Faculty research is like a potted plant


The Ecological Society of America has wonderful program called SEEDS, which is designed to support and mentor underrepresented undergraduates who are pursuing careers in academic ecology*.

Let’s extend the metaphor of undergrads-as-seeds further.

The seeds germinate and are raised in the greenhouse. The grad school greenhouse should provide water, nutrients, light, and an appropriate temperature and humidity. Likewise, grad students should flourish if given money to pay the bills, an academic environment that is supportive and challenging, and the resources and community to get stuff done.

The saplings receive their PhD, and some are purchased to be replanted in a new location.

Some saplings are bought for orchards. Their function is to produce a lot of fruit. The people running these orchards have are focused on the success and productivity of their trees.  When these trees get planted, they’re given what they need to establish and grow — mycorrhizae, nutrients, drip irrigation, whatever they need. Just to hit you over the head with this metaphor, these orchards are research institutions.

Most kinds of plants don’t produce the kind of fruit that would grow in an orchard, and when a lot of saplings graduate, they end up in entirely different environments.

I think most teaching institutions are raising their trees in pots instead of planting us in soil.

If you’re a faculty member at a teaching-focused university, you’re probably the only person on campus the does the kind of work that you do. You were acquired because you contribute to curricular needs and add to the academic diversity of the campus — you are covering a base that otherwise wouldn’t be covered. It’s nice if you produce fruit once in a while, but you’re in more of an ornamental garden than a working orchard. Trees that don’t produce fruit in orchards get turned into firewood, whereas you’ve just got to not die and you’ll do just fine.

I’m not much of a gardener but I know that when you have a plant in a pot, it’s harder to keep healthy than if it’s in the ground. It’s easier to overwater or underwater, and if you move the pot around the changing light environment is a problem. And most plants will need some fertilizer — or at least good soil — to thrive.

If you are keeping your faculty in pots, that means you need to keep them consistently watered if they’re going to keep going. If you neglect a house plant, it’ll wilt more quickly than a plant would if it’s planted outside in soil.

For many faculty members, once their research program winds down, odds are it’s not coming back. That’s where the term deadwood comes from. How do you prevent faculty from becoming deadwood? If a potted plant has wilted, how do you bring it back?

A lot of the faculty members who have stopped doing research have very good and legitimate reasons. If an institution has neglected to care for its plants, then it just can’t expect the garden to spring to life once it gets some water.

At my university, over the past decade the number of external grant submissions has atrophied. The proportion of faculty in the sciences who are seeking external support is astonishingly low. We have great people running the shop at the moment, but a couple years ago, that wasn’t the case. You can’t just revive an orchard that’s been unwatered and neglected.

If you’re going to try to build a research-active environment at a teaching institution, it can’t be done with pulses of support. It needs constant support and feeding.

If you’re a prospective faculty member at a teaching institution, if you have ambitions to stay research active throughout your career, be sure to build a drought-tolerant research agenda.




*SEEDS is a great program, worthy of more support — please donate if you want more diversity in ecology. (Lobbying ESA for a line item in the budget is what SEEDS really needs, because it is now run exclusively on outside money. Which you know will not last forever.)