Friday, April 13, 2007

Territory


An example of a 'fine line' in research relates to establishing boundaries between the research projects of different students and postdocs working in the same group.

Sometimes it is obvious where those boundaries are, but in those cases the danger can be that the person working on the 'distinct' project might feel isolated from the rest of the group; e.g., the green circle in my dorky diagram on the left.

If we imagine that each individual can be represented as a dot positioned in some way with respect to various axes (perhaps representing techniques or subfields or something like that), and the diameter of the circle (sphere) around each person represents the breadth of their research, what degree of overlap between spheres is best? The answer of course depends on the type of research and also, to some extent, the personalities of the people involved, but in general, what's the best way to figure out the optimal degree of overlap?

Just when I think I've got it figured out, at least for the short-term, a mini-crisis arises involving someone feeling territorial or worrying that another person is going to out-compete them (and therefore get the best job etc.), and I have to dive back in and sort things out. In general, I think everything works well if all the group members are working hard and dealing proactively with any obstacles that arise. But life is complicated and sometimes that isn't possible.

Even when everything is working, though, there are issues of authorship (including authorship order) and credit. Having a harmonious research group depends both on the good will of the individuals (I am fortunate in this respect with my present group) and to some extent on how I organize the overlap so that the overlap leads to synergy and not to stressful territorial behavior. It's also my job to keep the lines of communication open among group members, including me, but at the same time to not let every minor intra-group disagreement become a big deal. Some people can do this effortlessly, without all the psycho-social-analysis, but it doesn't come naturally to me. I have to work to stay aware and involved in the group dynamics, so that the fun part -- the research -- proceeds.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

so how DO you keep the territorialness and the overlap just right... or how do you know when things are getting mucked up?

- Hypatia
- a new asst. prof with a lab group

Female Science Professor said...

One clue I have for when the group dynamics start to veer too far from happy synergy to suspicious competition is when a student asks me what another student in the group is doing, rather than asking the student or bringing topics of mutual interest up for discussion at our weekly group meeting. I try to eliminate these forays into paranoia (when I am aware of them) by opening lines of communication. I certainly can't say, though, that I get the overlap vs. territorial balance just right -- it's a moving target.

anon said...

That green circle person must be very sad in figures A and B. They have to do all the research on their own and they don't get any extra articles out of it as fourth or fifth author when the other circles get to publish...

Oh the horror. Having to toil away and be first author on any article that is going to be published with your name. Coming out of it with only two first author articles as your entire publishing record while the other circles get five or six articles (most of them as second or third author). Poor green circle...

Female Science Professor said...

There are pros and cons to being the green circle. I was a green circle as a grad student, and it suited me just fine.

bsci said...

I think the most important missing circle is of the lab head. Is the person doing a project entire within the domain of the PI, partially related, or only peripherally related. I think partially is often best because it it creates a real link to the most important person of the lab (the person who pays for stuff and sets policy), but also allows for independance.

As a former green circle grad student wih minimal links to the research in the rest of the lab, the interest of the PI was a vital part of the equation.

It also fits with the competition issue because having different people more or less linked to the PI's own interests can cause perceived favoritism which links to competition.