Academic job security and productivity (or the plant ecologist weighs in on potted plant metaphors)


I had been planning this post for a while because the topic has been on my mind but now it seems like a perfect fit. Following up on Terry’s theme about nourishing research at teaching schools, I’m going to extend the plant metaphor to career transition stages.

Imagine you’re a plant that can either bear fruit or send out runners (like a strawberry plant or one of those common houseplants). Although a well-fertilized and cared for potted plant can do both, at some level there is a trade-off. You can’t do all the things all the time. Now imagine that your resources are running out and think of those fruits as papers and the runners as applications. With a finite amount of time you have to choose what kind of reproductive output you want to go for. On the one hand, you need the fruits to continue to survive in the academic world but on the other you can’t survive without a position (new pot). If you send out no runners you’ll be left to die in your pot once the resources dry up but lots and lots of runners will not reach fertile soil either. So where do you find the balance in your reproductive output?

This metaphor breaks a bit when referring to only academic transitions because on some level the same phenomena follow you throughout your career. Although you don’t have to continue to apply to positions post-tenure (but there are those that do), you do need to continue to apply for research funding. But focusing in on insecurity in academia, I wonder how this affects overall productivity. There are a lot of points in academia where insecurity exists. Getting a PhD, post doc or faculty position all have risks and mean uncertainty for what the next stage will bring. For most of us, these transitions require big moves as well which can factor into productivity in a large way. But lately I have been reflecting about my time as an assistent professor in Sweden.

In Sweden, there seems to be an additional stage of insecurity where people can exist in short-term (~4 years) assistant professor positions generally following a post doc. People can also survive as independent researchers living on grant money that also runs on three to four year cycles. Permanent positions are few so this means that many await the grant funding results to know whether they have a job or not.*  I am now also looking ahead to my position ending this year and wondering about whether grants will continue to fund my existence.

Now, I have been happy to have the position I do so I don’t want this to come off as a rant, but I know the temporary nature of the position has reduced my productivity. Unlike a tenure-track position, I have not only been chasing grants since I came here but I have also been applying for other jobs, thinking about whether to apply, and generally spending time allocated to runners instead of fruit. It has me thinking about what the best system is for science and scientists and the fact that these might not be the same thing. For example, although this position has been great for me as a scientist, it may not produce the most science. In the end no one really cares about all the applications that went nowhere, except maybe me.

So how do we foster growth of scientists and science? Stability seems one possible solution. I certainly know I could build and grow a lot more if I could stop worrying about where my income is going to come from next year. On the other hand there is only so many ways to slice a pie and not all who would like to have permanent jobs will get them.

Another solution is to keep those in temporary positions well-fertilized so that they can produce both fruit and runners.

As for me, I just hope that my combination of fruits and runners has been enough to keep on in my little pot or another.


*I know this isn’t a unique problem to Sweden but it is the one I currently most familiar.

2 thoughts on “Academic job security and productivity (or the plant ecologist weighs in on potted plant metaphors)

  1. There’s a 3rd aspect too. Maybe call it keeping the plant healthy, in the analogy, I envision this being fertilizer, having nice green photosynthetic leaves, and basically getting sufficient nutrition to send out those runners or flowers. This would be skill development, mentoring, environment, etc. And can be a real source of worry/loss of productivity/effectiveness. I come at this from the lens of depression; which has absolutely interfered with my life career.

    Anyway, I wish you good effort and the best with finding funding or a new job. And I too think a lot about just what is a good scientific system for more people than it seems to be now.

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