Good Deeds That Are Most Punished, Part 3: Research
How to avoid those promising scholarship commitments that turn out to be dead ends for your career
WE TAKE RESEARCH seriously. There is no alterna- tive to holding an idealistic attitude about scholar- ship: We do good through discoveries, inventions, and insights that help people better understand the world, or by creating art that illuminates and enriches life.
But on the road to producing our best possible work, we encounter dead
ends and speed traps that are difficult to avoid because they’re disguised as
promising, rewarding, or helpful.
In this series on “good deeds” that can backfire in your career, I do not
challenge the virtue of doing good deeds, in theory or in practice. However,
some good deeds lead to disaster, for you and those you are trying to help.
Fortunately, those well-intentioned-yet-doomed actions can be avoided if
you know how to spot them. The first columns focused on teaching and
service; now we turn to scholarship.
Does it count?
I often get a variation of the following question from
new faculty members: “I just got invited to present a paper at Not-So-Major
Conference. Do you think I should go?” The answer depends on several
variables. First, ask whether the project will count toward tenure. Many
departments give zero weight to nonrefereed publications, presentations, or
book reviews. Even before you start on the tenure track, you should have
answered—perhaps even in your contract—the “what counts” question.
To take a recent example, an assistant professor in my department asked
me about writing a book chapter—which counts, but not as much as a ref-
ereed article in a major journal. In his case, it was a chapter reviewing his
existing research and suggesting future study; it was to be published with
a reputable press. I felt that since it wouldn’t involve that much new work,
he should consider it a positive toward establishing his scholarly reputation.
My advice was, go for it. If those circumstances had been different, maybe I
would have advised passing on the prospect.
In other words, a good deed that might be punished on the tenure track is
one that you might think sounds good, for you as much as for other people,
but that ultimately takes up your time and produces no real and lasting
value in the coin that matters: the countable items on your CV. You should
not automatically say “no” to all such opportunities, but if you devote your-
self to too many, your true productivity will suffer.
The drowning man’s extended hand.
“You can’t drag them across the
finish line,” a colleague in the early years of my career once advised about
doctoral students. No matter how much you wanted to be a good mentor,
But help should not become entanglement.
Ideally, no department will let you chair a doctoral committee until you
have had experience sitting on one. But in reality, doctoral students flock to
new assistant professors because of the perceived generational bonds, and
because the new tenure-trackers often do research in novel areas that are
A little ego-boosting sets the snare: “Wow, nobody has helped me as
much as you, Professor. You really care!” And you do. So reading and
reacting to an awful first draft of a theory chapter may give way to exten-
sive editing and revising of that student’s manuscript, and then to endless
conversations and outright ghostwriting.
An assistant professor once described his experience with an advisee
who ended up graduating—but who cost her adviser 10 months of produc-
tivity. They met almost daily, often rehashing the same issues. In essence:
“I worked more on her stuff than my stuff—more than she worked on her
So set stop-loss limits on how much time, effort, and sanity you are will-
ing to expend. Have the fortitude to cut loose if you find your own research
Is your collaboration wanted or needed?
Everyone who attends
graduate school has heard the story of the adviser from hell who, upon
completion of a dissertation, announces to his advisee: “Make sure to make
me first author on everything you publish.” More often, junior scholars
get trapped in an asymmetrical publishing relationship through their best
instincts, not just the iniquity of a senior vampire squid.
A young biologist recounted how he found himself in such a quandary.
There was a veteran researcher on the faculty in a subfield related to his
own. They became friendly and started a long-term collaboration. But the
older faculty member was experiencing health issues and was distracted
by several other major projects. The tenure-tracker found himself doing all
the work and getting half the credit, or no credit, because the project was
uncovering only marginal findings that were not enough to warrant substan-
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