Planning your Research Program

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Flowchart designed by Richard Yuretich to aid in strategic planning of a research program. Courtesy of Richard Yuretich.

As you move from the role of graduate student or post-doc to the role of faculty member at a four-year college or university, your research responsibilities change. Similarly, if you have just taken a job as a faculty member at a two-year college, you'll be expected to engage in scholarly activities that benefit your students, the college, and the community. Meeting the challenge of this transition requires some active planning and strategic thinking.

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Planning Worksheets

When embarking on a research program, you need to set long-term goals and figure out what needs to be done now to achieve them. If you're ready to start making a 3 to 5 year plan for your research program, here are several methods adapted from the Early Career Workshop activities. Choose whichever format seems to best suit your planning style.

Being Strategic: Examples from Workshop Leaders

When you move to a new institution to begin your own research program, your setting and resources may be different than what you have become accustomed to as a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow. Making the most of your new situation may require some strategic thinking. Here are a few examples of what others have done.

  • Rachel Beane, Bowdoin College, developed a local research program to facilitate class research projects and senior theses research.
    During my second year of teaching at an undergraduate institution, I developed a strategic plan to begin a research project close to campus that would facilitate class research projects and senior theses research. I wrote internal grants that funded summer field work with two students who continued their research for their senior honor theses. These smaller projects gave me a good sense of the project potential. I wrote an NSF-CCLI grant to include this research in undergraduate courses (intro through upper level) and senior theses. After the proposal was funded, a senior did field work in one location, and my intro geology class did similar field work in another location. The grant funds also allowed me to hire a student to develop a GIS database of samples, locations, photos, thin section scans, and geochemical data. Samples and data have been added to this database with each student and class project.

    Several years (and students) later, we are finishing two manuscripts for publication. And, I am now familiar with an area that is easily accessible from campus, that we routinely use for field laboratories, and that has the potential for several more publishable projects with undergraduates.
  • James Farquhar, University of Maryland, developed a new direction for his research.
    When I started as a new faculty member at Maryland, I had a background in solid Earth Geochemistry, a little in isotope effects related to atmospheric chemistry. I wanted to do work in isotope effects related to metabolic transformations of sulfur. I did not start with a conscious plan with many outlined steps like those typically described by others, but in retrospect I realize that the way that my change evolved 'looks like' it was planned. I knew that I could not make the transformation alone and without help from some expertise from someone else.

    The first thing that I did was to try to identify someone to work with (a collaborator). I also asked some colleagues about him because I wanted to make sure I would enjoy working with him. Then I contacted him and explained what I wanted to do. I proposed a small (nebulous) pilot project to get things started and he agreed to help. About a year later, I discussed sending a student to work with him for six months, and then did exactly this. The projects then evolved. I finally went to visit his lab for a period of 5 months and then for a year. It has been a wonderful experience, but I am still working on setting up this project. We have not, but may ultimately set up culturing facilities needed to independently contribute to the work, but I think I will continue to work with this collaborator because it is very fulfilling.
  • Elizabeth Ritchie, University of Arizona, recruited graduate students in engineering to work with her on atmospheric science research when there were no atmospheric science students available.
    I was a spousal hire in an Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at an institution with no Atmospheric Sciences (ATMO-my field). The Department covered my salary for the first year and I needed to be fully self-funded by the second year. With good fortune I was – I brought in 3 grants in the first year from 3 different agencies (ONR, NSF, and NOAA). And then the realization hit me. How was I going to get all the work I had promised to do done? There were no ATMO graduate students to recruit to my cause!

    Instead, I saw all around me very intelligent computer engineers and electrical engineers, many highly trained in pattern recognition and signal processing. I re-tooled some of my project tasks to incorporate the skills that these graduate students could bring to my research. The part that really needed ATMO expertise I did myself. The end result was a new direction of remote-sensing research using signal processing and pattern recognition techniques to study physical processes represented in satellite imagery.

    This research (now funded by ONR and NOAA) followed me to my current institution where I have a large, multidisciplinary research group comprising electrical engineers, optical science, physics, and atmospheric science students continuing the exciting course first opened up to me during my (what seemed like) unbearably isolated situation.

Booklets and articles

Scholarly activity for two-year college faculty

If you teach at a two-year college, chances are that you are not expected to maintain an active research program, but that you are expected to continue to engage in scholarly activities.

Tips from Early Career Workshop Alums

  • If you get on local committees or steering groups for, say, groundwater or wetlands or something, you'll meet the major people in the state DNR, EPA, advocacy groups, etc. This will help you learn what some of the big questions are in your area and who you talk to in order to get involved.
  • Get involved with local geologic survey/associations, etc.; attend regional meetings [to meet potential collaborators, and to find out about local research questions].
  • I found it very helpful to get to know all science faculty in the first semester. By doing this I found faculty members in other departments who have similar research interests.... It helps to check out local colleges and universities to see if there is anyone [you] can hook up with to do research.
  • It is important to establish your own research niche. Often the one that you find yourself in after your PhD. is identified with your advisor(s). Think about what natural tangents you could take from that and try to put that in the context of the existing research at the place you are interviewing [or working].
  • Maintain relevant prior collaborations: There are usually natural connections left over from graduate or postdoctoral work, upon which some straightforward research threads can be built. Go to talks across your university. Ask questions and introduce yourself. A difficult part of this transition is from 'member of research group' to 'leader of research group'. Your potential for the latter is part of why you were hired. Were there ideas you had which you haven't been able to follow up on? Now is the time to devote a bit of time every day (every week?) to following up those ideas. It's good to balance time spent on brand new ideas with time spent on logical next steps following from current research projects. This can take time, so start early and work gradually.
  • My impression is that there are quite a few teaching institutions at which research is done in quite a different setting from where most people get their PhDs. I speak from experience at a small state college that prides itself on giving closely supervised research mentorship to advanced undergraduates. Faculty research here is directed toward providing the most experience for students, and not necessarily toward publication. From my field-based projects I have spun off several related projects on which students work. These projects are suitable for senior thesis projects. I have the satisfaction of seeing students get excited about their research, and in that way stay involved at least in the mechanics of the process. [This is] success of a different form, not often considered in graduate school.
  • One word of advice that I always think back to is to try to always have a research publication in the pipeline (in review or press) and to try to keep consistent in having 1 research publication every year. This keeps me thinking ahead to my next research goal.