We produce way more PhD scientists than the existing demand for tenure-track faculty positions. That’s a straight up fact that we all recognize. The corollary to this fact is that people planning to get PhD must recognize that there must be a multiplicity of careers to keep in mind while in graduate school. (There’s a great guest post at Dynamic Ecology on this topic.)
So, I’m sympathetic to the notion that there are many excellent people out there that, on account of both deterministic and random processes, don’t land faculty positions despite a sincere and dogged pursuit of that goal. I have some colleagues whose research record and teaching skills (as well as collegiality) have merited a great position, but haven’t landed one, or who took a mighty long time to do so.
Obviously, the system is messed up in a variety of ways. I’m not going to get into that, because, really, you can find that on every other blog out there. That niche is well covered.
Tenured professors are probably in the worst position to remark on the fact that it is hard it is to get a faculty position. So, to make my point here, I’m going out on a limb, albeit a sturdy one.
I take issue with one specific variety of complaint: “I never got a faculty position because of X.”
If X is anything other than the paucity of jobs, then these statements typically rely on unsubstantiated claims, false expectations and incomplete knowledge of oneself as well as job availability.
What are the kinds of X I’ve heard over the years? All kinds of crazy stuff. Some people who don’t get a job can find all kinds of rationalizations. There isn’t a secret job czar out there preventing any search committee from picking somebody, and there’s no collusion going on among different interview committees. Some people get lots of offers, some only get one, and many don’t get any. The outcome is initially determined by what’s inside the application, and finally by how the person interviews. There is a great deal of hap involved. Very good people might not get jobs.
On this theme, here is the outrageous X statement of the week:
When I first saw the link to this post in the Scientific American Guest Blog, I was excited to finally learn the elusive secret of the periodic cicada! Clicking through, my mind spun with possibilities: Were cicadas actually Somali pirates in a past life? Were cicadas once married to a reclusive billionaire who enslaved hamsters in a miniature dungeon decorated with novelty leather goods? Are cicadas actually descended from beluga whales in a fluke of evolution? Was there some mathematical modeling combined with cytogenetics, fossil reconstructions and ultra-fine-scale radiometric dating that fully resolved the question about whether their periodicity evolved only in prime numbers?
I wasn’t even close.
It turns out the “secret” is that male periodical cicadas have a ritualized courtship routine, involving annoying whirring in a very specific fashion, that’s required to be able to access females. I think it is about as elaborate as lampyrid beetles (fireflies), though without the light show.
As far as my 10-min bibliographic search got me, I believe that this find was first published in the journal Behaviour in 2001 (pdf). It’s good work. According to Google Scholar, it’s been cited 37 times since it’s been published, which is well above the average paper (not that the number of citations directly reflects how valuable or important something is, of course). This finding is important for outreach, considering the public interest in periodical cicada emergences.
I admit, however, that I was disappointed to find out the “secret” because I was expecting something more amazing. I imagine that figuring out precisely how cicadas use their loud sounds to attract females would require some tricky timing in the field, since sex is highly seasonal. It takes 17 years of development for an individual to get to the point when it’s ready to have sex, though there’s a decent emergence, somewhere, on most years.
The dilemma of the cicada researcher isn’t that different from most scientists who study highly seasonal phenomena. I also can relate to this problem. Up until I came up for tenure, all of my data collection in a year was done in a 3 week chunk of time, not because of seasonality, but because it involved working in a distant rainforest when I wasn’t teaching. So I know how hard it is to do research while having to travel and cram your work into a short period of time.
This piece wasn’t written by John Cooley or by David Marshall, the cicada researchers who figured out the “secret,” but instead by “musician, composer, author and philosopher-naturalist” David Rothenberg. Cooley was interviewed by Rothenberg. I don’t know either of them personally, and Rothenberg is good writer. If you’re not an entomologist familiar with animal behavior and field biology, you might allow Rothenberg into tricking you into thinking that the solid and interesting research by Cooley and Marshall comprised “such a momentous discovery.”
Here’s what Rothenberg writes:
It is shocking that even after publishing numerous papers on this unique aspect of animal behavior, there is no permanent place in academy for either of them.
“Frankly I’m shocked that you guys don’t both have prestigious positions, for the remarkable cicada discoveries you’ve made.”
I’d like one of those prestigious positions, too.
Tenure-track positions are not awards for prior discoveries. They are investments into the promise of future work. Unless you have a Nobel Prize or are a member of the National Academy, you aren’t hired for what you’ve done. Universities hiring tenure-track faculty only take into account prior publications and discoveries as an indicator of what they may expect in the future. Publications don’t win you a job, they are only one prerequisite. To get a job, you need to convince others that you are capable of generating a string of publications like the ones you’ve already been able to do in the past.
