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Three summertime questions

Posted by Melissa on June 19, 2012

Summer research is in full swing here at Carleton. I’ve got two wonderful students working with me in my lab. However, with the arrival of summer, I am once again reminded of just how poorly others understand what ‘doing research’ entails for an experimental physicist.

Top three questions/comments I get about my summer:

“Are you on campus this summer?” Yep. The last time I checked the local coffee shop doesn’t have a UHV chamber for me to be able to do my work there. And packing a cryostat in my suitcase so I can do some research while I spend my summer visiting family in Europe isn’t a possibility. The laboratory is my research home.

“Isn’t  the flexibility of the summer schedule wonderful?  Don’t you particularly appreciate it now that you are a parent?” While it’s true I don’t have scheduled classes, for the first part of the summer, when my students are getting started on their research projects full-time, I’m generally in my office/lab from 8:30-4:30 Monday through Friday.  And because lab scheduling doesn’t confine workdays to weekdays, I sometimes have to drop by the lab on weekends or after hours.

The parent comment, which I get a lot these days, bothers me immensely.  Faculty contracts are nine month contracts, so when I don’t have an external grant, I’m not paid for work in the summer. Yet because my presence is required on campus to do research and because letting a toddler loose in a lab full of buttons and cables and shiny objects seems unwise, I have to pay for full-time childcare. I have to pay out of pocket to be able to do research, and doing research is an expectation of my job. Something is strange about that situation.

“Oh, working with students must be great. They can do your research for you.” Working with students is indeed great! The reason why I wanted a career at a college like Carleton was so I could work closely with undergraduates, introducing them to what research is all about and helping them grow professionally. However, doing research with students is another form of teaching, and like all teaching, it demands effort.  This particular type of teaching involves working with students one-on-one on a daily basis. I love it! But it takes time, patience, nurturing, and the willingness to allow students to make mistakes. I find sharing the joys and challenges of the lab with students who are getting their first taste of full-time research is immensely rewarding, but it certainly doesn’t make research easier or faster.

The next time you see me, feel free to ask about my summer, my research, or my research students, but please try to refrain from the three questions/comments above.

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2 Responses to “Three summertime questions”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist said

    This is so spot-on, thank you. I usually cringe at the the beginning of the summer with the “Where are you going this summer?” questions, and at the end of the summer with “How was your summer?” Our campus is pretty quiet in the summer, but the science building is nearly full, all day long.

    I’ve also thought that it’s funny how committee work has to come to a complete stop over the summer. I’m not saying I want to do that stuff, it’s just very clear that some people won’t be checking their email for three months. Can you imagine that? -Andy

    • Joss Ives said

      Agreed on all three points. I do not envy those of you having to pay out of your pocket to do something that is an expectation of your job. That is so very backward.

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