Assessing Your Research Program

2 Sep

If you are at a research institution, the assessment of your research program is probably pretty straightforward and my guess is that you primarily use some combination of grant dollars, publications, and the # of students that you finish as the primary metrics in your assessment. Biological research in the liberal arts setting often moves slower than in a R1 setting because the bulk of our research activity comes during the summer and we squeeze scientific writing into chunks of time that we carve out from teaching. Thus, we frequently publish at a slower rate and apply for fewer grants than our colleagues in the research setting (there are certainly other reasons for this difference also). In addition, my guess is that few faculty at PUIs do not get training on how to scale their research down from their graduate/postdoc training to match the skill sets that our undergraduate students bring to the table, the resources that we now have, and the amount of time that we can spend on research. How do we formally assess our research program? How often do we do it? What metrics should we use to guide whether our research program is thriving in the liberal arts environment?

Here are a couple of ideas that I’ve been thinking of as I enter the 2nd year of a faculty position at a liberal arts college. This list is not exhaustive nor is a “one size fits all”, but hopefully it will spark some conversation on the topic.

1. Where are your graduates now? Tracking whether your students make it to tenure-track positions might not be too informative in the liberal arts setting because those data will not be available to you for another 7-10 years. However, we can still track the career paths of our graduates… and I’d argue that we can usually do this easier in the liberal arts setting than faculty at large schools. The atmosphere in smaller colleges and universities is generally more intimate than large institutions and my guess is that we probably keep in touch with a higher % of our graduates than faculty at larger universities do. Keep track of what your students do next. At PUIs, you’ll likely have a students with a more diverse set of career paths than if you were dealing primarily with graduate students. Embrace that difference and think of ways in which their research experience in your lab helped them land the job that they currently have. Be blunt and ask their honest opinion as to whether they felt that the research experience in your lab was important in setting them apart from other candidates for the job that they currently have. If they go on to graduate school, keep tabs on whether their productivity as an undergraduate correlates with their productivity as a graduate student.

2. How many students get authorship on your papers? Many liberal arts colleges have explicit guidelines as to what they expect in terms of student involvement in your research. As an institution, they are probably more interested in the number of papers that students co-author as opposed to how many papers you author. What proportion of your papers include undergraduate students from your current institution? Is this on par with your goal (do you even have a goal???)?

3. Where is the bulk of your research being conducted? Related to #2, does the bulk of your scientific productivity come as a collaborator or principle investigator? Does this line up with your vision of your research program? Do you need to start initiating more research projects in which you are lead author? Are you actively seeking out and building research collaborations with faculty at other (potentially larger) universities? Will doing that help or hinder your research program?

4. Are your publications in journals that researchers in your field regularly publish in? No matter what type of institution you are in, the journals that you publish your research in matters. Although faculty in the liberal arts setting might not publish as regularly as faculty at research institutions, I do not see any reason why we still can’t publish our research in the same journals as our colleagues at larger schools. As many of you know, I am a disease ecologist and I use amphibians and the pathogenic chytrid fungus as my model system. One of the ways in which I am assessing my own research program is by looking at the proportion of manuscripts (and even projects that I aim to start next summer) that will have a home in a herpetological journal or a non-taxon specific journal (zoology or ecology journal). While I have nothing against the herpetology journals, the aim of my research program is to understand host-parasite ecology and I wouldn’t be meeting all of my research goals if the majority of my work was geared towards herpetology journals.

5. Ask a colleague for a quick assessment. I have yet to do this, but it is something that I am considering somewhere around Year 3. Chances are good that you’ll be preparing documents for your pre-tenure review at about this time anyways. Whereas the pre-tenure review will give you an idea of what your current institution thinks of your research productivity, you may want to get some external feedback from some of your colleagues within your field. Be frank with them and tell them what you are looking to gain from their assessment. What do they view as your most important contributions to the scientific literature since you’ve been at your current institution? Is their assessment similar to your own? If your view of the quality of your own research is consistently higher than their view of your work, you might consider ways in which you can improve the quality of your research productivity.

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