On absurd tenure requirements at small institutions

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As this site continues to grow, the more I hear about issues that people face in teaching-focused institutions. There is one issue that I consistently hear about, but I have yet to mention: nonsensical tenure requirements for scholarship, especially in small liberal arts colleges. The most common one is: When an entire college or university uses the same publication expectations for all faculty. In. Every. Field. Continue reading

Should I stay or should I go now?

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Or maybe an alternative title could be “The Accidental Academic”.

This November I heard back from the two main Swedish funding agencies that I didn’t receive a grant this round. For me this means not only that I don’t have funds to run my lab, but also that I don’t have a position for myself. Because my temporary professor position is coming to an end, no grant also means no funding for my salary and I’m transitioning to being an unemployed academic.

So, should I stay or should I go now? The question has been rattling round in my head ever since I got the grant rejections. Continue reading

How often should tenure-track faculty be reviewed?

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How often should pre-tenure faculty files have to submit files for review? Too often can be annoying and stressful, too much work for all. If reviews are too infrequent, then pre-tenure faculty might have more anxiety and uncertainty, and final decisions may be inadequately informed.

How often does your university review pre-tenure faculty? How often do you think it should be? Continue reading

Public scientists, the twitterverse, thought police, feminism, and the fanatical mob

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I’m on vacation. But while I was posting a few photos on social media (amazing National Parks and a wooden carving of bigfoot drinking a beer) I stumbled on some extended silliness among fellow scientists that I want to discuss. Luckily, I woke up early, my family is sleeping in, so here goes.

A very-routine event has somehow caused some a great worry: A famous person said something rather hideous. This hideous opinion was put in quotes and got circulated on twitter. A storm-of-righteous-indignation built on twitter, and spilled over onto facebook and other media outlets. Within a few days, this famous person got “in trouble,” insofar as a famous and powerful person can genuinely get in trouble for voicing a contemptuous opinion.

This is a very common story. It’s a little different because of the specifics: Continue reading

What to do if you’re facing tenure denial

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A nontrivial fraction of tenure-track faculty are denied tenure, well over the standard 5% threshold for Type I errors that we use in the sciences. Even though academia has a love for self-scrutiny, we overlook the consequences of tenure denial. Tenure denial is not rare, but thoughtful information about tenure denial is rare. Continue reading

Which institutions request external review for tenure files?

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Today, I’m submitting my file for promotion. It’s crazy to think I submitted my most recent tenure file five years ago, it feels closer to yesterday. Unless I get surprised (and it wouldn’t be the first time), I’ll be a full Professor if I’m here next year. And yet, throughout this entire process, there has been zero external validation of tenure and promotion. I think this is really odd. Continue reading

History will not repeat itself (i.e. lessons learned as a first-year faculty member)

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By Sarah Bisbing

I survived my first year as a faculty member. In fact, I think I even did pretty well if I consider my student evals and the number of end-of-year hugs received. I’m going to pat myself on the back. Why? Because being a first-year faculty member (or really an any-year faculty member, as far as I can tell) makes you feel like you are in a constant state of fight or flight. I did know what I was getting myself into by starting down the path to tenure, but I also really didn’t have any idea what it would actually feel like. I was exhausted from living in a constant state of undone to-dos and never-ending lists, and I felt a bit like I was drowning. This reality hit me hard about half way through my first year, and I decided that I needed to come up with a better strategy for survival. I thought hard about my experiences to-date as a new professor and came up with my own rules of the game. And, you know what, I think I made some significant strides in managing my time and surviving the uphill battle toward tenure. Continue reading

How honest should I be about my career goals? My post-PhD story.

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My post-PHD journey is peppered throughout the posts I write here but I was inspired by a blog carnival over at the Contemplative Mammoth to put together a single post. After May 28th Jacquelyn Gillpromises to compile all the links, so if you’re interested in what people do after their PhDs, head on over there.

