Attending conferences as a professor from a teaching institution

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We are hitting the peak season for conferences.

For those of us from teaching-centered schools, we have an extra challenge with conferences that can make the experience less pleasant.

At conferences, social status matters. Having your unknown or lesser-known teaching institution under your name on your ID badge can be a social obstacle.

Some people may disregard others on the DoodleBuddyiPadbasis of the institutions on their nametags. If your nametag says LargeR1 University on it, more people will talk to you than if your nametag lists a school that sounds like it lacks a substantial research community.

To some people at a research conference, if you work at a teaching institution, you matter less. I’m not saying this to be bitter or accusatory. I’m just recognizing the way things are and discussing it in daylight. It’s hard to deal with a problem if you don’t recognize it.

If you’re thinking about working at a teaching campus, then you should be aware that networking with other researchers who don’t know you from your work may be more difficult because of where you work. Also, people who do know you, when they realize that you’ve taken what they perceive to be a non-research job, might also treat you differently as well. Even though any faculty job is scarce nowadays, many researchers will feel sorry for people who they think settled for a job at a teaching institution.

Of course, the majority of people out there are wonderful and don’t have this bias. But it isn’t a rare bias, and it’s something that we need to understand so that we can deal with it.

Why do I think that the institution on your nametag influences perception? Well, I it’s obvious. You don’t have to be a sociologist to figure that out.

Moreover, before I moved to my current position I used to work for an equivalently obscure institution. However, this institution was named such that a good number of people, who were not very familiar with California, were apt to assume that I worked for a well-known university just up the road. Sometimes I clarified things, sometimes I let it ride. Regardless, the point is that since I moved to a campus that can’t be mistaken for a research university, I’ve seen changes in how people treat me based on my institution. I never realized I had it so good when people falsely assumed I was a professor at a research university.

People attend meetings for a variety of purposes. They go to learn about new things, to see old friends, to make new friends, to “network” and build collaborations, develop skills, find a job, and maybe tack on a vacation. I might have missed some reasons. (I don’t know when “network” transitioned from being a noun to being a verb, but I don’t like it.)

If you look at those purposes I just listed, I suspect you’ll find that some people might harbor this notion: Professors at teaching schools don’t help fulfill a number of these purposes.

If you have a teaching school on your nametag, some folks might think that you might not be worthwhile for schmoozing. I’ve seen others, as well as myself, passed over for initial schmoozing not on the basis of what we work on, or how well we publish, or who we work with, but where we work. It’s rough, but I suspect that’s the way it is.

Why aren’t we schmoozable? Some might wrongly assume that we aren’t conducting cutting-edge research, so they can’t learn anything from us. It’s unlikely we’re going to hire postdocs, we aren’t taking on Ph.D. students, and some might falsely assume that we aren’t equipped with the facilities, time or expertise for collaboration.

Is that overly harsh? Probably. I’ve never entered into an interaction with the presumption that others are biased against me based on my institution, but I’ve had plenty of conversations in which that presumption of lack of bias has been promptly invalidated.

In all of the conferences I’ve attended, where have I felt the least welcome? The Ecological Society of America. It’s also typically the biggest of the meetings that I have attended, so it might not be discipline-specific. It’s not timed well to fit my summer research and travel schedule; I typically only make the time if I’m invited to give a talk in a particular symposium. Regardless, it’s clear that some ecologists, at least at this meeting, are big on status. I’ve been around long enough that I know plenty of people who attend the meeting, from a variety of contexts. The last few times, I’ve had great fun and have been compelled to turn down as many social invitations as I am offered. However, it’s still quite transparent that I get overlooked by some people because of where I work. Perhaps it’s even worse at meetings like the Neuro conference, or with the Sophophora Drosophila people, or the physiologists. I have no idea, as I don’t go to those meetings. Maybe professors at teaching colleges get the heavy schmoozing treatment at those meetings.

I don’t have any authoritative advice on how to handle the issue, but I wanted to bring the concept up, and I’m wondering how others perceive this issue. For those you at teaching campuses, does my experience and opinion seem too extreme or do you feel this issue too?

How I approach meetings with this issue in mind? I try to not make it an issue as much as possible. Nowadays, my work is known within some sub-subpopulations well enough that there are occasional people who are excited to meet me and hear what I have to say. So I’m not overly concerned about being wholly marginalized, anymore. I try to be gregarious, especially reaching out to grad students who might not yet feel at ease at meetings. It’s fun to introduce people with shared interests who don’t yet know one another. Most people are interesting if you get to know them, and so I try to get to know people.

This might by cheesy but I sometimes use “California State University” on my nametag as shortcut for my campus name. I don’t do this to hide my little-known campus, but to avoid the boring conversations about where I work. I’m just tired of answering questions about teaching while I’m at a research conference. I didn’t put much thought into the decision, but that’s also how listed my affiliation on the masthead of a journal that I help edit.

As it’s often argued, first impressions matter. For my own part, I mostly recall a string of horribly embarrassing first impressions that I must have left on others. Nowadays, I don’t want the first impression to be that I’m the guy at an obscure teaching college. At an academic conference, my impression should be that I do awesome research, and that I also have a lab filled with awesome students.

Am I worth schmoozing? Definitely. I have skills, access to resources, insights, connections and all that stuff. And, if you’re looking for doctoral students, I have the best damn students that you might ever hope to bring into your lab. Each meeting I’ve attended in the last few years, I’ve emerged with a few cool collaborations in the works.

Ultimately, those who think that I’m not worth their time aren’t worth my time. If my skin were less thick, I’d have a hard time at conferences. Also, working long-term at a field station where I’ve made friends from all over North America and beyond has helped. I would have a hard time at meetings if my network was just composed of old friends from grad school. I don’t go to meetings because I have to, but because it’s tremendous fun. (This season, I’ll be at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, in a joint meeting with the Organization for Tropical Studies. I’ve never not had fun among other tropical biologists.)

You might be thinking, maybe the level of respect/attention/schmoozing is entirely independent of institution, and just depends on how well known you are from publications other parts of your reputation? Clearly, if people directly know of your work, that might trump the institutional effect to some extent. However, if you’re meeting someone outside your subfield, with whom whose work you’re not familiar, then my hunch is that institution matters.

Anyway, if or when you bump into me at a meeting, I don’t fuss about whether or not I might get dissed. We are often busy trying to get from one room to another, trying to find old friends who we’ve promised to meet for coffee, and catch a person who we really need to see. I’m just there to have fun, learn about other people and their work, share the cool stuff I’ve been doing, be proud of my students, learn science and if the stars align I develop new collaborations. (Heck, mention you read this post and I’d be glad to buy you an overpriced convention center beer.)

If I’m not schmoozing people in high places, that might only be because I don’t need to do so. My job doesn’t require that I am known by, and work with, famous people. My work doesn’t want me to aspire to fame, because if I were successful, then they would guess that I’d leave. So meetings are just for fun in my book, as I’ve got no ladder to climb.

I suppose that, if I was stressed about getting a postdoc, or a tenure-track R1 job, or tenure, or promotion, or a fancier job or a big-time collaboration, that I’d overlook people like me too. So I don’t resent anybody for it. But I can address the situation by making it clear that I am worthwhile, not just as a nice guy but also as one who can be a great asset in our scientific endeavor.

Have you been on the receiving end of being ignored because you weren’t working in a research institution? Do you avoid meetings because they’re not as fun as they could be? Do you think my perception is off, or I am oversensitive? Do you think there are actual things that could ameliorate the issue (if it exists)?

Teaching universities as the farm league

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Many people seek faculty jobs at teaching universities even though they would prefer to work at a research university.

This isn’t unethical. A job is a job, and just because some people see a job as a calling or a sacred vocation, most people in the world are doing it for a paycheck above all else.

I have seen plenty of professors at teaching institutions look down upon their research-active colleagues in their institution, even though these researchers may be teaching quite well. (Of course, it’s even more common for some faculty at research institutions to look down upon, or feel sorry for, faculty at teaching institutions.)

Which is a more desirable job? Being a professor at a teaching-centered or a research-centered institution? What do objective measures say? There are two obvious ways to use numbers to answer this question. First, there is significantly more demand for the research faculty positions. Second, the salary of research faculty positions is appreciably higher than the salary of faculty at teaching institutions.

More people want research positions. Maybe they’re not more desirable, but they are more desired. (This makes sense, because the training required for a faculty position is all about research training and typically includes no training in teaching whatsoever.) A number of scientists who are excellent in all respects, but still don’t get a research position, might wind up taking a job at a teaching institution, even though they may continue to pursue their primary goal of being a faculty at a research institution. Is this wrong? No, it is not.

Nevertheless, because of the politics and emotions that people invest into their jobs, it is not socially acceptable at a teaching institution to communicate to others that your preferred job is at a research institution. This doesn’t require dishonesty, but it definitely means that you can’t be fully honest and you might have to be a little deceitful if this is your goal. You never want to say at your job that you want to eventually leave, after all, and this might even be true if you’re flipping burgers.

Though more people want jobs at research institutions, jobs at teaching schools are still mighty hard to land. Given this keen competition, and the huge differences between what happens on a research campus and a teaching campus, teaching institutions get to have their pick of candidates and have the latitude to pick out job candidates who, more than anything else, want to be at a teaching university. Ideally, a campus wants to hire someone who isn’t immediately looking to leave. So, teaching campuses prefer to hire people who are dedicated to working on teaching campuses.

That is, if search committees can identify who those people are. Good luck with that.

Faculty who want a research position seeking a job at teaching institution, if they are to be successful, need to mimic the true believers who are passionately interested in spending their careers (if not their lives) at teaching institutions.

To put this in context, let me offer a one-paragraph lesson in mimicry. In biology, we recognize a few kinds of mimicry. Batesian mimics falsely adopt the signal of another organism that honestly signals its status. (The classic example is a viceroy butterfly, which isn’t filled with toxic cardiac glycosides, but it looks a lot like a monarch butterfly, which picks up toxins from feeding on milkweeds as caterpillars.) In contrast, Müllerian mimics are only distantly related to one another but they have evolved a set of characteristics to honestly communicate their defenses. (The classic example is a set of mimicry complexes among Heliconius butterflies). Another kind are aggressive mimics, which could be predators that resemble their prey (such as jumping spiders that often look like their ant prey) or a caterpillar with a pattern that looks like the head of a viper, or a moth that looks like the face of an owl.

So, when scientists who want research positions choose to apply for teaching positions, what kind of mimic are they? It varies.

