Wednesday, January 09, 2013


Lab Groups

In grad school, I openly envied my colleagues in the sciences.  It wasn’t the slightly higher stipends or the chance to play with cool toys, as real as both of those were.  It was the opportunity to work on a regular basis with a lab group.

In most of the humanities and social sciences, scholarly work is mostly conducted alone.  I remember being unpleasantly surprised at just how isolating graduate school could be.  Some of us routinely talked shop with each other, of course, but a combination of shared ignorance and misplaced competitiveness put limits on the usefulness of that.  

In contrast, the folks in the sciences had work groups handed to them, and they had to be able to work with each other.  When I visited my friend the chemical engineer out in California, I was immediately struck at how great it was that he and his labmates could take group coffee breaks in the middle of the afternoon.  (Later, a mathematician colleague told me that math is the process of turning coffee into theorems.  It sounded right to me.)

As an outsider, it would be easy to idealize the lab group.  As with any group of disparate, intelligent people, it can fall prey to any number of dysfunctions.  Someone is distracted, someone is a prima donna, someone gets ditzy at key moments, and egos are never entirely out of the picture; I get that.  But compared to the war of each against all that my own field took as normal, it seemed inviting.

At some level, I still carry the lab group ideal as my model of what a college could be.  At its best, it’s a group of intelligent people with different strengths working together on a shared project.  The project is experimental -- by definition -- and at the end of the day, the results of the project speak more loudly than anyone’s opinion.  Membership in the group can evolve as the needs of the task change.  Over time, the lab group makes real progress in solving the issue it has set for itself.  And all the while, the members of the group have each other to lean on.

It’s not a perfect model, but there’s a lot to be said for it.  The trick is in getting there.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college (or company, for that matter) do a good job of moving to a “lab group” culture?  Is there anything in particular to be sure to avoid?

"A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems" is a famous quip by the great 20th-century mathematician Paul Erdős.
Great question, DD aka MR:

The recently fashionable term "Learning Community" described an attempt to artificially create such an entity.

What seems to work well, within my experience, at first appears to start with actual lab groups but the lab groups were already there. They originated with friendships in earlier math classes.

I suspect there is a "right size" where this can happen on its own, although you still need to facilitate it by having a place for the extended interactions to occur. If the college is too big, the odds that like-minded people will have more than one class together is really small. Too small and the chance of finding a good personality match is lower. Is that the reason most SLACs are of a similar size?
My advisor functionally created a lab group for his PhD students (we're in English) by creating a writing group where we shared writing, gave feedback, etc. He's one of the few advisors with enough advisees to pull this off, but it was working well enough that other grad students started banding together and creating their own writing groups.
Dude, what?

You were competing with each other despite the fact that you were all working on completely different problems?

I can understand competitiveness from people working on the same problem. One of the greatest fears for any graduate student in the sciences is reading a paper and discovering that someone has already published your research.

But everyone in my lab group was working on a different problem, and my department was careful about hiring new faculty that wouldn't be in competition with existing labs.

It always seemed to me that the humanities and social sciences had ten times as many avenues for new research as we did, which made it almost impossible for them to stumble into each other's territory.

So it's really confusing to me that you were at war with each other. What's there to be competitive about when everyone is doing their own thing?
The subject of lab groups brings up memories of my graduate student days back in the 1960s.

As a graduate student, I worked on my PhD thesis under the direction of a full professor who had a very large experimental research group supported by a fistful of federal grants. His research group was very large, consisting of about 20 graduate students at various levels of progress, ranging from postdocs to terminal masters students.

Although each of us was working on our own individual thesis topic, we developed a great sense of collaboration and friendship with each other. There was no sense of competition in the group, or at least none of which I was aware. We had to develop an attitude of independence and self-reliance, since our group’s full professor director was also the department chairman and was very rarely seen in the laboratory. We socialized together, we knew each other’s families, and numerous friendships were established, some of which lasted for years after we left the university. Many of us worked well into the evening and early morning hours on our research.

This sense of camaraderie lasted until one of our group members had an affair with the wife of another member. The sense of group intimacy was lost, and our group divided up into factions based on how each of us felt about the ethical and moral implications of this affair. Social occasions had to be organized in such a way that the two conflicting group members never met each other. It just wasn’t fun anymore.

My partner is finishing a technical degree at my CC (he was my partner first :) ) -- his experience is of a cohort and it really developed because of the shared and dedicated photo lab space. I'm humanities faculty, but in an odd way I'm also a part of their cohort...

Learning communities are a way we try to institutionalize the cohort, but I'm not so sure it works..
I'm reading the original post as thinking of groups of students and groups of faculty, such as ad hoc committees.

Last semester I created groups within a final year capstone course, populated solely by dept majors. The challenge was the usual one with group work: how does it convert into individual grades? I use an approach learned from a colleague in which students rank the contributions of their team peers, but even that is not satisfying when there are students who don't contribute at all. What to avoid? Having an approach in which students can choose not to contribute but can still pass the course.

On the faculty and staff side, I think one challenge is putting the proper reward system in place. How will a tenure and promotion committee consider work done for the group, etc. Another is assembling that "right size" mentioned by CCPhysicist.

I think a lot of what made the lab group function well in grad school related to resources: there were enough to go around (especially research assistantships) so there was less in-fighting than in evergreen disciplines that had much less outside funding (or none).
Collaborative projects involving faculty members raises another sticky issue. How does collaboration and teamwork count in the promotion and tenure process? At research-intensive universities, more and more research, especially in medicine and the hard sciences, involves a collaborative effort among two or more investigators. In high-energy experimental physics, it is not uncommon to see papers having the names of 50 or more authors on them, often from several different institutions and sometimes from several different countries.

Collaboration with others on research projects can be a valuable and rewarding experience, but an aspiring assistant professor has to be very cautious about collaborative projects when it comes to tenure considerations. A lot of people who are knowledgeable about university and academic politics maintain that it almost never a good idea for junior faculty members striving for tenure to get involved in collaborative research projects with more senior faculty members, whether inside or outside the university. This is because when these junior faculty come up for tenure, the tenure evaluators might give most of the credit for the funding and the publication output of the project to the more senior partners, even though the junior faculty members are probably the ones doing most of the work.

It may even be risky for a tenure candidate to get involved in collaborative research projects with anyone at all, even with other junior faculty members. At tenure time, such joint research projects probably won’t count nearly as much as individual research. A scholarly paper with just your name on it is worth a lot more than a paper in which your name is buried within a long list of co-authors. If you do get involved in writing collaborative papers, you want to try and have your name appear either first or last in the list of authors, not somewhere in between, which might imply to tenure reviewers that you are only a relatively minor or insignificant contributor to the research.

Even in teaching, it can sometimes be risky for a junior faculty member to collaborate with a more senior faculty member in coteaching or codesigning a new course. This is because the dean and the department chairman might tend to give most of the credit for the success of the project to the more senior member, and assume that the junior faculty member was simply a lowly assistant who was really working under the direction of the more senior one.. A junior faculty member probably must toot their own horn loudly and often, just to ensure that the powers that be are fully aware of the value of their contribution.

Back when I was working at Large Telecommunications Company, management always preached to us about the value of teamwork, but very few of us took this seriously. This was because we knew that management very rarely ever walked their talk, and that at performance review time just about all that counted was one’s individual accomplishments, or at least management’s perception of these accomplishments.

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