Day: November 5, 2016

Is It Bad to Be a Small-Town Grocer?

Professors in the sciences have research groups. The groups range from small (the professor and just one or two additional people), to sizable operations (a dozen or two) and sometimes mega groups (even I have heard of Langer’s mega group at MIT, even though I have nothing to do with that field).

Today someone said that being small and having impact are mutually exclusive. The exact words were that it’s unrealistic or even impossible to achieve certain lofty research goals with a small group, and that if you were ambitious you would obviously want a larger operation.

I both agree and disagree.

We recently hired some excellent junior faculty. They are doing really great but their groups are not giant, at least not yet. They are working well with their students, building up expertise in the lab, and ramping up to publishing their first independent papers. They are NOT lacking in ambition.

My group is sizable for a theorist in my field (usually 6-8 graduate students, 1-2 undergrads, maybe a postdoc), and is midsize for my department. There are people with bigger groups, but those those with groups significantly larger than mine are not numerous. I run a lean operation, but we do good work and we publish at a good rate. I think we are making an impact. I don’t know how much of an impact I would be having with a larger group. I know I would not have as much time with individual students or the ability to work on papers as much as I do now.

However, if you want to make a splash or pursue hot, fast-moving trends, you need a large group, with many highly qualified people. This modus operandi requires serious grant-writing abilities, and, depending on the agency, usually serious schmoozing abilities, as well. If you are like me and have a smaller group with mostly students, that means you cannot pursue fast-moving trends, but you can make an impact if you are thoughtful about the work you pursue, create a niche, and play to your strengths.

There is also variability across fields. One of my friends in applied math scoffs at the paper-production rate in another field as too high, with consecutive papers insufficiently different from one another or not having intellectual heft. It cuts the other way, too, when there are university-level awards, and being in a field where it is common to produce a lot and get large grants definitely looks much more dazzling than a thinner CV, populated by fewer (even if much longer and more “meaty”) papers and little grant money.

I feel that science could and should accommodate for different group styles. But it seems we have adopted enough quantitative metrics that are a proxy to impact but are really highly correlated with topical hotness and group productivity (counting grant dollars, citation numbers, h-index) that it is hard to see how it all doesn’t indicate that larger is better, as more smart people produce more per unit time than fewer. In many fields, especially lab-based ones, I feel it is becoming increasingly difficult to get a faculty job and keep the group going as a small-town grocer.

What say  you, blogosphere? Are grocers out? Will they all be replaced by mega food chains? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the two modes of operation? Is one clearly better and not just what the funding agencies and citation metrics seem to lean toward?