My lab might be closing soon because of insufficient research productivity. Is it really because I supervised too many undergraduate students? And if so, should I regret it?
My group is in trouble because there’s not been enough research productivity. I’ve been a group leader for 7 years, I’ve been 100% self-funded the whole time, and in that period nobody has been in my group longer than about 9 months. I’m currently paid off a “golden handcuffs” grant that covers my whole salary but means I’m not allowed to apply for other sources of funding. And when I got awarded that grant three years ago, my request for an accompanying PhD stipend was rejected.
So I adapted. I started doing more teaching, and realised I loved it. No, not quite that. It was hard and it was difficult and it was a hell of a steep learning curve (especially the practical classes), but it felt meaningful. It felt important. I felt that I was giving something back.
And as I did more teaching, slowly getting the hang of it in an unfamiliar academic environment, suddenly there began a stream of enquiries for Bachelor and Master’s positions in the group. I had no postdocs, I had no PhDs, so I supervised them all myself.
More than that, I quickly realised that I wanted to supervise them all myself. All but one year of my postgraduate and postdoctoral time was spent in research institutes, and being directly supervised by my PhD mentor – who was himself very close to retirement at the time – was something that had made a big impression on me. I wanted to replicate the training experience that I had had.
The only way to be sure that every student coming through the group acquired the information I thought was most important, learned not just how to use techniques but also understood them, and adhered to the same professional standards I applied to myself, was to look after the students personally. With this approach, I found that I could supervise a maximum of three students at a time.
Over these past seven years I’ve personally supervised 7 Master’s students, 7 Bachelor students, and 15 five-week rotation projects, nearly 30 undergraduates in all. Over 20 of those students were supervised in the last three years when I started teaching more. And I’ve gotten really, really good at supervising. Right now, we are putting the finishing touches to a research paper that has literally two soccer teams’-worth of authors, because it’s been painstakingly assembled by all of those students working in sequence.
But it’s not come quickly enough. I got word recently that my grant renewal application has been unsuccessful, and so the entire future of the group is uncertain. I don’t yet know why it wasn’t successful (the evaluations haven’t yet arrived) but it would be a surprise if my recent publication record wasn’t a factor. As ever, there are reasons but no excuses.
Such setbacks invite a degree of reflection. But from asking around, one common thread has emerged: my mistake, so it goes, has been that I have not spent enough time at the bench myself. By choosing to supervise undergraduates instead of cloistering myself away, I have lost time and productivity.
There’s a grain of truth to this. Supervising all of the students has meant that my productivity has been roughly what it would have been if I was working alone at the bench, full-time. But when things are going well and the students are bedded in I have six hands and “I” am more productive than if I was working along with the two hands at the end of my arms.
But of course it’s not possible to work full time at the bench anyway. There’s not just the teaching, there’s all the myriad other little bits and bobs that go with being a contributing and engaged and helpful member of a department. And would the department view me as an asset if I had refused to do all those things? I doubt it. But in seeking to be a good colleague and a good mentor, I have seemingly sabotaged my research career.
Setting aside questions of productivity though, it’s fun. Supervising undergraduates in the lab is really, really great fun. It’s fun communicating the basics, reassuring to realise that you too still understand them (there’s a selfish case for teaching and mentoring, after all), and an entertaining challenge trying to enthuse the students about the topic.
And it’s important too. The coronavirus pandemic has shown how integral science and technology is to contemporary society, and how important an informed and supportive public is. We need people going out into the wider world knowing how science works, believing it’s important, and trusting its practitioners.
I’ve often heard group leaders in postdoc-rich environments complaining that we’re training too many PhDs. They’re wrong. If there’s a glut of PhDs on the academic job market then it means they’re being told that academia is the default route and other career options are not being highlighted clearly enough.
I’m also hearing more and more (often from colleagues in research-intensive environments) that the quality of incoming PhDs isn’t high enough. Research techniques are getting more sophisticated, and so more and more expert training is needed at an earlier stage. Undergraduates need to be involved as early as possible. They need to be exposed to frontline research early on, so that they gain relevant experience and inculcate the right standards.
There is value to making sure that undergraduates get high-quality training, not just in terms of research but to society at large. I could have been at a bench on my own these last few years, but I’m happier that I’ve sent out 30 students who know how science feels and how good science is done.
Yes, I’ve been dumb. I’m guilty of doing the job the way I think it should be done, instead of looking at how I was supposed to be doing it. It took time, apparently too much time, to learn how to do all this efficiently, and I made a lot of the usual new group leader mistakes along the way. I don’t think the choice between doing it alone or doing it with undergraduates was the problem. I think the main problem was not having even a single PhD student this whole time.
I don’t know if I could have done better with the hand I was given, and I’m happy with the way I played it. And I had a hell of a lot more fun interacting with all those young scientists than I would have done working alone every day of the week.
If this is the end, then it doesn’t feel like such a bad hill for my academic career to die on. I believe in the potential of young scientists, I believe they deserve the best possible introduction to bench science, I believe they benefit enormously from close interaction with experienced scientists, and I believe this is something I can do to make a difference.
I’m not going to change my approach. Wish me luck.