They could be Batesian mimics, which essentially are parasites on the system and reduce the effectiveness of the honest signal of the organisms that they mimic. These mimics don’t want to teach much at all, aren’t interested in developing that skill, and calculate the amount of effort they have to put in to just keep their job as long as necessary. They want to maintain this mimicry signal, and the quality of mimicry varies. They do hedge bets and are interested in being perceived as teaching-focused just in case they aren’t successful at moving on.

Aggressive mimics of teaching faculty actively reveal their colors as soon as they’re hired. These people are toxic and everyone identifies the mistake right away. Including the person who took the job. Let’s forget about these, because they’re both rare and annoying people in general.

There are Müllerian mimic professors, too. These are those that would prefer a job at a research university but they are also mighty pleased with a teaching institution too. They are showing their true colors when they say that they are dedicated to the teaching mission of the institution. They do belong, and they look like the dedicated faculty of the university because, in fact, they are.

What is the relative proportion of the Müllerian and Batesian mimic varieties? Or, in other words, how many professors in teaching positions who want to move on to research positions are actually dedicated to doing a great job at their current institution?

I don’t know the answer to that question.

Here’s a question to which I do know the answer: Among the faculty who move on to research positions, how many of them were dedicated to doing a great job at the teaching institution before they left?

That’s an easy one. In all of my experience, these people were wholly dedicated to their teaching jobs and before they left, they were recognized locally on their campus as spectacular in all respects before leaving.

I’ve worked with and known a goodly number of people who have moved on from teaching jobs to research institutions (and there are a number of commenters on the site who fall that pool, some of whom I know well and some I don’t). In every case of which I’m aware, the departure of that faculty member was a great loss.

These great losses were not the departures of the research programs, but because of excellence in teaching, collegial performance of service, and contribution to the institution as a whole. The departure of these people was seen as an inevitable “moving up” to bigger and better things. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, but nonetheless people were uniformly happy for them. We all recognize that when dealing with employers, you need to look out for yourself above all else, as only you can be counted on to make choices in your own best interest, even if you have dedicated your career and then some to a specific institution.

I imagine these professors who moved “up” to research jobs may have always wanted such a position, and they essentially published their way out of their teaching position. That’s the standard interpretation. However, if you choose that route, then my experience indicates that you can’t just publish your way out. You have to do it while earning the respect and admiration of your colleagues. (This is something that can’t be done by faking it. There are people on my campus who are faking it, and it’s pretty obvious.) You have to be dedicated and do a good job and have the interests of your students and your institution in mind. All of these people who I know that have made the move have been tremendously nice people above all other identifying characteristics.

This much is clear: most faculty don’t move to a research institution once they start a teaching position. What happens to these people who don’t move, over the course of their careers? Here are a variety of possibilities:

  • Love teaching and accomplish lots of great research too
  • Love teaching and lose the passion for research
  • Teach badly, focus on research and be miserable
  • Hate teaching, give up on research, and be bitter
  • Be ambivalent and focus on doing the minimum
  • Be mediocre with delusions of grandeur
  • Move into administration
  • Don’t get tenure, and find a job outside academia

I’ve seen all of the above, and there are probably varieties I’m missing.

Where do I fall into this pool? I’m not in this group – I deliberately looked for a teaching-centered position from the outset, even though my initial motivation in taking a job at a teaching institution wasn’t well informed.

Since I am doing a decent amount of research at a teaching institution, is a research university a preferred job? I don’t think so. I don’t think I have a single ideal job. I do really want to go to a university where I can do more research and where it is valued, but there are lots of teaching-centered institutions that fit that label. I evolve over time, and my attitude towards research and teaching are very different from when I started out.

I’m mostly satisfied in a teaching institution, and I don’t think I’d be more satisfied at a research institution. Nevertheless, I would consider a good move. There are a few crippling aspects of my current position that I would hope to ameliorate. First, I’d like to be in a department that is adequately staffed to support its own students; I am feeling increasingly guilty for complicity in an organization that is undermining it own mission. As a small example, it’s unfair to our students (as well as myself) that every professor in my department has >100 advisees every semester. Second, our campus research infrastructure is experiencing continued neglect, and the people in charge of promoting research on campus aren’t focused on what matters. (Last, and this isn’t a small thing, I would be nice to be paid market rate.) I’d have to be sure that a job I move into wouldn’t have other hidden problems that are worse than these ones, of course.

If I do move, then I wouldn’t see it as “moving up” even if others at my university would see it that way. Most of my job is working with students, in the classroom, in the lab doing research, and in the field. That would happen wherever I go, and since I’ve been in my current job I’ve been blessed with a string of incomprehensively wonderful students. Every time I bring students to my field station in Costa Rica, my colleagues here uniformly remark, “you always have the best students.” And I agree with them. I’ve been blessed, and I doubt that blessing could transfer to a different institution.

Ultimately, in my book, the desirability of the job is in how much I enjoy each day, on a day to day basis. It doesn’t matter too much if it’s a teaching or research institution. This is regulated by the collegiality and professionalism of my colleagues and the opportunities that are seized by my students.

If you enjoy both research and the teaching, a true move “up” wouldn’t be about the relative emphasis on research or teaching, but the overall capacity to do both well.

The relationships among fame, impact and research quality

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I just read a particularly interesting post by Dr. Becca about life about halfway through the tenure track that got me thinking, particularly one section:

I feel like most of my job right now is to be famous… What I mean by this is that I’m pretty sure a lot of my future success is going to depend on whether people remember my name when they review my grant applications and manuscripts…

What determines your success? How famous you are.

Most famous scientists have a history of excellent research with high impact. And most researchers with a history of excellent research with high impact are famous. (Fame, that is, among scientists.) However, the r2 on this relationship is well below 1. What explains the variance?

What are the factors that makes you more famous, or less famous, than would be merited by your research quality?

Is the impact of your research — how much it influences the work others — closely tied to your fame or are there people who have a high impact but not well recognized – or people who are quite famous but don’t have much impact?

Fame path diagram

A working hypothesis for the relationships among aspects of a scientist’s research program

I posit the figure above only as a suggestion, a working hypothesis that I’m not wholly wedded to. It’s a good template for discussion.

The ceiling of the impact of your research is dictated by how famous you are. Your impact could be (very) crudely measured using impact factor, or by an h-score or some other measure of citations. How much of a difference you make. You might get cited a few times if nobody has heard of you, but essentially you need to be known for your work to make a splash. You can only make a difference if people know who you are, which is exactly the point that Dr. Becca made. Your job, if it is to make scientific progress, is to become famous. Because you can only make a difference if you’re famous.

If asked to name two huge advances in biology from mid-1800s, most of us would pick the same things. One came from a person working in obscurity and another by one who was, among scientists of the day, mighty famous and was in regular communication with other famous scientists. Darwin’s scientific impact was immediate. Mendel’s finding required the fame of Hugo de Vries to create a scientific impact more than thirty years later.

There are many things that contribute to fame. One of these is research quality, but also the institution you came from, your academic pedigree, attractiveness, personality, and also your ethnicity and gender can have an effect.

What’s another thing plays a key role in facilitating, or limiting, your fame? The institution where you work. If you’re not based out of a research institution, there is a hard cap on how famous that you’re allowed to become as a research scientist. However, if you’re at a teaching institution, the school doesn’t really want you to be a research scientist of any fame, anyway. Fame isn’t part of the evaluation process for tenure, and you could be entirely unknown off campus and this shouldn’t (necessarily) negatively reflect your tenure bid. This would be fatal at a research institution, where you’re expected to establish a visible profile in the research community.

Our jobs at teaching campuses do not expect us to be famous and do not require it. This might be a defining contrast between a teaching campus and a research campus. However, there are lots of us in teaching institutions that not only are doing consequential research, but also want this research to have as much impact as it possibly can. However, based on the name of the institution found on our nametag when we present at conferences, this becomes very difficult.

There’s a positive feedback loop connecting one’s pedigree, social network, publication history, favorable reviews of grants and proposals, funding, talent of collaborators and fame. They’re all connected to one another. And if you’re at a teaching campus, you’re at a strategic disadvantage because those positive feedback loops don’t work as tightly.

Leveraging your pedigree, papers, and collaborations is harder to do, because of unacknowledged biases against teaching campuses in the research community. You can’t be famous above a certain level, because those at research institutions assume that you aren’t working at one because you can’t get a job at one. If you’re doing research from a teaching institution, that means that you haven’t had enough success to work at a teaching institution. So the thinking goes. Even in the incredibly tight job market, that line of thinking still prevails. You’re skeptical? Pull up a few journals and look at the mastheads, to find the institutions of the editorial board members and the subject editors.

So, unlike Dr. Becca and those at research institutions, my job isn’t to become famous. Even if I was famous, nobody on campus would even be aware of it anyway. However, if I have ambitions for my research to make a difference, then I need to become famous. This fame is required to activate the positive feedbacks among friendly reviews, funding, invitations, collaborations, and so on.

What it takes to get tenure: ambiguity of the teaching criterion

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Getting tenure at a teaching university might be harder than getting tenure at a research institution.

If you don’t like that concept, then try this similar concept on: what you need to do to get tenure at a teaching-centered institution is far more ambiguous than what you need to do at a research university. One could argue that it’s easier to get tenure if you know specifically what you need to do. At most teaching schools, exactly what you need to do to get tenure is vague at best.

In one, you need to convince the faculty and administration of a teaching university that you are excellent at teaching. In the other, you need to convince the faculty and administration of a research university that you are excellent at research.

At research institutions, when you interview for a job, it is typically spelled out exactly what you need to do to get tenure: grants, publications, and train doctoral students. At most places, you’re given a neighborhood of a dollar amount, or a certain set of grant agencies and number of grants you need, and a number of publications in journals with a certain tier, as first and senior author. There may be some subtleties, but when you’re coming up for tenure, it’s clear based on the numbers whether you’re approaching that threshold, and you should be well aware if you are shy of the mark or have well exceeded it. If you’re marginal, then you know that you’re marginal.

The notion that teaching counts in hiring and tenure decisions at research universities is a sham, as recently pointed out by Alex Bond at The Lab and Field. If you’re at a research institution, being a horrible teacher won’t hurt your chances at tenure and being a fantabulous teacher won’t help your bid for tenure. (If you are unliked or extremely popular, however, and your case is marginal, then teaching performance could be inserted as a surrogate variable to help swing the review one way or another.)

At teaching institutions, the story is entirely different.

