Thursday, July 23, 2009

If A Tree Falls In A Forest

Anonymous comment from yesterday's post:

If the average scientist took three months off nobody would know.


First, I interpret the statement 'nobody would know' loosely - as in, it wouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things.

I suppose also that whether 3 months matters or not depends a lot on what is meant by 'the average scientist'. It's probably more useful to debate this statement within the context of the various scientist ecosystems that we inhabit.

In terms of research activities, my physical sciences ecosystem involves scientists who have one or many research grants, one or many graduate students and other advisees, and for some, big machines of various sorts (computers, analytical equipment and so on) that they supervise or visit.

If this kind of scientist took 3 months off, would anyone notice? Would our students notice?

I think our students would notice, so perhaps the more interesting question is whether they would miss us or be relieved. As a graduate student, I quite enjoyed my adviser's sabbatical, though we stayed in close communication via email during the year he was away. Years later during my own sabbatical, I think some students missed me and others did not. So, at least in my case, there's no one answer to that particular question.

Would my research program come to a grinding halt if I disappeared for 3 months? No, but it would suffer in some ways. If I stopped writing papers and conference abstracts and proposals and making sure everything was on track with my research group and doing my own research (as time permits) and attending meetings and doing editing and reviewing and such, the effect would be noticeable. This is my hypothesis anyway, and it is one hypothesis that I hope I never have to test.

I think that in many ways I am an average research university professor of the physical sciences scientist in terms of my experiences, and as such I will make the sweeping conclusion that if the average scientist took 3 months off, people would know, but the world would not stop spinning.


zed said...

I tested this hypothesis a couple of years ago when my twins were born. Out for 3 months, only checking in via email enough to prevent major disasters. I certainly wrote no papers or proposals, or even thought about research much. This was out of choice (I really wanted to focus on the babies) and necessity (ack! so much to do looking after two!). Luckily my only graduate student had just defended, so there were only undergraduates in the lab (hence the disasters).

It affected my research program noticeably, in that there is an obvious baby gap in my CV. In that sense, people looking at my CV will 'notice'. We'll see if the effects run deeper then that as I go up for tenure. I would hope that in the grand scheme of things this absence will not amount to anything. I would not want to be a mother without a break of this length at a minimum, and would not want to be a scientist if I couldn't afford such a break.

Douglas Natelson said...

Certainly if I really disappeared for three months my research group would notice. For example, there would be a lot of grant-related spending issues that couldn't happen b/c they require my signature. My students would (probably) not get as much done, since I like to think that I actually enable their research progress rather than inhibit it. The idea that a scientist (at least in academia) is some solo entity living an ethereal existence that affects no one else is very misguided.

Genomic Repairman said...

This happened with my former PI when he was in a car accident and sustained brain damage. It took him about three months to convalesce in a rehabilitation hospital. The lab consisted of myself, a technician, and a surgery resident (great hands, horrible mind). It was rough going at first but it actually made us push harder because we felt like we were going into pinch-hit for the PI. We edited two manuscripts sent back for revision and eventually got them published. Got a fledgling idea off the ground and got it workable, which would then later be used for preliminary data for another grant. So all in all we kept on making progress like some rudderless ocean liner set adrift, but I definitely know the mentorship fell off the table. My boss came back and worked another two months part time, so we got a little bit of the guidance back but we were right back in the situation with no PI around again.

scicurious said...

I have in fact just experienced this. My advisor was gone due to personal issues for roughly 3 weeks, during which we got maybe a one line email once a week. Now they are back part time, but nothing like full time.

The lab...just kept going. The hardest part has been trying to get papers ready to go out without advisor's input. But the lab basically ran itself, and no grants were running out or anything. Would have been a crunch when the R01 deadline approached, though.

Average Professor said...

I also tested the hypothesis a couple years ago when my daughter was born.

Nobody really noticed. I had four PhD students at the time, and all of them were at a place where they didn't need me in the building on a regular basis. I was available via email or phone if they needed me.

I didn't lead any proposal writing efforts during that time (but it coincided with one of the annual lull points in proposal writing for me anyway, just because of when the deadlines for my usual programs fall) although I did contribute in a more minor way to proposals that others were leading.

I didn't begin any paper-writing while I was on leave, but I had a couple manuscripts in the review process.

I think that because of where my research program was, and where my grad students were in their degree process, taking 10 weeks of "leave" didn't have much of an effect. The balls were already rolling, and so all I had to do was give them a nudge from time to time to keep them rolling. Maybe it would have had a bigger impact on something (my career, most likely) if the balls had come to a screeching halt the minute I left.

Anonymous said...

I took 4 months off full time and another couple of months part time for my baby (in the UK where this is encouraged). My post-doc kept the lab running at a slower pace than normal, but I don't think there is a noticeable baby-gap in my CV. Mainly because I had some very old pre-baby work which took a long time to come out and which covered the baby-gap. So I reckon that scientists can and should take sabbaticals / maternity leaves without the world coming to an end.

Arlenna said...

It also depends on what you mean by "off."

Anonymous said...

Unless it was summer, there would also be many students who arrived ina lecture hall to not find anyone teaching. While they might like that in the short term, when no grade and thus no course credit arrived, they would be mightily unhappy and I have no doubt parents would be calling the Dean.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I think the PI gone for 3 months would usually be noticed (but I think people should still take a good amount of time off for baby/medical/whatever if it's needed).