Long before I finished my PhD, my path in academia was never particularly clear. I came to research late in my undergraduate studies and at every stage I have thought: “Well this is interesting, challenging and fun, so lets see if I can find a masters/PhD/position”. I knew that at each of these filters there was a real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find the next position. So I remained cautiously optimistic but always thought that at some point I would have to figure out what to do when I go up. Since I was aware of the possibility that I wouldn’t find a position along the academic trail, I’ve never been focused on a tenure-track position as the only career choice that will make me happy. But as I have progressed, I wonder how honest I should be about this fact.

You see I’m not convinced that I will end up as a professor. I know that it takes an incredible combination of skill and luck to land a position. Although I ended up doing a PhD in one of the top programs of my field, when I applied there were other top schools that didn’t invite me to interview. So even at that stage I was aware that there is variance in decisions and that I am not one of the applicants with a flawless CV (at that stage I had good research experience but less than top undergraduate grades and GRA scores). Last year I was one of the selected candidates to interview for two positions in Sweden. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get either but what was interesting was that I applied for the positions with two of my colleagues. The person who got one of the positions wasn’t even invited to interview at the other and the two of us that did interview for both flipped in ranking between the two jobs. I don’t take this as a sign that the system is random but rather that when comparing good candidates, how qualities are weighted will always vary between selection committees. But of course it does worry me that I might never quite make it to the top of the list.

So given what I think is a somewhat realistic frame of mind, I have always taken the ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. That means that in conversations throughout my career I have not been dead certain that being a professor is my one and only goal. But when I’m honest about my uncertainty, I find that it can be mistaken for a lack of desire or drive. Like hinting that you are aware that there are few permanent professor positions and the reality is that you might not get one means you aren’t interested in continuing in academia.

To be clear: I love my job. I am sometimes afraid to admit how much I enjoy it, like a kid not wanting to jinx my chances. Sure there are lots of things that stress me out about this path but when I take a moment to think about it, I love my job. I love being able to think about new questions and new problems all the time. I love teaching and getting students excited about the world around them. I love the challenges I face that force me to grow and learn all the time. I love to write and present findings at conferences. I love talking to people about their work and collaborating. As a career, I can’t think of any better and I truly hope that I can keep on doing what I’m doing.

But here’s the catch: I’m not willing to sacrifice everything to achieve a tenure track position. I have a family that I need to consider if we make a move for a position, but I also have a family that I want to spend time with. For me that means I work less than I could and that is certainly is reflected in my publication rate. So when I look at my CV, I see that I could do better but I also know that I don’t want to trade-off my happiness now for some uncertain happiness in the future when I have tenure.

So should I be honest about my uncertainty? I have become wary of talking too frankly because I don’t want the perception to be that I’m not dedicated. Thus far I have been fortunate that I have been able to keep going in academia and I haven’t seriously considered other options. I might have to do that when my current funding runs out but for now I continue on working towards an eventual permanent position.

So for me, my post-PhD story doesn’t have an ending. I still feel in flux and don’t know where I will end up, geographically or otherwise. But for now I’m enjoying the ride.

Avoiding bad teaching evaluations: Tricks of the trade

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Student evaluations are the main method used to evaluate our teaching. These evaluations are, at best, an imperfect measuring tool.

Lots of irrelevant stuff affects evaluation scores. If you’re attractive or well dressed, this helps your scores. If you are a younger woman, you have to reckon with a distinct set of challenges and biases. If the weather is better out, you might get better evaluations, too. So, don’t feel bad about doing things to help your scores, even if they aren’t connected to teaching quality.

My university aptly calls these forms by their acronym, “PTE”: Perceived Teaching Effectiveness. Note the word: “perceived.” Actual effectiveness is moot.

People are aware whether or not they learned. However, superficial things can really affect perception. What our students think about the classroom experience is important. But evaluation forms are not really measuring teaching effectiveness. These evaluations measure student satisfaction more than learning outcomes. Since we are being held accountable for classroom performance based on student satisfaction, it is in our interest to pay attention to the things that can improve satisfaction.

