Selfishness in academia

As a TT assistant professor, the pressure is on to establish myself as an independent investigator, to get extramural grant support and to publish papers as senior author. Oh, and there’s also the teaching stuff as well as the service stuff. Plus the advising stuff. Plus the miscellaneous bullshit stuff. Sigh. The list goes on.

But what I’m struggling to reconcile right now is my urgent need for my trainees to generate data and write papers because that’s what I have to do in order to advance my own career versus my responsibility to ensure that the trainees get a first class education and training experience. I’m becoming more and more convinced that this is just not possible in the current system. That the students’ education is not being put first.

And then there’s my own internal reaction when discussing career stuff with trainees. Instead of being happy for the decisions they are making, my first thoughts are increasingly about how their decisions will affect me and my progress. Me and my career. The time and effort I’ve invested in them. I’ve had to stop and remind myself that they aren’t indentured apprentices. That they are free to leave whenever they choose. That I’m here to help guide them to where they want to be. And that I have the privilege of sharing their accomplishments.

I’m at the point where I’m jumping up and down in frustration because I can’t get what I want when I want it (which is always yesterday or last week or last year). My resources are limited and dwindling at an alarming rate. My students are swamped with classes and assistantship responsibilities. And yet I’m expected to push out papers. I’m expecting them to push out the papers. And data. Let’s not forget the new data. Grant reviewers always want to see the experiments done before they’ll give you the money you’re requesting. Experiments that take time and money. Experiments that the trainees are troubleshooting in between teaching labs, in between seminars, in between classes and in between that annoying life stuff that always seems to creep up on you when you can least afford the time.

I’m preparing my pre-tenure review and it’s lacking in publications and funding. I know I’ll get dinged for it. But I’m doing as much as I possibly can given the resources I have available to me. I’m being as selfish as I can.

Sigh. Methinks it’s chocolate time.

23 responses so far

  • rknop says:

    Gah. Good luck with all of it. It's true that the system is horribly broken beyond repair. The system is set up to reward people who do the right kind of self-promotion things, and be damned what happens to the people around them. It's just nuts.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    You're an academic PI. Grants and publications make or break your career. You didn't make that rule, and it sounds as if you try to mentor your trainees well in spite of it.

    Meanwhile, universities don't give a shit whether or not PIs are earnestly endeavoring to educate their trainees in spite of it all. With respect to the PI, universities only care about grant acquisition-- for the same reason that has unfailingly motivated the noble human race since time immemorial that universities sell overpriced degrees without compunction . Personally? I'm not about to blame PIs. Certainly not the majority of them.

    Did you ever see the wretched remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth? An execrable actor whose appeal I have always failed to understand plays a geology PI whose lab is about to be shut down by some domineering university bureaucrat. He journeys to the center of the earth. Some shit about dinosaurs and romance is the movie's central focus, but what really matters is that the center of the earth features giant flawless diamonds and emeralds and nuggets of gold. The PI returns to the earth's surface with a veritable fortune. He tells the university bureaucrat to suck it, buys his own lab, and lives happily ever after. Funding is such an easy problem to solve.

  • thehermitage says:

    As in any business focusing on the bottom line, mentoring n00bs entering the pipeline is rarely a priority. Even less so when they're being churned out at a tremendous rate. Being absolutely selfless in making sure you're the bestest mentor evah means you won't get funded, won't get pubs, and will be booted out of the ivory tower and only the Fuckwads will remain to torture another day. IMO, do your best (but don't lose this feeling totally) and don't sweat it so much.

  • Hope says:

    PiT, I swore off blogs for the new year, but a friend of mine pointed me to this and I just had to make an exception. Every now and again I read something that makes me think that the time I spent reading it was time well spent. Thank you for having the balls to write this, and thank you for caring enough to be bothered by it! I wish you all the best … and I heartily recommend Lindt’s Petits Desserts – scrumptious!

  • Psyc Girl says:

    I am really struggling this as a new professor - I want and need my students to be helping me with my research, be it generating data, doing literature reviews, etc. But they are so bogged down in massive amounts of coursework in my program that getting time from them is like sucking blood from a rock. Of course when I mentioned this to my colleagues at a meeting, there was a definite negative response to me even suggesting we were too course heavy (though one colleague agreed). It's ridiculously frustrating - my T&P will depend on my publications. I negotiated lab space and start-up funds, but it's not that helpful with no one to help me run the studies.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    One of the top plans for new Assistant Profs should be finding a way to fund a good tech. Or undergrad RAs if necessary in your type of field. A person who works for you, for pay, full stop.