At your on-site job interview, I wish you luck trying to get a wholly quantitative description about what it takes to get tenure. Typically, you need to be “excellent” at teaching, and “excellent” at either research or service, and mighty good at the third. I think that’s the answer I got at every single one of the 10 or so teaching campuses where I’ve interviewed over the years.

You know how teaching doesn’t matter at research schools? Well, the converse isn’t entirely true. Research does matter at teaching schools, though there may be a lot of flexibility about what counts as research. At lower-ranked institutions, “research” might not necessarily involve publications or external funding, if you really like someone’s teaching. It could just involve keeping students busy in your lab outside of the curriculum and having some of them get into grad school.

Some teaching campuses put specific numbers on publications, which in my experience has ranged between 0-6, with no real specification of impact factor. The expected publication rate before tenure is negatively associated with teaching load, but this relationship has only a moderate correlation. Most places expect you to submit a grant but aren’t horribly put out if you aren’t funded. The research criterion is pretty clear-cut at teaching campuses, and there is also fudge room because it’s not the primary criterion.

Then, what constitutes excellent teaching? Most campuses go with a Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart kind of definition.

Knowing excellent teaching when you see it isn’t a good way to decide whether someone gets tenure, is it?

How do most people judge excellent teaching, when they are required to make such a judgment? A student of human nature would suggest that it is identified by how much it resembles the practices of the observer. I’ve never met a full professor who didn’t have a moderately high opinion of their own teaching. And we’ve all met plenty of full professors who couldn’t teach their way out of a bag. This does not bode well for effective tenure decisionmaking. (By the way, is the Bush neologism ‘decider’ now a replacement for ‘decision-maker’?)

In practice, there are many factors that are included in the quantitative and qualitative measures of teaching performance at a teaching campus.

The drawback to all of these quantitative and qualitative measures is that they all suck, or at least have poor resolution.

Let’s go over them one at a time. Keep in mind that no school uses all of these measures in concert.

Teaching evaluation forms There is a whole subfield in education research on this topic, and I’m not going to let this site devolve into a bitch session about teaching evaluations. Really horrible instructors get horrible eval scores, and amazingly perfect instructors get high scores. What happens for most of us, the professors in the middle — ranging between not-so-good and run-of-the-mill excellent — is really murky.

At my university the forms are called PTEs: Perceived Teaching Effectiveness evaluations. The key word here is “perceived.” Are students good at knowing whether their instructor is effective? Often, yes. However, there are a huge number of systematic biases that go along with these forms, suggesting that we need to avoid using the numbers in a comparative fashion. Upper division courses have higher scores than lower division courses, which have higher scores than non-majors courses. This might be independent of teaching effectiveness. There are age and gender biases that affect student perceptions of effectiveness, and associations between the grades received by the students and the perceived effectiveness of the instructor are not necessarily causative. How you dress in the first weeks of class can really matter, too. From discipline to discipline, mean evaluation scores are quite variable. If you want to measure improvement in the same course, with the same professor, with the same student demographic (including time of day the course is taught), then this might be a good measure, at a coarse resolution.

If your tenure case is being evaluated at the level of the college or the university, and your scores are being compared against colleagues in other disciplines, or who teach different kinds of courses, that isn’t fair. I don’t know of a campus that specifies a specific threshold score for evaluations (at least officially), and that is a good thing. However, unofficially some campuses or committees are expecting scores to be above a certain level. If that’s the case, then faculty need to learn the little tricks to make sure they don’t do things that cause students to lower their scores. (That’s a whole other set of posts.)

Written remarks by students The voluntary responses by students on evaluation forms are potentially telling. Students can offer specific and useful praise, and also tell damning stories that very clearly can explain instructor performance. Recurring similar comments by multiple students are particularly valuable. However, most student responses are idiosyncratic and it’s very difficult to distinguish between a student with a legitimate grievance and one who is bitter about their own performance.

Classroom observations Faculty members in the department may be requested or required to sit in on a certain number of hours or lessons before offering a recommendation. These observations are effective so long as the observer is capable of identifying effective instruction. This is heavily subjected to the biases of the observer, especially as scientists typically have no training in teaching methods. For example, when I was a junior faculty member, I made sure to implement the methods of active learning in science instruction that I learned as a graduate student in the College Teaching Certification program and as a Preparing Future Faculty fellow. So what happened when I was observed by my senior departmental colleagues sizing me up for tenure? I’ll always remember this, word for word: “You need to be less Socratic and lecture more. You should be using powerpoint and use more detailed information.” Never mind the fact that all of the current research on science education told me to do the opposite of what they said. After all, these professors were the ones evaluating my tenure file. So, when they were in my classroom, I had to lecture, even though I knew this was an ineffective approach.

How could classroom observations be effective? The people doing the observing could know what they hell they are doing and could be well trained in evaluating effective teaching. This happens in public schools. In the state of California, to be come a fully credentialed K-12 teacher you need to go through an evaluative induction process, the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA, pronounced “bitsa.”) To be a BTSA evaluator, you need to be trained to observe and score the performance of teachers, and this training process involves a calibration of standards and a long list of specific criteria. One BTSA evaluator observing one set of instruction comes up with a score very similar to any other BTSA evaluator; that’s the way the system is built.

What about teaching-centered universities, how do senior faculty do their observations? They show up, if they care to spare the time, and they then may fill out a cursory form if one exists, and then include whatever observations they choose to include or not in their letters. I can’t think of an evaluation that is more subjective nor disconnected from whatever objective measure that could exist. (I’m not saying that I’m any less guilty than anybody else, mind you. Of course, most faculty would be peeved at the notion that they need to be trained to recognize good teaching.) Regardless, in some teaching schools, classroom observations aren’t a required or even optional component of the tenure portfolio. Oftentimes, the only thing that tenure committees know specifically about what happens in the classroom is by hearsay from students.

I was impressed that once, my all-time favorite dean chose to sit in on my classroom for half an hour, and when he wrote the letter for my file he referenced specifics from what he saw in my classroom. He didn’t do this for lack of being busy, and I appreciate the time he spent in directly evaluating me.

Assessment data Perhaps we could look at student performance using assessment data, looking at student knowledge before and after individuals pass through your course. These kind of assessment data aren’t common, and anyway, most science faculty are in full rebellion against regional accreditation agencies that are requiring assessment in curriculum design, and using assessment data like this could actually annoy some faculty members who might think that you’ve gone over to the dark side of assessment. I suppose you could use these numbers but just not call it assessment and maybe get away with it.

Student letters I think few campuses do this, but it happens in my undergraduate institution. I was asked by my college to write letters of evaluation for faculty members in whose courses I was enrolled. The college requests letters from some students who are listed by the faculty member, and also randomly (or perhaps haphazardly) selects other students from rosters of recent courses. I imagine that these letters would be a lot more informative than whatever would be in student evaluations. They do this for both tenure and promotion to full professor.

Hearsay It is stunning how students are willing to discuss my colleagues in front of me, as long as I’m not involved in the conversation. Just the other day, I was in my lab sorting ants, and some of my research students were going on and on in great detail about an instructor in our department, who is a close colleague of mine. There was a mix of criticism and praise. They were talking like movie reviewers or restaurant critics. I wasn’t involved in the conversation, but I was sitting easily within ear’s reach where they were saying all kinds of things about my colleague that they would never say directly to this person. This kind of overheard conversation happens all the time, especially if you’re teaching lab sections. It’s unprofessional of the students to do this in front of other professors, but I guess they’re not professional. I arguably have more indirect information about my colleagues’ teaching from this route than any other. If I believe most of what I hear, by the way, then most people in my department are incredibly awesome. Regardless, this isn’t a valid source of information for evaluating teaching performance, though I imagine that in some environments this is probably the source of information with the greatest sway.

External evaluations Research universities require external letters from experts in the subfield of the tenure candidate to evaluate their tenure file. So, teaching universities must get outside experts to evaluate the teaching of candidates in their subfields of expertise, right? Ha! That’s a good one!

What it takes to be “excellent” at teaching is being able to convince the other faculty in department that you fit that label. Faculty use a variety of information sources, including not not limited to the information above. Ultimately, the assessment is a holistic gestalt-based system. Kind of like how honey bee colonies use guard bees size up the pheromonal composition of bees landing at the nest to decide if they belong, academic departments work the same way. If you don’t fit in, then the guard bee will pounce on you.

The biggest way to not fit in is to not teach well.

However, another way is to teach well, but teach differently.

It’s often said that tenure is about “fit.” Some people say that’s vague: how do you define fit? It’s nothing that needs any special definition. Either you fit in or you don’t. Either you have the same values and the same approaches with respect to education, or you don’t.

This is why it’s sometimes hard to get tenure in a contentious department (read: snakepit) in a teaching institution. Even if you’re careful to not take sides in any weird departmental politics, everyone involved in the tenure process will be called upon to assess your teaching. This is going to involve a meeting where your teaching is discussed. If the department has divisions about teaching philosophy or approaches, this will emerge in the criteria used for evaluations. If one side really likes what you do and explains why, then the other side might end up in disagreement. This is not good. You can ameliorate this by how you sell your teaching approach in your tenure file. You don’t want to make the mistake of arguing that you have worked hard to find the most effective approaches to teaching and that your assessments show that students learn effectively. What you want to do is communicate that your teaching fits in with your department, and that you have worked collaboratively with your colleagues so that you have learned how to teach well from them. You don’t want to say anything that is overtly contrasting existing practice, because, ultimately, the people in charge of deciding whether your teaching is excellent will compare your work with the template of their own work. Just like guard honeybees that use their own smell to decide whether to reject outsiders.

Even if you have a history of demonstrating teaching excellence at a teaching institution, a fresh pair of eyes with a different perspective, or a different agenda, could look at the same record and come up with a credible argument that the record fails to demonstrate excellence. Without anything changing, the environment can shift so that what is perceived as “excellent” in one year might not be acceptable the next year.

This is different than research institutions, I think. It’s harder to argue against grant dollars and a list of publications on a CV. You could argue that the journals aren’t of a high enough impact or that the grants are from the wrong agency, but the research bar at a research institution is far, far more tangible than the teaching bar at a teaching institution.

I would guess that if you are unambiguously above the bar that’s been set for you for research productivity and funding, and you haven’t entirely botched something else, you should be golden. Even if there are academic disagreements about your work, if you’ve got the grants and published in the right journals, then that is likely to be fine. This is particularly the case if you’re at a unionized institution, in which the tenure process is more transparent than at an institution with an opaque process with secret information, because the faculty lack the power to make sure that the process is fair.