I don’t want to pick on Cooley and Marshall, but since Cooley was letting Rothenberg size up his academic prestige in the Scientific American blog, then I suppose it’s okay for me to do so in this more obscure venue. In the context of the academic job market, I want to put their achievements in the perspective of my own experience.
I finished my dissertation around the same time as Cooley and Marshall, and I’ve probably taught as much as they have since we finished our dissertations. Our publication records aren’t markedly different, though if you care about those things, my h-score is only slightly higher and I’ve had a more recent papers. In terms of research citation, recognition, productivity and so on, we’re roughly on the same par, I suspect. They probably garner more media attention when there’s a big cicada emergence, like the one that prompted Rothenberg’s post.
Another difference among us is that I’m a tenured Associate Professor and that they aren’t on the tenure track. So, why is that? Is it because they’ve chosen to work on an organism that’s difficult to work with in its seasonality and longevity? That’s what Rothenberg implied. They’ve chosen a difficult research angle, and though making discoveries, they are being punished for working on a less tractable system by not getting a job. At least, that is the tacit message of the article as I read it.
Meanwhile, I have a few colleagues in mind, with a research record way more robust than myself, Cooley or Marshall. And they’re not landing faculty positions, either.
The scientists who are landing faculty positions have CVs that are ripe with potential. You look at their past performance, and you think to yourself, “this person has a really great research career ahead of them.”
Why are there so many scientific researchers, with a consistently solid though non-rockstar record, such as Cooley, who can’t land tenure-track job?
First, and obviously, faculty jobs in the sciences are very hard to get, though not as bad as in the humanities.
Second – and this is my main point in this post – they’re not applying for the jobs.
How do I know that? Isn’t that presumptuous of me? Only slightly.
Let me put this idea another way: Going through the records in my department, I can go through and find the names of everyone who applied for the job in which I am currently working, to which I applied in 2006. Is Cooley’s name in that list? Is Marshall’s name in that list?
In 2006, I applied to 91 faculty or faculty-esque jobs (like a museum), for all of which I was qualified and for many of which I was a good fit. I got a handful of interviews, and two offers. (One more offer might have been forthcoming if I continued shopping for a job.)
Is Cooley applying for 91 jobs per year?
You might be saying to yourself, “91 jobs? How could there 91 jobs in a year?” If so, then my reply is, “There are that many jobs every year. They’re just not published in Science or Nature. They’re jobs that you might think are below you. I’m in one of those jobs that might be below you. I don’t think it was advertised in Science, though it was in the Chronicle of Higher Education.”
Keep in mind that both Cooley and Marshall are generalized cicada biologists, with academic experience and publications in entomology, behavior, ecology, and evolution. There are lots of academic tenure-track jobs for which their CV is suited. Few of these jobs, however, are at research universities.
When many scientists say they can’t get a faculty position, what they often mean is, “I can’t get a faculty position that enables me to do lots of research, doesn’t require much time teaching, in a place where I wouldn’t mind living.”
Wouldn’t we all.
We are hoping to advertise for two positions in our department in the fall, and we are probably going to be open to all kinds of fields and subfields. Is Cooley applying? If he isn’t, then he doesn’t have the right to say that he can’t land a tenure-track job, and he shouldn’t enable Rothenberg to complain on his behalf.
At our university, Cooley wouldn’t be a rock star, but he’d be one of the best researchers on campus. I don’t know how many double-digit h-index scientists we have, but he’d be in a small minority.
I’m open to being wrong. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised to go back to that file cabinet in our departmental office, maybe in the basement, and see a cover letter from Cooley. (I can’t do this since I’m writing this from the field.) The university where I work is a perfectly fine full-time job that allows one to conduct academic pursuits, and both the place is gorgeous and our union ensures that we have good benefits. If it’s good enough for me, then, frankly, it should be good enough for him, because we have the same level of academic prestige (unless he’s published with a pseudonym for most of his prior work).
All kinds of academics have been taking jobs in far away places because those were the only ones they got, and this has been true for many decades. (For all I know, in a department of biology study of integrative cicada biology might be viewed as important as a department of literature might view the translation and interpretation of an Old Low Norse epic poem.)
Yes, there is a huge problem in academia, which is arguably broken, that many people are being trained for jobs that aren’t available. However, many of these complaints are coming from sources such as Rothenberg, that don’t understand what constitutes massive progress in science, and don’t have an appreciation for the breadth of tenure-track jobs available to scientists.
I bet that our open call for a “biologist” at CSU Dominguez Hills will garner perhaps couple hundred applications, and probably fewer. At the same exact moment, there will be thousands of biologists out there claiming that jobs aren’t out there.
When I do that math, then I don’t feel quite as bad for the scientists with a PhD who say that they can’t find any permanent academic job.