Fishes and Ponds

by grouperlab

Among academic metaphors, it is one of the more popular, even among people who don’t have a pervasive aquatic metaphor infusing their entire lab.  This time of year, it’s considered often, among new grad students, new faculty, and established faculty considering a new position:


Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?



Figure 1. Koi experiencing a bit of Japan in Washington, DC


(Let me not leap to “big fish, big pond” territory right away.)  In essence, this is a question about “fit”.  Some places are major research institutions, where annual expenditures for the college of engineering or science may be measured in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.  Some places want to be such research institutions, but may have additional emphasis on teaching, or lesser resources available, or just aren’t as committed to the task.  And other places are not research focused at all.  Maybe it’s the lovely undergraduate-only institution where the entire student body and faculty and staff can fit in the lower bowl of the basketball arena of Enormous State University (which may or may not be a major research institution).


Unfortunately, this is also a question about ego, and aspiration, and social desirability. What’s a big fish?  Apparently, someone who is successful at “the game” of having a large research portfolio, lots of publications, lots of students.  If there’s a competition, that’s okay with them, since they’ll probably win.  Maybe they thrive on competition.  Maybe they like the acknowledgement of winning the award, or touting their h-index, or their success in amassing whatever it is that counts (as my friend reminded me recently) as the coin of that realm.  As Depeche Mode would sing (as I was first learning that I liked this research thing), “Everything Counts in Large Amounts”.


But, let’s be clear.  Not everyone wants that life, or that world, or that type of competition.  That does not make them lesser creatures.  I am considering the story I just heard about a successful research faculty who decided to shift to a small, undergraduate teaching institution.  I am learning about the cultures of university departments where, for whatever reason, tenure is extremely difficult, or moderately straightforward, to achieve.  On the other hand, some folks are learning that the constant pressure to compete for funding, for publications, for attention, is not something that feeds their soul or enhances their quality of life: the extra dollars and accolades are just not worth it.


I continue to be amazed, and a little disappointed, at how frequently this issue comes up in questions to me and to my students.  Will I be upset if one of the GROUPERs goes into industry, or to a regional or teaching university, or ***shudder*** has to take a job in government?   For lots of faculty at research institutions, there is only one valid career path… and it just so happens to look like the path they took, to be faculty at a research institution.  I don’t believe in that assumption, and I have said so in some fairly public settings.  Why?  Well, it’s not sour grapes.  I have come to realize, I sit in a fairly unique spot: I have spent my entire academic career at leading research institutions.  But what do we mean by big, or small, and why does it count?


A pond, or a lake, or an ocean may be big or small only in comparison to other scales of reference.  If you’re plankton or a piece of algae, does it really matter if you’re part of the water bloom in a tiny county park, or a county-sized bloom in an ocean?  It may not influence much of your daily life in any significant way.  More importantly, one of those may be outside of your range of survival conditions.  If I’m a thermophile animal, what I care about is the hot spring vent, not how big the body of water is.  And this leads me to the second dimension: the ways that different bodies of water differ on not just what are the components for survival, but the sorts of creatures that you might find yourself sharing the body of water with that would make one’s life better or worse.



Figure 2. Where are you, and what do you reflect?


One of the unexpected lessons of this year in Washington is that the question of fish and ponds is wrong on several major dimensions.  I’m very well known in my professional society, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, or so I’m told; it’s hard for me to spend a day at a conference without seeing 25 people I know from long experience. But we’re a “small society”.  Obviously, the electrical engineers or the mechanical engineers really have it going.  Except… maybe not.  Most undergraduate-only teaching institutions don’t have any engineering departments at all… but if they have any STEM disciplines, it’s more likely to be physics or biology or chemistry.  But, even then, and even in aggregate, that may not be the ecosystem that everyone wants to swim in.


I have spent a fair amount of time this week thinking about function allocation and expertise coordination and human-machine teaming… as I have done for much of my career.  And I am in Washington.  For many people, there is no bigger single pond.  To paraphrase a colleague from this afternoon: I am swimming in the pond of the oldest Cabinet agency of the greatest superpower on the planet, so we should be able to have some resources at our disposal.  But how much of those resources are actually from an ecosystem I recognize: folks who thrive on STEM food like I do?  Several people I’ve met have pointed out the same thing: actually, there is relatively little science and technology expertise within the major “halls of power” in Washington.  This is not a new thing.  A recent article describes the general feeling for scientists and engineers from both Congress and the White House, at their respective locales on Pennsylvania Avenue, in these terms: “Officials in Washington don’t have a real taste for hard science, and only hire scientists when they must. ‘It’s like eating your spinach before your ice cream.’” (Note: this description doesn’t even distinguish science and engineering.)  I would say that this is not very flattering, or very appealing.  In one sense, most of what I spend my days thinking about, and most of the people I know of as famous, are not even at the level of side conversations for perhaps 85-90% of the people in my office building.  Not great feeding, in other words.


So, am I a big fish, or a small one?   In this pond, my level and type of expertise is fairly unique, and others would be hard pressed to duplicate it.  In fact, this pond doesn’t even know what an h-index is, and doesn’t care to.  Does that make it a small pond?  If the documents we write and review this month affect the policies of 70% of the world’s economy over the next 10-15 years, I wouldn’t say that is a small pond (or an exaggeration of the impact of some of these emerging technologies on the world).  I’m having an effect where I am, in ways that suit me.  Overall, isn’t that the most we should ask of anyone, and the most we can hope to achieve for ourselves?