  • grad student says:

    My perspective as a grad student; my advisor was a great mentor, always helped students out, etc. Which made me want to help hir in turn (basically returning the favor). If you do well by your students and communicate about what you both need, I think you'll find (at least some) students willing to listen. If you don't treat your students well and are constantly sacrificing their interests for yours, expect them to be only interested in maxmizing what they can get for themsleves; if you're not looking out for their interests they will have to do so themselves.

  • Odyssey says:

    Bottom line: You fail, all your trainees fail. And vice versa. It's not selfishness. For better or worse it's how the system works.

  • PiT, I totally feel your pain. We are just beginning to get out data that will be ours alone, and I can see the form of the paper it will generate. It has been really hard to let my students slog through to this point (and especially to let them make mistakes when learning). Now I am faced with the write up problem--do I let my students take a stab at writing, or do I write it up myself (which will be at least 2-3 times faster)?

    It would certainly be better for my students to let them write it, and work with them on drafts. It will certainly be better for me to write it all myself. I always thought I would allow my students to learn to write papers from the beginning, but there it almost no way I can do that this time. It sucks to realize that at least at the beginning, I can't be the mentor I wanted to be.

  • GMP says:

    PiT, the relationship between the PI and the students is symbiotic. You are both necessary to each other in order to advance each of your careers. If you are doing your best, within the limits of time, funds, and sanity, to educate and mentor them, I think that's all that anyone can expect from you. As Odyssey said, if you fail, all your students fail, so you better not fail -- not just for you, but for them too. So your job is to teach them, guide the research, and grease the wheels (with $$$); their job is the technical minutie of lab work. You cannot survive without each other, and I think (most) students know and appreciate that.

    Prodigal: I let the student certainly write the first few drafts, which I edit and give back promptly, and I set a firm timeline on each draft (they have to give it to me by a certain date). If by draft n (n is approximately 3) the paper is not in publishable form, then I take the paper over and rewrite it. With senior students and most postdocs the first draft is already quite decent, so 3 iterations bring us very close to a publishable form. But for novice students it's certainly not so. Timely publication is absolutely key for a research group's success, so I have found that putting clocks on when drafts are expected, ensuring they are editied quickly, and capping the number of back-and-forths before taking over completely offers a good balance between providing students with training in how to write and ensuring well-written papers go out fast.

  • chall says:

    I'm sorry PiT - but I think your thinking is what happens with the tight leash and not easy funding/tenure-track...

    I am much more understanding nowadays when looking back at the tech in the lab who only worked for my PI. Never did much for* the rest of us, didn't help out as I saw other techs do in other labs, but did stuff "like a grad student/post doc" for the PI and therefore was the one who gave them good data to publish. Every so often, the tech work would get transferred to grads/post docs who were new so they could start up with something that already worked...and keep going.

    The more I think about it, the more I think that this was the main help for the PI to keep a continous publication record. That said, there was funding for a tech from the beginning.... so, you need something to start with.

    Good luck with fighting the feelings and finding a good middle ground! And there's nothing wrong with choclate!

    *as in "it's not your tech, it's mine" as the PI would specify. The tech would do things with you if it was sanctioned to "the project"... if this makes sense?

  • antipodean says:

    Thank fuck I'm not the only one thinking this way...

  • BikeMonkey says:

    All my techz ar belong to ME!

  • Being absolutely selfless in making sure you’re the bestest mentor evah means you won’t get funded, won’t get pubs, and will be booted out of the ivory tower and only the Fuckwads will remain to torture another day.

    This is total bullshitte. Effective mentoring of trainees in your labbe is *exactly* what it takes to get funded, pubs, tenure, etc. Problems arise when you are in a circumstance that precludes effective mentoring: trainees are incompetent, trainees are overburdened by non-science bullshit, lab has insufficient resources, etc.

  • Melissa's Bench says:

    I try to be honest with my group. As in, in an ideal world this is what would happen, you would get to stroll along in the garden of science at your own pace, re-inventing each wheel in your own lovely unique way. But you want to get a PhD in 4-5 years and I want to succeed as an independent PI, and both of things require papers, multiple papers. I worried that starting every one-on-one meeting talking about publishing strategy, even when the student barely has data for a Figure 1, would make me seem selfish. But I have gotten feedback that the students are really "getting" that papers are the only currency of science, and that this should be their focus as much as their classes, TA'ing, and other responsibilities. Being diligent about journal club within the lab has also helped me calibrate their ideas of how much data is required to publish in our field, so that they know they are still largely way beneath that bar and need to step it up.

  • I worried that starting every one-on-one meeting talking about publishing strategy, even when the student barely has data for a Figure 1, would make me seem selfish.

    It may not seem selfish to your students, but it is definitely foolish, and they don't know any better. You need to give trainees room to breathe, room to explore, room to develop their own ideas. Hammering them with "publishing strategy" after just collecting some preliminary data not even sufficient for a single figure is ensuring that they will only see what is right in front of their faces, that will only be looking for what they already have surmised exists, and will look right past much more interesting cool and unexpected shitte that is not consistent with the "publishing strategy".

