Saturday, January 19, 2008

Which is worse: before or after tenure-itis?

This was an interesting discussion over on FSP about someone who got tenure and seems to be acting like a prima donna now. The comments were widely varying and the only thing we can conclude with certainty is that tenure, and the tenure climate, are different everywhere.

This is especially interesting to me since I have been feeling pretty anti-academe lately, despite the fact that my research is moving along, I love students, and always wanted my own lab and the freedom to work on my own ideas.

Lately I'm thinking that even if I got a faculty position even in the highest esteem of academe, it wouldn't be worth it.

So I was thinking about where I've worked, my vague impressions of how they handle tenure (from the point of view of a student/postdoc) and how the younger profs seemed to cope with it.

I've worked at places that have Tenure and places that don't have it at all. Interestingly, the places with no tenure seem to follow more or less the same pattern as the ones that have it: a majority of the most senior profs are only indirectly involved in research, and while powerful in the Service areas, not particularly helpful in those roles (especially to women and minorities!).

The places with tenure seem to have just about as much dead wood, but the floaters they have are by far and away much worse than the floaters at places without tenure. They are usually dangerously unproductive, but worse than that, dangerous in terms of groping females, wasting resources, and blocking (in one particularly memorable case) the hiring of women and minorities into faculty positions not just in their department but sometimes across the entire university.

One thing I've seen over and over again is the tendency to restrict research lab space based on funding/hiring. So as long as the dead woods have a few young bodies at the bench, they get to keep their labs. If no one will work for them anymore and/or they don't have grants to pay people, they are restricted to smaller and smaller spaces, eventually ending up with an office the size of a small closet.

I realized I've worked almost exclusively at places where tenure is not trivial, so there is a lot of turnover at the younger prof levels. My experience has been that younger profs are stressed about research and not nearly as involved in service as the students need them to be.

I understand the logic of 'protecting' younger profs from the 'burden' of service, but I think ultimately this is another area where the system is horribly broken.

Nothing will ever change if we continue to maintain this kind of hierarchy, whatever the good intentions.

I was talking to a grad student yesterday about this, and whether it's good to choose a brand-new prof as a PhD mentor.

I am of the opinion that brand-new assistant profs fall into two categories, and only two:

Type I worked their asses off to get this job, sometimes superstars but more likely persisting as postdocs for 6 years or more. They know how to do everything already, including writing grants, papers, hiring, firing, buying, and negotiating service contracts. They will be great mentors and might tend to take on more than they can handle, but they will love it. They see it as a luxury to be able to choose to sleep in their office, because they always dreamed of the day when they could, and now they can.

Type II got their job because they had the pedigree. They don't really know what they're doing, and that includes everything from how to do basic experiments to how to supervise and train students and staff. They are usually aware of this so they're insecure, defensive, and spend most of their time employing the formula that got them where they are today: sucking up to the rich and powerful. They are horrible mentors, abhor all kinds of service, and do only as much as required to get tenure.

Type I is people like profgrrrl, who stress out about tenure because they love their jobs and genuinely want to be good at what they do and earn the respect of intelligent people.

Type II is more like FSP's little buddy, who may have kept up appearances for the sake of self-promotion, but has now run out of energy to maintain the facade of being the good colleague.

Personally, I think there are way too many Type II's out there. I also think none of this is going to go away until people adopt the strategy of industry to stop relying on recommendation letters.

Which brings me to another thing I wanted to mention. I was talking to a friend this week who just got offered a faculty position. She is a Type I and I'm really happy for her. But I was mildly dismayed when she told a story about how the interview went, where the people told her the main reason they wanted to meet her in person was because one of her recommendation letters was so good. She laughed while telling us that this was a letter she had written herself. PI just signed it.

It doesn't bother me in the least that she wrote herself a great letter, or even that PI just signed it, since, as we've discussed here before, this kind of thing goes on all the time.

What bothered me about this story was that she was left with the impression that this was the single most important factor about her application.

She doesn't seem to mind how she got her foot in the door, and I say more power to her.

But think of it this way: if many hires are Type IIs, and some fraction of them get interviews based on totally phony recommendation letters they wrote themselves, doesn't that seem like a recipe for having a bunch of idiots as faculty?

In fact, somebody wrote a book about this. It's called The Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations (L.I.A.R).

Along these lines, I heard another nightmare-inducing New Assistant Prof story the other day. Warning: this might make your head spin.

Basically this guy says he writes his postdocs' fellowships for them. Outright writes the whole thing before the postdoc ever arrives.

The way he sees it, they always get the money, and it helps him out since it's one more salary.

The way I see it, this is like paying someone take your SAT test for you. It's totally cheating the system. But worse than the SAT, where you actually have to show up in person and show ID, there is currently no way to discourage this kind of behavior or reveal how widespread it might be.

In a way, I have to commend his ingenuity. But in all reality, the whole system is predicated on the assumption that everybody believes in maintaining a certain level of fairness.

