Tension

There's a tension between engineering and research in my lab. Research is what drives the researchers, providing new results and interesting questions to investigate. Engineering keeps the lights on and ensures that we're able to get funding and collaborators because we can deliver on the promises we make. Both pull on the students, demanding their time and attention.

I've been struggling lately to reconcile that tension for myself and understand its effects on my team. At the best of times, student researchers should be spending about half their time on sponsored projects, and in theory that should be sufficient to get the engineering side of things done, but somehow we're always behind. It seems to me that the root problem is this: engineering doesn't get you a degree. As a heartfelt engineer, that hurts - I want to build solid systems that use the cutting edge technologies we've developed in real world scenarios, but the incentives just aren't there for the students who are supposed to be building it. Paper deadlines, conferences, advisor mandates, and all manner of minutiae make their claims on peoples time and attention, and often they contribute more to a given student's academic progress than building the real thing.

While I find this frustrating, it's also clear that everyone is making the best choices they can given their goals and the structures they operate in. Research labs live on grants, and a key factor to getting them is publication frequency and novelty. Academic advisors responsible for funding their students need to spend a lot of time chasing the money down, writing proposals and talking to potential sponsors to try and find new resources. Students want to graduate, and they need to keep their advisors satisfied with their progress and produce enough literature to convince a committee of their expertise. Collaborators are loosely tied to each other and have long feedback times, simultaneously limiting the risk of failure and making it hard to see which decisions ultimately affect the long-term health of the partnership. In each case engineering effort is only mildly compensated and is often the last on the list of priorities.

As time goes on I'm realizing that this type of environment just isn't for me. I'm less interested in the theory than the applications. New technologies are interesting because they make us more capable than we were, and while there is a lot to be said in praise of beautiful ideas and their intrinsic value, it's not what drives me. Ultimately I want to see beautiful ideas in action.

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