Undergraduate Research in Business


Stephanie Woerner, PhD, Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research

To Stephanie Woerner, PhD, a research scientist at the MIT Sloan’s Center for Information Systems Research (CISR), professors who hire undergraduates must have a clear idea of what they want done because that is what makes the experience useful to both professor and student.

“I have found that just hiring an undergraduate – they’re not quite trained enough. They don’t have backgrounds in research methodology and things like that. So you want to make sure that you have a task or a set of tasks that you can teach them how to do. My goal when I have an undergraduate is to make sure that they work on something so that they can take something out of it as they move forward in their career,” Woerner said.

Woerner has been at CISR for over seven years, and has worked at MIT since 2000 when she ran a National Science Foundation Program. She began including undergraduates in her research with the NSF, where they researched business models, and continues to hire them today.

“This past year I decided that I would be starting a research project on 3D printing, and I wanted somebody to work to do background research, to start looking at articles, to figure out who were the players. I was interested in a specific area of 3D printing, which is more at the enterprise level and not at the consumer – things that are happening in companies. I had this undergraduate write an email and say he was looking for an undergraduate research opportunity, and he was a freshman, and I thought well, I’ll try. And he has been fantastic,” Woerner said.

According to Woerner, most undergraduates have between eight to 10 hours each week that they can spend researching, and it is, in her opinion, unfair to ask for more. Accordingly, she manages their part in her projects by setting up standard meeting times once a week and communicating by email otherwise.

At the moment, Woerner’s 3D printing project is exploring how large companies can benefit from digitization and information technology. Looking forward, she said that 3D printing will very likely create the same kind of disruption in business that has already been seen in the media, music, and film: once it’s digitized, it’s free.

“How to you keep control? Do you keep control? What are the kinds of things you have to think about?” Woerner said. “I think that design is going to become an important capability for information technology – organizations and enterprises in general. But that’s just a hypothesis.”

Her current undergraduate assistant on the project, Dominic Hansford, was a freshman during the past school year. Woerner said that her previous research needed students who had already taken some financial accounting classes, and so she got undergraduates late in their sophomore year or as juniors. Some, she only worked with for a semester, and some she said she would have liked to hire again, but other things like studying abroad got in the way.

“I think that Dominic is fabulous. He pulled together some research that I was stunned a freshman could pull together. I mean, he was really fabulous,” Woerner said. “I think Dominic will work with me again.”

Dominic has been looking into what large companies are doing with 3D printing, and Woerner said the basics skills he’s developed include where to look for data, how to spot good data, and how to do a quick analysis of a company.

“One of the things I like to do is to make sure they know how to analyze a company,” Woerner said. “I want to show them some of the databases that I use. I try to teach them how to go and pull out sort of the basic pieces about a company. It’s certainly not enough for financial analysis that you would do for a brokerage company, but it does tell you, what some of the important things are.”

Woerner also said that she benefits from working with undergraduate researchers as well, both psychologically and practically.

“I like to think I’m giving some of the things that it’s taken me long and hard to learn – you know someone should not have to reinvent the wheel – and it’s really satisfying,” she said. “The other thing is it saves me an enormous amount of time. They often find things that I didn’t know. We had one research project where one of the women was doing research on small startup companies and found a database that I had no idea existed. And it was like WOW – this is great!”

For the students, the training that one receives by working on a professor’s research greatly influences his research ability, and Woerner said that after several years working together, she could see undergraduates building a framework or writing with her in collaboration.

“Oh it’s better than one-on-one tutoring,” she said. “The really good ones – they’re quick. You show them what you want, and they’re pretty amazing with what they can find out. The really good ones are just astonishingly good.”