MTSU's Next Big Ambition: Becoming A Research Powerhouse

Jun 6, 2017

Middle Tennessee State University is setting its sights on big federal money — specifically, research grants from funding agencies like the National Science Foundation. After launching a number of Ph.D. programs in the past several years, the school is trying to establish itself as a research powerhouse.

One indicator that MTSU is progressing is that it's no longer classified by the NSF as a "primarily undergraduate institution," a category reserved for schools with less than 20 doctorate students over the previous two academic years.

In the past two years, MTSU awarded 57 Ph.Ds in the sciences, says Jeff Porter, the school's director of research services.

The advantage of falling into that "primarily undergraduate" classification is that, in some cases, those schools can submit a specialized application to the NSF that can give them a slight edge when competing for funding against more established research programs. Think of it as grant-writing training wheels — which MTSU no longer has.

"There are benefits to having that label, but eventually if you want to compete as a research institution, that label is going to have to fall off," says David Butler, MTSU's dean of the College of Graduate Studies. "I think that's a very healthy thing and puts us in our own driver’s seat to determine our own success."

Becoming a research institution is like building an all-star sports team, Butler says: It takes time. If a faculty member can get a big grant, then the research they do tends to be more exciting, which then recruits better students, which then attracts better faculty, and so on.

"It just takes a while to build that team, to get that momentum and move your way up into the cycle," he says.

Butler is launching a three-year training program to teach professors how to write stronger grants, which he says should kickstart MTSU’s research ambitions.

But this comes at a time when more universities across the country are attempting to do the same thing, and the pot of federal funding isn't getting much bigger. Butler acknowledges that the process is only getting more competitive.

Update, 10:25 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the number of Ph.Ds that MTSU awarded in the past two years. We regret the error.