Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Tenure Itch

I've had two really interesting discussions in the past week with friends from grad school; first, it was a visit from ..Or Something and his girlfriend Dr. Friday Glasses, and then last night on the phone with a friend we will call Professor rgh. (Neither of the two nicknames have been agreed to by the parties involved, they are simply my suggestions). These were also augmented with lengthy discussion with Mrs. Apparent-Dip-But-With-A-Different-Last-Name, usually during a time when we should have been packing for our upcoming move. ..Or Something, Prof. rgh, and I are all at various stages of the whole academic job process, either in the process of finishing the Ph.D., as a post doc, or as a full blown Assistant Professor. We have also all observed different aspects of many job searches in different departments, and even a very sketchy case of tenure denial.

The aspect of these conversations that has stuck in hy head the most revolves around the value given to junior faculty, or potential junior faculty. Many institutions, at least those I have been associated with, are very keen to focus their hiring on senior faculty, in short, buying faculty who have earned tenure at another institution. Although some faculty searches are restricted to junior faculty (only hiring at the assistant professor, or pre-tenure level), my view now is that these are more the exception than the rule. I fully understand why some departments would want to attract and hire big wigs every once in a while, but as the regular way to replace retiring faculty or fill new positions I think it is a bad idea.

What is even worse, I feel, is that on the odd chance that junior faculty are hired, their chance at tenure seems almost comical. I wonder how many of the current faculty would have earned tenure with such requirements. I am not sure what is worse, not offering the positions in the first place, or setting the tenure bar far higher than could be expected, or is even possible.

I've heard many arguments for hiring senior faculty whenever possible, but all of the points completely devalue what junior faculty bring to a department and ignore the role senior faculty play in the development of young scientists. For example:

  1. Senior faculty typically are more proven at bringing in large research grants, and are therefore a better economic decision for a department. You cannot compare someone who has been a faculty member writing grants for 20 years with someone fresh out of graduate school. What you have to do is try to predict what the young person will be like in 20 years. Although the senior faculty may bring in more, or publish more, or have more accolades, they will also contribute to the department for 20 fewer years. Departments should be interested in the integrated contributions, not the present rate.
  2. Junior faculty are risky to hire. In some ways this is true, you have less information to base your decision on with younger hires, they are risky, but cheap-risky. If the don't work out, there is a built in way to not keep them around, called the tenure process (which I still think is abused, but more on that later). Senior faculty, on the other hand, are typically brought in already tenured. Their start-up packages and salaries are often many times larger than what a junior candidate would expect, and if they don't work out, you are hosed. What can you do? Unless they kill someone they can't be fired, and you spent an absurd amount to bring them over. I have seen senior faculty get hired, be given an absurd amount of start-up money, and then become what I consider dead weight. They have no interest in performing any of the boring and annoying but essential aspects of being a professor (you know, teaching, advising students, collaborating, etc..). This is not true for all, I know plenty who have continued to be productive and valuable members of a department, so let's move on to point #3.
  3. Hiring high profile faculty is a good way to make a department more respected and competitive. This may be true, but it is often a false and ephemeral way to improve a department. When I think about what departments are really solid, I always associate the department with certain faculty. These professors made their name at the university, and they are the reasons departments gain a certain stature. If they move to another university later in their career, I don't necessarily transfer their accomplishments to their new campus. I think the best way to improve a department in a long term sense is to let faculty develop and prove themselves. I call this the Michael Jordan rule. When I say Michael Jordan, most people think Chicago Bulls. Who associates him with the Washington Wizards (or even better the Birmingham Barons)? Maybe a scattering of Wizards fans who hoped he'd spark the team, but I think it is safe to say that 99% of folks who know of Jordan associated him with the Bulls. It is where he made his name. Seriously improving a department takes time and investment, end of story.

What I think is really tragic about these reasons (all of which I have heard) is that they completely ignore the role senior faculty have in mentoring and developing younger faculty, as well as all of the positives young faculty bring to a school. Many of the assistant professors I have interacted with are exceptionally motivated. They are hungry to prove their worth and make a name for themselves, and they have a serious interest in what the department will be like in 20 or 30 years. These are all great things.

