Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A week in the life of Dr. Odyssey

My last post was on having undergraduates do research. In the comments JLK asked:

Why be a professor at an MRU if you're not going to do your own research?

A simple question with a rather complex answer (or answers). The short answer is stuff happens. Read on for the more detailed answer.

I suspect the vast majority of us start our tenure-track positions at MRU's (Major Research University) fully intending to literally do our own research. Stand side-by-side with our trainees at the bench sweating over our own experiments. That was certainly my intent.

For the first few years it can be like that. But over time things change. We obtain new and more responsibilities. Grant writing. Publishing. Teaching. Committees. Reviewing (both manuscripts and grant proposals).

As we become more successful and better known the list grows. Study sections/review panels for grantmaking agencies. Traveling to give talks at other institutions. Meetings/conferences. Perhaps editorial duties at a journal. Service within scientific/professional societies. Even more grant writing. If you're lucky enough to gain "rockstar" professor status you can end up with even more of these responsibilities.

The time for actually doing our own research dwindles. I still manage to carve out some time to spend in the lab, but it's very limited. Instead we live vicariously through the efforts of the people in our groups. Instead of doing research we direct it. It's not that we don't want to do our own research. It's more that it's no longer in our job descriptions. By the time we hit mid-career (associate prof level - where I currently am) our job is to provide the environment, funding and intellectual background necessary for the research to occur.

Here is my week as an illustration (the current week, and just the weekdays). Note that my teaching load is very light compared to someone not in a College of Medicine.

Morning: I got in late (mid-morning) after taking one of my daughters to the dentist... I am an officer in a subgroup within a scientific society. I spent over an hour Monday morning dealing with subgroup business. This was followed by time spent in the lab helping an undergrad debug an experiment. I updated my blog while eating lunch.
Afternoon: More subgroup business. Finished preparing an exam I was administering in a 2nd year graduate student-level class Tuesday morning. Spent an hour working on a manuscript. Spent an hour with a student asking questions regarding the exam. Attended a seminar given by a candidate for an open faculty position. Talked to my lab tech about the protein prep she was working on.

Morning: Attended the chalk talk (future research presentation) given by faculty candidate. Proctored exam in grad-level class (we don't have TA's), met with the faculty candidate. Ate a sandwich before walking to other side of campus for...
Afternoon: Grad student committee meeting. Spent most of remainder of the day reviewing protocols submitted to the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), of which I am a member. Talked to undergrad and lab tech about ongoing experiments.

Morning: Continued work on manuscript. Planned out project for a new high school intern about to join the lab. Wrote this blog entry. Will walk to other side of campus for...
Afternoon: IBC meeting. This will probably take at least two hours. At least they feed us... Hope to work some more on manuscript. Check with lab tech on results of a gel. Meet with new high school intern.

Morning: Start reviewing student travel award proposals for scientific society. Teach in 2nd year grad student course. Continue reviewing travel award proposals (there are 36 to do). Talk with undergrads in the lab about their projects.
Afternoon: Maybe spend two hours in the lab doing some research! Hopefully also work with lab tech learning new technique. Review more travel award proposals. Attend student seminar.

Morning: I try to spend Friday mornings working at home, mostly writing and reviewing. I'll try to get a manuscript review done and finish the travel award reviewing.
Afternoon: Meet with people in the lab. Attend weekly meeting held by a Center I'm part of. Get back to work on that manuscript.

Okay, so maybe I don't have 36 travel award proposals to review every week. I may have more manuscripts or grant proposals to review. Or other committee meetings. Or travel. And I haven't detailed any of the constant interruptions that occur during each day. You can see it's difficult to carve out big blocks of time to spend in the lab during the week.

Such is life.

I wouldn't trade it for anything.


JLK said...

Thanks for explaining, Odyssey. It seems like discussions about pursuing tenure are all focused on the "publish or perish" aspect of it, so I have always assumed that a professor's purpose at an MRU was to generate research of their own.

Now I understand why after a certain point, the number of articles published with professors as first authors seem to dwindle as time goes on in their careers. Makes sense.

Seems to me to be a shitty decision to have to make when you're a newly-minted PhD. Either try to go to a MRU where the money for research is and know that eventually you won't be as involved as you once were, or go to a smaller U where the funds are harder to come by but you might have more control over the research that gets published with your name on it.

Not a decision that I can say I'm looking forward to, though it's a looooong way off.

JollyRgr said...

The way you wrote that shows you love it...:-)

Goose said...

Can't help but ask: Was that committee meeting for the famed graduate student from an earlier blog?

JollyRgr is right... you do sound happy!

Odyssey said...

No, this was a very good student whose committee is a pleasure to be on.

There are very few days when I'm not happy to be at work.

I have control over what gets published with my name on it. I direct a research program of my choosing. My trainees have some latitude in terms of the precise projects they work on, but their choices have to fit within in the scope of my program. Or expand the scope in ways I'm willing to go. It's a lot of fun.

Jeff Seale said...

It's no different in an industrial career. I have virtually no time to do my own experiments anymore because I'm either helping people in my group plan out projects, or I'm sitting in meetings deciding how we should proceed on projects.

And we also have to serve time on committees, etc.

The way I wrote it, I don't sound as happy as you. As much as I like directing research, I love actually DOING it. Once I've done something hugely successful directing this group, I'm giving it all up to end my career as a bench scientist.