Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Hiatus...and Rules in Academia...

So, yes, it has been a while since I posted on my blog. Apologies all around, and I will try to post much more frequently.  

Soon after the end of my Microbiology class last semester, my father became quite ill.  I have been quite worried about him since the death of my mother in October; his hospitalization and long convalescence made me fear the worst.  My father is strong and wise, but is not young.  After quite a scare, my father is better now---which is very good news.   

As the new semester dawned, I had a large freshman course with which to deal.   My large course, with 48 students (which is not large by RO1 standards, I realize) is a bit of an adjustment; I had not handled the logistics (grading, primarily) of that number of students in some time at Puget Sound.  But I am starting to catch up! 

To that end, a quick post, about life in academia, and some “rules” for research with students.

Over the years, I have made so many mistakes as I progressed through academia that I cringe a little, remembering.  I don't have a time machine to go fix anything, but I have learned a few lessons.  Thus, I have some "rules for research" and I also have some information from a former colleague of my wife's at UW-Tacoma to share.

The rules are not necessarily complete, nor do they necessarily apply to everyone reading this.  Still, I think it is important for any academic to think about these rules, and maybe to pass them along to other academics or folks considering a career in academia.  So I thought I would share them.

First, something from my wife's colleague at UW-Tacoma (Beth Rushing, Former Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs).

"Five Things I Wished I Had Known When I Was Beginning as a Faculty Member"

1.  There is a hierarchy among faculty members.  Respect it.

2.  You can be friendly with students, but they are not your friends.

3.  Sometimes you have to say "no," close the office door, and/or work at home.

4.  Everyone's job is important. Be nice to the staff in your program.

5.  Your job is not your life.

These rules are perceptive and true.  #2 always cuts me to the quick.  It is true that some students can become friends, but not initially. If I were to add anything to this list it would be simple:  stand by your ideals in a calm fashion.  We all have trouble with disagreements; learning how to be civil about dissent is important.  Avoiding disagreements does not help (as I have learned to my sorrow repeatedly).  Also, there is a difference between honesty and tactlessness; many people confuse the two. 

I like Dr. Rushing's rules.

Even though I am not working at a PhD (or MS) granting institution, and only do research with undergraduate students, I have worked with a few.  I have sent about 14 of my serious undergraduate research students off to PhD programs, so I have some experience with the joys and sorrows of research at primarily undergraduate institutions.  So here are my “rules.”

"Martin's Rules of Research"

Rule #1:  There is one ego per lab (and it isn't yours).

Rule #2:  Research projects sometimes appear to actively resist investigation (I take it a little personally).

Rule #3:  Never forget that there is a "re" in the word "research."  If you cannot repeat the experiment, it isn't science.

I teach all of my students these rules, and I have plaques with #2 and #3 up in lab. 

Rule #1 is amusing to me.  Few undergraduates laugh when they hear it, but everyone with a PhD does!  I know I have seen people get into real trouble forgetting #1, and I have struggled myself with it.  It’s not a “the PI is God” kind of concept.  It is a reminder that none of us “own” our research projects! 
Rule #2 has certainly seemed true to me, over and over again as I work with "undomesticated" microbes.  It's like the microbes are snickering at me on plates and in 2059 tubes, when I turn my back.  Fair enough:  it just makes me more determined!  And Rule #3 is a great, great thing for students to remember.  I well remember a former student getting a tricky enzyme assay to work.  "Did it!," she exclaimed.  "Great," I replied.  "Now do it three more times."  The student was confused at first!  But the ability to repeat an experiment successfully (with different hands) is at the core of good science, in my opinion.

My rules are all based on painful yet instructive lessons from my own life in academia.  Everyone is different, of course.  You know the saying:  YMMV (your mileage may vary)!