Monday, November 13, 2006

Group Work: It's not any better in the real world

NewGirl, my advisor's, not-so-new grad student, has been fighting this group assignment all week. Apparently they have assigned groups and have to produce some sort of 5000-word analysis by tonight at midnight. One group member has been ineffective and another (or the same?) decided to study for a midterm rather than contributing and attending a group meeting last night. Needless to say, NewGirl is stressed. I think we've all been there.

A couple of people have recently written about group work (profgrrrl?, dr. crazy?) and how the students hate it, but that it has some real utility. The only justifiable reason I can come up with for group assignments is that "how things work in the real world."

Assuming (for the moment) that academic research is "the real world," I'm here to report that group work doesn't usually get any more fun once you've graduated. Well, actually, group brainstorming sessions can be quite fun and productive, but group writing...still...sucks. For the last week I've been mainly working on two group writing assignments.

Assignment 1: A small (~$10K) grant proposal.
I was brought in as the field work specialist on a project that will be largely modeling. The field work will help calibrate the modeling efforts. The proposal is due Tuesday, and we had our first group meeting last Monday. At the first meeting, we had to figure out what they needed from the field data and to identify field sites. Based on that meeting, I wrote a paragraph on field methods, and wrote a section on historical datasets in the study region. Then partway through the week, I got a request from the PI to do some reconaissance of the field sites (data examination, not field work). So I did. But at our meeting late Thursday afternoon, we added two more field sites. So I had to do the reconaissance work on those, and I had to amend both sections that I had already written. But the upside (and it's a big one), is that I am going to be a co-PI on the grant and we wrote in a month of salary for me. So in the end, even though it was inefficient and involved a lot of me doubling back on my efforts, the payoff should be worth it. Even if we don't get the grant, the proposal will be "pending" on my CV until at least March.

Assignment 2: Report to a funding agency
NewGirl has an awesome project that involved a tremendous amount of field work all summer long and she's just starting to look at her reams of data. Her funders want a preliminary report by next week, so I was asked to help out with some "back-of-the-envelope" modeling and a short write-up. The only problem was that I didn't know anything about her field area or her datasets, and everytime I decided to try a different approach to the in-the-end not-so-simple modeling, I had to bug NewGirl to get a different dataset. Plus, I wanted to make sure that my modeling approaches were reasonable based on her on-the-ground knowledge and her reading of the literature. So we had several conversations where I ran her through what I was doing, and asked her for a critique. In the end, I probably spent about 10-15 hours working on the project, and I probably took 8-10 hours of NewGirl's time. Maybe it would have just been easier to have her do it, especially since I am still not pleased with the results, but I don't care enough to do a better job.

I'm not sure group writing results in a better nor more seamless product in all cases. Nor am I sure that is an efficient way to get things done. But it is the way science is, by and large, accomplished, so I better stop my grumbling and just go with the flow. Fortunately, this week my attention turns to a big data processing task that is by and large individual work and very different from the things I've been doing this past week. I like people, just not all the time.

1 comment:

Saoirse said...

That sounds frustrating and inefficient. Hopefully the end results will be worth the frustration.