The tyranny of the 9-month position

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I’m convinced that 9-month positions are bad for pretty much everybody. Especially driftwood faculty.

This week I was having a conversation with folks at Charles Sturt University* in Australia, which has a bunch of wonderful ecologists. This is the middle of the summer break here in Oz**, and classes don’t start back up for at least another month or so. But there wasn’t any problem catching everybody for lunch at work. They were writing grants, or papers, or getting other stuff done. Do you know why they were on campus? Because they were working. They were getting paid to work. Over the summer break.

This might sound normal to you. But for readers outside the US, you might not realize that this is not the status quo in US universities. By default, faculty at US universities are employed for nine months. Or maybe ten months. Continue reading

Introducing high school students to research

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Like a number of other institutions, my institution offers outreach-y type programs over the summer, aimed at high school students. In the case of my institution, we offer a number of 3-week programs in different disciplines that generally follow the same format: class in the morning, and what we call “guided research” in the afternoon. The purpose is to introduce students to various fields through early research experiences, to give them a taste of college life, and, of course, to convince them to apply to my institution. Continue reading

Supervising students from afar

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Note: Heads up, the site is going to stay a little quiet for the next few weeks, during some vacation. Posts will continue, at 2-3 week, though I won’t be able to respond to comments or moderate. Come mid-August, things will pick up.

With students in the lab and the field during the summer, there are plenty of times when undergrads are working and their PIs are not working alongside them.

It’s typical for a PhD student to go off to do one’s own research out in some remote place, like Andean glaciers.  Undergrads, however, probably shouldn’t venture off on their own, if their project is going to be tremendously successful. And they probably don’t even work in the lab for extended periods without regular check-ins.

We can’t work alongside our students all the time. Our academic lives in the summer can’t principally consist of labwork and fieldwork. We have writing, conferences, and vacation.

As my lab is primarily built around field experiments, my students spend the summer in the field. The field, however, is several thousand miles away from home. This normally could be a problem with an undergraduate field crew, but I base the lab’s work out of an active field station. This site hosts a full community of other researchers, as well as great infrastructure that helps ensures that the resources for research are available, as well as meeting needs with respect to health and safety.

Am I concerned that the science might not work out as well as it might if I were there all of the time. A little bit, but not much. I have some rockin’ students, and I have full confidence that things are working out. Not only do my students know what they’re doing, but they also are good at diagnosing when they have doubts.

They know that I am easily contacted to deal with problems as they crop up. Except when I’m not available. I’m just returned from teaching a field course in a place that lacks cell coverage. I had wifi, but I wasn’t checking it every minute. Now that I’m heading on v

This is where I remind myself, this isn’t only my research; the students own the project as well. If they didn’t have the opportunity to make independent decisions, and have them be genuinely independent, then they wouldn’t be getting as much out of it. And, I’ve learned that when great students are making the calls things are often better than when I am in charge.

How much distance do you create/tolerate from the day-to-day work of your undergraduate research projects? What level of engagement leads to the greatest level of success?

Juggling summer parenting and research

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Some people think that when kids are old enough to go to school, that parents get more time available to them.

For US academics, the opposite is true. Most scientists lose time for research when their kids transition into kindergarten.

Preschool is, or can be, year-round. However, once kids get beyond preschool, K-12 education takes a huge break in summertime. In summer, you’ve got a childcare issue smack in the middle of time when you aren’t teaching and is best for field research, travel and focusing on long-term projects.

Of course, summer is also arguably the best time to play outside with your kids, travel as a family, and hang out with friends for barbeques and stuff like that.

Today was my kid’s last day of school until late August. I get to spend more time with him, but also, this is a challenge for getting research done.

What can you do with your kids who are out of school?

  • stay with the kids and have fun playing with them
  • stay with the kids and attempt to work on occasion
  • enlist your kids as research participants
  • sign the kids up for day camp
  • ship your kids away to faraway camp for the whole summer
  • share your kids with extended family and friends
  • release the kids into the neighborhood village
  • go on vacation with your kids

How both parents make a living matters a lot. If one parent has a stereotypical weekday job, with some weeks of vacation, then the academic-job parent may end up spending a lot more time with the kids in the summer, but there are constraints on travel and recreation because of one parent’s job.

If both parents are academics, then there’s a lot of flexibility in the summer, but there also is a need for both parents to be able to focus on research and find a way to care for the kids. I suppose tag-teaming could work, but for the whole summer?

I know many couples that have an academic spouse and another that works consulting or some other gig that could be flexible and maybe even part-time. That lends itself to a variety of possibilities. And then there are those of us academics who have a full-time partner at home. That isn’t a carefree existence, but flexibility and planning for childcare and travel does sound a lot easier.