Here are some ways I’ve approached evaluations with an effort to avoid getting bad ones.

  • I try to teach effectively. The best foundation of perception is reality. I put some trust in my students’ ability to assess performance. If I’m doing a good job, my students should know it.
  • I work hard to demonstrate that I respect my students. It’s easy to give in to the conceit that my time is more valuable than the time of my students. When I see myself going down that dark pathway, I try to follow the golden rule, and treat the time of my students with as much concern as I would like my own time to be treated. For example, I make sure class always ends on time.
  • I emphasize fairness. On the first day of class, I let students know that life isn’t fair, but I try hard to make sure that my class done as fairly as possible. Students often volunteer gripes about their other classes, and unfairness is always the common thread in these discussions. Even if students perform poorly in a class, if they think that it was conducted fairly, then they are still usually satisfied.
  • I recall Hanlon’s Razor: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” None of my students are out to get me. Ideally, they’re out for themselves. Sometimes, I’m not clear enough about expectations. When a student needs something, I approach the interaction with the default assumption that it’s my fault. And if it’s not my fault, it’s not an intentional flaw, so I can’t give students a bad time about the shortcoming.
  • I don’t engage in debates about graded assignments. I tell my students that if there is a very simple mathematical error or something I missed, they can bring it to me immediately after class. Any other errors need to be addressed with a written request by the start of the next class meeting. I’ve only gotten a few of these, and in all cases, the students were correct.
  • When a student is persistent about points, I avoid the argument whenever possible. I don’t concede unearned credit, but I don’t dismiss the concern either. Nearly all requests for grade changes are so tiny, they have a negligible on the final grade. I show, numberwise, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I tell them that if they are right on the borderline at the end of the semester, I’ll make a note of it and we could talk about it at that time. This prevents the student from waging a futile argument, and keeps me out of the business of catering to minutia.
  • I run a tight ship. I can get annoyed by inappropriate behavior, but the students are usually even more annoyed. When someone is facebooking in the front row or monopolizes discussion, the rest of the class is usually super-pleased that I shut it down, as long I do it with respect. Classroom management is a fine art that we are rarely taught. (I’ve learned some education faculty and K-12 teachers.) I think establishing the classroom environment in the first few days is critical. I don’t enforce rules, but I develop accepted norms of behavior collaboratively on the first day of class. When things happen outside the norm, I address them promptly and, I hope, gently. When anybody (including myself) is found to be outside the norm, we adjust quickly because we agreed to the guidelines on the first day of class. I’ve botched this and have been seen as too severe on occasion, but I’d prefer to err on that side then having an overly permissive environment in which students don’t give one another the respect of their attention.
  • A classic strategy is to start out the term with extreme rigor, and lessen up as time goes on. I don’t do this, at least not intentionally, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea as long as you finish with high expectations. In any circumstance, I imagine it would be disaster to increase the perceived level of difficulty during the term.
  • I use midterm evaluations, using the university form partway through the semester, for my own use. This gives me early evidence about perceptions with the opportunity to change course, if necessary. I am open and transparent about changes I make.
  • I often use a supplemental evaluation form at the end of the term. There are two competing functions of the evaluation. The first is to give you feedback for course improvement, and the second is to assess performance. What the students might think is constructive feedback might be seen as a negative critique by those not in the classroom. It’s in our interest to separate those two functions onto separate pieces of paper. Before we went digital, I used to hold up the university form and say: “This form [holding up the scantron] is being used by the school as a referendum on my continued employment. I won’t be able to access these forms until after the next semester already starts, so they won’t help me out that much.” Then I held up another piece of paper [an evaluation I wrote with specific questions about the course] and said, “This one is constructive feedback about what you liked and didn’t like about the course. If you have criticisms of the course that you want me to see, but don’t think that my bosses need to see them, then this is the place to do it. Note that this form has specific questions about our readings, homework, tests and lessons. I’m just collecting these for myself, and I’d prefer if you don’t put your names on them.” I find that students are far more likely to evaluate my teaching in broad strokes in the university form when I use this approach, and there are fewer little nitpicky negative comments.
  • I try to avoid doing evaluations when students are more anxious about their grade, like on the cusp of an exam or when I return graded assignments. When I hand out the very helpful final exam review sheet, which causes relief, then I might do evaluations.
  • I don’t bring in special treats on the day I administer evaluations. At least with my style, my students would find it cloying, and they wouldn’t appreciate a cheap bribe attempt. Once in a long while, I may bring in donuts or something else like that, but never on evaluation day.
  • I’ve had some sections in with chronic attendance problems, in which some students would skip or show up late. On those occasions, I made a point to administer evaluations at the start of class on a day that had low attendance. I imagined that the students who weren’t bothering to attend class were less likely to give a stellar rating. Moreover, the absent students weren’t as well qualified to evaluate my performance as those sitting in class. (Of course, those attendance problems indicated that I had a bigger problem on my hands.)
  • Being likable and approachable. Among all the things that influence evaluations, I think this is the biggest one. There are many ways to be liked by your students, as a human being, but I think being liked is prerequisite to really good scores. Especially with our students who face a lot of structural disadvantages, approachability is important for the ability to do the job well. I’m not successful enough on this front. It hasn’t tanked me in evaluations, because by the end of the semester the students are comfortable with me, but that doesn’t emerge as quickly as I’d like. This is the area I need to work on the most. I am to do all the professorly things with students with the greatest needs, they need to be able to talk to me.

