Fieldwork can be the best part of being a scientist. But when unprepared or abusive leaders take trainees into the field, they can cultivate an unsafe and harmful environment. So It’s nice to see that National Science Foundation is taking steps to improve the safety and inclusivity of field research. NSF is now proposing that projects with fieldwork component have a plan for field safety, which includes creating an environment promoting dignity and respect, and prevents conduct that is “unwelcome, offensive, indecent, obscene, or disorderly.”Continue reading
Why do some places have high teaching loads and others have low teaching loads? [poll]Standard
Of course, institutions with more money have lower teaching loads. I have a specific hypothesis: Endowment size predicts teaching loads, like this:
But is this true? If it’s true, how true is it? How much variance is there? Does enrollment matter, such that it’s endowment-per-student? I’d like an answer to these questions, in the realm of non-PhD-granting institutions. If you have a minute, and you’re faculty at one of these places, could you humor me by filling out this quiz? If you have another minute, maybe pass it to colleagues at other institutions? The reward will be a post with the findings. It’s embedded below, but if you want a direct link, here you go.Continue reading
What limits productivity at teaching institutionsStandard
It’s not the time, it’s the people.
The popular conception is that scientists at teaching-focused institutions have lower research productivity primarily because they spend so much time teaching. I disagree. Continue reading
Universities that want research but don’t want researchersStandard
I’ve done most of my fieldwork at a biological field station. Many people come and go, but there are a lot of common interests and some longstanding friendships.
I’ve had the chance to befriend people over the course of several cohorts of doctoral students working on station. A subset of these folks — myself included — have found positions in academia and continued to do research down here. And of course there are lots of active scientists who I see at conferences. The ebb and flow of academic and personal interactions over the decades has its grandeur. Continue reading
I grew up poor.Standard
There are two inspirations for my post. First, a conversation over at Tenure She Wrote is really worth reading. Sarcozona started it up with a great post on poverty in the ivory tower and Acclimatrix has added to the conversation with her own personal musings about coming from poverty and class struggles with family. Both are really wonderful/powerful posts and I highly recommend reading them. One thing that struck me was Sarcozona’s call for people to talk about their own experience with poverty. So here I am.
The second inspiration is that I’m currently traveling (a sign of how far I’ve come). I wanted to attend a conference in California, which is 9 hours time difference from where I live in Sweden. Being someone effected by jetlag, that sounded nearly impossible. So I stopped off in Nova Scotia to spend time with my family and give my daughter a chance to see them all too. Then I travelled on alone for the conference. Being home is always a time to reflect on where I come from, and makes these thoughts come even more naturally.
So my confession is that I also grew up poor. It isn’t something I hide but it also isn’t something I talk about often. My parents were teenagers when they had me and so it is difficult to actually talk about my childhood with any generalizations; my parents were growing up as I did. We moved around a lot, they changed jobs and roles, and we didn’t stay poor forever. I never knew the feeling of going to bed hungry and there was always lots of love and fun when I was a kid, so I didn’t feel poor. But we were. I didn’t have the latest, well, most things. A small example is that I had to make do with hand-me-down clothes from my cousin. I can still remember the mix of excitement and dread when those big boxes showed up. Excitement to see what there was but dread because I wouldn’t have much choice in what I would wear for the next year, even if it wasn’t to my liking. We also lived in houses without electricity or running water from when I was about age two to seven. Although there were lots of hippies getting back to the land in Nova Scotia when my parents were, living without modern conveniences and growing your own food was more of a necessity than a social experiment for them.
In many ways my younger years were really magical and for me and my brother, it was often a big adventure. We spent huge amounts of time wandering around in the woods and fields that surrounded the various houses we lived in. I’m sure my deep routed appreciation for the natural world can be directly attributed to the freedom (sometimes/many times forced: “Go play outside!”) I had to explore it. Our vacations were also outside/cheap. We either visited relatives or went camping. As kids, we loved the camping trips, even if it was hard to compare with vacations to Disney that the some of the other kids at school talked about.
Although my family’s financial situation was stable by the time I went to university, they didn’t have a fund to support me to go to school (I have the student loans to prove that). Although there was no pressure in any particular direction I think financial security drove most of my early university education decisions. I wanted to go into healthcare or something that would ensure I got a ‘good’ job afterwards. I started university for a semester and then quit because I couldn’t manage it even with a partial scholarship and a job. I went back to university after working for a couple of years—it allowed me to apply for a loan independently of my parents and therefore be able to afford it. My parents didn’t have the money to help me out with university but made too much for me to qualify for full loans (although to be fair it was me that decided on a university on the other side of the country and I could have stayed in Halifax instead). Even with loans, I worked a lot during my undergraduate years and it took me about six years to finish my degree. I remember seeing opportunities for things like field courses and exchange programs but there was no way I could afford them. I was lucky to get to work with some labs locally and those experiences steered me on the path to research. However, I was jealous of some of the things my richer peers were able to do.
These days, I’m the richest I’ve ever been and my parents are no longer poor either. I don’t want to glorify my childhood but it did instil an appreciation for nature, good healthy food, and getting by with what you have. But I’m happy for my and my parents’ financial freedom. It allows us to travel the distances between us more easily and I don’t worry about grocery bills like I did as an undergrad. I’m glad that my daughter is growing up in a different way than I did. Perhaps more importantly, I’m happy that as a parent, I don’t have to worry so much about money as they did. But having so little at times, meant that a grad school salary actually felt rich to me and I’m amazed that we were able to buy a row house this past year. In some ways the skills I learned from being poor as a kid and then as an undergraduate has made the relatively lower salary I have as a scientist quite manageable for me. But it does mean that I had a very different experience from many of my fellow grad students. I thought seriously about paying for conference travel at times, although for the first time ever my grad school salary was enough to grow a savings account. Having to buy my own car for fieldwork made an impact and money factored into my working locally instead of elsewhere like many I went to grad school with. I don’t mean to say that others were basing their research decisions on their personal funds but it made me nervous to plan a field season far away, not knowing whether I could fund it or not. So my upbringing and relationship to money did/does factor in to how I approach funding research. Mentally, I have a hard time draining accounts (personal or research) because it feels safer to have something tucked away for a ‘rainy day’. So sometimes my reluctance to spend when I have little is something I need to overcome with my research budgets.
