Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Professors Pushing Papers

Different PIs can have different lab styles. I was fortunate to find an advisor that works in a way I really like - he keeps a small lab, lets his students be independent and creative, provides help only when asked, and focuses on the research rather than pushing out papers. He doesn't care when I work or when I take vacation, and focuses on long-term deadlines and progress. On the downside, I don't get much feedback on my work this way. He doesn't correct me unless I really screwed something up, and I don't get praise unless I've been exceptional. But I'm okay with that.

I have officemates who work for another professor who is completely different - their professor has twice as many students, likes to be involved with all the details of the research, regularly asks for things to be done ASAP, and doesn't hesitate to ask students to come in on weekends or stay into the night to finish last-minute projects. This professor does really cool stuff, so his students don't mind the extra pressure to turn out hot science.

This other professor recently sent out an email to his students (my officemates) which is now infamous in the office.

The email requests all students to prepare three papers to publish. By the end of the summer.

The rationale provided was that the lab has not been publishing papers over the last year. By focusing on only the research, says the professor, no papers were getting written. But by pushing the papers, the professor thinks, it sort of automatically pushes the research as well, because you need research to have results with which to write a paper.

Oh, yeah this is not going to work out well.

The professor seems to have forgotten the L-O-N-G time lag that goes between doing hot science and publishing the paper. Without experiments in the pipeline, what does he expect the three papers (EACH student, mind you) to be about?

But I think actually this is standard practice for most of the labs I know. It's quite common for the PI to require or expect a certain number of papers per year from his students, and then the students design experiements and structure their efforts to work towards that. If the students know about this structure up front, it can be very effective. It's a little tough to spring all of a sudden, as my officemates are discovering. :)

Any thoughts from the blogosphere on whether PIs should push for papers, or stress the research directly and let the papers fall out naturally? Perhaps it depends on the tenure status of the PI?

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