Training vs. productivity. What’s your currency?


In a big lab, research gets done through the training of grad students and postdocs. The lab simultaneously fulfills its research mission and meets the “broader effect” agenda of developing the scientific workforce. Training and productivity are mutually compatible.

Granted, some PIs – often those that have the most effective training programs – do lots of independent work and their research happens separate from their students. Regardless, the training of students and the production of research aren’t in conflict.

Theoretically, this statement applies to labs in teaching schools. However, it’s not necessarily the case in practice.

I suspect science faculty – at least senior faculty at teaching schools – can be sorted into three pools:

  • Those who think that their main research responsibility is to mentor student researchers and provide them with high quality experiences to further their careers. The publication of research is an important and useful product of the research experience.
  • Those who think that their main research responsibility is to conduct and publish research and be a part of the scientific community. The mentorship of students and their future success as scientists is an important and useful product of the research experience.
  • Those who think that research distracts from quality teaching. If you can find the time for it, that’s okay as long as it doesn’t harm the students.

Is this an overgeneralization? It might be.

In an attempt to pin a theory on this (overgeneralized) concept, perhaps these perspectives form the axes of a triangular continuum (in ecology, like CSR theory or Holdrige life zones), “productivity,” “training” and “emphasis on the classroom.”

When new faculty start their jobs, maybe they start near the middle of the continuum space, or wherever the departmental culture requires for tenure. As they gain experience and a string of successes and failures of various kinds, they may gravitate to one of the corners. (I should add that an emphasis on training, research, or the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is better at that particular thing. For example, someone who says that student training is paramount might not necessarily serve their students well.)

Another theoretical framework could be taken from optimal foraging theory. Faculty members can have different currencies for their decisions. For example, when a bird is foraging, is it trying to collect the highest energy food, or trying to collect the most nutrients? Or is it trying to maximize net energy gain (and thus balance food collection with calories spent foraging)? Or is it trying to minimize predation risk? These are all different possible currencies that an  individual could select when making decisions.

Faculty members have different currencies when pursuing their research agenda. Some will seek to maximize grant money or publications, others will seek to increase the quality of student training, or the number of students heading to graduate school. Some will be seeking to maximize scientific discovery, and others are trying to have the most fun possible. Some might be trying to maximize their free time to go play with their pets.

With respect to how research happens in the lab, I think there are two common currencies that undergraduate faculty mentors choose: One is Research Productivity (a composite of publication quantity and quality) and the other is Student Training (a composite of the number of trained students and their entry into top labs in grad school).

The choice of this currency isn’t made because people love productivity or student outcomes per se. Instead, they may love the exhilaration of research and all that it entails (in my case, ants in the rainforest and all their amazing little quirks), and they may love working with their students on a day to day basis and watching them grow and succeed (which cam be spectacular in a way that words fail to describe).

To put it a different way: do you want to do research for the sake of doing the research and all that it entails, or are you doing it as an avenue for training students to be an effective educator and improve student outcomes? These two priorities, of course, are mutually compatible. However, when making decisions on a day to day basis, what is your currency?

Both perspectives, in my view, are valid and useful for the missions of most schools. I posit that a department might work best when it has faculty with diversity of currencies, with mutual respect of each others’ differing choices. A successful department might not require maximal diversity, but needs at least adequate representation of the major functional roles. When you don’t have that functional diversity in a department, things don’t work as well.

To illustrate this principle, here’s a story, slightly modified to protect the innocent: At a field station, I once shared a bottle of rum with a colleague. (This has happened plenty, but only once did it lead to this particular story from at least 10 years ago.) He was mostly a research-for-research’s sake kind of guy, and he was working in a small college in which others focused on research as a vehicle for student training. He would have to have been a top-notch scholar on his campus, I imagine. He told me how he had trouble getting promoted to full professor, because his department didn’t approve of how he conducted his research program. He eventually received promotion, accompanied with a reprimand. Apparently, he needed to involve more students in his research. The odd thing is that he actually did include students in his research, quite a bit.

This probably seems like an odd story if you haven’t taught in a teaching institution. Similar toxic situations can evolve when newly hired research-active faculty may raise the bar on unproductive faculty, or in a department focused heavily on productivity, and some scientists take care to mentor a small number of students with lots of attention, at the cost of productivity. (And, of course, at research institutions, departments focused on productivity don’t appreciate faculty who want to focus more heavily on classroom teaching.)

Behavioral ecologists have found that animals may switch currencies, depending on the environmental context.

In a low research environment such as my campus, resources cannot be acquired without a moderate to high level of productivity. Frankly, since my campus doesn’t provide me with the resources (time, space, funds) to do any student research training whatsoever, it would be very difficult to accomplish this task unless it’s built on a backbone of productivity. Moreover, successes in student training are not specifically valued or rewarded by the institution (even if it is an explicitly stated priority), whereas bringing in grants is given high priority. So, I don’t have the option to focus primarily on student training, because if I did that too much, I would not have resources to support my students. Though I’m at an undergraduate institution, I need to run my lab like at a big university if I am to get anything done, because we don’t have any other way to support our students.

My own currency, then, is productivity, though this does seem to maximize student training, at least in my current low-resource environment. In an environment where faculty are provided resources to mentor student researchers (time for mentorship, modest supply funds, and a stipend or salary for student research), then a currency switch might make sense. This might explain why small liberal arts schools are known for placing so many students into top graduate programs, not just in relative frequency but in absolute numbers. There, an emphasis on a high quality research experience might serve the students best.

Perhaps the best environment for a budding undergraduate researcher is to be mentored by a graduate student in a big research lab. You will have access to fancy resources and that important pedigree, plus quality time with someone more experienced than you, and lots of feedback and an opportunity to learn. (So far, two of my former undergraduate mentees have moved on to faculty positions at universities, both of whom coauthored a piece of my dissertation. That’s a stronger record than with I’ve had since becoming a professor whose job it has been to mentor undergraduates.)

Perhaps NSF and NIH should include salary for an undergraduate mentee for every graduate student on a project? That might be the best, and a very cheap, way to make more scientists.