Inputs and Outputs
It’s not a great time to be a student–end of semester exams, project papers, and completing all of that work that seemed infinitely manageable back in October. It’s not a great time to be a faculty member–thesis drafts to read, letters of recommendation and proofreading students’ research statements fall on top of grant proposal deadlines and all that grading. So, it seems reasonable to be both a bit gentle, and a tad more explicit in clarifying the difference between “nice to have” and “required”. Some extra data, or a couple more days to work on that draft of the term paper is nice to have. What’s a challenge at the end of November is recognizing what is required, and how to get to all that is necessary in the too-little time available.
Most academics want to get grants to do their research. That’s not an easy process, and the competition grows in complexity and sources of frustration. Whether it be a development contract from a company, or a research grant from a governmental funding agency, the folks reading the proposal want to know “Who Cares” and “Why Should I Spend the Time to Read This?” They don’t know about what you meant to say, and they probably aren’t in your field. It’s your responsibility to communicate what’s so cool and new and shiny to you, to other people who may not even care until you show them why it’s valuable and critical and efficient to help them in what they do every day. A challenge at the best of times; a burden worthy of Atlas if you’re trying to write five proposals in two weeks to different types of organizations. Faculty usually talk about funding as an input measure (“Congratulations! You got the grant! Now what are you going to publish, which students will graduate, and what new things will come out of that lab that other people also want to use?”) . It’s also an output measure, of course: “I wrote nine proposals, and two of them got funded! I’m a star!” (Actually, that is kind of true. Funding rates for proposals from the most competitive agencies are often described as being in the 6-12% range. Hitting on 22% of your proposals would be good. Like Ted Williams in baseball, hitting on 40% of your tries would make you a Hall-of-Famer.) Either way, there is a big lag between the pain of creation and the success of the award. (Maybe just long enough to forget how much it hurts.)
But faculty have another set of inputs and outputs: their students. There was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the evolution from being your professor’s advisee to being his or her peer. I was able to send this to the current GROUPERs, and even to my five most recent PhDs. I’ve even gotten a reply already–the start of a thread. This helps me feel good about the students as outputs–but I can still gloss over the importance of inputs. Not just the students as inputs (you need good material), but what we can do to get the student where they want to go.
Unfortunately, Natalie is leaving us in a few weeks: she’s graduating with her BS. Although an undergrad, she’s been one of the more experienced members of the lab for the past two years, helping to keep us aligned and sequenced (she’s been the project management software goddess). Student as input, student as person needing inputs, student as providing inputs… (that’s also modeling project we’re working on as well, within the SMELT stream). The greatest reward though, was the news we’ve gotten over the past week or so. At the HFES Annual Meeting back in October, I met a researcher from an organization doing research on human factors in healthcare. Have I got a student for you, I said. She’s already developed her own research study. She is fantastic as part of my lab. She wants to work in this area. And now, Natalie gets to announce that she got a job! And then she said that being part of GROUPER was a large part of how that happened… as well as my work that went into it.
GROUPER is an input into the students’ lives and professional evolution? What I’m doing is a transformation that gives someone a better outcome, a stronger trajectory, a more favorable future? OK, maybe that is worth it, and a great reward that turns into inputs for the next cycle. That, and a few extra hours’ sleep. And maybe some visits by the proposal writing muse.