Of course, some of these tips don’t apply if the evaluations are being administered online. This is a growing trend, and my university made the switch a couple years ago. (Thoughts and experiences with paper vs. online evaluations are in the ever-growing queue for future posts.)

Are there different or additional approaches that you use for the non-teaching-performance related aspects of student evaluations?

[update: be sure to read this comment. I think everything in this post is relevant to professors of both genders, but there are additional issues involving student biases that female professors need to deal with that I haven’t addressed. Professors need to be approachable to do their jobs. If students can’t talk to us, then that puts a low ceiling on what we can help our students achieve. However, what it means to be professional and “approachable” for a younger female professor might look really different than for an older guy. As I don’t have experience being a younger female professor, I’m not as well qualified to address this as some others. Another good reason to cruise over to Tenure, She Wrote.]

Tenure denial, seven years later

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Last month, l linked to a series of posts about my job search after tenure denial, and how I settled into my current job.  Here is the promised follow-up to put my tenure denial ordeal, now more than seven years ago, in some deeper context.

As I was getting denied tenure, nobody suggested that tenure denial was actually a blessing. Nevertheless, if anybody would have had the temerity to make such a suggestion, they’d have been right.

I don’t feel a need to get revenge on the people who orchestrated the tenure denial. But if the best revenge is living well, then I’m doing just fine in that department. I’m starting my fourth year as an Associate Professor of Biology in my hometown. Without asking, I was given the green light to go up for promotion to full Professor two years early. In the last few years, I received a university-wide research award and I was elected to a position of honor in my professional society. I feel that all aspects of my work are valued by those who matter, especially the students in my lab. I’ve managed to keep my lab adequately funded, which is no small matter nowadays. Less than a year ago, I started this blog. That’s been working out well.

The rest of my family is also faring well, professionally and personally. We are integrated into the life of our town. We have real friendships, and life is busy, fun and rewarding.

I’m high enough on life that I don’t often reflect on the events surrounding my tenure denial. There’s nothing to be gained by dedicating any synapses to the task. Three years ago, I wrote that hindsight didn’t help me understand why I was denied tenure. One might think that a few more years wouldn’t add additional hindsight. But a recent surprise event put things in perspective.

