Sink or swim

Aug 22 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Dr O over at the Tightrope has been recently thinking a lot about what it takes to get a tenure-track job, and whether one needs R01-like cash to land a position at a "top tier" university. And, since she used one of my comments to kick off her latest post, I will respond here.

Now, before anyone gets too wound up, I think it is nearly/totally impossible to define a "standard" for what is required to get a job on the tenure track. Every position and hiring committee is going to be different and trying to say that ANYTHING is absolutely required is an exercise in futility. Yes, you will need to publish and/or demonstrate some capacity to bring in funding $. But there is no formula that will guarantee you get a job. Also, I'm not even going to TRY to get into what "top-tier" might mean.

I digress. What I would really like to talk about is how the "culture" of a department can influence your job. As far as I can tell as a junior faculty*, department cultures can range from Care Bear Tea Party to Sink or Swim. Dr. O, though she doesn't want to judge, comes across as a person that values the Care Bear side of the spectrum. A place where everyone cares that the new assistant professor does well and succeeds, and eventually gets tenure. You know, where student have "great mentors who are respected in their field and actually invest in their students and postdocs". In this world, the Dept. Chair and senior faculty presumably mentor the n00b faculty so that they are gently introduced into the world of the tenure track.

Now, I get why this sounds...comforting. The problem is that it is bullshit. Even in the most gentle environment the transition to assistant professor is tough. AND, it is not necessarily uncomfortable or even unpleasant to be in a more...intense place. Sure, the stakes are high, but that will always be true for anyone that is on the tenure track. Does it really matter if the folks you are competing with are down the hall or across the country? Yes, there are places where more than one junior faculty member are hired for a single tenure track position. Places where tenure is a (more obvious) competition from the beginning. And I get why folks would think that such an environment could be intense or even unpleasant. But many of the places that do this routinely produce totally kick-ass science. This is where big-swinging-dicks are born, by design. These environments that are so intense also chock-full of incredibly smart, ambitious people. They recruit the "best" young scientists on the market, and the junior faculty are set off to prove their mettle with the understanding that resources will not be an excuse for having failed. In other words, SHIT-TONS of CASH and ALL THE EQUIPMENT you could ever need. That doesn't really sound so bad, does it?

The trade-off is that the "intense" places are sometimes willing to take a chance on someone that could be great...but they could be wrong. Because in these environments if someone fails it is not considered a reflection on the entire system. In Care Bear environments these "risky" hires are generally not made. Instead, hiring committees are more conservative because they want to make sure that the person they hire won't fail.

I guess the take home is that everyone has to find a home that is best for them. This is why "fit" is key when doing a job search. Not just for the department, but for the scientist, too. If you are looking for a place on the tenure track, and you have been good+lucky enough so far to be able to land in an "intense" place, it could be FANTASTIC. Or not. Just make sure your expectations match the environment.

But really, from what I can tell it is Sink or Swim for everyone in the end.

 

*YMMV

16 responses so far

  • odyssey says:

    Word.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    "That doesn't really sound so bad, does it?"

    It sounds like exploitation.

    • gerty-z says:

      How so? If someone chooses to work in a high-intensity, big-risk/big-reward place how are they being exploited?

      • Zen Faulkes says:

        Are people looking for research employment making free and unconstrained choices about where to work?

        You yourself wrote about getting about 600 applications for one tenure track job position (http://www.labspaces.net/blog/841/Spooky_). That's a job market where the employer holds the power. Lots and lots of power.

        Historically, employers in markets with few jobs and a lot of people clamouring for them have rarely created fair working conditions voluntarily.

        Think of towns that used to do a lot of coal mining. In theory, people were free not to work in the coal mines. In reality, choosing not to do so meant displacement or unemployment, and many employers continued to have horrible working conditions.

        That was were unfettered free market competition led to. That was exploitation. That is why labour laws kept got passed.

        There is a difference between having projects from different employers compete against each other for funding and having people working for the same employer compete against each other for their livelihood.

        Hiring multiple people with the express plan of firing all but one not only sounds like exploitation, it sounds like an environment intended to encourage backstabbing, misconduct, and fraud.

        • gerty-z says:

          Zen, I think we are talking about different things. The folks that take jobs at the "top-tier", high-intensity research institutes are highly-recruited people on the market. People I know that are assistant professors in these places had many offers, and they knew what they were getting into. So yes, they made free and unconstrained choices about where they wanted to work.