Wandering around downtown Halifax has also emphasized some of the relative poverty I came from. It seems like there are lot more empty storefronts then the last time I was here. Nova Scotia is a ‘have not’ province and I’m sure that affects the kinds of opportunities available for students growing up. I certainly noticed a difference when I moved from the county schools I had been attending to the city schools I started in at age 12 (we moved to Halifax then). I had a lot of really amazing teachers who helped lay the foundations for my science career but I’m guessing their access to supplies, etc. was determined by limited budgets in a poorer province. Having grown up poor also means that I walked through a raging snowstorm in downtown Halifax with my four-year old daughter because for some reason I still think paying for a cab is excessive (by the time we came home, we couldn’t have got one anyway because of the road conditions). It was actually quite fun to walk through a shutdown city in the snow and I’m still amazed at what a little trooper my girl can be. But it is a reminder that no matter how different my life is, some things are hard to change.
Conflicting interests of faculty and administratorsStandard
Motives of faculty and administrators can be highly variable. But even though many administrators were once faculty themselves, I can only imagine that things inevitably change when you put on that suit.
What are the ranges of possible interests of faculty members and administrators?
Administrators aren’t monolithic. Here are some various priorities that you might identify in an administrator, all of which might be mutually compatible. Of course I’m leaving plenty out, and of course many of these might not apply to any given administrator.
- An administrator wanting to climb the ladder will need to keep a balanced budget, carry out the vision of higher-ups, and be well-liked.
- An administrator who wants to make the university successful will also want to balance the budget, work to promote the visibility of the institution, and try to get the most work out of everyone as possible.
- An administrator working to promote student success will support faculty efforts to teach and support students, will allocate resources to individuals who best enhance the education of students and is not overly focused on carrying out the nonsensical orders of higher-up administrators.
- An administrator who just wants to collect the salary of the position until retirement will want to do as little as possible and delegate tasks without much thought. This administrator won’t allocate resources in a way that will require additional management or accountability.
- An administrator who want to directly support the faculty interests experiences conflicts with higher levels of administration that have distinct expectations of administration.
What do faculty want? This group is more heterogenous than the administrators. Only a small, non-random, subset of faculty move into administration, after all.
- Some faculty will do anything to teach effectively and want resources allocated towards classroom resources, student experiences, professional development of faculty and staffing to support student needs.
- Some faculty are focused heavily on research, and want resources allocated towards the equipment and time required for research to get done, as well as support for campus-wide emphasis on research, including support for students conducting research
- Some faculty are focused on things away from the university (a.k.a. retired on the job), and want resources allocated to minimize their efforts towards the job, so that they can ride horses and play with their dogs. They’ll want more staff, lower and easier teaching loads and no service commitments. They might want teaching technology that lets them be on campus less frequently.
- Some faculty want to be accorded with respect and perceived to have prestige. These faculty members will want resources allocated to their pet interests and in ways that they may be able to exert direct control over these resources, often in a way that maximizes their visibility.
- Some faculty want to have a faculty job at a different university because they are not fulfilled do not feel that they are being treated fairly. They are looking for resources that are allocated in a way that will help them to reinforce their CV to make them the most competitive on the job market.
- Some faculty want to become administrators. They’ll spent lots of time doing service on campus and aren’t picky about how resources are allocated, so long as they’ll have the ability to do the allocating in the future. These faculty don’t have much overt conflict with administrators, though the administrators might be annoyed that they these faculty are pretending to run things instead of focusing on their actual job, to teach and do research.
Note that when faculty goals come in direct conflict with the goals of administrators, or of other faculty members, that’s when junior faculty members demonstrate the mythically poor “fit” that sinks tenure bids.
It’s no wonder that faculty and administrators can get into intense, and frequently petty, disagreements. Both the faculty and administration are diverse groups that can’t even agree on their own interests and priorities. As a result, productive cooperation with administrators is unlikely to emerge because there is a complex mélange of conflicts that define the structure of the relationship. The only thing that everyone has (or, you would hope, should have) in common is the interest in bettering the lives of our students.
I am consistently surprised at how many faculty members don’t perceive that their interests fail to match those of other faculty and administrators. As a result, some individuals consistently rail about one pet priority of theirs, which results in deaf ears all around. Some people are widely known for their pet issues. Pet-issue people aren’t ever in a position to convince others to make change happen.
Here is an attempt at a grand summary about conflict-cooperation between faculty and administration:
Admins and faculty have different priorities. Even within faculty, there are often be conflicts that prevent cooperation. Everybody is better off if the non-essential conflicts are overlooked, and the benefits of shared cooperation are emphasized. Conflict results in a waste of resources and results in lower productivity for all individuals.
I’m not advising faculty to roll over when administrators tell them what to do, but it might be wise to simply ignore the things that administrators tell you to do that are not mutually beneficial. Instead, we should focus on things that deliver for both the administration and faculty. There are only so many hours in the day, and if any of that time is spent arguing about something that isn’t in one’s mutual interest, it better be important enough to outweigh the lost benefits that could emerge from cooperation.
By the way, this happens to be the last installment of a 5-part series on conflict and cooperation between faculty and administration. Here are parts one, two, three and four.
Why I don’t take high school students into my labStandard
Once in a while, I am approached about taking on a high school student over the summer. I always say no, for the same reason that I turn away most premeds: they want research “experience.”
Bungee jumping is an experience. Discovering that you’re allergic to seafood is an experience. Going backpacking in Europe is an experience. I don’t provide research “experiences” for students; I train scientists. I’m a scientist and a university instructor, not an unpaid private tutor.
High school students want to look awesome so that they can get into a fancy university. That has nothing to do with why I am paid to work for the State of California, so I’ll take a pass. But I don’t let the high school students off with a simple “No, thank you.”
The primary purposes of my research lab are to get research done and to train scientists. My lab doesn’t have room for tourists having an “experience,” because there is only space for researchers. I turn away high school students because they take resources (time, space, roles) away from the students who really need it and deserve the opportunity. These students that want to join my lab are the kind that end up winning science fairs because of privileged access to university resources.
I have another reason for turning away the high school students that come to me in search of a research experience.