As part of work for some committees, I’ve been reading a ton of recommendation letters. One of these letters was written for someone who I know quite well, and the letter was written by my former colleague, “Bob.” (I don’t want to out the person for whom the letter was written, so I have to keep things vague.) This letter was both a revelation and a punch to the gut.

Bob was a mentor to me. He was an old hand who knew where the bodies were buried and was an experienced teacher. I knew Bob well, and I thought I understood him. When came upon Bob’s recommendation letter for this other person I know, I was stunned.

Bob primarily wrote in detail about a single and irreparable criticism, and then garnished the letter with faint praise. The two-page letter was written with care. Based on how well I know Bob, or how well I thought I knew him, I am mighty sure that it was not written with any intention of a negative recommendation. (I also happen to know the person about whom the letter was written better than Bob, and it’s also clear that the letter was off the mark.)

Being familiar with Bob’s style, if not his recommendation-writing acumen, I clearly see that he thought he was writing a strong positive letter, short of glowing, and that he was doing a good deed for the person for whom he wrote the letter. He didn’t realize in any way that he was throwing this person under the bus.

How could Bob’s judgment be so clouded? I am pretty sure he merely thought that he was providing an honest assessment to enhance the letter’s credibility. In hindsight, I see that Bob often supported others with ample constructive criticism. (For example, he once gave me a friendly piece of advice, without a dram of sarcasm, that I was making a “huge mistake” by choosing to have only one child.)

It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots.

I remembered something that my former Dean mentioned about his recommendation to the independent college committee (which oddly enough, also included the Dean as a member): the letters from my department were “not positive enough.” (I never had access to any of these letters.) Because my department, and Bob in particular, claimed to support me well, I found this puzzling.

At the time, I suspected that the Dean’s remarks reflected the lack of specific remarks and observations, as most of my colleagues skipped the required task of observing me in the classroom, despite my regular requests. Presumably nobody bothered to visit my classroom because they thought I was meeting their standards.

Then I recalled that one of the few colleagues who actually visited my classroom on a regular basis was Bob. Did his letter for me look like the one that I just read? Did he write that my teaching had some positive attributes, but I that my performance fell short of his standards for a variety of reasons?

Did Bob try to offer some carefully nuanced observations to lend credibility but, instead, inadvertently wrote a hit piece? That seems likely.

Considering the doozy of a letter that he wrote for this other person who I know well, it’s hard to imagine that he even knows how to write a supportive recommendation letter. Since he was my closest mentor and the only other person in my subfield, I’m chilled to think of what he wrote for my secret tenure file.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that my other official mentor wrote a brief, weak, letter, because he couldn’t even spare the time to review the narrative for my tenure file before I submitted it to the department. Thanks to the everlasting memory of gmail, check out what I just dug out of my mailbox:

BeHappySnippet

So, why was I denied tenure? It’s not Bob’s fault for writing a bad letter. The most parsimonious conclusion is that I just didn’t fit in.

I saw my job differently. At the time, I would have disagreed with that assessment. But now, I see how I didn’t fit. The fact that I didn’t even realize that Bob would be writing bad recommendation letters shows how badly my lens was maladjusted. If I fit in better, I would have been able to anticipate and prepare for that eventuality. I trusted the wrong people and was myopic in a number of ways, including how others saw me. I probably still am too myopic in that regard.

How was I different? I emphasized research more, but I also worked with students in a different manner. Since I’ve left, my trajectory has continued even further away from the emphasis of my old department. I’m teaching less as my research and administrative obligations grow, and my lab’s productivity is greater than could have been tolerated in my old department. My lab is full of extraordinary students that would have been sorely out of place in my old university.

I work in a public university with students whom my former colleagues would call “poor quality.” I am changing more individual lives than I ever could have before, by giving students with few options opportunities that they otherwise could not access.

It is fitting that my current position, at a university that gives second chances to underprepared students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is also a second chance for myself.