I think in most labs bigger than just a few people, one person (grad student/postdoc/technician) being gone for 3 months would not be noticed at all outside the lab. And if the person is a grad student, there's no 'baby gap' at all, because, at least in my area of science, grad students aren't expected to get a paper a year or anything like that.

Anonymous said...

When my daughter was born (without maternity leave btw), no one seemed to notice when I wasn't around for a couple of months. I was not teaching that semester, for other reasons, and also didn't have any grad students yet.

The flip side: more than a year after she was born, one of my colleagues asked when I was going to come back to work again. Apparently, no one noticed when I did come to work either!

(Fortunately, my department has transformed into a slightly friendlier place since then).

Katemonster said...

My PI moved to a new institution in the last year of my postdoc. Several of us opted to stay behind and finish up, and I can't say that we noticed much of a difference. Of course, our funding was already in place, and postdoc PI was very hands-off and something of an absentee advisor to begin with. It was much more noticeable when our lab manager/technician left to join him and we suddenly had to take care of all the day-to-day crap ourselves...

As a PI at a PUI, I can't imagine that much research would continue if I ever took three months off (although I hope to have kids at some point). Maybe if I got a grant that would pay for a lab manager/technician as capable as the one in my advisor's lab (and better than I am at making sure that my students spend enough productive time in lab)...

Cloud said...

To add the industry scientist perspective:

I can say without a doubt that me being gone for 3 months from my current position (head of a small department at a small company) would be noticed, because I spent quite a bit of time writing up a detailed plan for the continued functioning of my little department when I go out on my upcoming maternity leave (which will be 3 months long). I have been asked about the plan by people from all parts of the company.

However, at my last position (mid-level manager in a large company), my absence was noted only by the people who worked directly with me, and the extent of my planning for the maternity leave I took at that job (also 3 months long) was to find someone to take over the management of one of my projects. That job was a lot less science and a lot more management, though.

In graduate school, I think I could have spent 3 months in a remote location with no communications with the outside world at all, and only my adviser and my friends would have noticed. I was working on a project that didn't intersect a lot with other projects in the lab.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like there are two types of situations that are under discussion here: an extended leave that is planned-for (maternity leave, sabbatical, etc.) and an emergency leave.

In my opinion, it is not that difficult to plan ahead for a scheduled leave. Though there will be unanticipated challenges that arise, with advance planning and open communication during the leave, they can be dealt with.

On the other hand, an emergency leave such as that described by Genomic Repairman has the potential to be much more devastating.

Anonymous said...

If the average blog commenter took three months off, nobody would notice.

Foreign and Female in Science said...

Scientist now seem to publish not because we have something new, novel interesting, and important to say, but because we need to have progress reports to show we worked hard (at our job or on a grant). It is now unprofitable to spend 3 months learning a new field or technique unless you have reasonable idea that you will end up having papers.

Learning new fields and techniques without having a perfect idea as to how to turn it into a paper has some benefits too. At the very least learning a new technique
(1) gives appreciation for the data/errors associated with obtaining it, thus enhancing one's understanding if one is to further model the data;
(2) allows for better reviews in future grant proposals on similar techniques because one can better evaluate the expected outcome, difficulties, and cost of such projects;
(3) changes one's way of thinking, giving (possibly) rise to different approaches from what has and is being done in a given discipline
(4) leads to more cross-field interaction and possible collaborations;
(5) (not that I expect research universities really care) makes one a better teacher since one always teaches something outside of research interests.

Now probably this is what sabbatical years are for. But at the hiring rate I am seeing in my Science, that is unlikely until one's mid40s at the earliest. And there I thought all of us were most creative in our 20s and 30s...

Anonymous said...

I made that comment I guess in a philosophical way. What I wanted to say was that by and large great science is not changed by a 3 month absence. As far as I can see, nobody produces real new science every month for years on end. The typical good scientist has a really new research project every few years at best. The rest of the time is spent decorating the cake. So if you decide to take a break for 3 months, I do not think that science will really be worse off for it.

Of course, there will be all these practical problems like nobody to sign pieces of paper and polish up manuscripts and suchlike. Personally, I think that its probably good for students to not hear from an advisor for 3 or 6 months at some point in their PhD or BS. It will let them find out whether they really want to do science. As for the paper pushing, perhaps it will let me drop all the grants that take up immense amounts of time and produce cotton candy. That will be a good thing.

Doctor Pion said...

The flip side of this was in PhD Comics this week:

And if you haven't seen the 3-part series about Science -vs- Nature, you missed some good ones.

Spiny Norman said...

Three hundred and fifty premeds sure as hell would notice.

Anonymous said...

Well I'm pretty sure that the average mathematician could dissapear for quite some time before people notice (assuming they are not teaching undergrads). I have recently been away at a series of conferences for around 1.5 months and virtually no one noticed at all.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

If I had done this in grad school no one would have noticed... because The Boss would have hunted me down, kicked me out of the group, and erased all traces of me from LargeU.

If this happened right now, no one would notice because the students haven't figured out who I am, and the faculty haven't decided if I will actually add value to the department or not.

But Spiny hit it right on the head....