Losing good students to bio

My background is physics.  I eventually bridged this over to the applied world and medicine, but having a good foundation makes it possible to do anything.  Each student has to be theoretically solid and capable of getting their hands dirty when the research inevitably goes applied.  Each summer I go through the same recruiting exercise where I try to recruit very theoretically sound students.  This summer is no different than the rest in that I try to create a diverse lab with talented students on the theoretical side, computational side, and experimental side.  I’m especially hurting for an experimental person.  Especially someone more on the biology side.  But because of the nature of the work, they have to have a good physics background.  These don’t always go hand-in-hand.  Bio people want to do bio, and typically don’t have the most solid background in math or physics.  On top of this, I haven’t been happy with the lack of gender diversity lately, and want to hold my lab as an example.

Now begins my big issue: I have found a couple female students that are great theoretically, but want to do bio.  As a lot of people know, there is a general interest of women in biologically based research.  My lab does this, but not like the hardcore bio labs running blots and transgenic experiments day-and-night.  So I’m having trouble recruiting the students I want because they want more bio or maybe because they didn’t study enough math as an undergrad.  So for the first time, I’ve decided to relax my requirements and basically pull in a student from a more unfocused discipline (like bioengineering) that can maybe do a little of a lot of different fields.  This allows me to get a female student that is willing to dabble with a little variety.  I’m not happy with this, but I’ll make due.  One of my initiatives has been to get female students into more math and physics with sprinkles of biology rather than the other way around since these fields are sorely lacking.  I’ve noticed some uptick, but I’m definitely not happy with my progress.

On the personal side of things, I was having a solid couple of months, and now I am nauseous all the time.  This needs to end now.

And then there were two

As I’ve written before my department has been starting to bring candidates out and after this first round, we took a vote.  It came down to two people and that’s when the arguing started.  I was backing my candidate from industry who gave a great talk (I may be partial), had a strategy for funding, and worked on an area outside of mine that was also new and exciting.  I hadn’t even thought of applying their field in the way they planned on.  Not really the same field as mine, but I’m already thinking about collaborations.  This candidate went to a good sports school, but not so great academically.  They have been incredibly productive in industry though (handful of patents, and one product launch).  The other candidate is from a legendary lab for their PhD and has been spending the past couple years helping to run a company created by their advisor’s advisor, so technically they come from industry, but not really.  We were at a standstill and our department head doesn’t want to step in yet.  And so now I feel like a member of Congress trying to lobby for votes for the one I like more.  All the while, the candidate’s advisor has been calling in favors.  My advisor distinctly said that he would email once to anyone he knew in schools I applied to, but after that, it’s on me.

My last effort is to pull out our not-great statistics on placing students in my candidate’s industry even though students want to enter it, but I think it may upset some of the faculty here that work in that field.  So what I’ve decided is in the next meeting to just tell everyone that we need some fresh thinking.  Candidates like the other one come by every single year.  There will be another that does similar research and shows similar potential.  My candidate is not.  Especially right now with the economy so good: people aren’t interested in taking massive pay cuts right now while there’s lots of money to be made.  If nothing else, I just want to be done with this and let the department head be the new enemy.  I’ve pissed enough people off.

More tales from the recruiting committee

While I may not be the most experienced person on the faculty search committee, I definitely know what I think the students want and what we need.  I explained previously how I would like another industry ex-pat because they can help bring some more connection to the jobs the students want, and the money the faculty members need.  I want to be alive to see my research realized, and I know that industry has the greatest motivation to build stuff, use them, and sell them.  I understand that some research is very conceptual and it can be many decades before the usefulness is realized, but for a department that claims to be applied science then I feel they need to show some of the ‘applied’ side of things and bring in someone else with industry contacts and motivation.  I’m not saying the other PIs here are unmotivated, but I feel they definitely are unmotivated to get the fruits of their labor to appear in anything more than a publication.  The publications are great to disseminate their work and share with others that may build upon it, but without pushing the research further (again we claim we’re highly applied) the research will ultimately just sit in the archives collecting digital dust.

One person told me off the record that many don’t want this turning into an industry department that’s solely motivated by money.  I get that.  I left industry partially for that exact reason, but federal funding is dwindling, the public often makes fun of academic research, and people are starting to believe that nothing good comes out of academic labs.  We need to be creating collaborations not only across departments and schools but also with companies.  If you have research that could make flying safer, treat a disease, or eliminate our dependence on oil, let’s find a way to take that publication and turn it into reality.  And whether it’s right or wrong, we’ll need industry’s money.  Or at least someone from industry’s know-how to turn that concept into a tangible object that can help society, regardless of whether we’re turning a profit from it.  We need other people that have done “practical” design work, to contact the proper vendors, and get the research into the hands of subject matter experts or customers.

I know this is a contested topic and I’ve been accused of being less interested in science and more interested in ruining the sanctity of academic research.  I’m wildly interested in science!  I understand that science can do amazing things.  But ultimately money keeps our labs going, and the vast majority of our students will go into industry.  If I could just have one other faculty member on my side that has experienced something beyond the tower I would be grateful.  Funny thing in this is the faculty members that I’ve had on my grants to a couple private companies used to be anti-industry, but in these arguments, they’re on my side.  I’ve definitely converted them that industry isn’t so evil (though trust me, they are evil…kidding….mostly…..).  What do I have to do, fund every one of these prof’s labs to show them that more connection to industry, the better?