The high school students who have sought research experiences have two common denominators: The first is that they’re wealthy. They attend either an expensive prep school, or attend public school in a district with million-dollar homes and a well-endowed foundation supplementing the inadequate funding provided by the State of California. These high school students think it’s perfectly normal – perhaps even laudable – to seek out research experiences at the local university that trains undergraduates.
The second common denominator among the high school students who ask to volunteer in my lab is they never, ever, will even consider attending my university, CSU Dominguez Hills.
When high school students ask me for a slot in my lab, the first thing I do is ask them about their college plans. They name schools with pricetags that would clean out the bulk of my salary. I then give these students some umbrage:
Do you think it’s acceptable for me to spend taxpayer dollars giving you free research training?
If getting research experience in my lab is good enough for you as a high school student, then why isn’t it good enough for you in college?
Why do you think that you might deserve a space in my lab over students who are enrolled at Dominguez Hills? Presumably you’re hard-working and smart, but how does that entitle you to special opportunities over the hard-working and smart students who have chosen to come to Dominguez Hills?
If this campus not good enough for you in two years, how is it good enough for you now? Why don’t you want to come to this university?
I have scant tolerance for people who think that prep school students can slum around my low-income university to get free research credentials, as a way to further their access to elite institutions that my students are unable to access. Moreover, these people wanting a spot in my lab expect that it’s somehow part of my job to provide this training for free to students who have already chosen to opt out of the state university system.
This particular form of entitlement is offensive to my values and to my students. Even asking for the opportunity to join my lab as a high school student, while simultaneously ruling out the possibility joining as an undergraduate, shows how little these students and their families value education as a public good. I refuse to be their tool.
While not in my lab, in labs all around the country, wealthy high school students are getting high quality research training at universities while the majority of the nation’s public school children are now living in poverty and qualify for subsidized school meals. If I were to use my lab at CSU Dominguez Hills to provide research opportunities to the 1%, I’d only worsen this tragic failure of our nation.
I’m not inherently opposed to taking on a high school student, but I’ll be damned if I take an opportunity away from an low-income student who truly needs it and transfer it to one who comes from a position of privilege.
I’m not going to be an instrument of the upper class by perpetuating the heritability of educational and economic disparities.
Of course, if some parents of a high school student pony up the $2 million for an endowed chair at my university, I’d be pleased to reopen a conversation on the topic.
The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 4: Consequences of our social interactionsStandard
This is the penultimate piece in a series on faculty-admin relations. Here are parts one, two, and three. You don’t need to get caught up to appreciate the set of tips inferred from prior observations:
- Faculty are the ones who really run the show at universities. This is true as long as there is tenure, and especially as long as there is collective bargaining. Universities exist to let us do our research and teaching jobs, and any service on campus is designed to facilitate that core function. Any administrator that runs afoul of the faculty as a group will not be able to implement their vision with any kind of fidelity.
- Administrators cannot be effective at serving students unless the faculty are on board.
- In a university of adjuncts without tenure, the show is run by regional accreditors, because they can get administrators fired. This is why places run almost entirely by adjunct labor, such as “University” of Phoenix, have curricula that follow the prescriptions of regional accrediting agencies, without anything above or beyond what is required.
- Faculty and administrators need one another. The more they can get along to meet shared goals, the better things are. When individuals pursue their own goals, that don’t contribute to the shared goal, conflict results. When there is cooperation toward shared goals, then all sides will be more able to fulfill their individual interests.
- Good administrators and faculty share one common interest – serving students – but they also have many conflicting interests, and these are highly variable and shaped by the environment.
- Professors typically want vastly different things from one another, so organization around a common interest is uncommon. This may result in administrators having their own interests met more often than the faculty.
- Administrators can spend money on any initiatives they wish, but unless faculty choose to carry out the work in earnest, it will fail.
- Conflict with your direct administrators over things that they are unable to change harms everybody. Individuals who can successfully minimize the costs of conflict are in a position to experience the greatest gain at the individual level, and these actions also serve to increase the group-level benefits of cooperation.
- Administrators who don’t cooperate with their faculty will be ineffective, and faculty who don’t find common ground with administration don’t get what they need.
- Universities have often evolved to take advantage of the faculty even though they collectively the machine that runs the show. Adjuncts have little power to individually control what happens in the university, and are highly subject to manipulation by administration and other faculty. If they wish to be a part of the system then they have little choice but to carry out the will of the administration.
Teaching Tuesday: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?Standard
Continuing on in my presentation of results from a survey of higher education in ecology, I am going to spend this post summarizing how teachers are teaching ecology to (mainly) undergraduates and whether they think there are barriers to changing the way they teach. If you are just coming upon this Teaching Tuesday now and want to know more, you can find a brief introduction, what ecologists find difficult to teach and effective teaching tools in past posts. (update: links should be fixed)
To follow up everyone’s favorite teaching tools, I want to dissect a little more what ecology teachers are actually doing in their courses. The majority of respondents were basing their answers on what they are doing in undergraduate courses (43%, introductory and 43% upper level).
First, I wanted to tease apart the time spent lecturing by teachers and the amount of course time students spent listening to lectures. There is a lot of evidence out there that simply listening to lectures is not an effective way to learn, but I wanted to assess how common it actually is for students to only listen to lectures. Because ecology courses can often have separate sections for labs/field work and these might be taught by different people (teaching assistants, for example), I thought it was useful to contrast the teachers’ role from the students’ perspective. Following are the answers to: What percentage of your in-class teaching time is spent lecturing? and For your students, what percentage of your course is spent listening to lectures?
Indeed, students seem to generally spend less time in lectures than the teachers are lecturing, suggesting that students might be getting some of the non-lecturing time with other instructors/teaching assistants. But just to be sure, I also came at this question from another angle and asked how frequently teachers used extensive lecturing. Many do frequently use extensive lecturing and the majority think that lecturing is important or essential for teaching ecology.
There is a lot of lecturing going on in ecology classes, likely because the teachers think it is important but there is also obviously more to the story. So what is happening when teachers aren’t lecturing?
We saw last week, few ecologists are using clickers in their courses but think-pair-share (basically getting students to talk to each other about an issue before a larger class discussion) was mentioned as an effective teaching tool. There are a number of people using the technique, but about half are basically not. However, I think that there might be a bit of skewing here because some might actually use similar techniques without realising there is a name for it. Although it is impossible to know specifically what kind of class discussions these include, the majority of ecology teaching does include class discussions.