Of course, at nearly all universities, tenure rates are quite high, except for a few Ivies that have a de facto policy of hiring Assistant Professor positions as glorified 7-year postdocs. When people don’t get tenure, it might be because performance is not up to snuff, but it can also happen because the department is toxic or incompetent. Other crazy stuff can happen, too. Regardless, the lack of specific quantitative criteria in the teaching criterion create an element of hap into the process that makes it less predictable, which makes it a source for anxiety if not a source of difficulty.

In short, the amount of work it takes to be an excellent teacher doesn’t necessarily correspond to the amount of work you have to do to get tenure at a teaching institution. To do that, you (most likely) have to be an excellent teacher and you also have to do the work to convince your colleagues that you are. In some places, this is harder to do than others. In some places, you don’t even have to be an excellent teacher, as long as you are able to create that perception. There’s the rub.

Glamour publications: the view from a teaching campus

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The academic publishing environment is being undermined by a bunch of extrinsic and intrinsic forces.

One such force is the genre of academic glamour magazines. They have massive impact factors that allow you to make a big splash when you land a spot inside one of them. Sometimes genuinely huge discoveries and advances end up in Science, Nature, Ecology Letters, or Cell. But most of what appears in these venues is a big sexy idea that doesn’t have any real lasting value. If science were nutrition, then this is junk food. It’s yummy, and it is dressed up with everything to make it exciting and yummy, but rarely is there substance.

For those running labs in research institutions, the perceived wisdom is that you should be publishing in a glamour magazine once in a while.

For those of us at teaching campuses, the perceived wisdom is that you should be publishing once in a while.

There are increased calls for principled stands against glamour mags. For those who stand too firm on principle and avoid any whiff of careerism when choosing a journal, Physioprof pointed out last year out that you’re probably in a position of privilege if you’re saying that. I like Drugmonkey’s attitude, to subvert the system by being entirely reasonable. Among these reasonable ideas: don’t cite glamour mags unnecessarily; don’t not publish a result because you can’t get it into one of them; as a reviewer, keep the standard crap out of them and support excellent work by your colleagues when you get it for review.

At teaching institutions, we approach this issue from an entirely different perspective. We rarely review for those venues, and typically don’t submit to them either. (I’ve submitted to Science/Nature a few times and reviewed a few times.) This suits institutional expectations. Landing a paper in a Science or Nature would be an immense coup. Few, if any, on campus would ever think of this as a gimmicky paper, though the rarity of it wouldn’t be fully appreciated. (The only person that I’ve ever worked with at a teaching campus who had one of these papers during my time actually has an overall below-par publishing record.)

These are glamour magazines because they are a flashy thing that impresses, because of the rarity itself. Gold and diamonds are valuable because there isn’t that much of them, or because they are difficult to access. Likewise, it’s hard to get into glamour mags, so that’s what makes them flashy. These papers themselves don’t communicate the value or prestige of a research program, they’re just the flashy pieces of ornamentation that are necessary.

What, then, is truly glamorous on a teaching campus? The answer is publications. Lots of ’em. The reason that this is glamorous is also because of its rarity. While many people publish on teaching campuses, status and glamour comes from doing it in high volume, because so few are able to do this. This is true even if the venues are not highly regarded, and even if the papers don’t end up being cited. If you want to show off your bling on a teaching campus, five papers in obscure regional or highly specialized journals actually seem more impressive than one paper in a top-notch journal. The people who are arbiters of your reputation on campus might not be able to assess publication quality, but they sure can assess publication frequency.

I make a point to publish in which I consider to be venues appropriate for my work. I avoid merely descriptive or confirmatory work without introducing substantial new ideas, so I try to avoid journals that mostly include this kind of work. I could change my focus and crank out many more papers than I do, in lower-impact journals, but that would harm my credibility in among my scientific peers even as it would increase my profile on campus. Some other scientists manage that tradeoff in different ways, of course. I’m not overly concerned as long as people work on their passion, and make sure that it gets shared with the world.

What is the distinction between publishing for glamour and publishing for genuine impact? It’s probably the same distinction between measured “impact factor” and and long-term citation rates.

Tribalism in the sciences: empiricists vs. theoreticians

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In complex societies, tribes inevitably emerge when individuals with similarities band together, to promote and defend their own interests. I’m not going to go all Jared Diamond on you and pretend to be an anthropology scholar. But I can go so far as to claim that like individuals gravitate to like, and then things have the potential to get ugly.

Scientific tribes are based on ideas. These often track one’s scientific lineage, but ultimately your own ideas — and the people with whom you associate — become your tribe.

Like in any social group, membership in a tribe offers a blend of benefits and costs. Tribes can expand your influence and power, though mostly only as far as the reach of your tribe. The leaders of tribes might be propelled into a greater role beyond the tribe, but the rank-and-file members of the tribe are stuck in that group.

In science, you can join a tribe, but you don’t have to. If you’re research active and collaborate, it takes some work to avoid drifting into one.

The problem with these tribes is that most people haven’t learned how to play nice. What’s worse, is that people have trouble separating out criticism of ideas from personal attacks. Some people conflate the two together. Others use personal attacks when they aren’t necessary or warranted.

On an unsettled topic, I occasionally do enjoy me a good argument, if I think it’s going somewhere and I have the capacity to learn or make a difference.

That’s a rare opportunity, because it seems that most interlocutors are not entering into discussion to genuinely convince another person, or with a mind that is adequately open to change. Instead, people enter an argument to win. I’m open to being convinced, but instead of getting a convincing argument, I usually get an attack on my ideas rather than a sales job on more attractive ideas.

That’s no good. That kind of discussion isn’t worth my time. I’d rather be exposed to something that has the capacity for a positive change, either on myself or others.

Those polemics used to be something I used to like, I think, though it was a while ago. I went to one of those liberal arts colleges where it’s not uncommon to find yourself staying awake into the wee hours of the morning discussing politics, history, religion, science, sociology and the nature of existence, and where all of these ideas intersect. I loved it. At the time, the school was as diverse as a privileged expensive school could possibly be, so there was always someone to disagree with you. It was an intellectually challenging environment, and I loved it. I learned a lot about how to disagree with people but still maintain respect for, and from, others. I wasn’t always successful, but I learned that this respect this is a priority. One model for this kind of collegiality is the late Paul Wellstone.

It turns out that most people haven’t developed that skill, even scientists with PhDs. Perhaps they have the skill but not the patience to exercise it. Or, maybe, they have the skill but have decided that winning an argument is more important to establish social dominance within a tribe. Social dominance within a tribe is important, because in a tribal environment you can only get ahead unless you’re leading the tribe.

This is why scientists often engage in pointless arguments in which nobody changes their minds.

One example is the recent kerfuffle when E.O. Wilson was the author of a Nature magazine article with a complex population demography model that purportedly supported group selection over kin selection in the evolution of eusociality. (I have to admit that, despite a few careful reads, I mostly but not entirely understood the technical merits of the paper.) The massive backlash from the kin selectionist tribe was not based on the actual science in the article, but instead at the inflammatory (and factually incorrect) statements within the article directed at the other tribe. Wilson designed the paper to start a hissyfit, and it did. There were several letters published in response to the article, which essentially were designed to punish Wilson for offending the tribe which he used to lead.

Both sides wanted to win the argument. Meanwhile, in all honesty, I can’t think of a single person who was an author to any of the articles or rebuttals that has deliberately and publicly sought to reconcile the ample contradictory evidence that exists. I think most of the people involved really wish to understand the science of how eusociality has evolved so many times, and under what selective forces. But nearly everything published is tribal in nature. Why is that?

I suspect that the benefits of the tribe outweigh the costs and limitations. it’s easier to lead a tribe than forge your own way. It’s not only easier intellectually, it can be better for one’s career. Ecology is filled with a history of feuds among tribes, and I’m sure other disciplines are the same way. The leaders of these tribes now have named professorships, big salaries, and are revered as great elders within their subsubfields. That’s what you get for leading a tribe.

To ascend to leadership of a tribe, you have to have certain attributes. One prerequisite is that you need to have an academic position at well-known research institution. Since I work in a small pond, that rules me out of tribal leadership. Unless I pick up and move to a place where I have PhD students, a big lab, and larger grants, I’ll never get past the status of beta male.

Since I can’t ascend to tribal leadership, why would I want to join a tribe? There are benefits to being a member of the tribe, but there are also costs and limitations. The benefits are small enough for me that I don’t want to incur those costs. A few years ago, I stuck my neck out to publicly support a well-established member of a tribe who was attacked by a rogue journalist, and at the first opportunity he disavowed my support, by lying to me, in a major public diss. It seems I’m not able to join that tribe, after all. (I don’t mind bringing it up here because, after all, I was already totally dissed as insignificant by this guy.) You won’t see me doing that again.

As the proprietor of this blog, I have to be particularly conscious about how tribalism works, as heavily expressing an opinion here or there could easily shift me towards a tribal affiliation, even though I wouldn’t get much benefits from the tribe. I can’t think of many scientific issues on which I feel the need to choose one side or the other. (Of course, I’m not counting non-controversies that make it into the media as controversies.) On the other hand, I am inclined to call out the ridiculousness of arguments when both sides aren’t listening to one another well enough.

I’m a member of a few clearly defined social groups, reflecting who I spend my time with in the sciences. These mostly include social insect researchers and also those who work in tropical rainforests, mostly at one particular field station. That group numbers easily in the hundreds to a few thousand. It’s a good crowd. But I stay out of arguments, like the silly one about Wilson that I mentioned above. I’m not an ant tribalist, or a La Selva tribalist. But those are the people with whom I run.

Which brings me to the current events that prompted me to write this post.

The latest tribalist kerfuffle started this weekend, yet again with E.O. Wilson, the gentleman rabble-rouser. He wrote an op-ed piece run by Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that you didn’t have to be good at math to become a great scientist.

I agree with his idea, with some caveats. His supporting arguments weren’t that robust, mostly trumpeting his own success and ability to collaborate with top-notch modelers.

This didn’t stop some people from taking huge exception, yet again, like clockwork. There’s a good discussion over at Dynamic Ecology about Wilson’s notion that math isn’t important for generating new ideas.

It’s no coincidence that Wilson’s position on math comes not too long after he used some very sophisticated math to make an argument that got aroused tribal anger. The incongruity of the position that “math doesn’t matter but complex math is the main support of my controversial stance” is sending some people into fits.

Of course, this had to have been entirely calculated by Wilson, who wanted to start this argument. I think it’s a good discussion for us to have, broadly speaking, about the attributes that we need to develop to make creative scientists. That’s where this discussion is going, I suspect he hopes, once the outrage passes.