I might not have gotten tenure in my last job, but I had lots of opportunities to work with students. These interactions transcended employment; they were mutualistic and some have evolved into friendships. I look on my time there with great fondness, despite the damage that my former colleagues inflicted on me. I am gratified that I made the most in an environment where I didn’t belong.

I hope that it is obvious to those who know me and how I do my job, that my tenure denial does not make me look bad, but makes my former institution look bad. If I were to draw that conclusion at the time it happened, it would seem like, and would have been, sour grapes. Now that more time has passed, I’m inclined to believe the more generous interpretation that others have proffered.

I resisted that interpretation for a long time, because others would correctly point out that I would be the worst person to make such an assessment. I still have that bias, but I also have more information and the perspective of seven years. Is it possible that my post-hoc assessment paints a skewed picture of what happened? Of course; I can’t be objective about what happened. If I have any emotion about that time, it’s primarily relief: not just that I found another job, but that I found one where people make me feel like I belong.

I don’t stay in touch with anybody in my old department, as I snuck away as quietly as possible. Tenure denial is a rough experience, and I didn’t have it in me to maintain a connection with my department mates, even those who claimed to be supportive. We had little in common, other than a love for biology and a love for teaching, but both of those passions manifested quite differently.

I don’t have any special wisdom to offer other professors that have the misfortune of going through tenure denial. Tenure denial was the biggest favor I’ve ever received in my professional life, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else. If it were not for tremendously good luck, I probably would have been writing far grimmer report.

Update: After a couple conversations I realize I should clarify how evaluation letters worked where I was denied. In the system at that time, every professor in the department is required to write an evaluation letter that goes straight into the file. These are all secret evaluations and it’s expected that the candidate is not aware of what is in the letters. If I had the option of asking people to write letters, I don’t think I ever would have asked Bob to write a letter for me, because I had several colleagues who I knew would write me great ones. The surprise about Bob was had the capacity to write such a miserably horrible letter and not even realize it. He is even worse at nuance than I expected.

Coming out of the closet, tenure denial edition

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With a bit of CV forensics, you can infer a lot about the career of an academic.

One potential indicator of tenure denial is employment as an Assistant Professor for seven years, not immediately followed by an Associate Professorship. An astute person mulling over my CV would notice this.

I don’t hide this fact, but I don’t advertise it either. It’s no secret, by any means.

Volunteering this fact comes with some serious baggage. It’s not like I was denied at Harvard, where denial is the default expectation. In my last job, tenure denial was a rarity. You had to really botch it to get denied. While I had some high-performing colleagues, I also had one colleague who was tenured despite not publishing anything after getting hired. Others moved successfully through the system even though they were notably ineffective in the classroom. Even though the bar was low, I didn’t make it over.

The standard of line of thought must be that I really sucked at my job, or I must have been a major jerk. It’s difficult to argue against that reasoning.

Tenure denial is a failure. Tenure denial can be caused by poor professional performance, poor navigation of politics, or by personal faults. I would bet that, if any of you called up my former colleagues who were involved in the process, that their explanation might be evenly split among the three possible causes, and maybe a trifecta of all three.

The experience of tenure denial is extraordinarily difficult. It’s painful and lonely. There is a mixture of grief and loss, often heavily salted with injustice. Take the angst involved in the path towards a tenure-track position, and mix in six more years of effort. Then, top that with your spouse’s career and bake in your personal finances. It’s hard to describe, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

How, exactly, did this happen? I actually have already explained it elsewhere. Throughout my terminal year, I shared the story over a series of four installments in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I wrote a follow-up column a few years later, as I was waiting to hear the tenure decision at my current institution. Here are the links:

Part 1, October 2006: No warning signs

Part 2: November 2006: A way out of this mess

Part 3: February 2007: Reviving my career

Part 4: May 2007: A fresh start

Part 5, February 2010: Life after tenure denial

[update, Part 6: January 2014: Tenure denial, seven years later]

I also have another installment in the works, which I’ll probably publish later on this site. I have learned some new lessons, and new facts, since the 2010 installment. [update: here is that installment]

These articles were published pseudonymously. Obviously, at the time it would have been unwise to discuss my job search process in real time under my real name, especially in my delicate position. (The only fact that I altered in the columns was that I switched the gender of a couple individuals.) Because I didn’t use my own name, the reach of those articles might have been limited. If I want to make a bigger difference by having written these articles, then connecting my real name to them might create a better understanding because I don’t have to obscure any details about myself.