Further on the theme of students talking to one another, group work is common, and a similar pattern was seen in the answers for cooperative learning. Therefore, ecologists are getting their students talking and learning from one another.
Letting students decide course content is not common but interestingly, it is not unheard of in ecology classes. Almost half of the people said students select topics at least some of the time and about a third occasionally use just-in-time teaching.
I expect in line with many of our experiences, ecology instruction involves quite a bit of lecturing but this is spiced up with other activities. But say that you wanted to change the way a course was run or try a new technique, what are the biggest barriers for ecology teachers? Well, I’m sure that this won’t be a shock but it comes down to two basic things: time and money.
But what about large class sizes and students who are resistant to change? Well, people do seem to find some issues there, but not nearly as strong as time and resources:
What about the classic stereotype that ‘professors’ (in quotes because the survey includes different positions involved with teaching) don’t care about teaching and just want to do research?
With the strong caveat that people who take time out of their day to answer a survey about teaching may have some strong opinions about teaching and be personally motivated to change/try new things, personal motivation is not a strong barrier to change. (Or, you could take the negative view and say that people won’t admit that it is.) Probably related to the time issue, distraction from research is seen as a stronger barrier to change than personal motivation. Time invested in one activity must come from somewhere, thus a somewhat classic tug-of-war between teaching and research can occur. However, if people had more access to the logistics of trying a new technique and knew better how to make that efficient, than perhaps changing teaching styles/techniques wouldn’t be such a time sink. As a commenter on last week’s post said, maybe we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel for every course but instead can learn from one another.
But here is the real kicker: if teaching effort is not appreciated or rewarded, than it becomes harder to put those activities to the top of your list.
Of course, there is a bit of circularity here. If teaching is appreciated by your department/university, than they will likely also invest in ways to create time and resources, including training, for their teachers. But for those with limited time, resources and appreciation, it is not surprising that people continue to teach as they have in the past. I definitely got a taste of this with a course I was asked to teach. Everything happened fairly last minute with changes to the course leadership and teachers (including me). Given that I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, I generally followed the previous lectures and activities given in the course. Now I am looking for ways to improve my section of the class but of course, it would take up much less of my time if I just retaught the way I (and those before me) have done before.
Despite some of these challenges to change, if this survey is any indication, ecology teachers are doing some innovative things with their classes.
Up next week (if I can manage to get some time to write surrounding the pollination conference I’m attending): Writing in ecology.
Biology departments need an accreditation bodyStandard
My department would be so much better off if it was possible for us to be accredited. But no accreditation is possible for Biology Departments in the US.
Every credible university (as well as some slimy and disreputable ones) is regionally accredited. However, accreditation for individual units within universities is not universally available.
In some fields accreditation is the norm. My university has a variety of accredited programs. Our Chemistry Department gets its undergraduate program accredited by ACS. The Department of Computer Science gets accredited through ABET, and this organization accredits a variety of other technical disciplines. Our School of Business has been accredited by AACSB, but I just failed to find them on the list. And the programs in Education are nationally by NCATE as well as within the state by the CCTC. And there are more, such as nursing.
As for Biology? There’s bupkis. Zip. Zilch. No professional organization has stepped up to the plate to offer such a service.
You might wonder, how is it that I even have heard about accreditation in other departments on my campus? Because I’ve seen those folks get better treatment, year after year. Whenever we all need something, those departments get it and mine gets the leftovers, if there are any. When we ask why other departments get more resources, the answer is that those departments need certain things to keep their accreditation.
Because there is nobody to threaten the loss of accreditation in my department, we have experienced chronic deprivation during times of financial stress. The accredited programs are in far better shape than our department and other non-accredited departments. If there was such thing as accreditation for a Biology department, we’d fall short of the mark in a number of ways.
Any higher level administrator will tell you what a pain in the butt it is to maintain regional accreditation. They’ll also tell you that good things come out of having to prepare for reviews, despite the headaches. The accreditation body prescribes the allocation of resources to areas required for long-term maintenance of institutional resources.
Don’t get me wrong. I hate bureaucracy. The process of getting accredited is probably a pain the butt. But for at least some of us, the benefits of accreditation would greatly outweigh the trouble.
There’s one organization that is in a position to develop an accreditation body for undergraduate Biology programs: The American Institute of Biological Sciences – AIBS. They’re the publishers of Bioscience. AIBS is national organization with a broad reach, and has a history of dedication to undergraduate education and working with undergraduate programs.
AIBS needs to step up to the bat and invest the time and money to get this effort started as a service to our community.
Just imagine if your departmental homepage could bear the stamp of AIBS Accreditation. Wouldn’t that be nice? Moreover, imagine that you needed a new piece of equipment for teaching because the old one died, and that you are told by administration that there won’t be the budget to replace the equipment for two years. Now, imagine how quickly that piece of equipment would be replaced if you mentioned that it was expected for accreditation.
Imagine that you just had a few people retire and someone leave your department, and that your administration isn’t funding the searches for faculty members to replace these lines. However, by not maintaining an adequate tenure-line faculty:major ratio in the department, you would have problems in your next accreditation review. Moreover, you need faculty members with expertise in a certain combination of disciplines to be able to maintain accreditation. Also, accredited departments are not allowed to use too many adjuncts to fill up the course schedule.
What I just described is not a farfetched scenario. Our colleagues in business and computer science have a lower teaching load than the rest of us, because the requirements of their accrediting bodies. Also, our colleges in accredited units are always first in line for new faculty hires because these hires are required to maintain, or to earn back, accreditation. Meanwhile, my department has half the faculty that we had when I arrived seven years ago and more than twice the number of majors. That situation would never have been allowed if we had accreditation.
The long years it took to replace the rickety autoclave, outdated microscopes, and a slew of teaching supplies would never have been necessary if we needed them to keep accreditation. There are still many basic instructional materials that we lack, but our operating budget is so low that it’s hard to foresee the acquisition of these items in the near future. That wouldn’t be the case if we needed these materials for accreditation.
If my department was accredited, faculty would be less overworked, students would have better equipped laboratories, we would have a greater range of faculty expertise, and we would be able to offer courses in particular elective areas that we have not been given the funding to offer to our students. But, there’s no accreditation body to whom we may appeal.