What are the tribes engaged in this argument that was prompted by Wilson? It’s one as old as the field: the empiricists vs. the theoreticians.

Yawn.

The theoreticians essentially have ruled the roost for the last fifty years in ecology. There’s always been a place for work that is driven by empirical investigation, which in fact occupies far more pages in journals that the more math-intensive theoretical work. Despite being outnumbered, the theoretically-focused researchers are the ones who tend to fill up the editorial boards, publish in the highest-impact journals, and attract the biggest crowds at conferences. There clearly is a celebrity culture in the field, and the top theoreticians mostly rank higher than the top empiricists.

Keep in mind that this is an artificial dividing line. Few are wholly theoretical or empirical. However, for those that have clearly identified affiliations, the theoreticians are in charge. They’ll probably tell you that their status has emerged because their work is more valuable. When David Tilman received an award from the Ecological Society, the main point of his address was that you should do theoretical work just like he does because other work is less valuable. That’s gutsy.

If theoreticians are so in charge of affairs, then why are they so upset when someone says that mathematically-driven theories are a footnote to science rather than the heart of it? That op-ed piece, after all, isn’t going to change what the theoreticians allow to be published in the top journals in the field. Why get so upset?

They’re upset because it came from Wilson. This man built his fame, in part, using theoretical models using somewhat to very fancy math, with collaborators who were good at math. He essentially wrote that he was the ideas man and that the math collaborators are easy to come by. If he mentioned Robert MacArthur by name as one of the easy-to-come-by-theoretical-collaborators, then all hell would have broken loose, considering MacArthur’s status as a tribe leader before his untimely death.

For an empiricist who built his reputation with the help from more analytically minded coauthors who often did the rhetorical heavy-lifiting, it’s pretty brutal for Wilson to overtly suggest in the Wall Street Journal that his contributions were the important ones. He was the man with the vision and those other guys with the math could have been anybody.

Now that’s gotta hurt.

If I was a theoretician, you’re damn right I’d be pissed off.

I’d be pissed off because I ‘d have difficulty separating the logic of Wilson’s argument from the personal nature of his message. What’s Wilson’s argument? That you can have great ideas, and make those ideas come into reality and make scientific progress happen, without being particularly good at math. You need to be okay at the math, but you don’t have to obsess on it.

Is that true? Well, partially. But it’s not true if you’re going to become a theoretician.

So why are theoreticians so offended, if Wilson says that there’s another valid route to become a scientist that isn’t driven by math-heavy theories? I think it’s because many of the them think that the central ideas in the sciences nowadays are mostly mathematical.

Are there major progresses to be made without a lot of math? My initial thought is: hell yes there are. We’re still in the wild west of scientific discovery, with huge frontiers yet to be explored. Not everybody agrees with that, though.

That is an interesting debate, in my view.

As I’m not in the theoretical tribe, I can look at this with some distance. I can do that because my contributions weren’t directly insulted, and I am in a position to separate the concept of his argument from the people in the argument.

Wilson, in a rhetorically inelegant fashion, just reignited the ol’ empirical vs. theoretical fight. I think if he were rhetorically elegant, it would have passed unread. It would have been too intellectual for Fox News The Wall Street Journal. And it’s such an old saw that typical venues wouldn’t be interested in hearing it. I wonder if the WSJ was his first choice.

Here, is the essence of the disagreement:

Are the central concepts in science based on equations and mathematical relationships, or are they built on broader principles that do not have to be described by mathematical models?

Here is how I reconcile the disagreement: All relationships can be described with math. To fully understand any phenomenon, math is the language of nature and the language of science. Math is key to understanding patterns and relationships, as math essentially the only way they can be expressed in a specific form, other than using logic. However, in order to be able to write the equations that describe the patterns, we must first be able to know what the variables are, and how they might be able to relate to one another. Wilson’s point, though written inelegantly, was that many of the potential relationships that might exist haven’t even yet come to our attention. You can’t build the model without knowing which variables to put into the model.

The fundamental divide between empiricists and theoreticians is a disagreement about whether we know what the most important variables are. Empiricists are in search of the variables, and theoreticians are seeking to develop the specific patterns among variables. When empiricists do experimental and observational research, they’re testing whether specific things matter, and if so, how.

A few times in my career as an empiricist, I think I’ve come upon new variables, or shown in a very clear way that the relationships between a few variables matters in a way that wouldn’t compel theoreticians without theoretical evidence. I am not as personally interested in working out the specific relationships between key variables as I am sorting out which variables matter.

I think the same could be said about Wilson. He thought that the size of an island, and its shape and distance from the mainland (and so on) would be very predictive of the species richness on an island. Then, he buddied up with MacArthur who worked with him on the details. I think they both were important – perhaps essential – in the development of the Theory of Island Biogoegraphy. I don’t know the history enough to know whether this is something that MacArthur would have, or could have, done without Wilson. Wilson didn’t invoke this example in his piece. Instead he invoked George Oster, who worked on social insect caste theory with Wilson. In this case, Wilson was clearly the social insect ideas man and Oster was the modeling man. I do think that Wilson is correct in this case – that Oster couldn’t have done it without Wilson in particular, but that Wilson could have found many modelers to work with him on this monograph. It was inelegant for Wilson to point out this fact. I hope I’m more gracious when I hit that stage of my life.

To slightly rephrase, here’s where the divide lies: does the world still need people who are envisioning these variables in the broad sense, or do we all need to learn how to do the complex math to model relationships?

I think we all should learn the math, we all should learn how to model, and this would inform our world view. However, there are only so many hours in the day. It so happens that some of the most visionary people are the ones that have focused on things other than modeling. It also so happens that some of our visionaries are excellent modelers.

As David Foster Wallace has pointed out (stay tuned for a post later this week): what we learn in our studies is not how to think, but what to think about. Should we think about models, or should we think about what belongs in the models? These are somewhat mutually exclusive, I think. We do need people who think about the latter more than the former.

In my experience, when I spend to much time trying to model relationships, I lose sight of the forest – both in metaphorical and in actual terms. If my projects lead to developing and testing models, I’m all over it. But right now, I’m still trying to identify which relationships matter, because there is so much that remains unknown. (In the coming month, I’ll take the time to write another long post about how avoiding modeling led to a discovery, oddly enough in one of Wilson’s pet genera.)

So yes, I think Wilson is right. You can be a visionary without being a modeler.

Modelers themselves are also visionaries. That’s where Wilson is wrong.

It’s horrible to be able to do research in your own lab

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I can get a little jealous of people who have research systems in their labs, or do fieldwork nearby. You can just run experiments year-round if you want. A manuscript needs a more data for the revision? Go ahead and knock that experiment out. If you want flexibility when you get to do research, then having research right at home works quite well.

Then, why is it that some of the most successful researchers that I know have research systems that are geographically far away from the university? And the people — at teaching institutions — with the most tractable, easy-to-use systems can have trouble getting stuff done? (I think there’s a whole other set of problems with model systems on small campuses, but that’s a whole other diatribe post.)

Being far away from your research system can be a recipe for success. Among people I’ve known, a marine ecologist might have to drive eight hours to the rocky coast. Some physicists have collaborative projects at big national or international labs on the far coast of the US, Europe, and Japan. Anthropologists have sites in Southeast Asia and Central and South America. Humanities researchers rely on archives that are in libraries in distant cities. Others might study ephemeral events that occur locally, with no control over the timing of the events.

There are also successful people who work locally, too. Regardless, it is very clear that having your research system on the other side of the world doesn’t preclude success, even if you’re based in a small pond. That strikes me as counterintuitive.

In my own circumstance, I think having all of my fieldwork based out of Costa Rica has been a great boon for my productivity. If I was able to do research in the local mountains or desert, I don’t think I’d really get anything done. I’d never compartmentalize the time that it takes to fully focus on the work.

I’ll consider this with a social insect analogy.

Some of the most “advanced” social insect societies (as some call them) have workers that demonstrate temporal polyethism. That is: workers are born as nurses, then are promoted to guard duty or nest maintenance, and then they spend the last phase of their lives doing the most risky task, foraging. It’s well described in a variety of species.

This temporal division of labor makes for higher productivity, as a result of higher efficiency and organization of labor. (This is at least true in large colonies with a lot going on. The jury is still out on species with small colonies.) A big ant colony would be in disarray if all individuals tried to do everything at the same time. And so would I.

If I tried to run a field research program while doing every other part of my job, I doubt I’d be able to get high quality fieldwork done. I’ve figured out, in a clearly suboptimal fashion, how to juggle writing, teaching, analysis, mentoring during the year, service, and all that stuff. I can’t imagine adding “data collection” to that list of things to juggle during the academic year.

(And, of course, my greatest responsibility and source of joy is being a parent. But this isn’t a Daddy blog, even though I wish such a genre existed. Even though I spend my time writing here about research, don’t be mistaken. I’ve already established that parenting and spousal duties are more important than everything else.)

When I finish a field experiment, it’s over. One project might build upon the other, but I work with discrete ending points, and that’s when I pull the flags from our field sites and pack things to go home. I’ve hired people to do things in my absence for bigger projects, but for most work, I don’t have the option of just returning to do more. If an editor or reviewer asks for another sample, you know what? They’re out of luck, and I’m out of luck. They can buy their own plane ticket to Costa Rica to get that additional data point, if they don’t want to publish the paper without it.

from skinnylawyer@wikimedia

My field site.

This finality of data collection helps me to get stuff done. I have no doubt when I need to start analyzing and writing the manuscript. It’s as soon as I leave the country.

I never think to myself, “Here is a little something which is missing from this project to make it complete.” Instead, I tell myself, “I have to package this as a complete project, and accept the fact that there are some missing holes.”

There’s another reason that working far away lets me get more work done. When I go to my field station, I’m in 100% data-collection mode. We’re running experiments full time, and I’m usually working my butt off. And I’m working my students’ butts off.  There’s no way I could give so much focus to work like that while I’m at home, because I’d have to get home and cook dinner, and I’d choose to hang out with my kid at times. When I’m in the field, my responsibility to home is an evening video chat date, which is sometimes missed on one side or the other.

There’s also no way that I would be able to get so much dedication and effort from the students in my lab, without taking them to a kind-of-remote rainforest. When you plop people down in a place where there is nothing to do but fieldwork and labwork, and that’s mostly what you get. (If you bring the right people. I’m getting better at that over the years, but there are always flukes. Flukes, you know, are a kind of parasite.)

