Academoneya

Over the past few weeks, I have read or heard several times that there are some academics who don’t consider those among their colleagues who run large groups and are prolific in experimental research to be worthwhile academic scholars. I am no experimentalist and some experimental collaborators have annoyed the hell out of me on one occasion or another, but I most definitely appreciate that they work hard and that there are many difficult challenges that they face, many of which are drastically under-appreciated by the people whose work costs considerably less to perform.

I work in an applied field among the physical sciences at an R1 institution. My department comprises people of vastly differing work styles in the different subfields; in that sense the department is actually quite typical for the field and this diversity of styles around me has helped me learn about and appreciate the challenges faced by colleagues who do work very different from mine. 

For instance, there are colleagues who have very small groups, 0-2 people besides themselves. These colleagues operate very much like the people in pure math/theoretical physics/some areas of computer science and, perhaps surprisingly, quite similarly to many of our colleagues in the humanities: they do the technical work themselves, publish mostly as the sole author or with another coauthor on occasion. They have modest needs for extramural funds (mostly to cover summer salary and travel) and because they work with only 1-2 students, they are able to give each student a lot of attention without the cumulative face-time outside of teaching being very high. The students also publish on their own, without the advisor, and are generally funded as TAs.

I do theoretical and computational research and have between 6-10 group members at any given time. This is a midsize group for my general discipline — larger than what many theorists or mathematicians have, but on par with many experimental groups in the physical sciences. For me, 10 is probably the maximum size that I can take in terms of being able to keep track of what everyone is doing technically, making sure the papers are edited and submitted in a timely fashion, and that everyone progresses as they should towards graduation. I usually have about 4-6 active grants, some by myself where I can support 1-3  students on each, and some where I am a co-PI with other PIs and where I can have a student.  Experimental colleagues in my field with groups of the same size have more expensive research and go for larger and more numerous grants, but are also generally eligible for grants with some agencies that don’t usually fund theory alone. So they must raise more money than me in order to support the same number of group members, because facilities and user fees, as well as materials and supplies, carry a considerable cost.

Then there are colleagues in my discipline who do experimental research and have groups of 20-30 people. (There are a few, not in my department, with 20-30 postdocs alone, and the numbers well over 100 when you count all the graduate students and undergrads. ) The management portion of these colleagues’ work is substantial. It is not a small feat being able to organize the work done by so many, and I know this because I know how much work it is to lead the work of my group that is by a factor of 3-4 smaller. It is an even greater feat keeping such a large operation continuously funded. These people easily have 15+ grants active at any given point in time. Considering that grants in our field last 3 years, that’s 5+ new or renewed grants that have to be received every year. It is extremely stressful. Just raising the needed amount of money requires a talent that not many academics possess (unfortunately, one that I hear many eschew as something trivial, as not real merit). Being successful with this type of work requires a pretty grand technical vision, excellent managerial skills, and excellent networking and people skills in general in order to garner enough support for the  many projects in order to get them funded. These skills are not the same as good lab skills; one person with good lab skills can do 1-2 projects at a time,a person with a great vision and great management skills can help make dozens of amazing projects happen. The face time requirements of this job are often daunting and are definitely not for  the deeply introverted.

In many sciences, you simply don’t get to do any research without money. We can argue about who’s supposed to fund the research and we can all lament over small federal budgets,  but the simple truth is that, whether we like it or not, doing stuff costs money. Nobody bats an eyelash when people in industry say the same thing — you want something done, it costs manpower and materials. In academia, money is a dirty word; it seems to disqualify people as real academics, it implies that somehow people who need it to do research and are actually able to raise it not real academics, but rather some sort of sellouts. There seems to even be a bit of distrust attached to them, like they are a kind of monied wolf in a real academic’s clothing. But the truth is that without money, an experimentalist is simply over and done with and has very little chance of ramping back up because there is no manpower to produce the preliminary data.

Someone with a midsize group, like mine, already operates a lot like someone running a small business. You are responsible for the vision, raising money for the projects, supervision of every aspect of the project execution, and the dissemination (“the selling”) of your products; the benefit of being at a university and working with students is that you don’t think about their retirement and health benefits (the latter generally come with the assistantships). Having an even larger group brings you into the realm of a mid-sized business: you start having administrative assistants and techs, a hierarchy or middle managers, and may not interact frequently with every one of your business employees. You also have many more obligations in terms of schmoozing with donors.

There are fields of academia and subfields in STEM where it is possible and even desirable to operate in the traditional academic mold, where a single scholar can make a substantial intellectual contribution. I do theory and I am lucky that, if I ever completely ran out of money, I could still actually produce some work on my own and ramp back up with new grants. But as long as the scale of what I want to do is greater than 1-2 projects per year, I need other people to work with me, so I need a group and the funding for that group.

But experimental research always costs money. In a number of STEM disciplines the work requires a lot hands in the lab.  Many small parts need to be done, over a long period of time, in order to make even a minor breakthrough. This has always been the case; it’s just that we no longer have large, well-funded R&D industrial labs (at least not in the physical sciences, I cannot speak of the biomedical world) in the sense in which they used to push the boundaries of knowledge through fundamental research. It is now all done at universities.

The rest of us academics need to appreciate all the qualities that someone capable of running these non-traditionally large operations has. Running a large group is immensely stressful and, on top of technical prowess and vision, requires the level of people skills that grace successful managers and politicians and are somewhat rare among traditional academics. These qualities are unapologetically recognized as important in industry, the “real world” if you will, so I don’t understand why many academics reach for the smelling salts at the mention of people skills, salesmanship, granstmanship, or networking.

I know much of the divide is fabricated by the administration; the big grant-raisers in STEM are lauded and rewarded, whereas whole disciplines are derided as a waste of money. The public is eating it all up, thinking of some fields as more or less worthy of existing based on the perceived earning potential in the real world.  The whole ordeal is quite insidious: trying to follow where the money from tuition and overhead goes, especially in public schools, can make your head explode. I think at least us academics don’t have to fall for the BS and can easily get educated about what each of us does and how, and appreciate that different fields need different styles,  that it’s how it should be, and that academia needs to have a place for all of us.

3 comments

  1. This was a great and open-minded post! It reminds me of how some bands will be treated as sell-outs when they switch to bigger labels (although their music does often go downhill afterwards)…

    When I was rotating in grad school I was asking a potential advisor about his management style in his 10 person lab. He said that if we wanted help he would gladly help, but for the most-part, his job was to keep the research and students funded. He said with that many people in biomedical research, he can’t relax on obtaining funding, although he was treated like a rock star instead of a sell-out. Maybe it was his personality?

    Most R&D teams do focus only on product development, which irked me. Two years ago I branched off with my own group and we do core science and feed this information into other teams’ and our own devices, and we’re the only team in our entire company that hasn’t had budget cuts in the past few years. Due to my group I’m beginning to see some shifts towards creating the great R&D labs of the past, but unfortunately, only in the biomedical world. ‘Til the physical sciences catches up again, academics will be stuck trying to do the best research possible with as little money as possible; simultaneous to being vilified for getting ‘all that’ money. Although I wonder if some of this backlash is due to jealousy.

  2. It varies between companies and individual groups in the medical devices field. Luckily, my VP is open to academic collaboration; I’m actually arranging a contract right now. But unfortunately, most groups I’ve seen do not like academic work. They usually think of it as too slow with little applicability. And because academics only publish their best results they’re usually a little skeptical. I don’t know how to change this, I think I’ve just been lucky and convinced the people with the money that academic pursuits are worthwhile, even if there’s no tangible product as the result.

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