Research productivity during mid-career and beyond


Apparently, I am “mid-career.” When I registered as a reviewer for the NSF GRFP, that’s the box I checked because according to their registration form, “mid-career” is 10-25 years of experience. (If you’re counting from my first full-time faculty position or from receiving my PhD, I’m 22 years in. If you’re counting time in grad school, I’m 27 years in.)

Though I’m arguably mid-career now, soon going to be a “senior scientist.” Hmm.

My job has evolved over the last several years, from actively avoiding admin work, to taking on faculty leadership roles part time, and now I’m doing this stuff even more*. I’m doing the kinds of service leadership work that is taking up a good part of my time. A lot of my job is no longer about promoting the success of my lab and the students working with me, but instead about helping build the success of other people in my academic community.

This is the kind of transition that is typical for senior scientists. However, the way this transition plays out for those of us in PUIs is very different than how it plays out in R1s and other doctoral-granting universities.

What’s the difference? Productivity is limited by the personnel at hand, and this effect become more and more pronounced for PIs at PUIs as they advance in their career. My N=1 of personal experience tells me this, but also, I do see this reflected in the complicated career arcs of peers and what we expect of others.

Take for example, the effect of becoming department chair or department head. When R1s designate someone to run a department, and especially if they are conducting an external search, they expect that this person will be providing leadership to the department and keep things running, while also at the same time they are expected and able to simultaneously run a productive research laboratory that continues to generate new findings and churn out product (=papers) at a very good rate.

By contrast, when you become chair at a PUI, it’s generally expected that this comes at the cost of your research. When you become chair, everybody expects you to take a major hit in the research department, and that’s what happens. If you do keep things going while you’re chair, that’s the result of a herculean effort, because being chair takes a lot of time. I don’t know anybody at a PUI who has become chair and thinks that the reassigned time they get for the job (in other words, reduced teaching load) genuinely compensates for the work expected of chairs if they’re doing the job well.

Why the difference? It’s the personnel. In teaching-focused institutions which are principally powered by undergraduates, the PI of the lab is the rate limiting step of the productivity. With or without Master’s students, it’s the PI who is grinding the gears to get every manuscript out the door at every stage of the process. I have some colleagues who are far, far better than myself at supporting their undergraduate students as they develop first-authored manuscripts, and I think one thing that’s clear to all of us is that it takes more effort from the PI to get most undergrad first-authored papers out the door than if we are first author. Which isn’t a reason to not do this, I’m just identifying the amount of time and effort involved.

If the PI of a research laboratory happens to be a department chair at a major research institution, there are probably multiple people in their laboratory who are expected to be first-authoring papers. (They also are more likely to have office staff to handle with some kinds of minutia of being chair that we are less likely to have in PUIs.) It still takes PI effort to do science, obviously, but if you have some doctoral candidates and postdocs involved, then the level of the productivity of the lab isn’t contingent on how much manuscript writing the PI does. The lab still produces a bunch of papers.

What this means is that as you advance into leadership positions as a PI at a teaching-focused institution, it’s common for publication rate to drop severely simply because there aren’t the people to write the manuscripts and you’ve lost the bandwidth (regardless of the drive) to get it done. But if you’re PI at a research institution, then your lab can keep cranking along while you’re doing admin and leadership stuff. Yes, I’m painting a coarse picture, and everybody’s got a different lived experience. But I think this is the general trend, eh?

Why am I writing this post? Because I’m in it. It’s been a couple years since I started running my university’s Office of Undergraduate Research full-time, in which I was doing all kinds of stuff not involving my research lab. And now I’ve moved on from that position to another thing that is taking up a lot of time. I still have a stack of manuscripts at various stages of completion that I’m scientifically thrilled about, that I think will be cool papers once they’re published, and the science is growing even more relevant as time goes by. But have I been submitting them? No. Because I’ve not managed my small amount of research time well and these projects don’t have personnel on them who are in a position to write these manuscripts. I kinda breaks my heart. But I don’t have any regrets because I feel the other work I’m doing is really impactful. Now it’s up to me to figure out how to juggle the other valuable things I’m doing with the science I have in the hopper. However, no matter how this goes down, I’ll not be submitting at the same rate I did ten years ago. Because I’m spending time doing things to help build the the scientific communities in ways that don’t really thicken my CV.

I’m very much an active research scientist, and I’m soon to be a senior scientist. In some ways, I do the stuff that senior scientists do. I have visibility as an expert, write external tenure letters, serve on editorial boards and grant panels, serve in leadership for professional organizations, give invited talks, I’ve written one book so far, and whatnot. But all of this stuff that comes with the senior status means that my lab isn’t producing as much product out the door, in a serious way. Does this diminish my eminence or value to the scientific community? Well, you get to decide that for yourself.

All this is fine. The only bummer for me is that because we are often valued by the quantity of science that gets published. While I’m not in this for that kind of validation, it’s not really pleasant to be doing great stuff but then have it undervalued. This is just part of the career arc, and I’m here not the bend the arc but to enjoy the ride and improve science and the lives of others along the way.

When people talk about what it’s like to work at a PUI, the conversation is often about what it’s like as an Assistant Professor. But this career path is often the length of an entire career, an if we have this conversation about what it means to work at a PUI, then the entire arc should be part of the conversation, right?

*I’m now working as the faculty director of the CSU Desert Studies Consortium, which means running an active field station and variety of other things. I’m on 100% reassigned time to this job, which puts me entirely out of the classroom 😢 and instead, deep in the business of field station education, research, infrastructure, and outreach.

7 thoughts on “Research productivity during mid-career and beyond

  1. Agree 100%, Terry. As an early career scientist, I was a little quick to shout “deadwood!” when I saw someone senior publishing a lot less than I was. Now I understand that they’re sometimes (not always!) doing a lot of less visible work that supports the community broadly. That’s especially true, as you say, at smaller institutions where being Chair doesn’t automatically get you a postdoc…

    • I absolutely love this program!

      (For those of us who are Full, it’s not for us, but it serves a need in the community to be sure)

  2. Are you only joking about grad school being part of “experience”? There’s no way 5 years post-PhD (or less if your PhD took longer) is mid-career.

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