Training vs. productivity. What’s your currency?


In a big lab, research gets done through the training of grad students and postdocs. The lab simultaneously fulfills its research mission and meets the “broader effect” agenda of developing the scientific workforce. Training and productivity are mutually compatible.

Granted, some PIs – often those that have the most effective training programs – do lots of independent work and their research happens separate from their students. Regardless, the training of students and the production of research aren’t in conflict.

Theoretically, this statement applies to labs in teaching schools. However, it’s not necessarily the case in practice.

I suspect science faculty – at least senior faculty at teaching schools – can be sorted into three pools:

  • Those who think that their main research responsibility is to mentor student researchers and provide them with high quality experiences to further their careers. The publication of research is an important and useful product of the research experience.
  • Those who think that their main research responsibility is to conduct and publish research and be a part of the scientific community. The mentorship of students and their future success as scientists is an important and useful product of the research experience.
  • Those who think that research distracts from quality teaching. If you can find the time for it, that’s okay as long as it doesn’t harm the students.

Is this an overgeneralization? It might be.

In an attempt to pin a theory on this (overgeneralized) concept, perhaps these perspectives form the axes of a triangular continuum (in ecology, like CSR theory or Holdrige life zones), “productivity,” “training” and “emphasis on the classroom.”

When new faculty start their jobs, maybe they start near the middle of the continuum space, or wherever the departmental culture requires for tenure. As they gain experience and a string of successes and failures of various kinds, they may gravitate to one of the corners. (I should add that an emphasis on training, research, or the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is better at that particular thing. For example, someone who says that student training is paramount might not necessarily serve their students well.)

Another theoretical framework could be taken from optimal foraging theory. Faculty members can have different currencies for their decisions. For example, when a bird is foraging, is it trying to collect the highest energy food, or trying to collect the most nutrients? Or is it trying to maximize net energy gain (and thus balance food collection with calories spent foraging)? Or is it trying to minimize predation risk? These are all different possible currencies that an  individual could select when making decisions.

Faculty members have different currencies when pursuing their research agenda. Some will seek to maximize grant money or publications, others will seek to increase the quality of student training, or the number of students heading to graduate school. Some will be seeking to maximize scientific discovery, and others are trying to have the most fun possible. Some might be trying to maximize their free time to go play with their pets.

With respect to how research happens in the lab, I think there are two common currencies that undergraduate faculty mentors choose: One is Research Productivity (a composite of publication quantity and quality) and the other is Student Training (a composite of the number of trained students and their entry into top labs in grad school).

The choice of this currency isn’t made because people love productivity or student outcomes per se. Instead, they may love the exhilaration of research and all that it entails (in my case, ants in the rainforest and all their amazing little quirks), and they may love working with their students on a day to day basis and watching them grow and succeed (which cam be spectacular in a way that words fail to describe).

To put it a different way: do you want to do research for the sake of doing the research and all that it entails, or are you doing it as an avenue for training students to be an effective educator and improve student outcomes? These two priorities, of course, are mutually compatible. However, when making decisions on a day to day basis, what is your currency?

Both perspectives, in my view, are valid and useful for the missions of most schools. I posit that a department might work best when it has faculty with diversity of currencies, with mutual respect of each others’ differing choices. A successful department might not require maximal diversity, but needs at least adequate representation of the major functional roles. When you don’t have that functional diversity in a department, things don’t work as well.

To illustrate this principle, here’s a story, slightly modified to protect the innocent: At a field station, I once shared a bottle of rum with a colleague. (This has happened plenty, but only once did it lead to this particular story from at least 10 years ago.) He was mostly a research-for-research’s sake kind of guy, and he was working in a small college in which others focused on research as a vehicle for student training. He would have to have been a top-notch scholar on his campus, I imagine. He told me how he had trouble getting promoted to full professor, because his department didn’t approve of how he conducted his research program. He eventually received promotion, accompanied with a reprimand. Apparently, he needed to involve more students in his research. The odd thing is that he actually did include students in his research, quite a bit.

This probably seems like an odd story if you haven’t taught in a teaching institution. Similar toxic situations can evolve when newly hired research-active faculty may raise the bar on unproductive faculty, or in a department focused heavily on productivity, and some scientists take care to mentor a small number of students with lots of attention, at the cost of productivity. (And, of course, at research institutions, departments focused on productivity don’t appreciate faculty who want to focus more heavily on classroom teaching.)

