The Faculty and Undergrad Research

To draw more students into laboratories and field work, professors have to be on board first -- and rewards in the tenure process are key, participants in D.C. panel say.
June 4, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Logic might dictate that the key to broadening participation in undergraduate research is to focus on students. But a panel of experts who gathered here Wednesday by the Council on Undergraduate Research kept circling back to the idea that the real key may be getting faculty on board.

The council assembled the group to talk about its newest book, Broadening Participation in Undergraduate Research: Fostering Excellence and Enhancing the Impact. They discussed various ideas for attracting and involving minority students and women to undergraduate research opportunities, and also for spreading those opportunities to fields beyond the sciences. But one common denominator among the suggested initiatives was faculty engagement.

“I don’t want to let the faculty off the hook here,” said Daryl Chubin, director of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After discussing ways to encourage students to seek out research opportunities, Chubin suggested the burden should not just fall on the students to be mentored.

Faculty often deem undergraduates “unreliable” and “risky” as research project partners because they tend to change majors or otherwise commit limited time and energy to the discipline; professors want to know what their return on investment will be, Chubin said.

The other, maybe larger, factor in faculty resistance to involvement in undergraduate research is the effect on the race for tenure. As one mathematics professor in the audience pointed out, commitment by tenure-track faculty to undergraduate research can be “terrifying," because low or uncertain productivity from undergraduate research projects could easily slow progress toward the kind of job security that depends on published material.

When that is the case, said Beverly Hartline, dean of graduate studies and research at the University of the District of Columbia, the institution needs to build an undergraduate research component into the faculty reward system.

The University of San Diego, in fact, did that last year, according to a fellow panelist, Mary Boyd, the San Diego dean of arts and sciences. Following years of transformation, the chemistry department there has made undergraduate research a hallmark of its everyday work.

Interested in These Issues?
Join Inside Higher Ed's June 24 audio
conference on broadening student participation
in research. Click here to find out more.

“We cannot imagine someone getting tenure here without it,” Tammy Dwyer, the departing chair of the chemistry department, said of faculty involvement in undergraduate research.

Rank and tenure protocols of the university do not specifically require faculty participation in undergraduate research; however, college deans have asked departments to articulate their own expectations for promotion and tenure that fall in line with the more general university policy, Dwyer said. For the chemistry department, that meant writing in a requirement to match the departmental mission to be teacher-scholars.

As of last summer’s revision, the No. 1 tenet under the scholarship component of the department’s tenure track guidelines is mentoring undergraduates in research, Dwyer said.

That commitment to undergraduate research has been years in the making, beginning with a challenge from the Research Corporation in 2004 to develop a model for encouraging and fostering the department's mission of student and faculty collaboration. Five years and more than a million dollars later, the University of San Diego’s chemistry department is built around the idea of “getting students to say, ‘I want to go there because I know I will get research experience,' ” Dwyer said.

“We were such a mom and pop shop before that,” Dwyer said. “We asked ourselves, ‘Are we up for this commitment?’ And we are, and it’s working brilliantly.”

About 35 to 40 students per semester, and an average of 20 students each summer, participate in research with faculty members in the chemistry department. According to Boyd, those students are co-writing articles in top-line journals -- which is attractive to the faculty members who were behind the movement in the first place.

An even stronger incentive for the faculty, though, is the infrastructure of support the department has implemented: “If you have expectations for publications and time spent shoulder to shoulder with undergraduates, you have to make time for them to do that,” Dwyer said.

To that end, the department hired staff to help professors prep for labs; an adjunct faculty member coordinates the research opportunities for students; and, maybe most importantly, faculty are granted reassignment time for taking on set numbers of students for research. By taking 18 students under his wing, a chemistry professor can drop his required course load from six over two semesters to five.

Of course there are other obstacles to getting both students and faculty excited about creating the “community of scholarship,” Dwyer said. Panel members Wednesday pointed out one of those barriers for students is often financial -- students cannot afford to pass up a paying summer job to dedicate time to a lab for free. The University of San Diego, like other institutions with larger research programs, offers scholarships for qualifying students in an attempt to combat that problem.

What it needs to come down to, said Jeffrey Osborn, president-elect of the Council on Undergraduate Research and dean of the school of science at the College of New Jersey, is building research into undergraduate curriculums. Echoing what was said earlier in the panel discussion, Osborn emphasized that the way to broaden participation in undergraduate research is to make it part of the culture within pedagogical planning circles. Faculty and students alike have to be given credit for the research work they do, he said: “It has to be a centerpiece in any successful culture of inquiry.”


Back to Top