The diminishing returns of success

Jan 18 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This has been a good year for the lab. Students have graduated, papers have been published and funding success has been realized. Pending the federal budget fiasco and assuming NSF will not be cut in any major way, we are likely to have full funding for three projects in the lab this year, with seed funding for a fourth. There's hiring to do. There are students to bring on board. There is shit to buy.

But as the lab transforms into a busier place, the time to manage those new people and projects has to come from.... where? Which ball gets dropped when new ones get tossed in? If my teaching load gets reduced, who picks up the slack? Who covers my committee work? Who spends time with my family?

In lean financial times there is scant money around to pay adjuncts to pick up new courses. Like most universities, mine is facing a multi-million dollar budget deficit this year and guess where those cuts hit hard? Per-course instruction is low hanging fruit for administrators (yet another reason that being an adjunct instructor is a raw deal).

Maybe I don't offer a course for a year? I guess that's possible, but it certainly isn't ideal for the curriculum. I can assure you that it would also not be a move supported departmentally, which makes it a bit of a non-starter. So what's left? I don't know, but it looks like a conversation I need to have or risk stunting our progression curve.

How does it work at your institution? What does grant success "buy" you in the non-medical science world?

9 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    We are allowed to "buy out" one course if we get a grant, where we give the money to the department, and they presumably use it to pay an adjunct. It's not a small chunk of change, but I think it's worth it--the difference between teaching one or two courses in a semester is enormous.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's not really normal to budget course release into NSF budgets unless one is at a PUI, so the money would have to be skimmed in another way. It's possible to do this, I suppose, maybe as my overhead share builds up a bit.

  • iGrrrl says:

    As an engineer friend once said. "Great! we got the grant. Damn! Now we have to actually do it."

    In the universities I see, there are a lot of models. In some places, the faculty member actually gets an increase in pay because they are given the summer salary, but nothing else to help them have the time needed. In places where the "summer salary" of an NSF grant is not added to the "nine-month" salary, course releases are pretty common. It's not skimming. The logic is that they actually use the portion of your salary you get on the grant as part of your salary, and use what they don't have to pay you from departmental funds to hire the adjunct. Some places won't let anyone out of a course, and you just have to figure it out. The more-senior-postdoc-as-lieutenant model can work for busy labs in those cases.

    On the personal level, there are three words I use in my grant seminars, and I'm quoting Mina Bissell, past president of ASCB: Get domestic help. I mean get someone else to clean the bathrooms and mow the lawn. Use that time for your family. IME, it's worth it.

    But the other thing that happens is that stuff gets through the cracks, and you have to figure out what you're willing to accept. Informal meetings with students tend to lose ground, and sometimes a formal weekly lab meeting can help with that. Some people put slightly more 'corporate' reporting systems in place to make sure they keep in touch, since the 'lean in the door' time is diminished. People try to find service that mostly entails showing up, not much outside work, etc. (Admissions committee is often the first to go.)

    Not sure if that's useful, but it's a bit of what I've seen.

  • Zuska says:

    Dude, per-course instruction is the death of the tenured professor. Unless tenured profs join forces w/adjuncts to agitate for better work conditions, wages, benefits...you know, like a real job. Some say develop a teaching track! I say that's bad for the students to separate teaching & research. What is messed up are these incentives to become a tenured "professor" who professes nothing but is a full time researcher instead. There should be no reward for being too busy to teach, & no escape so to speak, & professors should be taught to teach, & I want a pony too.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I assume you want it to fart rainbows too?

    Reality:
    - Each of us is only one person.
    - There are only so many hours in a day.
    - Currently, professional success is driven, in large part by research.
    - Given the first two, success in research has to come at the expense of something, be it obligations, sanity or sleep.

    p.s. Every proposal I write has at least two stipends for undergraduate researchers. There's more than one way to profess.

  • JaneB says:

    You suck it up and do the work, unless you are Golden Boy, here. Golden Boy gets buyouts regardless of external metrics (although we don't have adjuncting here, what we do is add the hours on to a post-doc's contract, and if done well it helps boost the c.v. of the faculty-track post-doc. And yes, it's Golden BOY in my place, been here 15 years and amassed enough data to be reasonably sure that there's a gender component, at least with ecologically-sufficient statistical rigor (as opposed to say medical-trial-sufficient)

    Everyone else... the department cuts at the edges, so you get less advising, less first year tutorials, but otherwise - suck it up. The thing it has seriously hacked at for me is the continuity of funding - if I have enough for a large group by local standards (where large is a lot smaller than your large, I'm sure), running the group takes up my time, and I don't go for post-doc-type money for a year or so unless the post-doc is prepared to take the lead on all the paperwork etc. (for credit). Because if the group grew again the next year it would all come tumbling down...

  • phagenista says:

    Actual advice: talk to your dept chair and get off of any time-consuming committees. Stop volunteering for anything for a year. Only teach courses you already have all the lectures for and resist the temptation to update them each year. Do any of your students/postdocs want a teaching-oriented career? If so, ask your chair for permission to have them start to team-teach with you (1/3 of the course?). Remember that with 3 NSF grants you're not going to be writing as many grants for a while, so you will have more time that you may be realizing.

    How science jobs are structured musing: I look at labs of more senior scientists that routinely have 3-4 NSF grants going and I see dedicated administrative help (maybe a half time assistant, one who can do much of the non-science grant submission paperwork and take much of the paperwork burdens away) and/or an awesome technician who keeps the lab humming and does a fair bit of the management of projects. Getting NSF funding for those people is difficult, and I certainly haven't learned the successful senior scientist tips and tricks yet. One non-NSF way seems to be switch institutions and demand it in your startup package. Especially after my personal experience with Hurricane Sandy, I am firmly convinced that hard line technician positions are incredibly important. The professors' job pulls him/her out of the lab (teaching, travel, writing, reviewing), the tech takes care of the lab: the projects, the equipment, the lab safety, the newbies.

    Instead of talking about research vs other parts of job/life tradeoffs, wouldn't it be nice if a university could provide us with research technicians to help meet expanding research obligations?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    One historical thing; during the Carter Stagflation years, universities were particularly hard hit. One response was laying off support people, rather than faculty. It may be that a proper level of support people has never been regained. There may be some unjustified deadwood attitude still present.

  • Geologist says:

    Some random thoughts. Hire post-docs too. Give each new student a secondary supervisor (new/old postdocs). Assign a senior student as a mentor for the new ones and you will hopefully lower the amount of practical questions you have to deal with. Sign up your senior students for mentorship programs or send them to good workshop which will give them some outside mentoring. Let your PhD-students teach a few lectures/semester. Much more and they might start to lose to much time but a little bit of teaching is a good experience.

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