Good Deeds That Are Most Punished, Part 3: Research

Douglas Paulin for The Chronicle

April 29, 2012

We take research seriously. There is no alternative to holding an idealistic attitude about scholarship: 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 refereed 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 yourself 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, even a research collaborator with an advisee, at the end of the day it was up to them to complete their dissertations. Stepping in to aid a student, or even a colleague, who is floundering on some major project is an often-punished good deed in research. Helping can be a good thing—for our craft, for our cause, and for our souls. If, say, a doctoral student faces a bedeviling issue in his literature review and you think you have the answer, by all means share it, help out, give guidance.

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 dissertation-friendly.

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 extensive 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 productivity. 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 stuff."

So set stop-loss limits on how much time, effort, and sanity you are willing to expend. Have the fortitude to cut loose if you find your own research productivity suffering.

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 substantive publications.

Happily, the older scholar, while inattentive to the problem, was a decent fellow. The young scholar, after two years of fretting and agonizing, finally admitted his concerns, and mutual astonishment ensued. It turned out that both of them thought the project was a "good deed" they were doing for the other. So they put the collaboration aside amicably and forged on with their separate agendas.

The episode highlights one basic reason that good deeds are punished: We fail to probe whether our intended benefactee really wants or needs to be helped.

Don't run out the tenure clock. Sometimes you are not stymied by one big good deed going wrong but by the accumulation of many small ones. In an earlier essay I suggested that assistant professors create a time-management chart listing every project along with its deadline for completion. The chart helps you avoid unnecessary commitments by being a prop you can pull out to show people that you are indeed too busy to take on new work.

In addition, as you look at the chart, day after day, you will appreciate that six years on the tenure track is a very short time. Insert a feel-good project that will likely produce nothing publishable and, presto, a month is gone. And the months add up.

I recall a "lost summer" on my tenure track. A local nonprofit asked me for help on a research project within my area of political communication. I completed it and felt good about helping out. It had been objectively the right thing to do. But when the next summer rolled round I begged off further commitment. I realized that I had only so many summers to work on projects that did not pay off in actual publications.

So, yes, be a bit ruthless. Do good, but always keep your eye on that clock: It ticks for thee.

Climbing Mount Impossible. My favorite analogy for the research enterprise is drawn from Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first to conquer Mount Everest. In paraphrase, he defined successful mountain climbing as not only ascending to the summit but then getting down safely to tell about it. Indeed. I hear many young scholars say "research" when "study" is more appropriate. Research is (A) studying something and then (B) publishing about it for the world to see and peers to evaluate. The two acts must occur in sequence for "research" to be completed.

A good deed that goes bad in the world of research is when we forget about B in our pursuit of A.

Typical case: A young scholar completes a dissertation, graduates, starts a tenure-track position, and discovers a fascinating new area of research. It is exciting, and frankly, since she is numbed to boredom by her dissertation topic, she wants an escape. More than that: The new area is important; the world needs to know this! So off she goes. But wait, we the P&T committee say: That's great, but where are the publications from the dissertation?

Climb down to base camp and finish that "research." Recall that we hired you in part because we thought your dissertation topic, which we felt fit with the focus of the position we advertised, was important as well.

You retort: The new research is a good thing, one that will give light unto the nations! Maybe, and we look forward to those publications, too. But first things first. It helps your tenure chances to convince us that you are a serious researcher and not a dilettante butterfly who flits about without focus.

It is good to quit a project that has no hope of completion. It is also good to finish what you can finish.

In search of perfect research. As a scholar, you have been tempted by perfectionism. I once met a doctoral student who had been working on his dissertation off and on for decades. Every time he thought about wrapping it up, he said, a new idea or data set would lure him into further study.

Over the long arc of your career, you will complete many research projects, one often leading to the next. Research is an archipelago, not a single island. Your goal should be to build a career piece by piece doing good research. A professor once shocked me when I was a graduate student by saying, "Hopefully, your dissertation will be the worst thing you ever write." Now I give the same advice: Our goal as scholars is continual improvement. Do the best job you can on your dissertation, defend it, publish it in some form, then move on.

Over all, the good deeds that are most punished in the world of research are more subtle than those of teaching and service. You will have moments of fear in the classroom or on a committee, but nothing inspires self-doubt in the novice academic more than the long, long horizon of scholarship. All the more reason to be prudent about how to allocate our precious time and energy. You can do good deeds in this realm, just be smart about it.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa.