Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Where have all my labmates gone? Long time passing...

(Having written 289 words (2 paragraphs) of my paper in toto today, I can now allow myself to write a post. But now I've forgotten my earlier good ideas to blog. I know, it's quality not quantity that counts for both the thesis and the blog. But here goes anyways...)

I'm alone in my research group these days. NewGirl hasn't been seen in Utopia since classes let out; she's got a massive field project. S left last Wednesday for two weeks with her folks and then a week of teaching. My advisor (needs a nickname), left on Friday for 3 weeks...his usual whirlwind of professional activities and family fun. And that's it. There's no other grad students or post-docs in our group. My undergrad was around briefly last week, but this week he's helping NewGirl in the field and then he's off for a month of field work with another research group (oh, to be an undergrad interested in everything...).

Which kind of brings me to Dr. Mom's question about the appropriate size of a research group. I think my advisor's current group size is too small (although he's got good reasons for this). When I arrived, I was one of 4 Ph.D. students in residence in our group. My third year, I was the only student (but we had a 3 month post-doc). Starting out with lab group "elders" was great. I had people who could tell me how things really worked, how to prepare for my orals, what professors to take/avoid. I work on a very different research area than they did, so I was never able to benefit much from their technical expertise. I've always thought it would be nice to have at least one other student working on a similar project, just so I would have someone to bounce ideas off of. S serves somewhat in this role, but she is involved in all our group's projects (she's sort of a lab manager), so on many topics related to my research, my knowledge soon exceeded hers. If my advisor was more hands-on, accessible, or simply in the same state more often, maybe my interactions with him would have quelled some of the sense of being alone in this research topic.

So, let's pretend I were a professor at a graduate-degree-granting institution. What would my ideal research group look like? Let's even pretend that funding, recruitement, productivity, and tenure aren't issues. I think I would want <3 M.S. students, because they require a lot of hands-on attention throughout. I would also want 2-3 PhD students, because they can work more independently much of the time and may produce more innovative research. I might sometimes want a post-doc to collaborate with. A technician/lab manager would be really handy for just making things run. And I'd want to provide some opportunities for undergraduates to work as assistants and maybe even take on their own projects. Hopefully, my senior PhD students would help mentor the undergraduates. All of sudden that seems to add up to a lot of people. If there were another professor in the department/uni who worked in a closely-related field, I might be tempted to down-size my lab group aspirations, as long as we could function somewhat as a larger cohesive unit.

What would your ideal research group look like?

(P.S. Bonus points to anyone who can identify the inspiration from the post title?)

(P.P.S. Crap! This post is almost exactly 2x as many words as I produced in the rest of the day. Why does this writing come so much more easily?)

7 comments:

ceresina said...

Well, I know it's "Where have all the flowers gone," but the actual song escapes me.
That is a big lab. I hope you get it soon after your degree. :-)
And when you figure out why blog-writing comes so much more easily? let us know, please, because I don't know the answer either!

phd me said...

That was the song title (wasn't it?) a Pete Seeger song.

Rose Connors said...

If the labmates are like the flowers, and Pete Seeger is right, then more lab mates will be coming, but are the old ones lost forever?

Mosilager said...

What's scarier is when you walk into lab and find nobody there... and nobody's on field projects or vacations. Then you run through your schedule thinking that you've missed some meeting when in reality they've just all disappeared for lunch...

Dr J. said...

I spent a lot of time thinking about this kinda stuff. In the end I decided that starting up I´d only postdocs, between 2 and 4. I´m not a natural born teacher and nothing annoys me more than having to train someone how to hold a pipette properly. Once the group is settled and running for, say two years then I would look at taking students, but only if my postdocs were willing to fully train them. After some experience and grants etc behind me the largest group I´d want is around 10-12 postdocs/students/technicians otherwise it´s too difficult to know what´s going on, give each appropriate support and maintian a harmonious environment. At that stage though I wouldn´t want less than 6 in a group to ensure output, broad project portfolio and enough different ideas/views/experiences to benefit everyone in the group.

Female Science Professor said...

The ideal group depends on the individuals. I've had amazing M.S. students who were independent and creative, and I've had disaster Ph.D. students who were low-energy and bizarre; and vice versa. Same with postdocs. What I want to know is: how can you predict in advance if someone is going to be passionate about their research vs. those who are going to flame out? And whether everyone is going to get along and help each other, or whether one or more members of the group are going to be competitive and paranoid and make everyone else miserable? In the ideal case of everyone's being sane and enjoying their research (overall, not every single day of course), I think your hypothetical research group sounds just like what I'd want as well.

Cherrie said...

Re; how do you know if they would flame out, etc..

I asked my professor (and other people who do interviews and stuff) that question, too... and they always say crap like "you just know".

That.
Is.
Not.
Useful.