Minding your time (or my father wins again) junior faculty edition

My father was an economist and we grew up with cost/benefit principles governing our lives. In general, irrationality was not well received while I grew up, which did lead to frustration and top-of-our-lungs fights when my sibs and I were teenagers. Sigh. I loved being a teenager, but I would not want to be in the thrall of my hormones again.

My URM has a program to bring first year med students into labs.  Its 10-12 weeks of free to the faculty labor of the intensely serious and quite often solemn type.

For choosing a trainee, I have quite simple criteria: what was your grade in Anatomy/Cell Biology/Biochemistry/Physiology (since I teach in one of these, I know)? The knowledge base is not particularly important. What matters to me: Can you work hard at something that really may not seem (to you) immediately relevant to your goal (of becoming a world famous neurosurgeon)? For undergrads, I want to know your grades in Chem/Physics. If you picked a  “soft major” like psych don’t bother applying (and dear readers, please do not bombard me with comments about the non-softness and importance of social science – I’m talking about people who want to go to medical school. They picked an ‘easy’ major for good grades. People who want to do psych do NOT come to my lab to do a research project).

One point to keep in mind: Getting summer help is NOT the same thing as finding a postdoc or even picking a grad student to do a rotation in your lab.

Two of my most beloved junior faculty are interviewing right now. They schedule an hour each with 6 or 7 students. One reason they think this is necessary is a problem with the application form. It is not much more than what is your experience and a CV. They feel they need more info. But seriously, IT IS NOT WORTH THE TIME. Six hours? That is an experiment. Or a set of serious data analyses, or doing all the extra bits of an NIH grant. Writing a lecture for class. Editing a student’s (argh) paper.


This student will not make or break your research. You want a smart (hence the grades) and hardworking person who will be the bottom of the food chain of your lab (even if it is only you and the student) over the summer. They will help push your productivity. You will give them a good experience. You do not need to know what was their biggest challenge and how they met it.

Which brings me to the second point. What do you do with this student over the summer? How much time do you spend with them? It’s still cost/benefit (yes, Pops, I listened). If you end up putting more into them than you get out, it is NOT worth your time. Training a summer student is not something you have to do. I am not advocating treating them like … well the way we all got treated. But you are working in a factory.  The factory produces widgets. These widgets are called scientific papers. There are other things you must do besides produce widgets to keep your job. You do them. They are called teaching and service. When it is time to do them, you do them as well as possible, within the limits of the stopping curves. But, if your summer is devoted to research, then you are in the widget producing business. (this is URM territory, I recognize that this is different for SLACs, etc). There is a threshold productivity for non-widget production, but the ultimate judgement (for tenure) is widgets.

I have been told that this advice sounds very cold and hard. Not caring. Not empathetic. That’s right. There is lots of time for caring after you get tenure. But if you fill your time with things that do not produce widgets, you will never have time to do the other things in the future.













2 thoughts on “Minding your time (or my father wins again) junior faculty edition

  1. An hour?? I’ve interviewed dozens of hopeful undergrads for research assistant positions, and I feel like I can tell within 5-10 minutes of meeting someone whether they’ve got a good head on their shoulders. An hour is just straight up crazy, what would you even talk about?

  2. Pingback: People Leaving My Old-MRU | Mistress of the Animals

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