By the way, I’m not the first guy to make this argument. At an AIBS Undergraduate Biology Summit in 2008, this topic came up. Two guys made a good argument for the need for accreditation of undergraduate biology departments. This is the pdf of their presentation. It doesn’t look like much has happened in the past five years since this presentation was made. There is some kind of accreditation offered by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, but based on the website it looks entirely rinky-dink to me.
How do you think your department could change for the better in response to the need for accreditation? What kinds of changes do you think you would not want to make, that might be part of Biology accreditation?
If you are in an accredited science department, do you see the process of attaining and maintaining accreditation to be worth it?
The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 3: How our universities run like social insect coloniesStandard
With the understanding that we are social animals and that principles of behavioral ecology for social groups can apply to us*, let’s look at six relevant concepts from ant societies.
1. Workers are in charge of ant colonies; faculty are in charge of universities. The stereotypical, and false, model of ant colonies is that they’re run by the queen. In fact, workers are the ones that are collectively running the show. The queen is the factory that produces eggs, but the workers actually benefit more from the reproduction of the queen than the queen herself (in terms of raw genetic relatedness). A queen is as much a slave of her own offspring than she is the leader of a band of her daughters. I’ll spare you the social insect lesson in detail, but the upshot is that most colony-level decisions are made collectively among the workers and the queen has little to no say in the matter. The queen is just along for the ride, and her life can be truly at risk if she doesn’t lay the right kind of eggs (by using the wrong sperm, or choosing to not use sperm at all). In universities, professors run the show, even when there is little true faculty governance. Even with a heavy-handed administration, we faculty control what happens. The best that admins can do is provide, or remove, incentives for particular activities. Regardless, faculty will do as they please. The good administrators recognize this fact and work within its bounds.
2. Limited resources affect how ant colonies compete with one another; limited resources predict how universities compete with one another. From the perspective of admins, universities are competing with one another for status and funding. Colonies under extreme resource limitation allocate their resources very differently than those that are not those limitations. Unpredictability of resources also affect allocation decisions. The way in which colonies compete with one another is structured by the ways in which resources are limiting.
3. Workers and queens have different interests in how the ant colony invests resources; admins and faculty have different interests in investing resources. It’s a longer story, but the upshot is that workers want different things than the queen. That’s a textbook conflict of interest, though slightly overgeneralized. (Find your local social insect biologist for a longer lesson.)
To make this messier, the workers themselves may not even be closely related to one another, because queens often mate with multiple males and colonies can have multiple queens. Many social insect colonies have behavioral bedlam at their core, with torn allegiances, nepotism, assassinations, and workers policing one another to make sure that they don’t cheat. The harmonious work-together-for-a-common-cause is a thin veneer that disappears once you start watching carefully.
In a university, faculty often have interest interests or agendas for resource allocation, so they can’t all agree. If the faculty can’t organize in a common agenda, then the administrative agenda is often the one that wins. When faculty with conflicting agendas can agree on shared priorities and can communicate these, they have a chance at winning in a conflict over resource allocation, if unified. When faculty are divided, then the ones who win are those whose priorities are consonant with the administration.
4. In ant colonies, the queen controls the productivity of the colony, but the workers have ability to shape that productivity; In universities, admins distribute funds but faculty members are the ones that make those funds go to work. Queens can control the ratio of male eggs and female eggs that she lays. The workers then can choose to help those eggs grow, or eat them. Likewise, administrators can spend all kinds of money on useless initiatives, but they will go to waste if they’re not useful to faculty.
5. While there is conflict in ant colonies and in universities, there is plenty of cooperation. By banding together in a colony, the fitness of any single individual is much greater than it would be if they were on their own. Colonies that don’t effectively work together have lower fitness, and then everybody would be worse off. Wise administrators will recognize that providing faculty with the resources that individuals need to be successful will contribute to higher levels of productivity at the level of the organization. Wise faculty members will recognize that flexibility in using the resources available from administrators, even if not efficiently allocated, is better than intransigence.
6. Developmental constraints have resulted in the exploitation of workers. Natural selection has favored the evolution of cooperation in ant colonies, however in “highly eusocial” groups that have worked cooperatively for a jazillion generations, there are likely to exist developmental canalizations and constraints that may result in workers that have no choice but to cooperate in a way that isn’t working in their best interests. If your mom creates you without ovaries, then well, you better help her reproduce, because otherwise you have no affect on your fitness whatsoever. (Note that this is not a fact that social insect researchers consider as often as they should.)
Likewise, universities have developed a system that exploits their workers that have little to no power to address inequitable distribution of resources. The conversion of teaching faculty into a caste of contingent employees without a voice in institutional governance has resulted in an excess of power in the administration that does not necessarily work in the best interest in the members of the community.
Next week: The consequences of our sociality.
*If you harbor some old-school critique of sociobiology, please take it elsewhere.
The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 2: We are social animalsStandard
I’ve noticed that faculty members are prone to discuss administrators almost as frequently as discussing their own students.
You might think that this is odd, because most faculty rarely interact with their administrators. However, our ability to do our jobs and our quality of life is controlled more by administrators than by students.
Administrators can give you time and they can take it away. The same goes for space, money, service, and – for the first six years – our jobs.
Faculty members are often in surreptitious or overt conflict with their administration. Many of these conflicts can develop from the fact that some professors are irrationally upset with, and overly judgmental of, administrators. While there are often rational grounds for being mad at your administrators, these conflicts are often amplified because some faculty misunderstand the fundamental nature of the faculty-administration relationship.
I’ve used my familiarity with the social biology of animals to consider the relationship between faculty and administrators. I’m sure a sociologist would hate me for this because of the oversimplification and duplication of existing theory, but if you’re not a sociologist, then please read on.
In every social group, relationships are forged through both conflict and cooperation. Groups of distinct individuals persist because the benefits of the group outweigh the costs of being in the group. Cooperation emerges, in theory, because the greater benefits of cooperation outweigh the cost incurred through cooperation.
Faculty members can’t really do their main jobs (research and teaching) without the cooperation of the university. Administrators can’t really do their jobs (make the university run and fulfill the overt and tacit missions of the institution) without having the faculty carry out the grunt work of that job.
