Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On doing science in small schools

I attended a whole bunch of workshops recently, all designed to orient new faculty in their new life in the college, and to explain the path to tenure. So because of that I was thinking about my scientific research a lot. And I guess by now I can come up with at least two maxims.

1. Ideal research projects to pursue would be those immediately below the perceived funding threshold.

Rationale: the more fundable the project is, the more interesting and publishable the data will be. Yet if I try to do something that people from major research universities can get money for, I'll be tramped down because my productivity is a tiny fraction of their productivity. Even if I fully and successfully integrate undergraduates in my research, my total productivity is expected to be at about 0.5-1 of a good postdoc in a good lab: between 1 and 0.5 papers a year. I can't afford to compete with universities. Yet to stay cool and publishable I shouldn't shortchange myself by doing something boring and irrelevant. The goal therefore is to stay just below the threshold for fundable projects.

2. In terms of grant applications, I should only consider grants that are either very large, or very small. 

Rationale: it is possible, at least in theory, to get several people in the department interested in pursuing some large grant (perhaps something that combines cool science with outreach and teaching methodology), and then to go for it together. This could work. Or, on the other hand, tiny grants that fund student research projects, or my summer research, would work as well. Anything in between though would require too much restructuring of my teaching load, of lab space, of job descriptions for people around me, and so on. Getting money for a postdoc for a year may sound like a nice thing, but it would necessitate enough additional workload to make the collateral damage not worth it. Maybe tenured people can afford it. But it looks like for an untenured faculty it should be either participation in really large strategic things, or getting really tiny bits and pieces, and probably nothing in between.

Or at least such is my impression so far =)

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