Attending a CUR meeting during your first year, is it worth it?

In this post, Dr. Jonathan Ouellet reflects on how CUR workshops impacted his faculty career, teaching and doing research at a PUI. The deadline to apply to the CUR workshop Beginning a Research Program in the Natural Sciences at a Predominantly Undergraduate Institution Institute (BRP) is October 1st. For travel awards please apply here


Fresh out of long post-doctoral studies, I was hired on a tenured-track to teach biochemistry in Fall 2013 at Monmouth University, a PUI with about 4500 undergraduate and less than 2000 graduate students in New Jersey.

I soon realized that my teaching obligations were greater than I initially expected, leaving much less time than anticipated to work into my research laboratory. Luckily, I had colleagues to help me stay on the right track. Some of the best advice I received was to attend “CUR Institute: Beginning a Research Program in the Natural Sciences at a PUI” in San Diego, only three months after starting at MU. Although it initially seemed early, it was instrumental in correcting some of my weaknesses while confirming other things that I was doing intuitively.

“The mentors are the ones that make this Institute a great event.”

This 3-days weekend was divided in two segments. One included sessions where one of the several mentors would share their experience about one topic (ranging from time management to grant opportunities). Those sessions were interwoven with several breakout sessions with the second segment; one-on-one meetings with one assigned mentor to help in writing a career plan. The mentors are the ones that make this Institute a great event. They once were in our shoes and they now share the pitfalls as well as the must-do to help us succeed in our teaching, research and service commitments.
I would say there was around 5-10 mentors and we were about 100 participants. I cannot mention every topics that was presented, but some were confirming my intuition, some were comforting in knowing that it’s normal to struggle on research-foreign areas and some others were simply new concepts to me. During lunch time, we shared our success stories as well as our problems into a relaxed atmosphere. Interestingly, we realized we shared the same issues.

Having a mentor assigned was very helpful on many levels. It allowed us to ask any questions (including naïve ones) about the inner working or politics that are going at our respective institutions, it provided a neutral ear for any concerns during one-on-one meetings. And more importantly, the mentor was there to appropriately steer the directions of our own career plan. At the time of hire, I obviously knew which research projects I wanted to do. However, these research plans did not properly consider the classroom and outside-classroom teaching duties. Writing down my career plan on paper was central to my time-prioritization between research, teaching and services.
Without a doubt, this meeting contributed to my professional growth in terms of establishing my priorities, learning about all aspects to be successful at my institution as well as a great introduction about most common grant opportunities. Moreover, CUR is now a resource for me in case I would need help (looking for a mentor in my field, finding external evaluator for my tenure candidacy, information about PUIs…).

“Without a doubt, this meeting contributed to my professional growth in terms of establishing my priorities, learning about all aspects to be successful at my institution as well as a great introduction about most common grant opportunities.”

I then participated to the CUR Dialogues 2014 in Washington D.C. This is a great place to learn about the grant opportunities from the main organizations as they have representatives on-site and explain what they are looking into the grant proposals.
Although it was too early for me to get proper suggestion on my grant proposal (I did not have preliminary data), I was able to learn the major general mistakes that gets a proposal denied. Obviously, we also looked at good examples and it will definitively help shape my coming grant proposal.

I also participated to the additional workshop attached at the end of this CUR Dialogues which was called “Beyond the Basic: proposal Writing Workshop”. This was a few hours presentation by an experienced NIH board member who explained, point-by-point, what must be present into a winning grant proposal. At this stage in my career, this workshop was the most valuable to me.

I definitely learned a lot at this CUR Dialogues, but it was a little early for me to fully benefit from it. However, it prevented me from writing grants that I now know would be immediately turned down. Moreover, I am now in the process of writing a proposal, and what I learned during this CUR Dialogue is proven invaluable. I hope that I will attend again when I am ready to submit a R15 grant proposal to get specialized feedback.

I am very thankful that I participated to these two CUR events. Along with the support I have at my institution, my path to be successful in my teaching, research and services are much more clear.

~ Jonathan Ouellet, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics at Monmouth University in New Jersey and a CUR Chemistry Division Travel Awardee.

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