Behavioral ecologists have found that animals may switch currencies, depending on the environmental context.

In a low research environment such as my campus, resources cannot be acquired without a moderate to high level of productivity. Frankly, since my campus doesn’t provide me with the resources (time, space, funds) to do any student research training whatsoever, it would be very difficult to accomplish this task unless it’s built on a backbone of productivity. Moreover, successes in student training are not specifically valued or rewarded by the institution (even if it is an explicitly stated priority), whereas bringing in grants is given high priority. So, I don’t have the option to focus primarily on student training, because if I did that too much, I would not have resources to support my students. Though I’m at an undergraduate institution, I need to run my lab like at a big university if I am to get anything done, because we don’t have any other way to support our students.

My own currency, then, is productivity, though this does seem to maximize student training, at least in my current low-resource environment. In an environment where faculty are provided resources to mentor student researchers (time for mentorship, modest supply funds, and a stipend or salary for student research), then a currency switch might make sense. This might explain why small liberal arts schools are known for placing so many students into top graduate programs, not just in relative frequency but in absolute numbers. There, an emphasis on a high quality research experience might serve the students best.

Perhaps the best environment for a budding undergraduate researcher is to be mentored by a graduate student in a big research lab. You will have access to fancy resources and that important pedigree, plus quality time with someone more experienced than you, and lots of feedback and an opportunity to learn. (So far, two of my former undergraduate mentees have moved on to faculty positions at universities, both of whom coauthored a piece of my dissertation. That’s a stronger record than with I’ve had since becoming a professor whose job it has been to mentor undergraduates.)

Perhaps NSF and NIH should include salary for an undergraduate mentee for every graduate student on a project? That might be the best, and a very cheap, way to make more scientists.

Calling in The Wolf


Part of being a scientist is being so excited that you bite off more than you can chew. You’re busy working on a current project, but there’s another that needs one more analysis, or the grant just needs some polish – or the right preliminary data. Maybe you’ve got a great find but you can’t find the hook to sell it. Sometimes, a project is 98% done. And that 2% is a huge stumbling block, especially when it’s something not yet in your expertise.

If you don’t have a postdoc at hand, you’ve got two choices. A: Let it linger, until you find the spare time, momentum or resources to get that done at some undefined point in the future. B: Call in The Wolf.

Faculty at teaching schools are isolated. You can’t drop by a neighboring department, or look down the hallway, to see if someone might want to join you on an endeavor. There just isn’t anybody there who can help you. If you’re not finishing it after, say, several months of lingering, then call in the finisher who’ll get the job done. Somewhere, out there, exists a person who can deliver what you need, and would benefit from delivering it for you. You need to call in The Wolf.

A finished project is better than any unfinished project. If I’ve done a project, I want it to be done. The “done” part of the prior sentence takes precedence over the “I” part. My guideline is: if bringing someone in will get it done, wonderful! The more the merrier!  While projects overweighted with personnel are hard to manage, it’s a mistake to let a project grow stale for lack of attention.

There are people out there that would give up a couple days of their time, to become coauthor on a paper or a collaborator on a (very promising) grant. Even if you just contact them out of the blue. (As long as your website/CV vouches that you’re bona fide.)

So, this is all well and good, but you make it sound so easy! But how do you get The Wolf’s number? People are so busy, who has the talent and wants to take on more work? There are a few avenues. They all rely on your professional network.

There are a few subspecies of Wolf:

  • Canis lupus parvus: Someone at a teaching institution with the appropriate skill set. You bring them in because the final 2% is easier for them than it is for you. (Because we are isolated at teaching institutions, we may rely on collaborations, as long as they fit our strengths.) Be careful to not mistake this subspecies for a similar one, C. lupus tarduswhich is tied up with teaching and will not be able to meet deadlines.
  • Canis lupus taucetiensis: A grad student or postdoc, who is hungry to get on an additional paper. Hungry like the Wolf.
  • Canis lupus canescens: The PI who is the world expert on the thing you need. If you look up this PI, whether you know her or not, she can presumably knock out the task in no time. Even if you’re small potatoes, you might get referred to someone from the lab.

