You need a plan.

As a PI conducting undergraduate research (often at a primarily undergraduate institution), there are many demands on your time. You cannot afford to neglect the strategic planning process. You need plan to guide decisions and time management at each phase of your career, but for early-career success a strategic planning or visioning process is enormously beneficial.

Continuing to make progress in the slow-moving world of undergraduate research can be a challenge. You are likely teaching, engaging in college or departmental service AND doing meaningful research with students. Semesters fly by faster and faster every year, and before you know it – you can forget the goals and dreams that you started your career with.

Plan to Vision

If you are an early-career faculty member, waste no time – make a strategic 3-5 year plan. Right now. No, really. Then plan to revisit, revise and update this plan regularly (every few years).
You can’t know where to spend your time and energy if you haven’t thoughtfully considered what is important to you.

You can’t know where to spend your time and energy if you haven’t thoughtfully considered what is important to you.

What to plan for?

  • Mentoring: How many students are you planning to take in your lab, and how often will you add more? Does you institution have a summer research program for undergraduates? Plan to get involved, and see what kind of funding exists for supporting your salary and student salaries for the summer. Where and how will you recruit – out of your courses, your departmental majors? Will you require an application or a research contract? How will you communicate and mentor your students during the week – a group meeting? individual meetings? weekly reports?
  • Publishing: What are you hoping to publish in the next few years? What research areas are you going to explore? Plan out the key experiments that are needed to frame the publication, and plan to acquire key references from the literature. Consider how established your research area is, then plan for 20-40% of your time and resources on exploratory areas of research. Areas that could develop into future projects. Who will conduct the experiments: You? Your students? Do you need a collaborator?
  • Funding: Planning to write a grant proposal? What agencies support your kind of research? Are you an early-career faculty member? – then there are dedicated funding resources just for you. Look up submission deadlines and consider attending a CUR workshop on proposal writing. Is there internal support at your institution? You may need to apply for this funding, so ask your department chair.
  • Networking: Plan to attend professional meetings and workshops.  Do you have internal support for attending meetings at your institution? You may need to apply for this funding. 
  • Scheduling: Protect your time. To work your plan, you need dedicated time. Plan your teaching schedule so you have 1-2 half days or a whole day to devote to your research agenda. Close your door if there are distractions that prevent you from making progress on your plan. Agree to departmental or college service very carefully. Early-career faculty should not get sucked into large amounts of service.

Plan for Action

“Write the grant” is a goal…not an actionable item.

As you sketch out your strategic plan and goals, break down dreams and goals into actionable items. “Write the grant” is a goal…not an actionable item. Actionable items are discreet tasks for which you can envision a certain amount of time required. If the goal is “write an NSF proposal” then an actionable item could be research the funding mechanisms at NSF that fit my research area or schedule a phone call with the program officer. Breaking goals down into actionable items enables you to make measurable progress while devoting limited amounts of time.

KeriColabroy-0258~Dr. Keri L. Colabroy is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Muhlenberg College. She engages undergraduates in research in the teaching lab and through independent study investigating enzymes in bacterial natural product biosynthesis.


Using a Strategic Plan as a Tool for Early-Career Success” by Karen Nordell Pearson, which appeared in The CUR Quarterly, volume 29 (2008) pp. 29-32.

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