Where do I Belong in Science: My Evolving Perspective

A Personal Aside

So I have been thinking a lot lately when putting in applications for faculty positions about what it exactly is that I truly want out of life at this point. Do I want the classic tenure track job that we are all coveting where I get to train a progeny of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows? Do I want to go to a smaller university where I can focus on students and have an army of undergraduates with whom I can mentor in science? Do I want to go to a small state college and truly lean into the student centered approach? If you have been reading this blog or follow me on twitter than you know I have increasingly become vehement in my stance regarding the importance of mentorship as part of any PIs future plans.

At this moment in time. I feel that there is not going to be anything more important or fulfilling in my professional life than the opportunity to mentor undergraduate students. I have always worked with large numbers of undergraduate students in the course of my career. What I have learned is that the most fulfilling aspects of my research career thus far all involve watching students grow as scientists and as people. I feel an overwhelming upwelling of almost fatherly pride whenever I get an email from a former student who just got a great job in science (usually biotechnology jobs), gotten accepted into graduate school, or received their MD and are starting their residency. Professionally, the first time I published a first author paper on a task I designed paled in comparison to watching my students succeed.

What has led to this contemplative mood is that one of the applications I submitted for a professor position is at a small state school that is looking for a biologist to mentor the undergraduates as well as teach. Small pond science defined. Part of this application was an option to have old students that I have mentored write letters of recommendation on my behalf. This was simultaneously a thrilling thought and absolutely terrifying. I decided to get over myself and ask a set of students from my two previous labs if they would be willing to write letters of recommendation in support of my application. To be honest, asking these former students to vouch for me was more nerve wracking than asking my old mentors and collaborators to do the same. Talk about imposter syndrome. Asking a student to vouch for your mentorship skills is intense. I had to ask myself what if I was nowhere near as effective a mentor as I thought I was…and so on.

The application is in. The letters have been submitted (I asked my letter writers to submit without sending the letters to me for vetting so they could be entirely honest and their personalities would come through). Well one of them sent me what they submitted on my behalf this morning. Sometimes we feel that we are doing the students a huge favor and bettering their lives with our mentorship, while in the back of our minds we suspect ourselves of self delusion. Well, this student (whom I have blogged about before) wrote a letter describing how I was her introduction to science and had put her on the road to science.

I broke down. No, literally, I had to pull it together and was happy that I was in an office by myself. Apparently, at least according to this letter, I made a positive difference in this young woman’s life and helped her reach the level of success she has worked so hard to achieve. Honestly, I had no idea.

So now I am asking myself a series of serious questions. I have applications at R1 schools, mid size universities, and a few teaching colleges that want me to do research that involves undergraduates. Which do I want? I have never been a slouch so far as research is concerned, am I willing to have this level of productivity flag? Will it? An army of undergraduates have always served me well before. I have definitely been trained and groomed toward an R1 tenure track job, but do I want that, really? Do I really want to train postdoctoral scholars and graduate students or do I want to focus all my energy on undergraduate students? How much teaching do I want to do?

I honestly do not know the answers to any of these these questions. But at the moment, I am leaning toward the desire to provide effective scientific mentorship for undergraduate students.

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p>I welcome anyone’s perspective or experiences in the comments…

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4 thoughts on “Where do I Belong in Science: My Evolving Perspective

  1. Stacey says:

    I have taught at PUIs, went to a PUI, went to a large state RU, and even did a postdoc at a large private almost-ivy-league. I would go for the PUI any day – because you want that interaction and you can truly make a difference. Good luck to you.

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  2. Tim Bussey says:

    I’m not so familiar with the US system, but do you really have to choose from mutually exclusive "streams" like this? I’d say the ideal is (eventually) to have a well-funded well-equipped research lab with good post-docs and PhDs students doing good science and getting good publications — in that environment, combined with your mentoring, your undergraduates will have it all — and so will you.

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    • Ryan Hunsaker says:

      TimThat is exactly what I would most want in a position. I hope that I do not have to make a choice between a lab with post docs, grad students, and undergrads. That was how Ray’s lab was set up (fewer post docs, but always grad students), and how I would love to move forward. However, it feels right now in the US that there is actually a choice to be made at times since the options can be mutually exclusive in some institutions. However, at my last few labs there was not the option of undergraduate student mentoring unless the student was willing to make enormous sacrifices. There were no systems in place to find UG research, no senior thesis to speak of, and no undergraduate research office other than for those wanting 1 semester of research for med school. The school had a system set up where it was easy to hire students that had just graduated, but capped the position at 1 year of duration. Hiring undergraduates as technicians was decidedly more difficult. Not the optimal circumstances for mentorship. As such, I had to fight to get undergraduate students and fight again to get them paid, even if by work study.The applications I have submitted are to schools with undergraduate research programs (that give mini grants/stipend to the students for research projects), so I’m hopeful. But I see far too many schools in the US push for more post docs, more grad students, and focus on career technicians rather than undergraduate students being the heart and soul of the research laboratory. My ultimate goal is to be able to mentor as many students as possible over my career. I primarily focus on undergraduates as I feel they are the ones that can benefit most from the experience. My decision at this point is to apply for/take a jobs offered me that best let me reach that goal!

      Like

    • Ryan Hunsaker says:

      TimThat is exactly what I would most want in a position. I hope that I do not have to make a choice between a lab with post docs, grad students, and undergrads. That was how Ray’s lab was set up (fewer post docs, but always grad students), and how I would love to move forward. However, it feels right now in the US that there is actually a choice to be made at times since the options can be mutually exclusive in some institutions. However, at my last few labs there was not the option of undergraduate student mentoring unless the student was willing to make enormous sacrifices. There were no systems in place to find UG research, no senior thesis to speak of, and no undergraduate research office other than for those wanting 1 semester of research for med school. The school had a system set up where it was easy to hire students that had just graduated, but capped the position at 1 year of duration. Hiring undergraduates as technicians was decidedly more difficult. Not the optimal circumstances for mentorship. As such, I had to fight to get undergraduate students and fight again to get them paid, even if by work study.The applications I have submitted are to schools with undergraduate research programs (that give mini grants/stipend to the students for research projects), so I’m hopeful. But I see far too many schools in the US push for more post docs, more grad students, and focus on career technicians rather than undergraduate students being the heart and soul of the research laboratory. My ultimate goal is to be able to mentor as many students as possible over my career. I primarily focus on undergraduates as I feel they are the ones that can benefit most from the experience. My decision at this point is to apply for/take a jobs offered me that best let me reach that goal!

      Like

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