Let’s be clear: Faculty are the necessary grunts of the university. We are the ones that do the essential job of the campus (except for some schools, where the coaches and athletes are central). Without us, the university has no way to exist.
Next week: How our universities are like ant colonies.
On being a tenure-track parasite of adjunct faculty [updated]Standard
My job, as a tenured associate professor of biology, wouldn’t be possible without a sizable crew of adjunct instructors in my department.
Here is some context about the role of adjuncts in my particular department: At the moment, the ratio of undergraduate majors to tenure-line faculty is about 100:1. This isn’t unprecedented, but is on the higher end of laboratory science departments in public universities. Because we have so few tenure-line faculty, and so many lectures and labs to teach, we hire a slew of adjuncts every semester.
It’s not like the adjuncts are there to make life easier for tenure-line faculty. They’re here to keep the department from falling apart and to teach classes that otherwise we would be unable to teach. One thing that keeps us tenure-line faculty busy is advising. All of our majors required to be advised every semester in half-hour appointments, one-on-one with tenure-line faculty, in order to be able to register for the subsequent semester. In addition to our base teaching assignment of four lecture courses per semester and the standard research and service expectations, we’re worked mighty heavily.
Lest I complain, I am thankful on a daily basis that I am paid a living wage, if below market rate, and I am in a union that has mostly held on to benefits like our parents fathers used to expect from their employers. That’s more than our many adjuncts can say. If it were not for a stroke of tremendous fortune in a very difficult time, I would not be able to be in this position.
While I do have some additional responsibilities that are not expected of our adjuncts, this disparity between job expectations is tiny compared to the massive disparity between our relative pay, benefits and job security. While I would hope to think that the things I offer on top of my teaching (research opportunities and individualized mentorship for a small number of students, external grants to bring money and reputation to the institution, and a meaty role in institutional governance) bring value, I cannot reasonably rationalize that those services justify the massive gap between the my compensation and that of my adjunct colleagues.
I also am conscious that many tenure-line faculty in my university do little to nothing more than some of the adjuncts, skipping out on faculty governance, making themselves unavailable to students outside class, and not providing research opportunities. These faculty are more like adjuncts with a full professor’s paycheck and pension. What’s worse is that I could choose to devolve into such a role with no consequences for my pay, benefits or security of employment.
I have particularly benefited from the contributions of adjunct labor. In my current university, I actually have never taught the full base teaching load, as I’ve always had some fraction of my time reassigned to additional research, administration, outreach or professional development activities. (And, to be clear, I spend more time on the jobs to which I am reassigned than is expected of me while teaching.) The only way that I have been able to carve out time to keep my research lab ticking, write grants and run some programs is because others have stepped in to get the work done. These people are as qualified as I am to teach these courses, have plenty of teaching experience, and are getting paid less than I would if I were to teach those courses.
Hiring an adjunct instructor as a one-off to cover a course that needs to be covered isn’t necessarily exploitation. But if this temporary labor pool is not truly temporary, and if these are not one-off arrangements but instead a machine that requires the dedicated effort of many contingent workers on a long term basis, this is overtly exploitative of the contingent labor pool.
It is wrong that my department has several people who teach lots of courses for us, year after year, and aren’t able to receive an appointment as a professional ‘lecturer’ that acknowledges their professionalism and compensates them as one would expect from an employer after providing years of service. It’s not criminal, but in some countries, it might be.
When I graduated from a mighty-fine private liberal arts college twenty years ago, the catalog had the name of a tenure-track professor next to every course. I had taken two courses with adjuncts the whole time I was there (one of which was taught by a senior and established person in the field who did for it fun and for the students). Now, students on this campus take many courses with adjunct instructors, the campus catalog no longer has the professor’s names tied to courses, and there is a large and growing pool of adjuncts clamoring for equitable treatment. This isn’t a sign of the decline of this institution, but instead an indicator of the adjunctification of higher education.
Like the house elves in the Harry Potter series, an army of highly-qualified and hard-toiling adjuncts make the magic happen in a university, without recognition or reward. Faculty members on the tenure-line are not ignorant of this massive injustice that empowers their existence, but mostly feel powerless to rectify the systemic situation. Universities have created a caste system, and how is it that individual members of one caste can create an equitable labor arrangement? Short of a quixotic revolution, what is there to do?
We can agitate for change. We can decry the situation. We can write blog posts, articles and books about the exploitation of adjuncts as working-class academics. That’s part of moving towards change, I guess.
However, I feel that this isn’t enough considering that I am a member of the caste that benefits from the labor of the adjunct caste. I’m not saying that I don’t deserve the compensation that I receive, but it is abundantly clear that long-term adjuncts don’t deserve the lack of compensation that they receive. I just don’t see any particular course of action that I can do within the context of my own job. I can, and do, treat adjuncts as full colleagues, and I can join the others in our union to advocate for adjunct rights.
I do not have the power to make right any systemic wrongs, and neither does my Chair, nor my Dean. I suppose the power is within the Provost’s office to make these changes but the budget isn’t there. The entire university system has been calibrated to cut costs on the backs of adjuncts.
If tenure-line faculty members are failing to press hard for the reasonable and fair employment of the adjunct labor pool, then it’s probably not because they aren’t aware or because they don’t care. It’s the same reason that they don’t take specific action in their lives to reduce their own carbon emissions, and it’s the same reason they don’t buy all of their clothes that are certified sweatshop-free, and the same reason why they don’t buy books from independent booksellers. The problem is so big and so systemic, that it’s overwhelming.
Individuals have trouble remembering that individual actions, at the right place and the right time, make change happen. The university is not making things easier for tenure-line faculty either, who need to take up a greater share of the non-teaching work as tenure-line positions fizzle away. I want to rage for adjunct rights, and it makes me upset, and I want to do something. So I wrote a blog post, but I can’t imagine that this will change anything.
So, what else should tenure-line faculty do?
Update 27 Sep 2013: The non-rhetorical answer to the rhetorical question above was provided by Jenny in the comments, who shared this story about specific and concrete efforts at Portland State University written by Jennifer Ruth. That is, apparently, what we should do.
