Establishing a strong research program: What your university must do for you.

26 Sep

Four years ago when I began my search for a faculty position at a small university, I had a specific type of institution in mind, yet I applied for a handful of others as an insurance policy in the event things did not work out at the type of schools I really wanted. These ‘second option’ schools to which I applied carried a very heavy teaching load (4 courses per semester in most cases, equaling 12 to 16 credit hours per semester which can be even more contact hours depending on lab lengths and how your institution does the math), and yet they still claimed that establishing an active undergraduate research program was important. Ultimately, these schools were looking for someone who, in super hero fashion, could create a research culture while burdened with a maximum course load, knowing well that none of their previous hires had ever figured out how to do so.  I am not a super hero.

I know this seems like common sense, but if what we are talking about in this blog is big ecology from small universities, we have to discuss the fact that all primarily undergraduate institutions are not created equal when it comes to the potential for housing a productive research program. A college must be honest when it comes to identifying the needs of their faculty if establishing a strong undergraduate research program is a legitimate goal.  Accordingly, the PI must be able to ‘right size’ their research aspirations as well, particularly given that many liberal arts schools that promote undergraduate research do not require a highly productive track record of their faculty to achieve tenure.  Many of these schools simply require that the professor have enough of a research program to teach the scientific method and hypothesis testing at the most basic level and presentations at national meetings and publications are simply bonus. This is still a great approach to biology education, but it is not the same as what those of us blogging here aspire to accomplish.

So, speaking from experience at this university and experience with interviewing at many other universities four years ago, here are the minimum things the institution must provide if one is going to have a very productive research program at a small liberal arts university:


Show me a professor that teaches 4 courses (up to 16 contact hours) every semester and still maintains a productive research program with frequent publications and presentations at national meetings, and I will show you a professor that makes huge sacrifices in their personal life.  I find with 3 classes (10 to 12 contact hours), maintaining a rigorous research program is doable if using excellent time management and creativity (and a large, well-trained team of students – a topic I will address in a future blog post), but with 2 classes (8 to 10 contact hours) in a semester, things work much better.


For small universities, sharing equipment and facilities is a necessity –  but there is a limit.  Having a common location where some of the high-end equipment resides for use by many is fine; however, sharing general laboratory space with other faculty members is not good for consistently productive research. Having a lab dedicated exclusively for your research activities and those of your students allows for a stronger lab identity, enhanced continuity of projects, and enhanced confidence in the quality of the research with fewer people milling about the space. If a department takes research seriously, they will find space for YOUR lab.


Finding the time to write for external funding can be difficult at a small liberal arts university, yet, I firmly believe it is still important.  Unless your university is filthy rich, there are many ‘1-A’ type research projects that can only be completed with external support.  Regardless, with the proper amount of time, space, and basic equipment for research, a school that genuinely cares about undergraduate research should be committed to providing enough funding to support the ‘1-B’ research collaborations between students and faculty.  Rewarding faculty members who actively seek external funding with enough support to keep them collecting valuable data that will be incorporated into the next proposal increases the likelihood that the external funding will come soon.  Faculty development funds to cover participation in meetings and publication costs are also critical. A small university that requires a heavy teaching load and has only a scant budget line for undergraduate research at any level will absolutely prohibit establishment of a productive program.

Intentional Focus.

All members of the department, and preferably, all individuals associated with the university, need to drink the Kool-Aid.  Must all faculty members be working for national recognition, external grants, and multiple publications per year?  No.  Must all faculty members at least respect the value of those things to undergraduate education? Yes.  Here is why.  Establishing a productive research program for your own lab at a small university requires a commitment from other faculty in your department.  A single quick example: perhaps your research activities can only be carried out in the morning (bird people know what I’m talking about).  Not only must the faculty member create a teaching schedule with ample open mornings to complete the field work, the students working on the project, too, must work with their academic advisers to build a schedule that meets their course work requirements but allows them the time to complete their research.  If a only a minority of faculty members think productive research programs are important, then the majority of others will be unwilling to put in the extra work required to shuffle their course schedules and/or their advisee course schedules. At small schools, there are not enough faculty members to simply offer the same courses at many different times. If a small institution is serious about undergraduate research, they will show signs of creativity and cooperation when it comes to balancing course meeting times and research time.


When you start to gain momentum in your research program and productivity is high, your university must aide in letting the world know. This will be the topic of a future blog post from me, so I will leave it at this for now.

I know this is a long post, but this is a topic that is important to me. I had to gain a full understanding of these dynamics when choosing where I wanted to start my career.  Hopefully some of it will help readers of this blog better assess their own plans for a research program.


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