    What you are doing may seem like a good idea in the short term, but in the long term it is going to force you and your trainees down a boring, derivative, low-impact road of incremental science that no one else gives a shitte about.

    • chemicalbilology says:

      Yeah but dude, that is kind of field specific. In chemistry and chembio most of your bread and butter is papers where your hypothesis is "I think that if I put these two things together, they will make this product" and they do. In order to reach the "productivity" levels that your field's evaluators are going to be measuring you by, you have to do a lot of those boring, derivative incremental things. If you don't, you won't be continuing on that career path to ever get to the more exciting stuff.

  • Heavy says:

    Welcome back from your "break". If it is any consolation, my peeps aren't getting anything written either, but then again neither am I....

  • Sara says:

    From a student's perspective, being taught how to be experimentally productive is excellent training. I don't see how that's not a win-win situation. You get your publications for your tenure package, and your students also get publications plus education in how to Get Shit Done. Moreover, the early-year grad students get to keep you for the duration of their PhD training if you end up staying. Otherwise, if you lose tenure, they lose their lab/advisor. Not good.

    One thing I've noticed is that some new professors, especially some of the very capable ones, tend not to delegate very well. Probably they are too accustomed to just getting stuff done because they're typically more capable and efficient than others. But for your lab to run efficiently, you have to delegate tasks.

    Lastly, can you negotiate lighter or zero teaching loads for some of your students? My advisor (a fairly new professor) and I have a deal that if I get another heavy teaching load, we'll both raise a big stink. We figure with a two-prong attack we're likely to succeed in reducing my teaching load so that I can focus on the research.

    One last thought: research, with it's flexible deadlines and fuzzy output, can easily take a backseat to coursework with pressing deadlines and clear deliverables, even for the most research-motivated students. If I have a clear deliverable to produce for my advisor (e.g. a literature review) with a pressing deadline (e.g. on such-and-such a date to give my advisor enough time to incorporate it into a grant), then it's easy to put off my coursework in order to get research work done. Sometimes just knowing why a particular task is pressing can help a student get it done. And really, coursework shouldn't be that pressing (though it always seems like it is) so long as the student is generally learning the material and not failing the class. But too many of us are perfectionists and we let the coursework expand and eat into our available time. Helping students prioritize and set boundaries on their tasks so as to avoid letting vampiric coursework suck away their time is furthering their training. While grad students should already have good time management skills, one can never be too good at time management.

    If all else fails, use the chocolate to condition your students to be more productive.

  • PiT, I know exactly how you feel. I'm also trying to figure out where to set the arseshole bar that provides optimal output from my trainees without crushing everyone's spirits completely.

    My trainees are swamped with coursework and TA requirements that easily take up 40 hours a week. To get any meaningful results out, they have to put in at least 60 total hours and ideally 80. And I can't hire a technician. I don't know any new TT eng profs (outside 1 or 2 exceptions at top top programs) that have funds to hire postdocs or techs right out of the gate.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    You are going to hate this. What DM said is the best way to go, but you don't have that choice which means YOU are going to have to 24/7 to produce the data and papers YOU need. Sorry, you are your own tech now. Also you are going to have to drop something, which means no meetings and less teaching. Talk to your chair about a bit of teaching relief, but don't take on extras like tutoring sessions etc. Office hours are posted and that's it. This is until you get over the hump, but you have to move into survival mode.

  • The best things you can do in regard to the assistantships is find out how much work your students are supposed to be doing. I'm only supposed to work 12 hours / week. I'm logging how long each of my "required tasks" are taking and stopping when I hit 12 hours. Its not my job to figure out how to get more done in less time, its the just of the course instructor to have reasonable expectations. My PI fully supports me in this as does our union. Sadly not enough grad students working as TAs realize that have to power and the right to do this. Let your students know so they can at least free up some time.

    Also let them know what you need, when and why. It sounds like you're trying to do the best by your students. I know I would go above and beyond for my PI bc of how well she treats me. Your student would probably do the same for you.

  • Rachel says:

    It seems like your priorities and your trainees priorities should be perfectly aligned. They need pubs now and so do you (if they don't know this, they're going to get a shock when they graduate and realize they're competing with other recent grads with multiple pubs). That means they need to generate data, analyze it, and start writing. They need funding and so do you. It's in their best interest to put a lot of work into a grant so they can RA for a while. It's easy to let pubs and grants take a back seat to coursework when you're a grad student, but slacking on coursework won't affect their career so much as lack of pubs. Maybe being more selfish will actually help your students in their long term success. It is good to hear a PI talk about wanting to be a good mentor though - caring goes a long way.