There are pluses and minuses about coming out. I’ll have detractors who claim that I deserved what I got. Others might think that I fabricated or exaggerated details. Others might think that I’m oblivious to my ample flaws. Still others might think that this fact explains more than it does. I’ll have to deal with those things, because the benefits of coming out are great. There are plenty of people who are looking for a new tenure-track job after tenure denial, but there’s little information to be found from those who have gone through the process. I think those going through this process might benefit from some of the details about the things that worked and didn’t work out for me. (They also might see some hope in my happy ending, which at the outset I never could have foreseen.)

I am, admittedly, more fond of my current job than my last one. I don’t think this difference is caused by my nasty experience, but could reflect that I am genuinely a better fit for my current job. The sources of great pleasure in my current job were scarce in my old job, and the things that I dislike about my current job were in far greater supply at my old job.

So, have at it. If you wish to leave comments about this story, I do recommend that you read the five columns to which I have linked.

On creating your own path through life

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This weekend, I took my kid to a Mythbusters live show. When I left, I was inspired.

The source of inspiration wasn’t the world’s most impressive paintball gun, modified from an anti-aircraft machine gun. Though that was pretty cool.

I was inspired by learning about the wandering path taken by Jamie Hyneman. He’s the quieter Mythbuster that always wears a beret and has walrus-y facial hair. A one-page bio of Hyneman was in the big glossy program connected to the show.

As long as it’s all true, it seems that Jamie Hyneman has led one hell of a life. I’ll try to capture his trajectory, based on what I learned from his bio as well as his Q&A session during the show. The timing of all these things is rather vague to me, but here are highlights:

  • He grew up in a small Midwestern town. When he was 14, at his request, his parents sent him to a hardcore wilderness survival training school in Wyoming.
  • When he graduated from high school he bought a pet shop, and then sold it after a few years.
  • He went to college and got a degree in Russian. At one point along the line, he worked as a librarian for the United Nations in Geneva.
  • He worked as crew on sailing vessels in the Caribbean. He eventually bought his own ship, and got all the certifications to be a captain, and sailed around for a living.
  • He was interested in the various creative challenges with movie effects, so he left for New York City, where he started working in entry-level jobs in movie production, working to gain new skills.
  • He moved to San Francisco to access more exciting movie production work, and when his company folded he bought up the shop and went into business for himself. One of the guys he hired along the line was Adam Savage. At some point he asked Adam to join him in a pilot for Mythbusters, and you can figure out the trajectory for the following ten years up to the present.

I hear far too often, “What can I do with a degree in X?” This question comes with a false assumption: what you do after college must directly follow from the undergraduate degree. When a premed asks me what’s a good major, I say: “What do you find interesting? Since you’re going to be a doctor for your whole life, then what do you want to do before you get trained as a doctor? Art? Philosophy? Economics? Cell Biology? Music?”

Jamie Hyneman became a Mythbuster, with a degree in Russian. One of my siblings became a financial manager with a degree in Art. Another became a middle school special education teacher with a degree in Theater. A friend of mine became an FBI agent with a degree in Biology.

We chart our own paths in life. Far too often, we let our past decisions dictate our future directions far more than necessary.

The way that academics discuss their jobs in the university, they make it sound like we are captive to our disciplines. Tenure has been called the golden handcuffs. That’s pretty much the silliest notion ever. You can study — and do — whatever you want with tenure.

