Saturday, July 26, 2008

More ways for research to die.

More atrocities from the trenches-

I'm hearing from young faculty at R1 or near-R1 universities that their departments are adding more (irrelevant) criteria to their tenure reviews and candidate searches because of a disturbing trend.

Apparently more and more of the last generation of hires are so burned out, that by the time they get tenure, they shut down their labs, stop doing research, and declare from now on that they will only be teaching.

Then the department is screwed, because they sank all this startup money into this person, and now they can't afford to hire anyone new, even if they have plenty of candidates who are actually doing research.

Of course, this 'backup plan' only works at places where your salary is covered by teaching a minimum courseload every year.

Still, I thought this was bizarre, and kind of funny in a horrible way, and I had never heard of it before.

I could just picture these newly tenured faculty, smoke still coming out of their ears they're so burned out, saying

Take that, stupid broken system! We're going to sit on our asses and to hell with this bullshit about a research career! Muahahaha!

(Not to say that teaching isn't hard work too, but assuming that they aren't taking on a double load of teaching now that they have no lab management or funding obligations.)

I've heard plenty of stories about people getting tenure and then quitting to go to industry.

You've heard of these people, they go to places like Genentech. Initially you wonder why, but then you think, $$$$$$. Oh, I get it.

But I thought this teaching-only solution was a new twist, especially at research universities.

Is this happening at your university? I haven't heard of it happening at mine, yet.

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At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've heard of these people, they go to places like Genentech. Initially you wonder why, but then you think, $$$$$$. Oh, I get it.

Umm, no. Everyone in academic biology is convinced that industry researchers make so much money, but a tenured professor with grants (and summer salary, consulting income, etc...) makes roughly the same as an industry lab head. At most it's a matter of $, not $$$$$$.

If people with secure research programs are leaving for Genentech, I'd imagine it's because a) Genentech is a more prestigious and better funded place to work than the large majority of universities and b) they want a civilized lifestyle and not a continuous nervous breakdown while supervising other people's nervous breakdowns.

If you have a successful lab and you enjoy it, stay there.

I bet you're right about "Apparently more and more of the last generation of hires are so burned out, that by the time they get tenure...", though. It's one thing to live like that until you're 35, but until you're 45, as is the case nowadays? They're halfway to retirement anyway!

At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not happening because they're burned out; it's happening because they can't get their funding renewed. My place was cruising along pretty good with paylines at 20-25%. We're a 20% kind of place. Now paylines are 15%. 20% used to equal about $1.5M over 4 or 5 years. Today, 20% equals $Zero. Consequently, no-one is getting funded. We're closing down, although the Chairs haven't quite realized it yet, and the Dean certainly has no clue. The tenured faculty can't be downsized, because of that tenure thing. They can't teach because we don't need any more teachers. It's bad. New faculty get fired, because they can.

At 1:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just signed my contract to be an assistant professor at an R1, and my salary comes from 75% instructional monies and 25% pure research monies, though my job duties will be the reverse. The school feels that this breakdown means I should teach about 3 courses a year, but as long as I participate in mentoring students in research (ugrad/grad -- being on committees or supervising) this will drop to 1-2 courses a year. It seems like they are hedging bets for exactly these circumstances, insuring in writing that I owe a high teaching load in case I do fail to get and keep a productive research lab.

But I really hope that won't be the case. It's not as much fun to teach at a big R1 as at a SLAC.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger A Blog of Conscience said...

Not just $$$$. In my field (a non-bench science), you need lots and lots and lots of data and you just can't get the quality/quantity of data in an academic environment. So either you work on research that is likely to be ignored, or you consult with industry, or you leave for industry.

At 9:15 AM, Blogger Tor Hershman said...

“…they can't afford to hire…” don’t fall for that
song & dance, what do you think – apples grow on trees.

Stay on groovin' safari,

At 10:03 AM, Anonymous a physicist said...

Not happening here. We have a policy in our department that faculty with tenure but without grants and who aren't seeking funding, have to do double teaching. But that policy is aimed at folks closer to retirement, and hasn't been needed for people who just got tenure.

At 12:16 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 7:23 pm,

Interesting point. I guess I know a lot more people who left at or just after the postdoc stage, and at that point it is $$$$$.

Starting salaries for assistant professors are non-competitive, from what I can tell.

But contrary to what you're saying, I have heard that Genentech is quite the pressure cooker, at least for postdocs. I don't know if this is true for lab heads.

But I've also heard it's very hard to get a Scientist position there, you still need the one-word journal pubs to even be interviewed there. They're the new Harvard, right?