          My current MRU has some real Care Bear qualities, and IME seems to care about making sure the junior faculty are successful. We offer start-up and salary that is competitive with other MRU and have all sorts of other perks that really make living and doing science here great (which probably contributes to the large # of applicants for our junior faculty openings). Nevertheless, we find that our preferred candidates are (sometimes) recruited away by one of the super-fancy, uber-competitive top-tier institutes. Those candidates chose that environment-it was not forced on them.

          The people that choose to take jobs at the top-tier, Sink or Swim institutes are NOT the coal miners of academia.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    I would describe my local environment of the Care Bear party who regularly invites unicorns over for afternoon tea. That said, the last 3-4 people who went up for tenure have been DENIED! Why? There are standards-even in my highly supportive environment. So even though my environment is warm and fuzzy-and I truly appreciate that, unless you have a fire under your ass and just get IT** the fuckke done-you're gone.

    **IT is different for each faculty member and most IT guidelines are written in the handbook that is collecting dust on your office shelf. If you aren't getting grant $$, your ass best be applying. If you don't have a funded research program, your ass best be in the classroom teaching innovative shit to n00bs. IT is really contribution to the department and university in the form of tangible cash and billable hours (teaching) in any combination there in. You must do service too, but this is really just gravy for the department/uni. You will NOT get tenure even if you serve on 50 flippin' committees....

  • Dr. O says:

    Hahahahahaha - this is the first thing that came up when I googled care bear tea party. πŸ˜‰

    I agree that it's intense for everyone, and it totally should be. Even at these "care bear institutions" you have to get money, and money is tight. That's just how it is, and anybody who goes after the TT path without this understanding is delusional. But I also think that some of these systems are designed for junior people to fail. Which is probably why many of these universities have chosen to stick with hiring more senior folks who already have honed their grant-acquiring skillz by securing a/multiple R01 award(s).

    Also, I don't think it's true that only top tier* institutions provide lots of money to their scientists. In fact, in some cases, the opposite may be true. A lot of much smaller, less fancy institutions provide very generous start-up packages, salaries, and facilities for doing kick-ass science. The idea that all the good science is being done at the more obviously intense institutions is, IMVHO, just not true. (Yeah, I know that's a stretch of what you were getting at, but I'm feeling hyperbolic this morning ;))

    *BTW, the "top-tier" term derived from not having any better term to use to describe a system that's all a bit... ambiguous to me.

    • Dr. O says:

      Just realized you had that DM post linked in your post. *hides face in embarrassment* What can I say, I evidently don't know how to link out on my Android. And it's still the AM. And I haven't had my second cup of coffee yet.

    • gerty-z says:

      But I also think that some of these systems are designed for junior people to fail. Which is probably why many of these universities have chosen to stick with hiring more senior folks who already have honed their grant-acquiring skillz by securing a/multiple R01 award(s).

      I disagree that failure is the desired outcome in these systems. For many of these institutions, the system is quite succesful. And people I know that take jobs in these environments know what they are getting into. And that is what they WANT. Also, just because a department is recruiting more senior/tenured faculty doesn't at all imply that they don't care about junior faculty. All it means is that they are looking to fill an Associate Professor position. There can be lots of reasons for this. No serious program is going to totally bail on having junior faculty-it just isn't sustainable.

      I don't think it's true that only top tier* institutions provide lots of money to their scientists. In fact, in some cases, the opposite may be true.

      This may be a situation where we have different views of what is "top-tier". Yes, there are many very good programs that provide "generous" start up packages. For example, I consider my startup from MRU competitive and sufficient for what I want to do. BUT I also know folks with offers from places that DWARF mine (and other folks at similar MRUs). I also know that, as a member of the search committee, that there is NO WAY that my MRU is going to be able to throw as much cash at a job candidate as Stanford, Harvard, MIT, etc. So yeah, I strongly disagree with your assertion that "the opposite may be true". Because there are very few schools that can throw that kind of money around.

      The idea that all the good science is being done at the more obviously intense institutions is, IMVHO, just not true.

      Obviously I didn't say that.

  • Great post. No matter how supportive the environment, in the end it is you and your science, sinking or swimming.

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