In addition, when faculty searches are restricted (officially or not) to senior faculty, you might as well throw any hope for diversity out the window. Earth science departments (at least in the US) have a tough time attracting students, or making a case for increased university and/or government funding; homogenous departments of old white dudes do not help the matter (although in interest of full disclosure I hope one day to be an old white dude in a department).

And then there is tenure. Even when a department hires an assistant professor, how many actually have a realistic shot at tenure? For some disciplines in some schools, junior faculty positions are little more than 6-year post-docs. I am sure plenty of us have seen exceptional junior faculty denied tenure. Are the bars set unreasonably high? Would present senior faculty have received tenure with those expectations? Is denying tenure to solid and productive faculty a way to try to boost the image of the depatment? I know there are plenty of factors that I, as a student or post-doc, are not privy to, but in my conversations I keep getting the sense that another big factor is an overinflated memory of what their tenure packages looked like 20 or 30 years ago. I've been looking for statistics on the average age of faculty when they receive tenure, but haven't found anything too useful yet.

Just as it is the role of faculty to help guide the development of students, I believe it is the job of senior faculty to guide the development of junior faculty. This creates productive, stable, and competitive departments. It is also a positive feedback loop, departments that help develop faculty create excellent senior faculty who in turn help guide the next generation of scientists.

Again, I am not always against the hiring of senior faculty, and I understand why that is sometimes a good idea. But it can't be the norm. Geology will need geologists in the future, so it is the professional duty of anyone who thinks geology is important to help foster that new generation.

I'd be interested in your thoughts; I'd especially be interested if anyone knows sources for relevant statistics on hiring and the like. Or, if you have been involved in more faculty searches than I, I'd be interested in the perspective.


Chuck said...

Trust your feelings, Luke.

You are right that academics seems bleak.

It is correct that tenure is a nigh-impossible goal.

And despite the recent US market skid, resource prices are at an all-time high.

It takes less than two years for a mining geologist to work up to a professor's salary.

Many seasonal and contract jobs leave time for research between postings.

Come over to the dark side, Luke.


-Lemming Vader

Brian said...

I'm hoping to come across a suitcase full of money...or win the lottery...then I can fund my own research and not have to worry about tenure

"Ain't From Around Here" said...

I don't think it a totally desparate situation- as long as you don't mind being poor. The way I see it is that higher education has never been in higher demand- sure students aren't exactly thronging to geoscience, but demand by students for college degrees is high (so it's good to be one of the keyholders!) and actually the demand for professional geoscientists is high, which makes for vital departments.

If you want to be choosy about your hours, have total (or near total) autonomy in determining your project work, and don't mind slugging through the ranks, academia is probably your best fit.

Mobility in academia has never been greater, and with universities increasing enrollment and wanting to increase research revenue, there is increasing competition for professorial types too, which will eventually with the turtle-pace that is so characteristic of gargantuan bureaucracy, help faculty salaries, dare I say even for the humanities. I think the upswing is happening now and probably will continue for the next 10 years.

Also, based on a robust data set of circumstantial evidence, it seems that it takes being jr. faculty at Po-dunk U to get to super-star Bigger-than-the-Beatles status at Rock-Star Research U.

And it seems there is way too much of a learning curve and wheel-spinning that goes along with starting in academia as an out-of-the-gate PhD, so to start out at RSRU to me doesn't seem like the best trak- but sometimes you gotta go for the jobs that are open when they come open.

Of courese, this is just my humble opinion at this point- I'll have to think about it once this glorious time called summer break is over. I hear Starbuck's has great benefits.

Brian said...

The more I hear about how stressed out junior faculty are at RSRU, the more inviting being at PoDunk U seems.

I guess the trade-off is that the town of PoDunk might not be your first choice to live (?).

Thermochronic said...

woo-hoo! Encouraging words on the job market from an honest to god person in academia! To add to Brian's comment, the trade off might also be finding a place both you and your significant other want to live in (or where the significant other has good career possibilities as well). I guess that is my big reservation when it comes to the idea of working at PoDunk and then moving, it assumes my significant other doesn't mind uprooting every few years when nicer spots open up.

And I still maintain that it hurts Big Fricking Research University not to hire and develop junior faculty.

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