It ain't there.

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At 9:49 PM, Blogger Propter Doc said...

Re letters of recommendation. Some UK institutions have policies where letters of recommendation can not be opened until after the search committee has decided who to offer the job to. So they have to come up with the interview list, meet the candidates, and do the interview and reach a decision, then they get to open the letters.
Strange wee policy really. I mean, you'd get no chance to respond to any potential problems in the letters, would you?

At 11:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's sad, and I think you're right about each topic. This is coming from a person on the Type II track.

At 4:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two points:
1)When you recommend a book, you might want to go through the amazon referral program thingy. That way you'd get a few cents when I buy LIAR via your link. :)
2)Having just submitted some fellowships, I was struck that in the mentor support letter portion, my new PI wrote in regards to the grant "that he wrote entirely by himself". So perhaps someone is at least is onto the PI-writing-fellowships scam.

At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never encountered a new hire who arrived knowing "how to do everything already, including writing grants, papers, hiring, firing, buying, and negotiating service contracts". They might *think* they knew all that! If you want an advisor with that that level of professional and managerial skill, go to an established lab.

By the same token, I've also never encountered a new hire who wasn't a freaking wizard in the lab (or at the keyboard), let alone one who couldn't "do basic experiments". YFS' notions notwithstanding, postdocs in top labs who aren't good at what they do aren't getting anything but abuse from their PI's, and certainly not strong recommendations.

(I can't help but suspect there's a certain demographic variable that correlates strongly with her perceived Long-Suffering Nurturing Omnipotent Saints and Arrogant Selfish Incompetent Undeserving Monsters, but she didn't explicitly say it so I'll let it slide...)

At 4:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you watched the devil wears prada? do you really want to be these people? most professors are miserable people.. and like to assume that everyone wants to be like them (or be them!)

is it worth it? no. it's not. and if you think you'll be happy once you get tenure-track you are really in for a surprise...

At 9:58 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Propter Doc,

wow, that's so foreign I don't even know what to make of it. What's the logic, "last chance to make sure this person's not a serial killer?"

Anon 11:04,

thanks, i think?

Anon 4:32,

thanks for the Amazon thing, it hadn't occurred to me to try to make money off of it. I wasn't really recommending that book, I've never read it and I'm not sure I want to help them make money! But maybe I should care as long as I do, too?

re: the mentor thing, everyone writes that about how their postdoc wrote it all themselves, whether it's true or not! Again, it's very much an 'honor code'. Based on the premise that everyone isn't(!) lying(!).

Anon 3:34,

Lucky you!

I'm routinely asked embarrassingly, nauseatingly idiotic questions by new faculty of all demographics.

And old faculty, too. But I tend not to blame them, after all they've been in their offices for decades, not reading papers or doing experiments... oops, I mean, working hard trying to keep up.

Idiots come in all shapes and sizes, except for the part where they all got jobs b/c Advisor was Famous (or friends with the chair, or both). That criterion seems to know no boundaries.

Anon 4:05,

Yeah, I saw the devil wears prada. it's funny, i was kind of conflicted about that movie at the time, but now i don't really remember why?

oh yeah, now i remember. it was because it's left kind of vague if she isn't quitting partly because she's worried about her love life?

LAME. That and she never really wanted a job in fashion in the first place, so the whole time you get the impression she's really just along for the ride. So it's not that big of a deal when she quits?

Note that there aren't a lot of inspirational or funny "lessons learned" movies about famous people who always wanted to be a ___ (scientist?) when they (she?) grew up, but quickly (eventually?) realized her role model (everyone?) was a jerk and then quit.

Or are there? I can't think of very many.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

YFS: I find it very disturbing that you would ASSume that some faculty member (be them junior or senior) who asked for instruction about a technique from such a self-purported "expert" as yourself would be so harshly judged. eg. I know how a Toepler pump works (and might have used one once or twice) but I sure as hell would get someone who used it more regularly to help me with the measurements.

RE: devil wears prada. . .so the woman's priorities in life shifted (or were always different from what she thought they were). SO what? It happens all the time, and quite frankly MOST people do put their relationships either first or tied for first with their careers. WE (academia bound workaholics) are the minority and should realize that most people out there just want to pay the bills so they can live their life. I'd defend their RIGHT to that life to my last breath, even if I'm choosing something else for my own.

At 5:43 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon at 1:33,

Good for you (I don't even know what a Toepler pump is?). I'm just frustrated because I think the system is so broken when we're the ones who know how to do everything, but we're not treated as the invaluable contributors that we are.

re: devil wears prada, my point is not about the character. I totally respect the character, and the storym, and people who choose to do that (as individuals).

I just don't like these stories that send the Disney message in movies to young girls who are forming their (conscious or unconscious) choices about having a career and the pros and cons of ambition.

If you find your prince, the message goes, you don't have to work anymore.

MRS degree, anyone?


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