Summer research internships for professors


A lot of federal agencies want to enhance the research environment at primarily undergraduate institutions and minority-serving institutions. Not all efforts hit the mark.

Consider the summer faculty research internships that a variety of agencies run.

Here are some examples:

The US Air Force Summer Faculty Fellowship Program: “To provide the U.S. Air Force Research Lab Summer Faculty Fellowship Program participant opportunities to perform high-quality and meaningful research… Faculty members from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Minority Institutions, American Indian Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic Serving Institutions are especially encouraged to apply!”

Office of Naval Research Summer Faculty Research Program

National Science Foundation Research Opportunity Awards

NASA Faculty Research Fellowship (here is one at Marshall)

Department of Homeland Security Research Team Program

And I’m sure there are plenty that I haven’t listed.

What all of these have in common is that the researching faculty members only get paid to do research while they are staying at the host research facility. It’s often structured as a summer research experience for about 10 weeks. The idea is that it helps build collaborations allows faculty members to leverage their experiences to strengthen their research programs and provide more and better opportunities for students back at their own universities.

The intention is good. But, well, they have more than a whiff of paternalism. These programs seem to treat these professors like, something, well, less than professors. There are so many programs like these, but on the other hand, I’m not aware of any kind of funding to designed provide summer salary for faculty who want to collaborate with people in big institutions on their own terms (other than just normal research grants).

These programs explain that they provide “opportunities to perform high-quality and meaningful research.” Okay, now think about this for a moment. Just pause. Let me repeat that. “Opportunities to perform high quality and meaningful research.”

So… they aren’t doing high quality or meaningful research in their own research labs, and don’t even have the opportunity? Um.

Shouldn’t these be about building collaborations among highly trained scientists to provide access to facilities and teams working on a larger scale? Not all programs are misdirected in this fashion — for example, the language of the NSF-ROA announcement hits the right note, though the funding is still held hostage by one’s geographic location.

This hit home when I got an email from an organization which is near and dear to me, asking me to apply for one of these programs at their facility. All of the activities were lumped in with the REUs (the undergrads), including the assignment of a research “mentor” who would “supervise” me. Seriously, it was downright condescending. I understand that not everybody implements these opportunities this way, and sometimes, the collaborating faculty are treated as peers. However, these programs are not designed so that the visiting faculty are treated as equal peers with their collaborators at the host institution.

If your goal is to support the research programs of highly trained researchers who are faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions, asking them to drop everything in their lives to spend their summer at a host facility is a pretty crappy way of going about it.

I would absolutely love to get some support from an NSF Research Opportunity Award to build a collaboration with a few labs. But I’m not going to be able to just spend my summer somewhere else. Are you kidding me? I think most of us in primarily undergraduate institutions have the same feelings about this. I would guess these summer faculty research programs aren’t exactly overburdened with a gazillion applications.

Here are my three concerns how these “internships,” for lack of a better word, are counterproductive:

  1. These programs aren’t designed to support highly trained tenure-track faculty with their own labs. The tight leash on these program is something that you usually find in undergraduate training programs.
  2. If there’s a professor interested in doing research, that means they’re doing research, in the summer. Which means they can’t drop their own labs and/or students to hang out somewhere else.
  3. Professors are more likely to have personal commitments that keep them from going away to some distant facility for the full summer. In my opinion, most responsible parents aren’t going to abandon parenting to their partner for more than a few weeks at a time. Also, even if there is a parent who can do full-time childcare over the summer, who wants to spend their summer away from their partner and kids? If you’re targeting mid-career scientists, ignoring their nonacademic commitments will hinder success. (For the similar reasons, field stations have some big challenges too.)

I’ve heard the argument that these opportunities are targeted for professors at primarily undergraduate institutions who don’t have active research labs doing things in the summer. Okay, if that’s the target population, then why do you think they’re not doing research in the summer? You think by giving them an internship in some other facility, working on someone else’s project, that they’ll magically be revitalized and start up their own research again? I would love to see the outcomes assessment of these research programs. How many of them resulted in more opportunities for students or more publications from the professor who spent this summer away from their lab?

I understand that a lot of these programs are designed to allow people at small institutions the chance to collaborate with people at amazing facilities. Not just in physics, but also chemistry and biology, having access to very fancy facilities, like linear accelerators and rainforests and NMRs with huge magnets and the like. So there’s a great reason to provide funding for faculty to collaborate with the people at these facilities. But if you build these collaborations as an “internship” that requires a full summer, then you’re probably not attracting scientists who have active labs that are prepare to leverage these resources and support their students.

Is there something wrong or evil about paying us to do research in collaboration with another laboratory, but not physically requiring us to be at the facility the whole time? Can’t we visit for a cumulative few weeks but spend the whole summer researching? Do you think we’ll waste the funds and not do the work? You don’t think you can keep us accountable? Aren’t there more creative ways to foster collaborations during the summer instead of just having faculty members go for the whole summer to somewhere else?

5 thoughts on “Summer research internships for professors

  1. My first summer of undergrad research was in a program like these. I worked with a professor (who became my research advisor) from my home (PUI) university at another university nearby (within a long but doable commuting distance). The project was collaborative: my advisor shared his experience with the host PI, and the host PI shared her facilities. Both learned some techniques and applications the other hadn’t encountered before. (My experience was like doing an REU with two advisors.) The collaboration continued well beyond that single summer program.
    That’s not meant to be a defense of condescension. I think it shows that there are ways that such programs can be beneficial to both parties.

  2. Pretty much #3 for me the most. My institution just became an HSI and now I could apply for all matter of these “opportunities.” But I’m going to leave a fully employed spouse and an 11 year old for 6 plus weeks?? Um no, not happening. Technology exists to be used. Certainly we could leverage the inter webs to set something up.

    Second most is #1&2 together. I’m an associate professor with my own lab and IUSE grant (and our R15 just ended, so I’m not a noob) . I’d love to set up some additional collaborations (maybe go with a student for a week to come back and do research at home) and get some training in the newest and greatest technology. Perhaps then I’d obtain an ability to send samples to get run by said technology, but I do my own “thang” and run my own lab so I don’t need someone to hold my hand, just give a hand up.

    Thanks for writing this. I was pretty insulted when I began getting these “invites.”

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