Anon 9:28 pm,

You don't think they're burned out because they can't get their funding renewed?

It's amusing to me how postdocs with lots of funding think research is the funnest career ever, and postdocs struggling for funding know that it's not the end-all, be-all. Stress can really suck all the fun right out of it.

Anon 1:34,

Congratulations! And good luck. Thanks for your comment, I had never heard that places have policies like this.

Blog of Conscience,

Good point. It's all about what you want to do and where you can do it.


I'm not sure I get it, but I think I know what you mean.

a physicist,

I hope you'll let us know if that policy ends up being useful for newly-tenured folks whose funding runs out.

At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do know of a few profs who got tenure within the past 5 years and headed to biotech companies for 1) big bucks and 2) no grant pressure. But I also know of profs who burned up their asst prof mega-startups and then left for other schools with their tenure to get more "start-up" at the new places as assoc prof. With the dismal funding situation, it seems both issues are becoming more common. Kind of the "gotta do what ya gotta do" type era.

I'm at an R1, but my dept absolutely sucks for funding and publications. The students aren't competitive for anything outside the state, the faculty stopped doing research and giving a crap about the labs sometime around 1985, and the new folks coming in are getting crap startup, crap facilities, and an eggtimer will be used to predict how long it will take them to get tenure (via teaching evals and service mostly) and head to wayyyy greener pastures. Don't blame them though. Sad.

At 6:00 AM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

I had this exact same conversation with my mentor on Friday! He is a full professor and section head who has been given the unenviable task of running remedial grant writing sessions with 5 tenured faculty who have done very little of anything for the past 5-10 yrs. We are in a large (R1) medical school so these associate and full professors don't have any teaching responsibilities and have been getting by with being named as consultants on other PIs grants and doing absolutely nothing to justify their salaries. Apparently, they aren't getting funded because either (1) their grants are poorly written/constructed and (2) any promising ideas in their grants have been overshadowed by their lack of productivity on recent grants (eg one small paper from a 5yr grant). Needless to say, our dept is trying to find ways to either "rehabilitate" these faculty or slash their salaries and/or push them out the door.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

But I also know of profs who burned up their asst prof mega-startups and then left for other schools with their tenure to get more "start-up" at the new places as assoc prof.

I only know a couple of people who have done this, and in both cases it was a two-body problem that forced them to move. Without that being a factor, it's hard for me to see how a department wouldn't try desperately to hold onto a newly-tenured associate prof, and why a department would want to spend startup on somebody who is coming in with tenure and now has license to do, well, whatever the hell they want (?).


This sounds all too much like the same problem we have with postdocs, just being recapitulated with these same people who shouldn't have gotten jobs (or PhDs) in the first place.

They had to have someone kick their butts as grad students/postdocs and/or write their papers for them, and now as faculty someone has to hold their hand??

What really galls me is that this goes on for 5+ years before anybody higher up NOTICES or even considers doing anything about it.

Meanwhile, the students and postdocs usually know what's what, but nobody listens to us.

At 4:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Question that may or may not be related to the above post:

What would be your opinion on a scenario in which all PhDs/postdocs were qualified individuals who actually wrote their own papers and grants? Surely, of all the people who actually make it to the coveted tenured positions, some people actually deserved it. My question is basically if the system only allows a chosen few to ascend, what do the rest of us hardworking, decent scientists do? Clearly, there are biases that prevent this from happening in reality. I'm just saying if these egregious offenses weren't happening, would you feel any different? Like, ok, I gave it my best shot but it just wasn't meant to be. Or maybe something else?

At 6:38 AM, Blogger Samia said...

I know an asst. professor who spend some time at Genentech and speaks fondly of his time (and salary) there. Apparently he took a substantial pay cut when he came to academia. I have no idea what happened in his life to choose this path. Anyway, he felt the environment in industry is more hands-off as far as people letting you do your work without needling you constantly.

Another thing...some professors could stand to learn a bit more about teaching, at least at my school. I am sick and tired of instructors announcing there will be no office hours and if we can't spare fifteen minutes after class to ask a question (even if we have a class directly afterwards), we're essentially fucked. And of course there are about 100 or so other folks in the class. The TAs' "assistant teaching" consists of grading papers and failing to make appointments with their students.

In my experience teaching falls to the wayside a lot for some PI profs. I don't think people learn how to do it properly in grad school, and it's consequently treated as a side thing by many professors. So it is kinda cool to think about professors who choose only to teach. My best teachers are more senior professors who spend a little less time at the bench these days.

Just my $0.02.


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