This much is the case, regardless of your situation: You just can’t take a full summer off if you have an active research agenda. You’ve got to work, at least part of the time, and you’ve got to do something with your out-of-school kid during that time.

How have I handled this with my family, over the years?

When my kid was a baby: I was parenting full-time and stopped research for several months.

When my kid was in preschool: As a field biologist, I’ve got to get into the field. This was easy enough to do, when my spouse could deliver the kid to preschool when she was working. A couple times, my family traveled to my field site (which happens to be a big vacation destination as well) and we then traveled around. We also took vacations elsewhere, sometimes around an international conference in a cool place to visit.

When my kid is on K-12 summer vacation: In previous years, I would be free from the university for almost a month before he got out of school. This was a perfect time to go to my field site with students to get research projects started. Then, I’d come home as my kid was getting out of school, and then it would be a mix of the options above. Some weeks, he’d be in camp. Some, he’d be with me. One week per summer, he’s out of town spending quality time with my spouse’s mom. We also would travel on a genuine vacation.

This summer: I went to the field for a couple weeks while my kid was finishing school. Then, I came back from the field, and I am taking him out to be my technician/assistant/collaborator. I have a few projects with which we can work together and get real stuff done. He’s 9 years old, and I don’t expect full long days in the rainforest conducting meticulous measurements, but we’re going to work together and hang out for a couple weeks, and my kid will be a real scientist by the time he’s done.

My students are already established in their projects, though I imagine they still want more input and participation from me to some level. So, I’ll be busy with mentoring my students, but this is also the first field season in which I’ll be truly combining research and parenting.

Once I return my kid from the field, then he’s at camp for a couple weeks while I am attending a conference and joining a working group, and then I’ve got a week with my kid, then I teach a field course, and then we go on a genuine vacation as a family for a few weeks, and then school starts back up. It took a lot of planning. I’m dizzy and the summer has only started.

Despite all the work in the summer, I am committed to spending some time traveling on vacation to somewhere new, as a family, whenever we can. (That can be expensive and difficult, but much of that is fixed by doing a home exchange.) My priority, in every decision I make, is the happiness, fun and well-being of my kid and spouse. Trying to make that compatible with everything else is the hard part.

How’s your summer juggle? Do you have a set routine or do you have to plan every summer differently? Do you get even half as much done as you hope to get done?

How to run a summer undergraduate research lab

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That title should indicate a question rather than a set of instructions.

How do you run a research lab in the summertime?

We’re approaching that time when campuses get really quiet, except for us scientists who are working year-round.

Many of us have undergrads funded (through a variety of internal and external funds) to work in our labs in the summer. What does it take to make sure that get work gets done on schedule, in high volume, and with the proper level of quality control? What can you do to make sure that the students have the best research experience? Are those two things wholly compatible?

What policies and procedures do you have, if any? Do you use a timecard with fidelity? How often do students report on their work formally, and how much time do you actually work alongside your students? How much is expected of the students in terms of hours per week, research product, or both? Do you have students write up much their work in the summer, save all it for the fall, or do they just hand over data to you and you write it up?

Please share your favorite practices, and ones you know that don’t work, in the comments. We’ve got lots to learn from one another.

I imagine that marital and reproductive status affect how you run the lab over the summer, too.

I tell my undergrads that I have three priorities for summer research:

  1. Everybody is safe
  2. Everybody has a fun time
  3. Everybody is collecting genuine data that is designed to be part of a publication

I explain that all three are mutually compatible. We are doing real science, not a make-work research “experience.”

That said, I have almost no experience with personally mentoring undergraduates in the lab throughout the summer.  Students working with me in the summer head to a large rainforest field station with me for a few weeks. And then I leave them behind to continue their projects, typically in the hands of capable peers or mentors. As my wife has described my field site, both the atmosphere and physical environment resembles the hybrid of a college campus and a summer camp. I’ll be sharing plenty more about this while I’m on site, just a few weeks away. (Gaaah! Not ready!)

If there’s a meltdown in my absence, or if a hole pops up in my schedule, then I might return back to the forest before the summer ends. But otherwise, much of my mentorship is conducted via skype and email. Which is no small task. I don’t supervise my students doing their field projects as closely as I could, but I have found that giving students with great judgment latitude to make decisions works out really well. I don’t allow students with less-than-great judgment to work independently in the rainforest. I’ve gotten pretty good at picking out the right students in advance, with the help of my colleagues, but I also intentionally occasionally take chances on students who I think might be deserving of a the opportunity. I’ve gotten burned occasionally, including last summer when I had to send a student home after just a few days.

I don’t think I could or would want to spend my summer in my lab. It’s glorious outside, and I want to travel, often in the guise of science, and I also want to spend lots of time with my family. So, when I’m not at my field station, I’m often working at home. There’s no shortage of writing projects that need my attention. If I were in the lab with students all summer, when would I be able to write?