When should the university stop supporting a lab?

Mar 03 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Tight funding budgets make for tough times in academic labs. Some PIs who were used to a certain approach in their funding strategy (i.e. renewal of a single award) are running into funding gaps that they did not worry about before. University budgets to bridge these gaps and support labs in other ways are also feeling the squeeze.

At my institution, the major resource that is critical to many of the laboratories is the pool of Teaching Assistants. This academic year support for students means the difference between some labs having students to do research, or not. Labs with no personnel money depend on the TA pool to continue running, but labs with active grants also utilize this resource to spread the funding (e.g. split an RA between two students) and allow more funded work to get done.

This year, available TA slots are extremely restricted. In programs where PIs would like to accept a cohort of 10 students, there might be 2 or 3 TAs available. How do you pick which labs get the support? Rank the students? Rank the labs? Support the supported or keep the boat afloat? Many departments around the country are asking these same questions and there's no good answer.

I think the hardest hit are the mid-career folks. Everyone can agree that our pre-tenure people need to be supported and there's general agreement about certain labs at the other end of the spectrum that they really aren't in the game anymore. In the middle is where the debate lies. Who is likely to get funded even if they currently are not? Who has a production record that affords them another shot? Who is just spinning their wheels? Who just hasn't admitted to themselves that it's over?

And once you go down the rabbit hole where lack of funding means more teaching, which means less time to ramp up the granting effort.... Are you going to bounce back? Should a student be placed in your lab and then be subject to the outcome of your funding situation that could be pretty bleak? And who says no? The department? The Dean? The grad program? The grad committee? Where does the buck stop for that decision?

I wish I had the answer, because it isn't getting any easier.

13 responses so far

  • sciwo says:

    Welcome to my world. In my field, at any place but the very top-tier schools, teaching assistantships have been a primary source of support for many faculty members. There are never "enough" TAs available, and the blame for any individual prof not getting student support can be placed all along the hierachy of decision makers.

    What's changed in the last few years is that more students are choosing to attend graduate school even without funding from the university. This is becoming an increasing issue as the admit and funding decisions are somewhat decoupled and the unfunded students still require faculty time and resources to complete their research projects. The university sees the tuition dollars as an unqualified "good thing" - my view from the trenches is somewhat less rosy. Some of our unfunded students turn out to be really good, but other times they are a drain with little benefit at the department level.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Hard question, yes. But things will be better if the processes for deciding support are transparent.

    I bet at most places, support would be handled by relevant department committees. Allocation of teaching assistants would be evaluated by the graduate committee; allocation of space would be handled by a space committee.

    But there's potential for administrators to try pulling rank. Broad, ill-defined administrative powers are a minefield for faculty, and particularly where space and money are involved.

    P.S. - One lab accepting 10 students? Wow. That seems like a lot.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    To clarify, I'm talking about 10 students into a GRAD program, not a lab.

    Okay, so the committee decides. What if one of the most contentious decisions involves a committee member?

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Committees routinely have to make decisions where one or more of its members have a vested interest. That's one reason why you do these things by committee, so that one person's only has a single vote on issues that affect them. Committee asking members to recuse themselves from a vote isn't unheard of, either.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I am very aware. However, there's nothing quite like telling your peer (or possibly senior PI) "Joe, we think your lab has spit the bit and refuse to give you anymore resources. Here's your first year textbook, you'll have three sections in the fall".

    I'm not saying this shouldn't be done, it sorely needs to be in some cases, but it isn't a great recipe for harmony.

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    You can randomly assign TA slots, you can use them as temporary bail-outs or you can try to reward merit (various ways). In the latter case, you are likely hastening the speed at which certain labs are circling the drain but TA's are not emergency parachutes to be doled out at signs of trouble. Seems to me that you have the right policy with respect to the younger faculty as they've enough uphill obstacles - this is a form of merit. Struggling mid-career people are not going to be rescued by a TA. I'd vote for basing distribution based on merit not support, with all the fall-out that entails.

  • YES says:

    Yes, we have this scenario quite frequently. For awhile our Chair would interfere with the graduate committee to get his way, which meant give his students the money. Then he used his minions (e.g. other committee members) to prevent another faculty from receiving any TAs just because he was mad at that person and wanted to hurt him personally and professionally. The fights are awful, underhanded, disgusting, immoral.

  • Morgan Price says:

    Is the university really hiring that many fewer TAs overall? Is the university teaching a lot fewer classes? I feel like I'm missing something.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    There's a lot going into our down numbers this year, but you are missing the point. Resources are tighter everywhere, placing more demand on the TA pool than a few years ago. Hard choices need to be made about who gets access to these resources and who doesn't. The question is how we make those choices and what are the consequences?

  • YES says:

    Unfortunately, where I work, the choices are made based on a few bullies that have control over the department, and get what they want - which may not (and in fact isn't) the best for the department as a whole, nor for our future. We also have a broken administration that is unwilling to deal with the bullies. So the consequences are, at least here, that several very productive mid-career scientists are being cut off at the knees, so that several old, rusty, frankly rather worthless faculty get all the rewards. The students are not served, the department is even more dysfunctional, and even those of us who have funding and can survive (at least for some time) above the fray, still suffer the consequences because the dysfunction is like a cancer that eats away at everything.

    Sometimes all it takes are some really bad decisions about what/who is supported and then the house of cards comes tumbling down. You are completely right. Who/how are the decisions made and then, what are consequences? For us, it has been unbelievable. Some of the best faculty have left the department and those that remain are fighting like rabid dogs over the scraps. pretty awful.

  • Neuro_Kellie says:

    It is tough- I narrowly made it out alive and am on a "forced personal leave" unpaid before medical school resumes (I'm a MD/PhD candidate) after being pushed to defend my dissertation early in my 2nd lab since my first ran out of funding. I am thankful to have been taken in and able to complete my PhD but I would have happily TA'ed to stay afloat in lab 1 or longer in lab 2. I did TA whenever possible (often for free) because I love teaching and begged to do so interim but there was no such program available at our university. All in all I fought to get through, work connections, gained resilience, and will be OK but this is a scary time for graduate students (& of course the PIs).

  • Susan says:

    Neuro_Kellie brings up a good point - we PIs talk about this problem from the running-a-lab standpoint, but we also should ideally worry about it from the standpoint of offerings for trainees, who should ideally be able to choose where and in what field or lab they would like to pursue their studies. This involves a commitment from the university to provide resources to do so.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Susan, sorry, but that is the way to tank the department because the university should provide is but a wish. They won't.

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