In 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives declared the week of April 11, 2011 as Undergraduate Research Week. Since then, the Council on Undergraduate Research has designated a week each April to celebrate and promote undergraduate research, with many institutions hosting their own annual research weeks throughout the month.
These research weeks provide institutions with opportunities to engage stakeholders, highlight student and faculty successes, raise awareness of research services, and advance strategic goals. Yet, many institutions have been asking us, are annual research weeks really worth the time and investment? What can we do to make them more valuable?
Research offices make five common mistakes when planning and hosting annual research weeks. Read on to learn about these pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Hosting a research week simply for the sake of hosting a research week
The most common mistake research offices make is failing to identify clear goals for their research weeks. Instead, many simply go through the motions of hosting one because they have always done so. To make research weeks truly valuable, research offices should utilize them as a tool to advance strategic priorities, whether those are to foster interdisciplinary collaboration, increase undergraduate student participation, engage the local community in research, or demonstrate the value of research to legislators.
The first step in the research week planning process should always be identifying concrete goals that align with those of the research office. For example, Texas A&M University has identified clear goals for its Student Research Week, which is organized around the theme “Bridging Disciplines, Engaging with Others” and intended to increase undergraduate participation and spark interdisciplinary conversations.
Mistake #2: Trying to do too much in a single week
Many research weeks include an overwhelming number of events but lack direction and focus. The most effective research weeks are intentionally narrow. Some institutions have opted to focus their research weeks on an institutional research strength or a topical grand challenge. The University of North Dakota hosts a research week centered on its Energy and Environmental Sustainability Grand Challenge.
Far more have opted to concentrate their research weeks on a targeted audience, with most dedicated to undergraduates and a few targeting faculty. For example, the University of Central Florida’s research week offers professional development workshops and showcases undergraduate research excellence, whereas Washington State University has hosted a research week focused on supporting and building faculty skills. Ball State University’s Office of Sponsored Projects has also hosted a research week focused entirely on supporting faculty and raising awareness of the services they provide. Auburn University actually separates its faculty symposium and student symposium into separate programs. Narrowing the research focus by theme or audience can reduce the burden on staff, improve branding, and increase feasibility in terms of scope and scale.
Mistake #3: Scheduling in April because everyone else does
Although the Council on Undergraduate Research dedicates a week in April as Undergraduate Research Week, this does not mean that spring is necessarily the best time for all research weeks. The timing of the research week needs to align with the research office’s strategic goals and the audience they want to reach. If the goal is to showcase undergraduate student work, then the spring is ideal because students will have completed their projects and theses. If the goal is to engage more undergraduates in faculty research or educate faculty on research office services it would make more sense to host the research week in the fall at the beginning of the academic year.
Mistake #4: Failing to distinguish research week events from regular programs
Many institutions simply combine their typical research events into a single research week and fail to incorporate any new or innovative components to distinguish these programs from normal offerings. Lecture-based, symposia-style events are most common, yet they fail to appeal to a broad audience.
Research offices need to be more creative when planning research weeks. They should consider hosting events in trendy, off-campus locations that their desired audience frequents, creating faculty TED Talk-style events, or offering tours of facilities or live demonstrations of research technologies. Colorado State University’s 2017 “Discovery Week” included a self-guided scavenger hunt, as well group trips to different coffee locations each morning. Auburn University’s faculty symposium includes “Auburn talks”—ten minute faculty presentations on their research. By changing the location and style of the events, research offices can increase interest in the research week and distinguish it from other research events offered throughout the year.
Ultimately, research offices should seek to strike a balance between lecture-style programs and interactive events, on-campus and off-campus programs, and large-scale and more intimate, discussion-based events.
Mistake #5: Not assessing the effectiveness and value of their efforts
Since most research offices don’t design research weeks with clear goals in mind they often fail to measure the success of these initiatives. As a result, they don’t know whether their research weeks achieved the desired outcomes and they have no data by which to inform their future strategy.
Research offices therefore need to identify metrics of success for their research weeks before launching the program so they can determine if the investment is worthwhile. These metrics of success should flow from their strategic goals—for example, they might want to look at student participation rates the following academic year, the number of multi-PI grants won, attendance at future research-related events, the number of faculty utilizing specific research office services, or awareness and use of core facilities on campus. Tracking these metrics and collecting data allows research offices to reevaluate and adjust their approach on an annual basis.
Annual research weeks require significant investment in terms of time, energy, and money. In order to maximize the value of these investments, research offices ought to ensure that their research weeks are strategic, innovative, and reevaluated annually.