I’d guess that work happens by students on site about 12 hours per day, in one form or another. You don’t get that kind of consistent work at that level for an extended period at home. (I lament that the internet has gotten faster on station, because those with an internet addiction have a hard time fully dedicating themselves to their work.) So, at the end of a field season, we have a relative ton of data, much more than I’d have than if I tried to work locally or in the lab.

Some lab work does happen during the academic year, mostly dealing with samples that we collected during the summertime. However, we reserve the academic year for writing manuscripts and preparing for the next field season. Data only gets collected in intermittent bursts, and that has been more than enough for my lab. The fact that I can’t collect data except when I fly to Costa Rica forces me to spend my time writing up the results. That gives me a lot of time to write without any other research-related distraction.

If I block away time during the academic year, it’s usually not to do lab work, it’s only to analyze and to write. When I do research while abroad, it’s only to collect data, and not to write. This temporal polyethism is what allows me to get stuff done.

It’s not easier, just different

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When I was applying for faculty positions, I had a number of reasons for focusing on small liberal arts colleges and other teaching institutions.

Among those reasons was that I didn’t want to have to worry about grant pressure at a research institution. I didn’t want to have to constantly think about keeping the money train rolling, as a constant source of anxiety. I think I was prepared to write a lot of manuscripts, but I wasn’t too confident that I’d be able to the land the grants that would be required to convert a tenure-track position to a tenured position. And, even if I did get those grants, I didn’t want to be in a position of “running a lab” instead of “doing research.” I wanted to be a small-town grocer instead of Wal-Mart.

At my field station, I saw that PIs swing through, give orders to grad students, get a token couple days in the field, and then move on. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be out there taking part in all of the stages of science.

With the grant thing and the not-being-a-manager-but-being-a-scientist thing, a teaching school seemed the way to go. And, oh, yeah, I really liked teaching.

I was naïve.

Here’s a related story that puts it in perspective. A couple weeks ago, I went to an evening coffee at the house of someone I didn’t know, to talk about a middle school in my local school district. Within the next year, my family will have to decide among middle schools for my kid. So, I’m starting to do my homework. A great-hearted nonprofit in my town is built to educate parents about school options, and sets up evening coffee discussions among prospective parents and current parents.

The coffee would have tolerated a boost of scotch, but alas it was a dry event. Sending your kid to middle school is freaky and scary for a number of reasons. Parents of elementary school kids have all kinds of concerns and worries about what their middle school is like, and they ask all kinds of questions to address their concerns. There was a lot of talk about certain worries regarding safety and supervision.

One parent made an excellent point, far too late in the discussion, that helped put people on track. She has been involved in a study addressing the concerns, strengths and weaknesses of the middle school experience in the area. One recurring theme, she reported, was that both elementary parents and middle school parents had big concerns about the middle schools. However, the concerns of the current middle-school parents had little to do with the concerns of the prospective middle-school parents. Once their kids actually started school, all those early concerns faded away and were replaced with entirely different issues on the ground.

Picking your middle school on the basis of your concerns as prospective parents won’t do too much to result in a good choice. Your concerns as a prospective middle school parent, that affected your choice of school, seem to fizzle once you get there and you’re dealing with the actuality of being in middle school. You realized that the factors you used in picking a school were mostly superfluous, and you should have looked at the process differently.

I don’t think I need to explain how this story can be modified to produce more generalized advice for scientists choosing among career options.

I’ll never forget the observation from one of my undergraduate professors that has been a model and mentor for me. Just as I was telling her about my concerns and grant pressure and all that stuff, she told me:

It’s not easier. It’s just different.

I asked her to amplify on this, and she did. She explained how the regular day-in and day-out demands of a faculty position at a teaching institution are not any easier than the demands of a high-profile position running a big lab at an R1 institution. She explained the various responsibilities pulling her in different directions, and claimed that her job was just as much work. In addition, it was not only an equivalent amount of work but it also was just as stressful, and the demands of getting grants and keeping a lab up weren’t substantially easier than everything that she was juggling.

It was just stressful in a different way, but not in an easier way.

I was skeptical. After all, one of my reasons to work at a teaching campus was to avoid the grant pressure. So, I wasn’t glad to hear that I was just trading one stress for another.

It took several years of experience for me to really understand what she meant. She’s entirely correct.

Your PhD advisor might disagree, and other faculty at research institutions might also be skeptical of this notion. Skepticism is fine, but belief without knowledge isn’t.

In my community, white middle class families have harbored a fear of public schools ever since forced desegregation in 1970. That was before I was born, so many things have changed. Our neighborhood school isn’t okay, it’s amazingly great. It is a shameful display of ignorance when 1/3 of all of the families in my city insist on sending their kids to private school, mostly out of fear of the demographics of the population in public ones. (Whereas I’m afraid of the private schools because of the demographics of the population in those schools. That, and the underpaid and undertrained teachers. I have lots of experience with these schools, so this fear isn’t based on ignorance.)

There’s plenty of old money that can only be spent on fanciest prep schools, but there are a lot of middle-class families going broke to send their kids to those same prep schools, mostly out of fear.

Among the public school advocates in my town, there’s a truism: don’t talk smack about the public school until you’ve visited one.

I’ve talked to so many people who say, oh, the public schools in our city have so many problems, I couldn’t send my own child there?! Then I ask, in feigned naivete, really, what have you heard? When you visited the schools what did you see that was wrong? That usually switches the conversation to a topic that involves less ignorance on the part of the public school vilifier.

By corollary, if you want to know what the daily life of a science professor at a teaching institution is like, you aren’t going to learn about it from a professor at a research university. Your concerns about the job before you head in are going to be inevitably very different from those when you are in the position.

All of the reasons that I had for picking a teaching school over a research school weren’t really that good. It is true that I am glad that I don’t have to worry about funding a lab of employees by bringing in grant after grant. However, the machinery that I do keep running, in various aspects, also requires constant fuel and lubrication. I’d be just as happy trading in those stresses for the need to get a big grant once every few years, or more often. It’s more complex than that, of course.

Should I have listened more to my mentor when I was choosing a job? I don’t think so, because at the time I did listen to her and valued her perspective. I didn’t think she was wrong at the time, I just didn’t adequately understand her. That’s because understanding required experience.

I accept the fact that when we make decisions – about schools for our kids, about our own careers, and most other things – the bases for these decisions don’t pair up with the functional positives and negatives once we’ve committed. You should still try to assess carefully when making decisions, but the assessment will be more effective if it emphasizes the actual experiences of others over your best guesstimate about what your priorities might be in the future.

Being naïve means that you don’t have experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you just need to know that when you do make decisions, you have no choice but to be naïve to the consequences, because after all, they haven’t happened yet.

Accessing the articles you need (or not)

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We’re on the dawn of a new age with open publishing in science, yadda yadda, hubledydoo.

In the meantime, I just need that damn reprint.

If people at large research universities are having trouble getting their articles from certain journals, then how do you think it feels at Southern Northeastern Podunk State?

I got used to not having Web of Science when that was a necessary tool. Every year, it was on my wishlist for the library. We regularly argued for it. Two leap years passed. Then, they got Web of Science. The year I was leaving.

My current campus doesn’t get Web of Science, nor Nature or Science. I’m not concerned about that, as long as Google Scholar still exists and is free (and who knows how long that will last. I imagine once ISI loses its customer base, then Google will close up shop on Scholar or start charging big bucks. It’s funny that Google’s initial corporate sales pitch was “Don’t be evil.” Once they conquered RSS they killed Reader because the entire medium wasn’t profitable enough. Once they conquer scientific publishing databases, will they do the same?)

There are massive sweeps and suites of journals that we’re missing. We don’t get much from Elsevier, I think, but we do okay with Blackwell. (Or is it the other way around?). We get about 50% of the journals I want to access. That’s mighty horrible. I’d feel more horrible, though, if we squandered our limited resources by paying extortion to the publishers.

How to get everything we don’t get through the university? The majority of the papers get from the site of one of the authors, which is usually discovered promptly by Google Scholar. Sometimes it’s there but not indexed in Google Scholar. If it’s a new paper, I email the corresponding author, and I usually get the pdf within hours. I try to not do that, though I don’t mind the requests when I receive them.

That does leave holes. There theoretically is an interlibrary loan that could be used, but I don’t use it.

I have an research associate/adjunct appointment another university in my area, connected to my collaborations and I work there on occasion. Their library has decent access, but with lots of holes as well. By magical coincidence, the holes of the two institutions I use are entirely complementary, and I can access almost everything. This pretty much rocks, and I realize that I’m the lucky beneficiary of this arrangement.

I recognize that few people have this kind of opportunity, as most institutions have their library access locked down really tightly, so that various institutional hangers-on can’t get article access without physically being in the library.

This is a dilemma to which I don’t have an easy solution. Usually interlibrary loan requests are cumbersome, but if your institution allows it, that’s better than nothing. (That still beats what I did in grad school – pull if off the shelves of Norlin Library and photocopy it. Uphill. Both ways.) If you can’t do that, then I guess you’ll just have to contact the authors. I just feel bad being a part of the weight of another person’s email. Among the the administrative weight of email tasks, sending out reprints isn’t the worst thing, though. If your correspondent doesn’t want to deal with digital reprint requests, they should post them until they get a DMCA takedown notice from their publisher.

One of the best pieces of advice about literature research I got from my ‘intro to grad school and academic life’ class was, “Don’t mistake having a copy of an article for having read and understood it.”

You could do what most people probably do when they can’t get an article. Read the abstract and pretend that you read the entire paper.

If you have any tricks of the trade to get articles of which I’m unaware, please leave a comment.

One thing I’ve thought about doing is opening a dropbox file to colleagues with similar research interests, and we can all share there. I do with students in my lab, but I could open it up more broadly.

The “future” will solve these article access problems one way or another, I suspect, based on the hard work of academics pushing to change the industry. In the meantime, I’m tired of workarounds.

I got me the travelin’ blues

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I imagine that when other scientists need to travel for research-related business, they file some paperwork, and then hop on a plane.

I only dream that I could do the same.

The official rule at my university is that faculty need permission one month before any work-related international travel. Period. Even if the funding is external. And even if it’s okay with your chair and doesn’t interfere with teaching.

This rule, in itself, is a massive handicap that puts my research program at a disadvantage.

During moments like these, it can feel like my own administration is the enemy of my research program. I know that they everyone is, in fact, quite supportive, at least in spirit. Nonetheless, I’ve had to grow accustomed to an administrative obstacle course.

