The Academic Workflow (Or Lack Thereof)

I was chatting with someone in biotech recently, who was frustrated with the current state of coronavirus research. The problem, in her view, was that researchers were approaching the problem in too “academic” a way. Instead of coordinating, trying to narrow down to a few approaches and make sure they get the testing they need, researchers were each focusing on their own approach, answering the questions they thought were interesting or important without fitting their work into a broader plan. She thought that a more top-down, corporate approach would do much better.

I don’t know anything about the current state of coronavirus research, what works and what doesn’t. But the conversation got me thinking about my own field.

Theoretical physics is about as far from “top-down” as you can get. As a graduate student, your “boss” is your advisor, but that “bossiness” can vary from telling you to do specific calculations to just meeting you every so often to discuss ideas. As a postdoc, even that structure evaporates: while you usually have an official “supervisor”, they won’t tell you what to do outside of the most regimented projects. Instead, they suggest, proposing ideas they’d like to collaborate on. As a professor, you don’t have this kind of “supervisor”: while there are people in charge of the department, they won’t tell you what to research. At most, you have informal hierarchies: senior professors influencing junior professors, or the hot-shots influencing the rest.

Even when we get a collaboration going, we don’t tend to have assigned roles. People do what they can, when they can, and if you’re an expert on one part of the work you’ll probably end up doing that part, but that won’t be “the plan” because there almost never is a plan. There’s very rarely a “person in charge”: if there’s a disagreement it gets solved by one person convincing another that they’re right.

This kind of loose structure is freeing, but it can also be frustrating. Even the question of who is on a collaboration can be up in the air, with a sometimes tacit assumption that if you were there for certain conversations you’re there for the paper. It’s possible to push for more structure, but push too hard and people will start ignoring you anyway.

Would we benefit from more structure? That depends on the project. Sometimes, when we have clear goals, a more “corporate” approach can work. Other times, when we’re exploring something genuinely new, any plan is going to fail: we simply don’t know what we’re going to run into, what will matter and what won’t. Maybe there are corporate strategies for that kind of research, ways to manage that workflow. I don’t know them.

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