Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2011

Managing and Sustaining Research Programs

By Patrick Burkhart, Slippery Rock University and Jeffrey Ryan, University of South Florida

Students draw facies transitions in Sage Creek, Badlands National Park. Photo courtesy of Patrick Burkhart.

Program Management

There are many aspects to managing an undergraduate research program, including performance in accord with the scientific community, the policies of the academic institution, the requirements of funding agencies, third party concerns, such as the National Park Service, and the abiding need for safety throughout the process. Please visit the On the Cutting Edge Early Career module for additional information on Planning Your Research Program concerning the formulation of a research program. Faculty are advised to proceed with creating an undergraduate research program in an informed manner, as they remain the principle investigator of the collaboration.

For example, novice investigators must understand the need for integrity, provide recognition to collaborators and previous investigators (frequently overlooked at this nascent stage), and respect the nature of intellectual property, see for example the ethical guidelines from the Geological Society of America.

Investigators should identify and follow their university's policies for travel, vehicle use, copyright, and others concerns, as specified. The GSA ethics document ( This site may be offline. ) provides some guidelines for editors, authors and co-authors, and reviewers. Funding agencies will require grant protocols, including appropriate uses of funds, deadlines for reports, and the like. Research on public lands will incur 3rd party requirements, for example, the National Park Service, whose permit applications may require letters of support and peer review, and are available at NPS research website; researchers will also be required to file Investigator's Annual Reports. Thus, effective management will involve awareness of myriad concerns. Lastly, risk management in research is essential, as safety is the primary concern.

Field Safety Management Plans

Safety in the field is well-discussed in the NAGT website on field safety. Students should learn the importance of professional protocol, including dress, footwear, personal protection, and data collection. Research should be designed to instill professionalism from day one. Also see the Research in the Field page of this module for more information.

Collaborator Expectations

Faculty should communicate their expectations of student collaborators, possibly through the use of contracts. Satisfaction within the collaboration will be favored if the scope of originality, time investment, sophistication, and dissemination plan are discussed and agreed upon prior to initiation of a project. Particular attention should be directed to awareness of who will co-author and be recognized in research outcomes. A discussion of these concerns, with case studies and examples from many programs, is available from the On the Cutting Edge Early Career module samples from research programs.

Data Management Plans

NSF now requires a data management plan from all funded projects. The definition of data is broadly inclusive of all products of inquiry, including but not limited to analytical measurements, field measurements, images and photos, maps, and remotely sensed imagery. Educational outcomes are trickier, as research on human subjects requires keen attention to privacy.

The following entities host data repositories for public access and review by other researchers.

Many of Federally funded geoinformatics portal projects provide data input services and support for investigators in meeting NSF data management requirements.

Laboratory Safety Management Plans

The American Chemical Society provides extensive guidelines for safety in the laboratory. The American Museum of Natural History has assembled information concerning safety in rock preparation. Princeton University maintains an initial radiation safety training website that describes many aspects of laboratory safety where radiation sources exist. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has promulgated regulations concerning safety in many diverse work circumstances. Courses are available for certifications required in the environmental sector, as described at Online OSHA courses. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has also promulgated regulations and training requirements, as described at the Education and Training Materials and Resources website.

Sustaining a Vibrant Research Group

Undergraduate research benefits from effective programmatic design, critical mass, and systemic support. There are several areas where a professor can make sage decisions to help sustain their program. Look for opportunities to assemble an interdisciplinary team and multidimensional inquiry, as both administrators and funding agencies tend to appreciate such collaboration. At Slippery Rock University, the Badlands Working Group is meshing art with geology, to rekindle the lost art of geological illustration (Merriam, 2009). The study of landscape connects these pursuits, where students can learn from both disciplines of inquiry (Mickle et al., 2010). Crafty logistical choices, such as picking a field area whose location is visited regularly for other reasons, can increase field site accessibility; for example, Badlands N.P. can easily be reached when an eastern/midwestern group travels westward along I-90. Thus, the Badlands Working Group has visited the park many times on travels to meetings of the Geological Society of America in Denver. Another dimension to sustaining continuity within a program is to maintain critical mass despite the transient nature of undergraduate students. The short duration for which many juniors and seniors can be active withing a department is often limited to 18 months or less. Peer mentoring is one tactic to build continuity despite the transitions between student cohorts, whereby veteran researchers, including alumni, return to mentor novices. This pedagogy also helps individuals sense their place on a team, including a responsibility to maintain the performance standards of the group. Finally, one can search widely for funding, including cost sharing amongst academic departments, colleges, and university, as well as external funding agencies.


Merriam, D. F. (2009) Special Commentary – A Lost Art: Geological Illustrations. GSA Today 19 (11).

Mickle, K., Baldauf, P., Burkhart, P., and Blasko, E. (2010) Integrating Fine Art and Science to Better Understand the South Dakota Badlands. Geol. Soc. of Amer. Abstracts with Programs 42 (5).