For Professor Mark Petracca, mentoring undergraduate researchers is a learning experience for him as well as his students. He expects to be questioned and challenged by the students he mentors, a process he finds exciting and instructive. Professor Petracca demonstrated his dedication to undergraduate research through his annual mentoring of up to six senior thesis projects. UROP recognizes Professor Petracca for this ongoing support.

1. How did you develop an interest in mentoring undergraduate research or creative projects, and what type of projects have you directed?

First, as an undergraduate (Cornell) and graduate student (Chicago) I was fortunate to have some excellent mentors, in particular, Theodore Lowi at Cornell and Ira Katznelson and Benjamin Page at Chicago.

Second, I have directed all sorts of projects, typically three to six senior honors theses per year. In just the last two years, for example, I have directed projects on congressional changes to patent law, differences across American states in the teaching of citizenship in high school, the role of the federal government in rescuing large U.S. corporations, the use of the Internet by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, congressional accountability on budget votes, and the use of state power to address and direct economic change. This does not include students completing research with me on my own projects, which currently focus on California politics and the U.S. Congress.

2. What do you look for and what are your expectations of undergraduates you select to conduct research under your guidance?

Typically I agree to work with students who have taken one or more upper-division courses with me already. I expect students to show a reasonable level of dedication to the project (I understand that students do have other things to do) and to be thorough and timely in the completion of their assignments. I also expect them to constantly challenge me and ask good questions.

3. Describe your level of engagement and style in mentoring undergraduates.

Iíve come to learn that this actually depends very much on the student. Some students need regular (e.g., weekly) interaction, while others can be left alone on a project for an extended period of time. I try to assess and have them assess what their needs are, arranging for mentoring accordingly.

4. In your experience, how have your students improved or benefited as a result of their undergraduate research experience?

Learning how to systematically investigate and ultimately answer a research question is not only very satisfying to the students (though admittedly, appreciation of just how satisfying seems to become more evident with the passage of time), but itís also a valuable life skill. Students learn how to put into practice, typically in a self-design project, a variety of investigatory, analytical, and discursive skills learned in their classes. This helps to develop and hone the skills and also boosts a studentís confidence.

5. What have you learned or benefited from guiding undergraduate research or creative projects?

Thereís a book to be written here; alas, I donít have the time to write it. I learn a great deal about the topics students select as their senior honors theses, since I donít limit my students to topics well within my own areas of expertise. This is exciting and instructive. Iíve also learned a bit about what it takes to motivate someone through to the completion of a year-long project, though there is still so much more to learn.

6. What recommendations and advice would you give students embarking on undergraduate research or creative projects?

(A) Select a project that will motivate you for an extended period of time. (B) Craft a research question to go along with this project which is answerableóthere are a great many fascinating questions, but not all can be reasonably answered. (C) Select a research question to address for which you have reasonable access to the necessary information/data to answer it. (D) Select a research question which can be adequately addressed in the time you have available. (E) Select an enthusiastic mentor. (F) Make sure, under all circumstances, to apply for UROP funding and present your research at the UROP Symposium in May!

Research Interests: American politics, constitutional politics, political theory and public policy

Faculty Profile:


Past Faculty Mentors of the Month

Dec. '09 Professor Donald D. Hoffman
Nov. '09 Professor Bruce Blumberg
Oct. '09 Professor A. J. Shaka
Sep. '09 Assistant Professor William M. Tomlinson
Aug. '09 Professor William C. Tang
Jul. '09 Professor Donald McKayle
Jun. '09 Assistant Professor Gillian R. Hayes
May. '09 Professor Jane O. Newman
Apr. '09 Associate Professor Mark P. Petracca
Mar. '09 Professor Richard T. Robertson