Each year, I schedule round-trip travel for about ten people to go to Costa Rica. I’ve been doing this since I arrived at this university, and every year, weird stumbling blocks are put in front of me.  Because of this rule, I’ve kept home people home who would otherwise could have joined our research trip, and I’ve spent several extra thousands of (taxpayer) dollars on airfare because of administrative dillydallying. (I’m sure my administrators see it differently, of course.)

To get travel authorization, I need signatures from a long series of administrators. Before signing, they have a series of questions about budget, insurance, and logistics that require detailed answers before a signature arrives. Sometimes this process has taken a few weeks, and that’s with our departmental admin person chasing the process diligently the whole time (for which I am eternally grateful).

ugh.

ugh.

There are a few reasons why these questions posed to me are unnecessary, overly silly, and frustrating. First, all of the questions they ask could be easily answered by looking at the text of the grant itself, which was already approved by administration. Second, these administrators are aware that I essentially am doing the same thing every year with the funds, and so nothing changes. If I was approved the year before, what’s wrong with this year? Third, all of these funds are administered by the fiscally independent university Foundation, which operates outside contracts and grants, and technically my administration has no control over these funds and only need to approve my time away from campus. Also, this travel happens off the clock of the academic year, so really the only branch concerned with my time and the funds should be the Foundation.

This year, I should note, the process has gone smoother than ever before. It might be because I have the same Provost for two years in a row, which is a new record for me in the past six years. (So far, he’s been a keeper.) Moreover, the Provost’s lead administrative person is the most awesome ever, who used to work in my Dean’s office. Having her there is soothing.  (Apparently, she spent an hour on the phone with my equally excellent departmental admin person sorting out technicalities that she was required to attend to.) I just got the signatures last night, and bought the tickets. This time it only took a couple weeks to get permission!

I can only take so much solace in the fact that an unnecessary process is less painful than it has been in the past.

How hard is it to travel with your university? Are the international travel rules overly onerous? How much of your time have you spent dealing with paperwork that you could have spent on teaching or research?

How to figure out if you want to work at a teaching university

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Do you want to know what it’s like to be a professor at a teaching campus?  The single best thing you can do to figure this out is to visit.

All through grad school, I was pretty sure I wanted to work at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution), if only because I went to one and liked it so much.

At the time, I didn’t really know what the job was like. My time as an undergrad didn’t give me any idea about what it would be like to be a professor at one.  I knew what life as a PI at an R1 university was like from being in the lab, seeing what what faculty were doing all the time, particularly my own advisor.

A teaching campus is really, really, really different from where you went to grad school and did your postdoc. It’s hard to learn what it is like unless you spend some real time at one, and not as an undergrad. Interviews don’t count at all, either. That’s a magical time when money flows easily, everybody has time for you, anything you choose to ask for can be agreed to as a possibility, and they are trying to convince you to take the job. It’s different once you’re there.

The best way to do this is to take a job as a visiting Assistant Professor, on a sabbatical replacement spot. But that choice would lead you near-permanently off the road towards a tenure-track position at a research university. If you aren’t sure about your calling, this is an extreme step. Those jobs aren’t easy to get, anyway. Adjuncting at a teaching campus doesn’t count either. If you’re an adjunct, then your experience will be fundamentally different than the tenure-track experience.

The best thing to is to visit. Call some colleagues up — if you don’t know anybody, ask around — and ask if you can spend a day or two on campus. Ask if it’d be possible to give a talk. Visit a fancy expensive small liberal arts school, and a 4-year regional teaching campus (North Southern Western State), and whatever else that isn’t too much of a drive. If you went to one for college, go back and visit. Your old professors would get a kick out of seeing you, and they can give you an honest take on their job.

This is how I cure premeds. I ask them if they’ve volunteered in a hospital, or if they’ve shadowed a doctor. Most premeds don’t know what it’s like to be a doctor on a day in, day out kind of basis. If they’re spending time with a doctor, then they’ll see it’s a pretty boring job, and with a lot of monotony, and with little freedom. You shouldn’t be a premed unless you’ve spent lots of time in a hospital. This is prerequisite for an informed decision.

Likewise, you shouldn’t be applying to PUIs unless you know what it’s like to be a professor at one. I’m writing about the various challenges we have, and the wonderful things that happen too, but the understanding is primarily experiential. What is it like to teach that much, and how does it affect what else I do? How do you relate to students, what do they expect, what kinds of resources are available in labs, and how do your collaborations work?

These things all very greatly from campus to campus. But unless you know exactly what the experience might be like on a daily basis, you won’t know what to look for when you’re interviewing. Putting in the time up front will help. And, when you go to conferences, hanging out with the faculty from those kinds of schools will give you a good idea, too.

So, give some of us a call. We’d love to hang out with you for a day or two. It won’t be the most exciting thing, but you’ll see what we do, what we can do, what we can’t, and how we balance things. Better yet, you can look up someone with whom you want to collaborate, and it can be a working visit. (If you’ve got some serious community assembly mojo, you’re particuarly welcome at this moment. I’ve got something with 2% left that’s driving me nuts.)

Theoretical bandwagons are for big labs

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Small labs should avoid theoretical bandwagons. It’ll make it hard to get money, publish and do good work effectively.

In an earlier post, I described two categories of research: the development of new ideas, and the testing, shaping and fine-tuning of these ideas.

I said I didn’t like either of the categories. I’ll explain that next week, but to get to that point I need to explain how big labs are designed for bandwagons, and how labs at teaching institutions should avoid designing their work to address bandwagon theories.

A bandwagon — as I use it here — is any theory, topic, or issue that lots of people are working on simultaneously. What do I think are some bandwagons at the moment? It’s easy, just pop open a journal and look at the table of contents! In ecology and social insects, my two main fields, here are a few that are at some point in the bandwagon boom-and-bust cycle: functional traits to understand community structure and assembly; genomic approaches to understanding the social regulation of development; models of geographic range shifts in response to climate change; physiological and genomic mechanisms of task allocation. (You could also throw in arguing about group selection, but that’s more about yelling than data.)

I’m not saying that the scientific community doesn’t need this work to happen. All of these topics are very interesting, and people have chosen them because they’re ripe for discovery and progress. It’s not a bad thing that these topics are bandwagons. When great ideas come along, we need people to work on them, including both disagreements and points of consensus. This is the standard practice of science.

It’s so much the standard practice of science, that labs at research institutions are engineered to thrive while working on bandwagons. Race cars are built for speed, thermoses are designed to keep your drinks hot, and many big research labs are designed to produce bandwagon research. (Not all big labs do, but they can be easily engineered to do so if this is the goal of the PI.)

If you’re running your own small lab at a teaching institution, there are a number of major strategic disadvantages from working on the same questions as big labs. These are disadvantages because they make it harder for the lab to get grants, publish papers, have a visible research profile, develop collaborations and provide the best opportunities for students.

No matter what you do, you won’t be perceived as the primary expert on the bandwagon topic. There will always be someone who is considered to be the authority, who is more productive on the topic. This person will have a whole lab working alongside them on the same topic. Moreover, this person’s name tag at conferences will have the name of big of a research university next to their own. Does this perception as an expert matter? Sure it does. This kind of perception enables you to do better science and gives better resources for your students.

Big labs can mobilize to jump on bandwagons quickly. They can turn on a dime by having a new dissertation start on the project, or assigning a postdoc to it. (You’re thinking, dissertations don’t start overnight?! Compared to the timescale of when I start and finish projects, they do. Tomorrow is a story about a quick project done in 2008 but was published this year. That’s par on my course. The manuscript I’m editing today has has had all of the data assembled on my hard drive for seven years. And I’ve been thrilled about it the whole time, too. And – get this – it’s still not stale. It’s actually ripened.)

You don’t want to work on a specific aspect of a project when other bigger labs will get to them quickly. Moreover, big labs will work so quickly that they will exhaust it before you get finished. In ecology, for example, thank goodness I didn’t work on the mid-domain effect myself or I would have entirely missed that wave before I even submitted my first paper. I would like to work on functional traits in ants, as the ideas seem interesting, but the same thing will happen to me if I do that. My paper would be passé by the time I tried to publish it.

Big labs need big funding. Theoretical bandwagons are the things that attract dollars. They can be sold as “transformational” research that NSF is seeking to support. Most of these potentially transformative projects will end up in the dustbin of history, and a small fraction will result in big change. If you’re a big lab and you need to pay for people, then you better hop on board! If you don’t, you’ll have trouble keeping staffed. If you’re top notch, you an create your own bandwagon. But if you catch it in the first couple years, then you can still get in there for one grant cycle, or maybe even two.  Following the same principle, bandwagons are horrible for small labs because they can never compete with these big labs that are putting in proposals on the same question. They’d never survive a side-by-side comparison once you put the biosketches up against one another. Of course they’ll fund the lab that they think will get 10-20 papers out of a project when they think you’ll only get a few out of it. So stay away unless you have the record to show that you can beat the top labs riding the same bandwagon.

To be clear: I am not suggesting that scientists at teaching schools specialize on an obscure topic that nobody is interested in, that can be mined for a series of novel but inconsequential publications.

I not suggesting that you stay fully clear of theoretical bandwagons under all circumstances, but only that if you hop on it should be with a big lab that is ready to roll. You also could take an existing project of yours and sell it this way, if you wish, though that will shorten its shelf life.

Next week, I’ll share a taxonomy of research goals, which will explain how I think you can do novel and truly meaningful research without chasing theories-of-the moment.

We exist.

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The NMAI

The National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC, USA

This is a manifesto about science research.

The National Museum of the American Indian opened on the national mall in Washington, DC in 2004, as a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. The building is a work of art, the exhibits are mostly engaging and informative, though the most remarkable thing about the place is the food court as its own lesson in biodiversity and cultural plurality. It’s worth a visit, along with scores of other great museums in DC.

The mission statement of the museum reads like boilerplate, about advancing knowledge about the diversity of Native American cultures in the Western Hemisphere. The museum itself accomplishes this task as well as it can, considering the massive diversity of peoples that could be represented within one building.

The NMAI was born after a long gestation, more than a decade. The creators of the museum had a tremendous challenge in presenting a unified structure that communicates the experiences of so many different kinds of peoples, ranging from those in the arctic to Patagonia and every place in between. They developed many mini-exhibits featuring a representative but small subset of the peoples of the Americas, featuring citizen curators who worked with the museum professionals in an attempt to use a small amount of space in an attempt to represent a culture. It was ambitious, and the success of these efforts varies. The result is a visual melange, and a cognitive jumble. This medium appears to be, in part, the message of the curators.

