What limits productivity at teaching institutions


It’s not the time, it’s the people.

The popular conception is that scientists at teaching-focused institutions have lower research productivity primarily because they spend so much time teaching. I disagree.

Do tenure-track faculty at teaching-intensive research institutions spend more time teaching than at research universities? Well, maybe. Kinda. Things vary a lot. Sasha Wright did a poll, and found small (but statistically significant) differences in the amount of time professors at different kinds of institutions spend in the classroom. (Self-estimates about the proportion of time spent on research did vary widely — this wasn’t broken down into writing, editing, data analysis, data collection, advising students, and so on. I took the survey and I think I said about 30% maybe, but I’m not sure how I arrived at that as I clearly don’t keep an ethogram for myself and I’m sure if the actual data existed I’d be shocked at either how little, or how much, I actually do spend on research.)

I’m willing to bet that plenty of research-active senior faculty at teaching institutions spend as much time research as some highly productive senior faculty at research institutions. Which is not a lot of time. In addition to some teaching, there is plenty of time doing admin work (for your own lab as well as the institution). When senior faculty are productive, it’s usually not measured by their personal productivity, but the productivity of their labs. When I am told, “Professor Impressive has authored 432 scientific articles,” what I hear is that their students and postdocs wrote most of those articles.

If professor A has thirty hours per week for research, and professor B has half of that time, this doesn’t mean that professor B is expected to have half of the productivity of professor A. Many, many other variables predict productivity. I’d imagine that the number the number of hours spent on research would have a statistically significant effect in a model for productivity, but with a small effect size.

What variable might have the biggest effect on research productivity? The number of PhD students, postdocs, and technicians in your group. Tech are experienced data-making machines. PhD students and postdocs do the work for papers and write the papers. And they all are positioned to generate ideas that are paper-worthy.

Using that measure, my group size ranges from 1-2, including myself. I’ve had a postdoc. I’ve had a couple students who were able to write their own manuscripts (with less effort on my part than if I had done it myself). That’s the cap on the productivity from my lab. If I’m publishing a paper, it’s because I’ve written it, or I’m the middle author on a paper with another lab.

I could devote as much of my time to research as professors at R1s and still be way less productive than similar labs, because those labs have grad students and postdocs.

It’s not the teaching that slows me down, it’s the fact that I am the rate limiting step on productivity. I don’t have people in my lab who email me an attachment and say, “here’s the draft, do you think I’m ready to submit it?” (Okay, actually one student now fits into this category, but that’s an exception to my regular experience.)

Yes, I work regularly with undergrads who are smart, talented, capable, motivated and dedicated. But they also aren’t adequately funded to work in my lab, and if they are writing a paper, it would take more of my time to mentor them in the process than to do it myself.

I know plenty of professors at R1s who spend as much time teaching than professors at teaching-focusing institutions. Even if you’re only teaching one course per semester, if it’s a big lecture hall with several hundred students, then teaching this course means more prep time, a lot of time dealing with managing student issues, and also supervising teaching assistants associated with the course. Three units does not necessarily equal three units. Also, if you don’t care about teaching, then you will spend less time on it. There are lots of R1 faculty who care deeply about their students and teaching effectively, and plenty of professors at teaching institutions who are burnt out and phone it in with relatively little effort. Even if you teach efficiently, giving a damn means giving time. And as far as I can tell, R1 faculty care as much about teaching as everybody else (even though bad teaching is acceptable to the institution as long as there is an appearance of concern about improvement).

People ask, “How do you find the time for research?” I hear this most from R1 colleagues and from those are on the job market. I don’t know what to say to that — other than telling them how I make the time and make a research a part of my university workload. But that’s inside baseball and politics within my own institution. And that doesn’t really explain how I get research done (and how I don’t get it done). For folks who are wondering how to have a productive research lab at a teaching institution, a more useful question to ask is, “How do you find the people?” And the answer to that is, “Collaboration.”

6 thoughts on “What limits productivity at teaching institutions

  1. Well said. At the SLAC where I work, we’ve even had to push back against administrators (deans, etc.), who are not in the sciences, who want to penalize (by not “counting” fully) multi-authored papers. We managed to successfully push back when our department chair went to a meeting with a stack of journals, several from the various sub-disciplines in Biology, and said “How many single-authored papers can you find in these journals?”. The answer, of course, was very, very few. (And even those would most often represent circumstances that didn’t apply well to ours – grad student publications, “perspective” articles, etc.)

  2. Anonymous again: I should have added, I think this is particularly problematic when one tries to apply a fairly similar “bar” across all the disciplines in a college. There is some flexibility, for sure, but the basic requirements for tenure at my SLAC are listed in a single document that applies to every person: biologist, chemist, historian, spanish instructor, poet, etc. I don’t know the solution, but you know that when somebody doesn’t understand why you would need to collaborate with others in your field, you should be a bit concerned.

  3. Good article. I teach at a smaller school abd find these observations to be true there. I also find, however, that some people are also better at ‘living lean.” This is producing lots on less time and money. This is, in my opinion, a thinking skill that requires consistent practice at thinking backwards. You must start with a list of persoectives, interests and incipient ideas, then take your constraints and explore backwards to test the availability of certain research questions given those constraints. More practice at doing this means students taking the lead on solid publishable projects that they largely handle and perfect to a reasonable atage of publication.

  4. One of the top leaders in a small subfield where I did most of my previous work – research on mechanism/applications of firefly luciferase – is operating in a college thus providing interesting and manageable research opportunities to undergrads. Probably, his lab made more insights into this system (basic mechanisms, in particular) that many people based in research universities. He did have a lot of collaborators from other places.

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