“Hire the best people, and then get out of their way.” — Arnold O. Beckman
While I was an undergraduate, I frequently heard variations of this management philosophy; as an independent-minded student, often working by myself on projects, the mindset was very appealing. However, as a major professor and lab director, things are not always that easy.
Recent updates of the lab webpage have focused on further elaborations of the range of projects (“streams”) that GROUPERs are involved and productive. Instead of just listing the two primary research application areas (healthcare and spaceflight), we’ve now elaborated all three application areas (including STEM education), as well as the three more general methodological / theoretical considerations (communication effectiveness when resources are constrained; the effects of delays and information asynchrony on performance; and processes of knowledge sharing in teams and communities). Why all of the additions? Not just to sound more impressive and recruit more students (with seven grad students, two undergrads, and a 50% administrative appointment, it’s not clear that a much bigger lab is needed or wanted). With the new population of students (see the “Restocking GROUPER” entry), it is almost inevitable that the interests of this collection in 2012 would “load” on the streams differently than the lab circa 2004 or 2008. They even change their allegiance to a particular stream as their understanding of their topic (and their understanding of how the streams are organized) evolves through their development as students and scholars.
So, how does one remain sensitive and aware of these issues? One problem, of course, is that you don’t know what someone doesn’t know, or that you didn’t agree on basic elements, until implicit expectations aren’t met, or unquestioned assumptions aren’t grasped. This seems to show up most frequently, and with the greatest sense of immediacy, when students are in the midst of a critical written milestone (a thesis proposal or dissertation preliminary document, or a thesis or dissertation draft in preparation for a final defense). And with that, I again recognize the challenges of managing a diverse lab that works on novel and bleeding edge problems or approaches. There really isn’t a good way to give someone a past completed thesis and say, “Read this, and do exactly the same sort of thing with the same format, and you’ll be fine.”
In some cases, even that might not be sufficient. After 22 years, a dozen dissertations chaired (and another 20-30 as a committee member), and over 30 theses chaired, it’s easy for me to have the different pictures in my head. Research methods questions? I just go back to my psychology background. Systems engineering definitions? Yes, the style of that is covered, all the way back to my sophomore Unified Engineering experience. But what if your writing style was formed and honed by those with backgrounds in mathematical optimization, or physics, or political science, or software simulation? I’ve experienced all of these from GROUPER students in the past two years… and they’re not the same. Good luck with putting them all into the same box, or worse yet, into a blender and hoping that something palatable comes out. (Suddenly, I cannot help but think about the old “Bass-O-Matic” Saturday Night Live skit.) Yes, it would be much more straightforward to have a single stream and project focus, with all of the students having very similar backgrounds. However, I confess that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much.
There is a balance between being too far away, and being too close. Each person, and each group, needs its own balance. So, I’m looking for dynamically stable equilibria in academic research management and educational personal / professional development. Last academic year, I spent a fair amount of my time working with two students both trying to finish their dissertations at the same time. This year, the challenge has been a dissertation, a thesis, and dissertation prelim document, in addition to other research projects. I keep insisting on being directly involved in each project, and each document, and each student—to the extent that I felt guilty and nervous when I mentioned during a lab meeting that I would be gone for a few weeks and unable to keep to the weekly schedules. With this level of commitment, I can be both overwhelmed and concerned when I am not there every moment—exactly the opposite of Beckman’s admonitions. And yet, when I expressed worry that the GROUPERs would be left vulnerable and exposed in the “dangerous jungle and forest” of graduate student life, the response was one of the most rewarding and valuable validations I’ve received in a number of years:
“We’re not in the forest. We’re in the Lab.”
That’s also a philosophy I can live with.