If I’ve needed a little something to get a project done, I’ve found that reaching out to new people has always been helpful. If the person I’m contacting isn’t available, interested or prepared to do it, then they inevitably refer me to the right person. Just be sure to explain up front what you propose, and clearly specify, timeframe, authorship, funding, and so on.


Undergraduate first authorship?


When undergraduates are conducting their own research projects in your lab, should first authorship be one of the main goals of mentorship?

This isn’t common, but it happens. (I’ve met several such undergrads at conferences.) If you work in a research institution, the event would be fun thing to lightly celebrate.

At teaching schools, this would be ultimate evidence of a top-notch operation. It probably would look better for your undergrad to be first author than to be sole author yourself, or better than having several undergrads as coauthors. It could potentially seal the deal on the scholarship expectations for tenure or promotion, especially in an institution that only expects one or a few papers before tenure. Off campus it wouldn’t look like much, but on campus it would be a big frickin’ deal.

Here is the rub: It takes much more of the mentor’s time for the student to be first author than if the mentor just wrote the paper on one’s own. It requires frequent individual meetings, revision of draft after draft, lots of advising about literature review, reading and placing the work in context. Even if the mentor does the final analyses and results and makes the figures (which wouldn’t preclude first authorship in my view), the rest of it is probably a long slog, even if the student is talented and motivated. Some manuscripts are long slogs even without undergrads doing the writing. It could be a joyful process, but simultaneously time-intensive.

I’ve never known an undergraduate to expect first authorship unless the mentor is the one who generates, and reiterates, the expectation. I regularly express this expectation among my students who clearly own their projects. I create a specific set of tiered expectations, first with lots of reading, then generating a set of specific questions for the manuscript and an introduction leading towards it.  Then, well, then… umm…. I’ve never gotten any further than that.

I admittedly set the initial bar high. It takes persistence for anybody to write their first manuscript, especially as an undergrad. I don’t want to have the process drag on for months and years only for a student to drop the ball. So, if the student is up to the first task with gusto, then we proceed. This limits an unnecessary investment.

I would love it if one of my students wrote their own paper and became first author. I’d be over the moon. (I think it might actually be happening this semester for the first time, though I’ve said this before.) Some students are too busy and consistently fail to meet deadlines, and various deadline extensions. Others change their priorities. Others have moved on to grad school and their PIs think they should leave the manuscript behind. Some students might decide that it’s ready, even though it’s not, then get frustrated and give up.

Most of my students don’t even get past the first filter. They stall at the first stack of reprints and come unprepared to discuss them. Clearly, if student authorship is my main goal, I could provide even more care and feeding to students, with more and smaller tiers of expectations. I could be doing the job better.

My first priority when supervising research is to make sure that the work gets finished and published. Because my lab relies on students to generate most of the data, we can’t afford to have students spinning their wheels on projects that result in half-completed projects or data that can’t be used. I’m the only one in the operation who is equipped to ship a manuscript out the door on schedule. I’m also equipped to mentor students through the process of doing it themselves, but this would take more resources and limit productivity.

I want my students to benefit the most they possibly can from being in my lab. In my view, that benefit isn’t the the opportunity to write their own paper. It’s being an actual co-author on an actual paper that comes to press. I could carefully mentor, cajole, coddle and push, and get students to write papers once in a long while. Or I could write a bunch more myself. Without much conscious thought into the process, I’ve fallen into the latter approach.

Perhaps it’s crass to say that I favor creating a productive lab over careful individual mentorship of students leading their own projects to publication. At some liberal arts schools, that’s heresy. However, what I really want to offer students is the opportunity of being in a successful lab, and the fact that I’m writing most of the manuscripts lets this happen. If I didn’t write up student projects, then productivity would take a bit hit. Nobody has suggested that this approach is exploitative of students, and given standard criteria that people apply to authorship, I’m relatively generous with students.

Ultimately, I think my approach offers a much greater benefit to students, and to a greater number of students as well. If my success is measured by the professional trajectories of my students, then I’ve been doing just fine.

Research labs, even in teaching institutions, need outside validation. Outside the microcosm of my campus, nobody gives a hoot about student outcomes. Even NSF cares much more about pubs than the quality of student training (but that’s another post of its own).