When the museum was being developed, it is my understanding that the creators had a more challenging mission, which isn’t explicitly stated on their website. They realized that most US citizens have a mistaken view of the role of Native Americans in our past and present.

This primary task for the museum is very straightforward: Tell the people that Native Americans still exist. Tell the people that Native Americans are one of us.

I suspect that museum staff hopes that visitors to the museum leave thinking, “I had no idea! This was a total surprise.” I would guess that the typical visitor walking through the doors for the first time might expect a series of maps, valuable old artifacts, and a history lesson. Instead, the exhibits are about the lives of people who are alive today, where they live, how they make their living, and the great diversity of their spiritual, linguistic and social practices.

American Indians are not (just) a part of history. They are a large set of vibrant and active cultures living within and among all of those who live in the Americas. If you learn about American Indians in school in the US, the story you learn is that the European settlers steadily and systematically exterminated Native Americans. That story is a falsity. Native Americans persist. They are both distinct and a part of us.

What does this have to do with being a scientist?

The mission statements of this site, of sorts (the “about” tab and “rationale for existence“) said that I wanted to represent the experience of doing research in a teaching institution. There are many kinds of teaching schools, and they all have different kinds of opportunities and challenges. I thought that those of us doing research in these environments should have a bigger voice.

I have received unanticipated (and uniformly wonderful) feedback from readers, especially senior graduate students, postdocs and junior faculty. Based on what they’ve told me, I now realize that I had jumped the gun with my mission statement. I started by getting into the nitty-gritty of what it’s like doing research on a teaching campus. That wasn’t a mistake, but I didn’t adopt the broader perspective. I needed to follow the example of the creators of the National Museum of the American Indian. I neglected to frame this endeavor with an elemental message:

We exist.

We are doing research in these teaching campuses. To take this kind of job doesn’t mean that our research career is over. We do research in your field, and we train those who become your graduate students. We create new knowledge and we are scholars just like you.

We are one of you.

We are rarely on disciplinary grant review panels or the mastheads of journals. We aren’t able to hire your grad students as postdocs. We are rarely invited to give seminars at your big research universities, because schmoozing us won’t yield as many tangible benefits as schmoozing someone else.

This doesn’t invalidate the fact that many of us have good research labs. We read and publish in the same journals as you. We get funding from the same agencies, and we have specific talents and resources that allow us to get stuff done and to be valuable collaborators. Our undergraduates do not handicap our research programs. These students are our greatest asset. They are both the means and the ends.

The grad student who opens a research lab in a teaching campus is not a failure. Be proud. Do not expect us to disappear from science. If you keep us as members of your research community, we will be able to participate in the community.

Don’t see this as settling for less.

It’s not less, unless you perpetuate this perspective.

On teaching campuses, faculty aren’t required to do much research, if at all. This doesn’t prevent some us from running serious and productive research labs. We have to do some things differently. We also have the opportunity to do things differently.

And, let’s face facts. There is a steady decline of tenure-track positions as the 20th century notion of the professoriate is relegated to the history books. Nowadays, lots of researchers are taking teaching positions. Research institutions, and their faculty lines, will not disappear, but it’s been a long time since research has broken out of traditional research institutions in the United States.

Researchers have a variety of motives for taking jobs at teaching schools. Some are dedicated to teaching and are seeking to do both teaching and research actively. Others are more excited about teaching, and others might prefer a research institution but have personal reasons for choosing a particular job. While there is more competition for tenure-track jobs at top research universities, none of these jobs are inherently easier, less stressful or more rewarding, if you’re doing them right.

It’s not easy to do research at any university. You’re working to keep funded from grant cycle to grant cycle, and juggle competing demands of student training, teaching, service, writing, and outreach. At teaching campuses, we do things differently than at research institutions. That’s what this site is about – how research gets done at teaching schools.

It sounds like I’ve struck a resonant chord so far. I’m hopeful that what I choose to write here continues to be helpful to those developing their career paths, at all levels. So far, I’ve heard that the most helpful aspect has been the formerly tacit message, that we exist.

It should seem perfectly natural for labs at research universities to train people to run research labs on teaching campuses. After all, that is the actual status quo. My job here is, in part, to make this obvious fact more visible, and a shift in this perception will continue to produce more great research labs on teaching campuses. If this site is capable of shifting perceptions, then it is my hope to write this blog out of existence.

And now, back to our normal programming.

What do you do in lab meetings?

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When your research lab is comprised of undergraduates, what do you do in lab meetings?

I remember what lab meetings were like in grad school and as a postdoc. Everybody would give a quick progress report. Then the agenda would include a talk in preparation for a seminar or meeting, or everyone would chime in edits and comments on a manuscript in development. A new idea might get fleshed out, or there might be a discussion of a particularly important or relevant paper that had just come out. In addition to witty banter, there’d be a sophisticated exchange of ideas, a fair number of well-placed skeptical challenges, and sense of movement.

When the lab is composed of undergraduates, I don’t think lab meetings don’t happen this way. (Though, in my lab, when we meet we might have witty banter).

At least in my experience, convening together a bunch of undergraduates will not fulfill many of the possible functions of a research lab meeting. The meeting can be used to cement the bonds of the group, disseminate information to the lab, and (somewhat) as a journal club.

Lots of things won’t work in an undergrad lab meeting. The group can edit manuscripts for a variety of things, but it’s not the most productive venue for this task. If a student in the lab is prepping a talk for a meeting, they can present it to the group once it’s perfected, however I would be skeptical that fellow students would offer the best advice, because they’re not adequately familiar with the genre. They could communicate updates on their work, but the amount of progress that an undergrad makes from week to week is scant during the academic year, as they are taking classes and such, and if they have substantial questions about their research then they are best being advised in a personal conversation with you.

When we do journal club articles, no matter how I try, it devolves into a question-and-answer session with me. They ask me about the statistics, or how a certain method works, or why the question was picked, and if a conclusion is warranted. Usually these are the kind of things would get discussed as a group. When I get questions I punt them back to the group, and it all gets bounced back to me. I could, and fairly so, see this as a validation that I haven’t encouraged (or required) enough independence or confidence on their part. On the other hand, there isn’t any reasonable starting place for their specific questions other than to just answer them. The articles that I pick out are very close to what we do in the lab, for the most part, but they’re still not accessible enough. I could try to pick out more for-the-public kind of papers, but they wouldn’t be as germane.

You could use lab meetings as a method to develop your students’ insight and experience as a member of a lab and as a scientist. This meeting, though, won’t serve the otherwise primary function of normal lab meetings: to advance the work of the lab.

These lab meetings won’t get papers written more quickly, or result in insights for the next grant, or help students work out methodological or analytical problems. Those are things that you have to do on your own. The contributions of other students would probably slow things down rather than speed them up.

For these reasons, I don’t often hold lab meetings. Most semesters, I don’t have a critical mass of motivated and productive students to get a workable meeting together. Heck, every semester, scheduling a regular meeting can be hard because students are often in class at different times, or have other things in the way. The greatest benefit of the meeting is that I enjoy the company of my students as people, because overall they’re sophisticated and charming and with some, I look forward to the day that a power relationship is gone so that we can be friends.

I have had meetings for the last year, because I have a particularly top-notch set of students at the moment who all get along together well and who all work hard and effectively. I imagine that, as turnover happens in the next year, these meetings will fall apart, as they have in the past.

The best use of the meetings, I’ve found, is to keep the students accountable for getting a job done. If they need to present to the group a summary of their findings, then they’ll feel more pressure to have results on time. If they have an introduction or methods section that needs to be edited by the whole group, it’ll show up in better shape than if they just wrote it for me.

But, in all, I like to focus working with my students individually on their projects, because discussing them with a group is just awkward. The situation is different when we are in the field. As a field ecologist, nearly all of our data comes in while working far away. We are very close to one another by spending time in the field, lab, meals and often sharing housing. When we’re doing an experiment, we have to intentionally sit and meet on a daily basis to ensure data quality, adequate progress, and to adjust for the inevitable and numerous unanticipated difficulties. But in the lab, during the academic year, such little happens on a week-to-week basis that a meeting seems silly.

I suspect that the usefulness of a meeting will vary with the nature of the work that happens in the lab, and the cycle of activity. If students are getting paid to work in the lab during the year (I don’t have that kind of funding), then maybe the situation would be different. If we had fancy equipment in the lab that we needed to maintain or colonies of animals to keep tabs on, that would be different too. Do the benefits of the meetings overcome the costs of taking the time out each week to plan a meeting and make it happen?

Training vs. productivity. What’s your currency?

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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.

The importance of lacking necessary equipment

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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.

A rationale for existence

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I’ve started this blog because I have so much free time on my hands.

Over the last couple years, a few blogs of scientists have become a part of my routine, even though I lurk on all of them. Reading blogs has been a way for me to learn from others.

Nevertheless, there is a huge disconnect between these scientists and my daily experience. Some of my biggest challenges and triumphs are endemic to my work at a teaching institution. We have a lot in common, but my experience is different in some fundamental ways. There are so many of us at teaching schools that do (or aspire to do) big-league research, even if it’s on a smaller scale. The strategies we use to build and maintain a research agenda are often different than our colleagues at research institution. I think we all prioritize our students and student training, but it’s really different when your students are all or mostly undergrads, and you teach a lot, and your school cares way more about your teaching than your research.

Many of my junior colleagues – whose work I greatly admire – are now taking jobs very similar to the one that I’m in. I am often asked about how I go about my job, get funded, manage my teaching load, maintain a research program. How I do what I do. This leads me to suspect that this blog will be useful.

I’ve read enough blogs to be able to identify, at least in my view, what makes a good one. That list includes:

  • a clear focus with a useful perspective that comes from experience
  • frequent entries, at least a couple times a week if not more often
  • a community of people who contribute their views
  • a greater number of lurkers who never contribute but regularly visit
  • high quality writing

If you’ve discovered this early on, input is particularly welcome. My plan is to do this for a little while before I attempt to let people know it exists. I’ve decided against anonymity. This is not common, but I’m tenured and don’t have dirty secrets to hide, and this will keep me from worrying about the attempt to hide details. (When I’m annoyed by something at my institution, which is more often then I could ever mention, I’d be glad if my administration read about it and know that it is from me). I will be able to showcase my research and field more openly, not to mention be openly proud of my students and institution. By being known, I just need to worry about being polite, which is a good habit to be in.