The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations: Part 1: Know Your BossesStandard
Being a professor is a relatively unique job. We have near-total authority over how we do our jobs, but there are a lot of interests working to shape what we do and how we do it. How we interact with the administration at our university can affect whether we can be successful in what we want to do.
Here’s a way to think about how we approach our jobs, as researchers and teachers within universities.
If you have a salary, you have a boss.
We should consider what structures our relationships with our bosses. Because professors enjoy academic freedom, and those with tenure are free to speak their minds on nearly everything, this relationship is different than most boss-employee relationships.
To do our jobs well, we need to understand the nature of our relationship with our bosses. We need to know how this relationship affects how we interact with our students, and the research community outside our campus.
When the faculty vision of the boss-professor relationship is incongruent with the vision of administrators, things can fall apart.
Here I consider the differing roles of professors and their bosses in the university, and how these distinct roles can work together to maximize the benefit for all parties: administrators, faculty, students, and the scholarly community. By understanding how the faculty-admin relationship is structured, we can all relate to one another in a fashion that fits not only our own interests, but also allow us to provide more and better opportunities for students.
Administrators can empower, or minimize, your ability to get stuff done. By understanding the areas of cooperation and the areas of conflict with administration, we can work to maximize the benefits for all parties. Administrators won’t make decisions in the interests of faculty unless it meets their own interests as well. So, you need to understand not only your own interests, but also the interests of your bosses.
What faculty really need: TimeStandard
What faculty need doesn’t always translate into what administrators think faculty need.
Administrators overseeing faculty, who do their jobs well, find ways to help faculty do their job better. With respect to research, I imagine that administrators want to increase the quantity and quality of student research, increase the number and quality of publications, and increase the funds coming into campus. At many places, of course, the latter reigns supreme.
What should faculty get to make these things happen? What we need, more than anything else, is time.
Sure, organize a grantsmanship workshop for us. Okay, pay for me to go to a conference. It is useful to have an allowance for supplies. I get to hire a student work with me? That’s very nice. I get a little stipend if I submit a grant? That’s okay, I guess.
All of those things are for naught unless I have the time to make things happen.
The basal necessity for all faculty to get research done is having the time to do it. Without that foundation, don’t even bother doing anything else.
Though some consultants make their living telling people how to write grants, a workshop won’t make you write a great grant. That skill is acquired by writing grants, serving on panels, and collaborating with people who are great grant getters. Those things take a lot more time and focus than a workshop. A workshop is a start, maybe, but unless it’s backed up with time, it won’t result in a great grant.
Working with students takes plenty of time. Writing grants, collecting data, and writing manuscripts takes plenty of time. If you were to ask most of us what we need, we’d probably put time at the top of the list. That’s probably true for everybody in academia, regardless of field or how much money we have. Either we have lots of money and need the time to do the work we planned, or we need the time to write the manuscripts and grants that are necessary to bring in money. Either way, time is always at a shortage.
I understand why administrators might be reluctant to give reassigned time to faculty to do research and mentor students. It seems against the mission of the institution to pull the out the batters from the top of the lineup so that they can leave the classroom to work with fewer students. Also, there’s a pull to be egalitarian in the distribution of resources even though some faculty will waste the time given, and others will be productive. So, time can’t be given out willy nilly. But if you really want faculty to deliver, find the ones who will do solid research and give them the opportunity to do so. (Tip: the ones who will deliver in the future are the ones who have already shown the ability to deliver.) Some people will never deliver, no matter what they get. Some already deliver, and will deliver better with more time.
Time is money. And faculty time, compared to other things, isn’t cheap (though it’s cheaper than it should be considering how poorly paid adjuncts are). If you have quality faculty doing excellent research and teaching, then giving them the opportunity to allocate some of that teaching time to research/mentorship is what will deliver.
It’s okay to not fund all faculty researchers equallyStandard
One of the things that I love about liberal arts colleges and other small universities is the opportunity to spend quality time with faculty from other disciplines. We can form a truly diverse community of scholars that is hard to find at a big university where interactions among disciplines are less frequent. These friendships make it easier to shed the conceit that our discipline is more important than others.
Because we are familiar with one another’s scholarship to some extent, there is a high value placed on equal regard for one another’s work. I’m not in a strong position to evaluate the importance of scholarship in a department outside my own, and I’m glad it’s not my job to do so. I can simply appreciate the fact that I work in an environment full of experts, who know about a lot of topics in which I am a novice.
Nevertheless, it is clear that some people are far more focused on scholarship, and mentoring student research, than others. This doesn’t make anybody more or less of an expert, but it does mean that people spend their time doing different activities. Both the quantity and the quality of scholarship vary from person to person. This is normal, and to be expected.
Nobody’s equal. But on teaching campuses we often treat everyone’s scholarship equivalently. That spirit of egalitarianism is often taken very seriously.
I posit that this egalitarian spirit impedes student research. If you ask any departmental chair or administrator, you’ll know that there are some people who are a black hole for research money. If you give them resources, not much happens.
Other people use the funds with high efficiency and get a lot done when provided some resources.
At every teaching campus with which I’m familiar, there have been modest pools of money available for research (including salary, travel, supplies) on a regular to irregular basis. In nearly all cases, these funds have been distributed in an egalitarian – or functionally egalitarian – fashion. A proposal might be necessary, but funding is only deprived from those who don’t even bother to submit a marginally credible 1-2 page proposal.
Any report that is due after using internal funds is pro forma and how much product you deliver doesn’t count. You just need to turn in a report – of any kind – to get funded again. If you ask a chair or a dean about what percentage of faculty use these little pools of research funds to productive ends, with a promise of anonymity, I would wager that less than 50% of the funding recipients used the funds well.
A few hundred bucks doesn’t do anything for anybody, but if you give someone a few thousand, you’d expect to see something of a little substance. A talk presented at a conference, a submitted manuscript, or preliminary data for a grant.
If you just give all of the money equally to faculty, then some fraction of that money is going to be downright wasted. And, I suspect that chairs and deans know who’ll be wasting the money and who will make good use of it. Nonetheless, the egalitarian spirit prevails.
At research universities, non-productive faculty members are cut off. They lose lab space, get more service, and eventually become straight-up teaching faculty. However, at teaching universities with far fewer resources for research, faculty members who don’t produce any research are consistently given resources that often go to waste. They get to keep valuable lab space even though they haven’t published anything in a a hundred moons. The institution continues to harbor the polite fiction that all faculty are active scholars, when many just teach their classes and haven’t attempted to produce any scholarship in a long time, and have no specific plans to do so in the future.
