Sunday, June 03, 2007

Active v. Passive

Some recent comments have raised interesting points about the active vs. passive roles of professors in research and writing papers. This is not an entirely new topic, but there are new aspects of it that are worth exploring and discussing. Today I would like to mention two aspects in particular:

1 - I can see why some students and other early career scientists might think that it would be great to be in a position in which other people acquire data for you and you get your name on papers without having to go through all the tedious work and anxiety. However, if I'm PI on a project and/or co-author on a manuscript, I have to be confident in the dataset and interpretations, even if I didn't acquire the data myself. Some types of data are easy to check and it's obvious if there is a problem, but other types of data are more difficult to check. Being one or two steps removed from the data acquisition has its own stresses.

There are some very great aspects of being an advisor of a group, and some of these involve the satisfaction that comes from seeing students and postdocs develop into independent scientists who acquire their own data and write up their results. In my experience, though, it has never been the case that I can just sit back and watch the data and papers roll by, contributing only a word of wisdom here and there. In at least once extreme case, I had to redo an entire MS student-acquired dataset that I only found to be flawed once I delved into it in the course of writing a paper with the student. And then there's the issue of writing, which can be the most stressful part of the whole process for everyone.

2 - Even if all my students/postdocs acquired only perfect and fascinating results, I would still want to get some data myself. I like discovering things, and thinking through the discovery process step-by-step. I can't do that as well by sitting in my office staring at spreadsheets of other people's data. It can be difficult to stay current with new techniques, but I do what I can. For example, I devoted part of my last sabbatical to getting up to speed with one new technique.

With some techniques, I will never be as expert as the students and postdocs, but I hope I never get so far into the managerial parts of being a professor/advisor that I don't ever have time to get my own data. As with the issue of data quality control discussed above, the managerial aspect of this job has its own stresses. For me, an important part of keeping current and enjoying being a professor is being very active in many different aspects of research, including doing research and not just watching it being done.

As a research group advisor, I may cross the line between being controlling and being involved from time to time, but I think being uninvolved and passive would result in some data disasters and would not be nearly so much fun.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you. I find it nerve-wrecking to rely on others' data. I like to collect a small portion of all our data points, 10-20% depending on how trusty the procedures are. Occasionally I will not do that on a project that is only marginally related to my main lines of research (usually that happens when I let an undergrad do an honors thesis in something *they* want to do rather than pushing them into something that might be more directly contributing to my lab), but that's not the norm.

When I was a grad student a fellow grad student use to say she couldn't wait to be faculty so she didn't have to collect any data, but even then I couldn't imagine being able to do that. I do have control issues though.

Anonymous said...

I've been browsing through your archives and this is a great site.

First, just being here and saying "look at me, I'm doing it" is a necessary inspiration to students. Second, you're telling people _how_ you do it (you love the science; you write; you supervise; you juggle and plan; and have a partner in the enterprise, among other things). Third, you're happy, not embittered and sad, having given up a signficant life's desire. Fourth, you don't keep quiet about your continuing gripes.

Good job! I think we don't say that enough, and I hope I've been specific enough that it's not empty praise. I wish there was some way this blog could be a part of what you get credit for as a scientist, teacher and mentor.


Female Science Professor said...


Anonymous said...

I'm an older postdoc and new to the idea of being a more-senior author on a paper. In addition to what you've already mentioned, one issue that's caused me a lot of stress has been that of general direction - which sub-issues to delve into, which to elide over. I feel like the people who did the primary work have earned a good deal of freedom in that area, and it's more their work than mine (and it should feel, to them, like more their idea than mine). Yet at times I've had to rein people in - just knowing what will be flagged in review - and this is a difficult line to straddle.

anon said...

There aren't too many people in my discipline who still "collect data". Which is probably for the best since the longer you work with carcinogenic and toxic chemicals, the sooner you feel the consequences. It's like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor clean-up. They give you a shovel and you get five minutes to clean out some junk out of the fourth reactor and then you're done absorbing radiation for your entire life. Here, you get grad school, a post doc, and starting faculty time.

Some people go on to industry where supposedly you're around chemicals until you retire, but the safety measures and the general lack of idiocy (on your part and that of others) there make me think of it as "getting a full body radiation space suit while you're shovelling radioactive dirt" type of comparison. Then you get half an hour.

Ms.PhD said...

I guess I'm lucky in the sense that in my field, it's pretty easy to require everyone in the lab to cough up their raw/primary data, if not samples, and run them again if anything seems questionable (in terms of presentation, interpretation, quality, anything).

So in that sense, it's easy to be trusting, so long as you can stay involved enough that you see both the original and the finished product.

I like the Chernobyl analogy. Most of the stuff we work with has unknown side effects, but I can guess from the mentalities of many older professors that it causes brain damage, depression, and the like.

I'm happy to hand the reins off, but I can see how, as anonymous suggests, collecting a few data points now and then would surely lift the spirits.