, he obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1994 at the University of California at San Diego, where he performed undergraduate research on conducting polymers. He earned his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1998 from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied the surface chemistry of high-temperature superconductors. He then went on to post-doc at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, studying electrochemistry in rigid polymers.
He has a strong interest in the leadership development of younger chemists, and he believes that serving as assistant dean of undergraduate research will allow him to help develop the careers of students across the university.
“The students come here and it’s intimidating,” Ritchie said. “They need help in the basic process of how to get started with research. I will put together a database of faculty projects so they can look at it and find their interests, and I will give them resources and advice about how to approach faculty members. They may be scared, but I will help them open up the conversation.”
Even the brightest students may be ruffled by the thesis requirement, and Ritchie hopes to alleviate their fears and work with them to find both internal and external research opportunities.
“When a graduate goes on a job interview, they don’t talk about their GPA, they talk about their thesis project, so it really sets them apart and marks them as a strong and independent thinker,” he said. “I personally learned far more doing my undergraduate thesis than I did in class. The honors thesis is a capstone for a student’s undergraduate years, bringing together everything they have learned the past four years.”
Ritchie will work not only with Honors College students, but those across all areas of campus.
“We think this unparalleled learning experience should be available to all students at the University of Mississippi,” Sullivan-González said. “Much of what Dr. Ritchie will undertake will be geared toward increasing and supporting undergraduate research campuswide, not just in the SMBHC.”
The most important lesson of the thesis may be how to stick with a tough assignment when there is only the students’ own character and passions to keep them going. This May, 130 SMBHC seniors are en route to be commissioned, having completed all Honors College requirements, including the thesis.
For more information on the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, go to http://www.honors.olemiss.edu/.