Have you had an undergrad write their own paper? Have you been tempted to slap their name as first author even if they haven’t? How do you measure your success as a mentor? Does tenure change the approach? How does departmental climate matter?

The importance of lacking necessary equipment


It’s frustrating to to be hampered by inadequate facilities.

My university is severely underequipped. We have a Bioinstrumentation course featuring mostly broken and outdated equipment. Our EM has cobwebs. I can’t weigh to milligram accuracy. Until last year, only one person could use our autoclave because he knew the special trick (how to not kill yourself). The GC-MS has a useless detector, and HPLC is out of the question. The DI lines are not to be trusted, and a recent triumph was to convince physical plant to not shut down the vacuum lines over the evenings and weekends. (My rainforest field site is better equipped and staffed by an order of magnitude.)

My last university, which I left six years ago, had everything I could want, and plenty more – bomb calorimetry, confocals, automontage, and the machine that goes bing.

So why did my research productivity quadruple (or so) since I arrived at broken-down-equipmentville? It’s a causal relationship.

When I was in Equipment Heaven, I designed experiments that fit my most pressing questions. They involved cuticular hydrocarbons, image analysis, microsats, isotopes, nutrients, volatile odor bioassays and headspace analysis. And none of them worked. Either I didn’t have enough experience to make it work on my own, or my relationship with the expert connected to the machine didn’t work. The chemists at Equipment Heaven were great, but didn’t give a hoot about my biological question, and they had their own students, classes and projects on the front burner. What good is the fanciest GC-MS in the world if you can’t get a chemist to troubleshoot with you? I spent a lot of time at the fancy university spinning my wheels but getting nowhere.

After I moved to a place without working equipment, I needed access. But instead of finding machines, I sought out people. I’d find the best person to fit the project. “Hi, you don’t know me, but here is a cool project. It’s about ants that live in outer space and eat moondust. Doesn’t that sound cool? Want to work with me on this?” I was surprised how easy it was to find collaborators. People want to say yes to something fun. If the machine is next door, it seems easy enough to do it yourself. But it’s better to pack it in a box, and send that box to someone who’ll do it for you and then write part of the manuscript. Some of my best collaborators have been grad students and postdocs. Their PIs are generally happy to see them get extra papers and have them build their own networks.

I’m getting more done without any equipment now, because I have no limits. If I want to do a project, I just need to find the right people. My students are getting a more genuine taste about how science happens, too.

Work on the grant or the manuscript?


You need papers to get a grant, but how do you get the data for manuscripts without grant funding?

I don’t have this dilemma anymore, as I have enough interesting data to stun a subadult moose. But I still have to decide how to allocate my time between grants and manuscripts. I’m referring to the nuggets of time when I’m not teaching and advising.

Based on what I have in progress, I think I can get two, maybe three, papers out before the summer field season, if I suspend grantwriting ambitions until the fall (when I have a brand new set of exciting data from the summer). I have one grant pending, and I’m co-PI on another going out in a month or so. So I do have an iron in the fire, though I don’t know if the fire is hot enough to press my shirts when I remove it (that is what you do with the irons in the fire, right?).

I would much rather submit a paper than submit a grant, but I would much rather a grant gets funded than a paper get accepted. On a related note, a couple years ago I went to a Nick Hornby book signing. He was asked about the differences between novels and screenplays for movies. He said he was done with writing screenplays, because of the frustration tied to wasted effort. He estimated that a contracted screenplay makes it to production about 10% of the time. He mentioned that he finished a screenplay for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius  [loud gasps of delight fill the spacious room], and that he was convinced it would never make it to production [widespread groans of despair]. I imagine it would have been a gorgeous movie.

I feel about grantwriting like Nick Hornby feels about screenwriting. However, Nick Hornby will continue to ply his trade as novelist without writing screenplays. Without grants, my trade as a tropical field biologist will promptly wither. I’m not paying postdocs or grad students, but I do have to get myself down there along with some students. My hard drive has a number of finished grants which will never get funded. But the list of finished but never-to-be-published manuscripts is incredibly short.

So I’ll be working on the manuscript because I’m just more excited about the fact that it will come to completion and find its audience. All scientists go through cycles of grant writing, manuscript writing and data collection. I just don’t know what the optimal periodicity of each of those cycles should be to maximize productivity.