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.