Monday, February 27, 2017

Can we return to funding stability?

In the olden days (i.e. for my PhD advisor) in the physical sciences, the funding strategy was simple--get in with a program officer at one of the major funding agencies for your bread and butter grant. Then supplement that with additional proposals. For ProdigalAdvisor, his core grant was DOE. As long as he was productive, the renewal of this grant was more or less guaranteed. It was enough money to support 2-3 students, or a student and a postdoc if budgeted carefully. He knew his PO well, and had regular contacts.

The upsides to this, compared to our current situation are obvious. First, having semi-permanent funding enables risk taking in other proposals, since they aren't make or break for the lab. It also means less time spent proposal writing and more time on other things. Next, it makes the disconnect between PhD time (5-6 years in my field) and grant time (usually 3 years) less painful, since it is unlikely that funding will end mid-PhD causing a shift in research topics midway through. Finally, the reduced mental overhead of near constant worry about funding improves pretty much everything. Because funding was not guaranteed without productivity (and POs do come and go), there was still pressure to produce, but not as acute, and not to the exclusion of all else. 

However, there were also significant downsides to this system. The main one is that it HEAVILY favored people hooked into the Old Boy Network, who could be introduced to the POs they need to network with to get into this kind of favorable funding situation. POs tended to stick to people who reminded them of themselves when younger, which suppressed diversity big time. It also heavily favored older established scientists (who were hooked up with semi-permanent renewals) over younger, upcoming scientists (who had to fight tooth and nail for funding until they could hook up with a PO willing to fund their careers). POs tended to stick with "their" stable of researchers, even past the point of when they were producing good science. Finally, it reduced the "nimbleness" of the funding agencies to change research directions and priorities as situations changed.

Is it possible to get the good of stability in funding without the bad of locking in the status quo for years and years? I don't really know. It seems that both systems were about equally likely to favor famous, established groups and also about equally meritocratic (though the optics now MIGHT look a little better now). Diversity is better now--the Old Boy Network is still present, but not quite as dominant. Risk taking in research is probably less common than before, due to the danger of being unfunded. There always were people who wanted to push the envelope/got bored with their current areas/were creative scientists of any age, but these people could get to stable situations in the past that are much more difficult to reach now. My PhD supervisor, with his semi-guaranteed DOE grant, was not a superstar with a megagroup. He was just a "normal" PI.

I am much, much more worried about funding than my advisor ever was. All of my colleagues are also worried. I spend a huge fraction of my time writing proposals, and I know I write many, many more than my advisor ever did (not just conjecture--we've discussed it since I moved to the TT). Both systems favor flashy science that can be packaged up and sold, and extroverted people with good networking skills, which doesn't necessarily correlate with important science and research talent, respectively. The modern funding schemes favor trend following, and rapidly move funding into and out of areas when they become hot and cold, which is not necessarily a good thing in basic research if we want to develop a deep understanding of something, which takes time. It sometimes seems to me like we moved the deck chairs around to generate at least the appearance of a more meritocratic, inclusive approach and called it progress, while forgetting that the quality of the experience for those in the system is also important.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Teaching a new class

The first time I taught a class, it took me (on average) 6-8 hours per hour of class time to prep, not including exam writing, homework assigning, or grading, which is obviously unsustainable. As I got more experienced with the material (and with teaching), I could drop this down to 30-45 minute per hour of class time. The first time I taught a new class, I was panicked to think I'd be back to 6-8 hours, but teaching itself is a learned skill, and I find it takes a lot less time to prep even new material.

Less time, that is, than 6-8 hours. It still takes me a long time to prep new material. I like to do a good job, so I try not to skimp on the class prep. Before I start a new course, I dread the extra work. It seems like a huge mountain of additional stuff I don't have time for. That said, I find that once I am into it, it goes faster than I fear, and I enjoy it. I like learning new things, and I find that having to explain things to students helps me deepen my understanding, even of material that I know fairly well. When the course includes things I haven't really used since I was a student, I find that my much deeper knowledge base now makes me appreciate things I glossed over as a student. It is still a ton of work, though.

My department here at ProdigalU does a good job protecting TT folks pre-tenure. Most people get to keep the courses they start with for their whole run to tenure. Post tenure, our department tries to give people a minimum of 3 years with a new course. However, since life happens (with emergencies and sabbaticals and family leaves and everything else), sometimes people have to shift more often.

I think it is important to rotate instructors. Not just from a fairness perspective (since we all know that some courses are more work than others), but from a teaching perspective as well. I find that 5-6 years is the ideal time for me to have a course before swapping. The first 2 years, I am still getting a feel for the material and how the students respond to it. I'd say I am at peak teaching performance (for me, anyway) in years 3 and 4. By year 5, I find that I am getting a bit stale in the class. Definitely by year 6, I am ready to move on.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Summer undergraduate research

'Tis the season for making summer plans, and undergrads are looking for research opportunities. I love having summer undergrads in the lab--they are usually super excited to be there, and I enjoy interacting with them. We've had great undergrad students in the lab so far. About a third of them end up co-authors on publications, which is win-win for everyone. I always ask my grad students if they want to mentor someone before signing them up for it, and many of my grad students ask for summer students even before I get to ask them about it first.

This year, for the first time, I am relying exclusively on interviews to decide on whether I will take a student or not. I have never been a huge believer that GPA is a good way to award these kinds of opportunities, so I thought I would put my money where my mouth is. With one caveat: I want students to be fairly compensated for the work they do in the lab, so low GPA students may need to figure out how they can do this (with my help, of course).

I strongly believe that students should receive cash or credit for research, which is after all, work. Since the coffers are a bit bare right now, I am telling all potential students that they must do one of the following: 1) meet the requirements to take research for credit (3.0 minimum GPA at ProdigalU) and sign up, or 2) apply for and receive a research award to cover at least half of their summer stipend, or 3) qualify for work-study so they can be partially paid through that program over the summer. This is something that actively troubles me, since while I don't WANT to have to consider GPA, with my funding situation the way it is, I have no choice. So far, half of the students I've interviewed are specifically looking for research for credit opportunities, since they are taking other classes anyway and would like to get some research experience as well. The other half plan on applying for summer fellowships.

We are fortunate because ProdigalU has loads of summer research fellowships students can apply for, but that usually doesn't help low GPA students. I haven't had any approach me yet about research this year, but if they don't qualify for work-study (and a large fraction of our students do), I will have to turn them away. I am not sure what to do about that--I literally don't have the money to pay full freight on an undergrad. At the same time, it is unfair to limit research opportunities to students wealthy enough to be able to volunteer. Summer research is a really different experience than undergrad research during the academic year when students are pulled in many directions by their classes. It is very sad that these possibly life-changing opportunities are pretty much the first thing to go when research money gets tight.