All professors at teaching institutions should have the opportunity to do research. However, this shouldn’t preclude the institution from investing its limited resources wisely to create the biggest impact for the students and the institution. Like in any other profession, faculty members need to do their jobs. If they’re receiving resources for research, then they need to produce scholarship.
Just imagine how many more opportunities would be available for students, and how much more research could get done, if the research funds given to overt non-researchers were available to researching faculty. To do this, it would require abandoning the egalitarian spirit, that everybody deserves the same resources.
Everybody deserves access to the same opportunities. But not everybody should be given the chance, time and again, to waste opportunities. Let’s be clear: I see some people squandering funds made available to them, and I see students who would greatly benefit from others who are prepared to use these funds effectively.
It’s okay to identify individuals who make the best use of funds, and those that make the use worst of funds, and use this information to inform decisions. I wish this happened more frequently.
Startup needs for researchers in teaching schoolsStandard
When I started my current job, most of those who dropped by my office to say “Greetings,” first stopped short with a question: How did you get that monitor? (I have a big monitor. They no longer make them that big. I think it’s really helped me work more efficiently.)
I answered, “I asked for it.” It really was that easy. I gave up my printer for a big monitor. No biggie, I just brought my own printer.
When you start a new faculty position, you have to use the opportunity wisely. You’re over the moon that you actually landed the job, but don’t act too hastily. When you get the phone call, say that you look forward to discussing the offer very soon, don’t say yes. Once you sign on the line (it’s probably not dotted), you’ve lost all of your leverage for anything you want in the future.
Some schools leave things more open to negotiation than others. They’ll tell you straight out if something is fixed and can’t be changed. Often, things are flexible. You need to enter the conversation with the fact of negotiation. See what you’re getting as a starting point for discussion.
Salary is really, really important, because all of your future raises will be based on your starting salary. If you’re at a public institution, then salaries are probably public record. If you can’t find it online, then talk to a librarian at the university. These data matter.
You need to know what kind of ballpark startup you can expect. You should get this from the search committee rather than the Dean. You should find out what recent hires have got, and you should get at least that (depending on your specialty, maybe a lot more). Some schools will have a low five-digit offer and on the higher end some will have low six digit offer – and very wealthy campuses could shave something more. (This range sounds insanely low to faculty at R1 universities. Yup, I agree. Some places actually have startup that comes in four digits.) Sometimes people don’t like to talk with specific numbers. This isn’t the time to be shy. You don’t want to lowball your startup, and you also don’t want to get laughed out of the room for asking for an order of magnitude too high. Hopefully during your interview process you’ve built up enough rapport with your search committee, and your potential new chair should ideally be some help (if not your partner) on this as you go through the Dean.
What are the other things that you should or shouldn’t negotiate for? Here’s a quick review of the biggies, other than salary. Keep in mind that there is no grand wisdom in here, just a set of observations that plenty of others have made.
-Reassigned time from teaching. If it’s a teaching school, they hired you to teach. However, it will take a while for you to get on your feet and start up your lab. The longer you can prolong the reassigned time for you to focus on getting started and submitting grants, the better off you are. You don’t want to be a prima donna and ask for much much more than what others have gotten in the past, of course. You’ll note that I’m using “reassigned time” instead of release time. This is an important distinction in my book. “Release time” sounds like you’re getting out of a responsibility. “Reassigned” correctly indicates that you’re working just as hard on a different kind of assignment. Another thing that you should establish up front is under what circumstances, if any, funds are used for reassigned time in the future. If you bring in grants, can you negotiate for reassigned time even if it isn’t in the budget? Or, if you have to buy it with a grant, what is the rate? Especially at private institutions, the rate at which individual PIs are charged for reassigned time can be bartered. I’ve seen some people get outrageously great deals, only because they asked for them.
-Equipment and supplies. If your research requires a special piece of equipment that’s lacking, like a certain kind of mass spec, microscope, or whatnot, then this is your chance for the school to buy it for you. Keep in mind, though, that having equipment could be a curse rather than a boon. I have to admit that I can’t think of a fancy machine that would let me to things that I’m not already doing. You don’t want to admit this too readily, though, if that’s the main form of your startup. Often, once you get startup, you can spend it how you want. You can ask for cash for a big piece of equipment, but if you get it on the cheap or your needs change, you might be able to spend it in another way.
-Moving expenses. Sure, this is nice. But if you can convince them to shave money off of moving expenses to increase your salary, or reassigned time or something else, that is probably of more use to you.
-Space. If you want a better office or lab, now is the only time it’s going to happen, until someone retires or leaves. Nobody will get kicked out for you (usually), but if there is a variety of possible space then you should make your needs known.
-Staff. Will they guarantee that you have funds to hire a research assistant or tech? Small schools might be able to get you a paid part-time undergrad to work in your lab.
-Travel. To you, money for staff, travel, equipment and supplies all looks the same. But to the resource managers at the university who have to cobble together the funds for you, they aren’t. They need to get your startup from different pools of money with different rules. If you want to get money to travel to conferences, that might need to be specified up front. It also might not be possible, or might allow you to get a larger total amount.
-Duration of startup. Have you seen the Richard Pryor movie Brewster’s Millions? (This shows I am not young.) Pryor’s character has to spend a ton of money – all of it – in a short period of time. Most people who get startup are given a deadline to spend all of their money, and it typically arrives too soon. You’re so busy getting settled into your classes your first year, you can’t set up your lab on time. It’s likely that they’ll be pleased if you want your startup to be distributed over multiple years. That’s flexibility that you’ll appreciate. (I didn’t get the bulk of my startup until after I was tenured, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)
There are a lot more details, and nuances about what kind of resources are better than others, but most of this depends on the specific circumstances of your particular needs and those of your institution.
Before your start your negotiation, there is a classic book about negotiation that I strongly recommend reading: Getting to Yes. This book will help you take away the adversarial approach to arguing over resources and instead help you find common ground. It should never be an argument, it should be a collaboration. Read this book before you get an offer.
The importance of lacking necessary equipmentStandard
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.