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Implementing an Undergraduate Research Program, Part II: Policy, Procedure, and Practice Changes and Fiscal Considerations

Curriculum Planning and Development

Implementing an Undergraduate Research Program, Part II: Policy, Procedure, and Practice Changes and Fiscal Considerations

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This article is the second of a two-part series on implementing a program of undergraduate research (research/scholarship; R/S) at institutions that previously were teaching only or where research was informal and/or random across units. Because R/S is largely unrecognized at some institutions, Part I raised the issue of institutional culture in the context of whether there would be sufficient support to allow R/S to flourish. That article discussed potential consequences of this initiative in terms of faculty resistance to change. It also presented remedies for some types of resistance.

Two basic principles emerged from Part I. First, R/S is being introduced into the undergraduate experience for the benefit of the students. It’s effect on student success, persistence, and engagement has led to it being designated a high-impact practice (Association of American Colleges & Universities [AAC&U], 2008). Second, R/S is broadly defined to be maximally inclusive in recognizing high-level faculty work in discovery, teaching, and engagement. This allows students to select from a wide array of projects and provides comfort to faculty who fear being expected to do only traditional disciplinary scholarship.

An additional two areas must be addressed to prepare an institution to formally incorporate an undergraduate R/S program. The first of these is the area of institutional, school, and department policies, procedures, and practices. Some of these will have to change. The second involves fiscal considerations around adding R/S. Finally, the discussion will return to institutional culture, this time focusing on the culture that emerges once R/S is fully integrated.

Policy, procedure, and practice changes

Student academic issues

There are a number of decisions to make on how undergraduate research is arranged or managed. Will it be required? Will it be a credit-bearing registration or a cocurricular activity? If the former, the common choice, will the credits be in the major or taken as general electives? Is there a minimum and maximum number of research credits the student may take? Are there prerequisites for registering, such as junior or senior status or completion of core courses in the major? Does the experience require a culminating product, such as a paper or thesis, an oral presentation, or a performance?

Beyond these general questions are ones of department curriculum requirements for the major. Assuming, for example, that the research experience is a course equivalent (three credit hours of a 120-credit-hour baccalaureate degree), are the three credits added to the previous degree requirements, or do they displace three hours of major credits? The former makes the major larger in hours (are there institutional limits on this?) and may discourage double majors, while the latter option may cause discomfort for some faculty by disrupting the “perfect” major or threatening the further offering of senior elective courses for which enrollments are not strong.

Each department must resolve these and related questions before undergraduate research can be launched. I recommend that those who must lead these conversations do the following:

1. Start early. Sorting out the academic issues across all campus units will take time.

2. Use others, who have successfully implemented undergraduate research, as examples rather than reinvent the wheel.

3. Be prepared for and flexible in accepting the different models that will appear. After all, art history and actuarial science are very different—as are philosophy and physics.

4. Constantly focus on and remind your audiences that you are implementing R/S to improve the undergraduate experience for all your students.  

Faculty workloads

Faculty at the institutions this article targets typically teach 3-3 or even 4-4 loads. Add service and scholarship, which these institutions increasingly require, and professors have formidable work requirements to say the least. Throwing in the oversight and direction of five or six undergraduates doing research would simply be an unacceptable overload. Thus, the new work of directing undergraduate research may require a load reduction of a course per year or semester. This reduction depends on the nature of the research and the number of students mentored. A faculty member overseeing survey-based student research from a distance could accommodate more students than an organic chemist who must for safety reasons be present when the work is being done. Each department would need to establish a student equivalency per course released.

Providing course releases for faculty could jeopardize the curriculum and reduce the credit hours taught. Solutions include using adjuncts, increasing section sizes, providing alternate-year offerings for some electives, and culling small sections, especially those not in the major. Some of these may run counter to department culture and practice. But in the absence of resources to hire more faculty, some of them may have to be considered.

Faculty evaluations

Due to the addition of undergraduate student mentoring in research to the list of faculty responsibilities, new criteria must be developed to evaluate this work. If the institution has not required some scholarship for faculty advancement, the new criteria would have to include this aspect of R/S as well. Faculty evaluation is key to promotion and tenure, merit pay considerations, and faculty awards. Those charged with policy and guideline rewrites are cautioned to make certain that there is vertical consistency at the department, school, and campus levels.

Fiscal considerations

A change like this cannot be accomplished without additional costs. Besides the workload decreases to accommodate student research mentoring and their potential costs, there are places where new institutional investments will be required, but many of them will also have the potential to elicit donations from external friends of the college or university.

Internal faculty R/S grants

These grants are in place at most institutions. Those with no R/S expectation may have to expand the scope (typically conference travel) of the funding they now provide as faculty development grants.

Internal student R/S grants

These grants need not be large, but they are important for several reasons. Garnering funding validates the importance of the work proposed, gives the author a degree of independence, and tells the investigator that the proposal was well written and convincing. Each department would prepare an application in a format (including a budget line) that reflects disciplinary norms. Applications should be rigorously reviewed, and only those meeting at least the minimum requirements should be funded. Those not funded would be eligible for revision and resubmission. This type of “competitive” system resembles what faculty face and should motivate students to do their best work.

Travel grants

These are to allow the most successful students—and their faculty mentors—to attend professional conferences to present their work. Venues can be local, regional, or national, with the last expecting the highest-quality work.


Those institutions that celebrate student success in the classroom will also want to acknowledge outstanding performance in research. For example, an institution may have awards for best paper, performance, creation, or oral presentation. One might also consider special awards for students whose work has appeared in peer-reviewed publications and other distinctive venues. All awards should be acknowledged when the other student awards (annual awards and scholarships for outstanding academic performance, exceptional service to the department, institution or discipline, etc.) are so that R/S is recognized as a part of campus culture as soon as possible.

In-house or local showcases and conferences

I suggest that institutions that develop undergraduate research programs host end-of-year events at which all participating undergraduates present the results of their R/S efforts. Such events would allow for the evaluation of the students’ work for the determination of the award winners. Institutions will want to use undergraduate research in their recruitment efforts; doing so really works. Thus, the institution should publicize these events and specifically invite the student presenters’ families, local employers, prospective students, and other key people in the community.

All the above items have associated costs. Student awards and the showcase or conference concept have great potential for external sponsorship. Development offices should be prepared to offer these awards and components of conferences as targets for philanthropy. Beyond that, the remaining new costs for implementing a program of undergraduate research should be covered by improved student recruitment, increased student persistence, and the enhanced institutional reputation that comes with establishing a cutting-edge, high-impact practice.

Institutional culture 2.0

Part I focused on the culture in place before R/S was introduced and whether it would be open to the concept of undergraduate research. Here, the focus is the culture in place after undergraduate research has been in place and what institutions will likely face in the future. R/S will grow in stature and influence on campus in part because all new faculty will have been hired with an R/S expectation. Soon faculty in science will submit proposals for external funding that, if successful, would allow them to make more significant advances. There will also be suggestions that some disciplines start graduate programs. Whether such “mission creep” is good or bad is an individual institutional judgment, but it does represent the standard evolutionary process in higher education. Throughout this transition, the institution must stand firm on the primacy of excellent teaching and undergraduate education.


Association of American Colleges & Universities. (2008). High-impact educational practices. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/leap/hip.cfm

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).


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