Choosing between “head of lab” and “independent scholar” models


When people ask how I run my lab group, I don’t know how to respond. It boggles me because these perfectly normal questions often have assumptions baked into them, about my university, my students, and the kind of work that happens in my lab.

It’s only natural that folks might compare my “undergraduate research lab” to the template of major research institution lab, most of which also feature undergrads in substantial roles.

The way I run my research program, and the students involved, is probably different than you might imagine unless you’ve spent a bunch of time at an underfunded regional state university like mine.

I have collaborators who run a more traditional lab group with undergraduates, and I ran one myself when I was at a private university that had many students who didn’t have to work (a lot) to support themselves. This these labs look like you might imagine. If you step into the space, you might have one or two or three students doing research. Or they might be doing some other academic work at their desks. Or there might not be anybody in there at the time. The PI might be there working with the students.

If you walk into my lab, that’s not what you see. Odds are there isn’t going to be anybody working on a project. That’s because most of my students are working 20-30 hours per week while taking a full course load (or can’t take a full course load because of work.) I have money to hire students once in a while, but not in a consistent enough way that my students can quit their jobs to work for me. And my university doesn’t allow us to use work-study funding for research positions.

Another reason you are less likely to see students working in my lab is, frankly, my students and I have trouble identifying the times when I can work with them in the lab. We all are busy, of course. But my department sucks up all of my office hours for academic advising. I am in meetings and task forces for at least a few hours per week. And then there’s the stuff that makes up the teaching load, or the duties that replace the teaching load. Lets say I do identify a few hours that I can work with a student in the lab. What are the odds that the student is available at that time? Scant. I do have a couple students working with me this way, actually. We’re making it happen, somehow.

When I started in this job, I found this situation maddening. That I didn’t have the time or opportunity to supervise student researchers the way that I thought they needed. Now that I’m eight years, scores of students, two promotions, a couple dozen papers in, I still find it maddening. But I deal with it by changing how I conceive my role.

What would it take for me to run a traditional undergraduate research lab? I just need students who don’t have to work so much outside their classes, who can elevate research above a tertiary responsibility. That requires fellowship money. I tried this angle when I was hired, but we didn’t have enough research-active faculty to make a proposal fly. Now we do, and I’m trying again. If I could reliably hire students under work-study, this would be another route. But we’ve met resistance from administrators that don’t want to loosen their stranglehold on the cheap labor pool for menial jobs all over campus. Research just isn’t a priority on my campus, especially among the people who are hired to balance the books.

I try to do my best for my students. Only when schedules align well, I might be able to schedule weekly lab meetings. But usually I can’t build a critical mass at any time that works for a majority. So we meet one-on-one when needs arise. And there’s emailing and texting. My students deserve a lot better. I wish I could provide better. In the short-term, I think I could provide better, but in the long-term that would result in a loss of opportunities.

I don’t think of myself as a the head of a small undergrad-focused lab. Instead, I think of myself as an independent scholar, who works adventitiously with students when mutual needs and interests converge. I recruit and support students when I can, and they are members of my lab, but we are not a big cohesive social unit like typical university labs. The environment at our institution doesn’t support that model.

Training students is a very high priority for me. Nonetheless, the currency for time allocation is productivity. If my lab’s productivity dips, then the training opportunities fizzle.

I think both models are valid. Jerry Coyne (an evolutionary biologist at the Univeristy of Chicago) just announced his retirement and wrote a retrospective of his career. One thing that caught my eye is that over a full career, and a few decades of continuous NIH funding, he produced four graduate students. He’s been more of a Lone Wolf academic than a Lab Head. I think if I had that kind of position and funding, I’d try to recruit a lab full of students, but I don’t. So if I want to get stuff done, that this route still has credibility.

I adopted the “independent scholar” model because it is dictated by my circumstances: students with little time, university with little money, faculty with high teaching loads. To stay productive, I don’t think I have a choice. I think owning this choice has kept me afloat. I would really enjoy working with students on a more regular basis in the lab, and having a lab which is full of students actively doing research during the academic year. But I’m not going try try to force this model when it doesn’t fit the schedules of the students. Getting the money to pay multiple students 15 hours per week to work in my lab is a really high order that I haven’t been able to meet. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I can, and hope the salad days might arrive.

5 thoughts on “Choosing between “head of lab” and “independent scholar” models

  1. Any of your undergrad students conduct the research for course credit? This has always been an option at places I’ve been (I think even the weekly lab meetings were counted as a ‘course’ in grad school, for both the student and the faculty). At every stop I’ve made since grad school, however, collaborative research with students has never counted as part of a faculty’s teaching load. It has always struck me as odd, given that students are earning course credit, the notion at least exists that collaborative research/mentorship is teaching. Just not from the faculty’s perspective.

  2. Your students get neither course credit nor work-study funds for independent research? Wow. As someone who as an undergrad took advantage of both options*, I’m stunned, and saddened.

    It wasn’t technically work-study, as my institution pocketed the federal money, and then subsidized any undergrad on-campus (or university-owned/affiliated institution) job the amount that work-study would subsidize said job, no matter the financial need of whichever student ended up working said job. Which obviously is an amazing thing only a tremendously wealthy institution could do.

  3. Boy howdy, you’ve nailed an issue I wasn’t going to bring up, but is definitely relevant.

    Yes, students at my university can sign up for independent study to get credit for research. And yes, there is a provision tied to our contract with the university in which supervising graduate and undergraduate researchers is counted as a part of our workload.


    In fact, a sister campus up the road actually just had an official grievance settled by arbitration because their campus wasn’t honoring this part of the contract. And they are starting to comply with the policy this year. My campus still is in violation of these rules. I imagine one of us will soon be filing a grievance associated with this, so maybe it will change.

    In the meantime, most of us are refusing to take on students until they’re part of our workload. We temporarily shut down two different grad programs because we weren’t getting credit for supervision. I turn away students for independent study all the time, and when I do, I tell them to go up to the Provost’s office to complain. I have taken on students who are in dire straits, and some students working closely with me anyway in which my time is externally funded. But this policy is really shutting down research on my campus, surely.

    I guess that answers your question. :)

  4. I actually think, for some reason I don’t fully understand, that everyone’s time is ‘fuller’ now than it was when I was a grad student. So my own lab at a research university, and many labs I know, if you entered them at a random time of the week are also often empty, and I hardly ever ‘work with students in the lab’ as in ‘spend several hours together at the bench’. This is despite the fact that I do have work-study students, students working for credit, and students paid on grants, as well as graduate students and a postdoc in the lab. We do have lab meetings, but not all the undergraduates can make them (it is impossible to find a time that works for more than 80%).
    This is not to invalidate the specific problems you mention at institutions with less funding and students who also have to work to support themselves. Just a general observation that the number of hours spend physically present in the lab/office seems to be lower than it was 15 years ago.
    I’m not even sure that that, by itself, is a problem; often students work from home when analyzing data or writing, and these are significant activities.

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