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.
10 months ago