Evolving Workstyles

There is a colleague, considerably senior to me, with whom I don’t interact much; we are in different fields and have offices on different floors. But I occasionally run into him on my way out of the parking garage, and when I do we always have a brief but pretty cool chat.

This last one had to do with funding and the need for it. The colleague is in applied math; I am a theorist working in applied physics, so nominally we could have fairly similar work styles and funding needs, but we don’t. The colleague works alone or with students who either TA the entire time in grad school or come with fellowships, but he generally does not even write grants any more and cherishes the time he has to do his own intellectual work. He asks why I don’t do the same, and that’s a good question. I am now in the full managerial mode, with students doing the technical work, while I am providing the big picture, which project we get to do, how and who will be involved, I write grants to get the projects funded, and I do a lion’s share of writing and editing of the papers and I do check the students’ derivations. But I no longer write big codes; there simply isn’t the time for that.

I suppose how I work now is somewhat similar to having a lab, in that there are multiple projects that require manpower and the volume is such that I just can’t do all the technical work on my own. Even if I would be faster than a student on any given project, I still cannot do the work of 8 students. Having a big group means all those students have to be continuously funded, which is stressful. And I spend a lot of time working with (and funding!) untrained and inexperienced people.

Even though I don’t bring in as much money as experimentalists, I definitely bring in a substantial amount and more than, say, a theorist in most pure math or physics fields is expected to raise. In my department, if you lose money, you lose respect. Money is paramount.

When I was in the throes of writing multiple proposals simultaneously a week or so ago, someone close to me lamented, “Why don’t you just stop working with students? You can do the work on your own, don’t have to waste time training them, you can write the papers as you like instead of pulling your hair out while editing students’ drafts.” Sometimes, this idea sounds heavenly. Not writing grants would be awesome! But I think as painful as grant writing is (actually, grant rejections are the painful part), it forces you to keep fresh and relevant. And if you pay students, then you can recruit the good ones. And working alone means I would only be able to do 3-4 projects at the time, as opposed to 6-8 that I am involved in now, or more like 10 that I would ideally like to do. A shortage of ideas is not my problem; it’s only a shortage of time and money.

I oscillate between wanting to be a total pariah and do my thing, and enjoying work with students and the social aspect of doing science. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

But I do wish I had more time to think and do the technical work myself. Maybe I just need to carve out a small side project, no students involved… I try to ignore the guilt pangs over “Why are you doing this instead of editing your student’s paper and helping him graduate?”

And completely unrelated: The Oatmeal was really a/an [insert expletive] with yet another “Babies suck and the people who have them suck even more” cartoon (here’s an old one, with bonus;  for some reason it still brings people to this post). But then he posts this and I just can’t hate the guy.

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