Linus Pauling, a tenured protein chemist, won a goddamn Nobel Peace Prize because of his social activism. This didn’t happen because he was handcuffed to the laboratory. Then again, nobody ever used the term “golden handcuffs” in the day of Linus Pauling. Nobody told him he couldn’t be both a scientist and social activist.

Jamie Hyneman could have made a go at his Indiana pet shop until retirement, or he could have stayed on as a Russian librarian, or he could have been running a sailing business in the Caribbean for his career. Or he could have kept to movie effects and never made a TV pilot. Mythbusters isn’t the culmination of his life. It’s just one chapter, albeit a very public one. He’s chosen an exciting and rewarding route.

All of our lives are short, and from the looks of it, Jamie Hyneman is making the most of his.

My trajectory is as linear as Hyneman’s has been circuitous. I went to high school, then college. Then I farted around for a year before grad school. Then I did a postdoc, visiting faculty, assistant professor, associate professor. I’ve lived in different places but I have been a scientist since the age of 20, and I enjoy science so much, that I’ll just keep doing it.

I have a very rare gift – tenure – and I don’t want to waste it. I have the opportunity to attempt the extraordinary, and am able to keep my stable job and pension in my back pocket the whole time. I’d like to think that what I am doing, on a day-to-day basis, is a part of this attempt. This blog is part of the attempt, and the continued effort to provide opportunities to my students is part of that attempt. This attempt at the extraordinary means that I will continue to pursue high-risk experiments that might not work but could turn out to be exciting. I’d like to think that with less personal security, I’d be just as inclined to take chances. I don’t know how true that would be.

The most extraordinary endeavors can also appear, on the outside, to be the most mundane. Being a parent, and spouse, is a special responsibility and joy. Sometimes the most extraordinary thing is making waffles for my family on a weekend morning. That might seem like an odd take-home message from a night out with the Mythbusters. But if Jamie can give up his gig as a Russian librarian to become a movie special effects wiz, then I can be, and do, far more than the stereotyped professor, husband and father.

This purposefulness about living an intentional life did not emerge in isolation. Overwhelming anything related to Mythbusters, this weekend my family experienced a loss that was was simultaneously sudden and gradual. I’ve been freshly reminded of the brevity and preciousness of life.

Perhaps the best way to honor those that have given us life is to make utility of this life as much as possible. It can be entirely workable that inspiration for our own utility can come from unconventional sources.

Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture

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This week I’ve been a bit distracted by instructions I’ve been given for a demonstration teaching lecture. It is for a permanent position in my department so the interview is stressful, important, and far from certain. There are three others interviewing for the spot, all colleagues and/or collaborators*, all friends, and all deserving of the position. It is also a little strange in that you can exactly know the CV of your fellow candidates and that all of us will show up for work after the interview, regardless of the result of the job search. The only difference is that one of us will have a permanent job and the others will not (still). I have talked a bit about the Swedish interview process previously and the upcoming one will function in a similar way. One major difference is that in addition to a short research lecture, we’ve been asked to give a 20 min teaching lecture. The topic is outside everyone’s expertise (Ecology of Plant-Pathogen Interactions), so in some senses an even playing field.

I have taught classes previously but not on this particular topic. But given that I’ve never done a demonstration lecture, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to tackle the task. Unfortunately, teaching talks don’t seem to be a common feature of the interview process, so unlike the research seminars and chalk talks, there isn’t so much out there (see Meg Duffy’s post on links for tenure-track job searches, for example).

However, I did find this helpful post about giving test lectures with a focus on those given to actual students in an on-going class (yikes!). It would be tough to drop in on a class that has already established a rhythm between the students and teacher, although I think it would be a good test of your teaching. It might not be fair to the students in the course, however, if they are continually interrupted by different interviewees. The teaching talks I’ve heard of are more commonly to faculty and maybe grad students. Anurag Agrawal compiles some advice on finding an academic job with this bit of wisdom on the teaching lecture (you can find more advice here; HT: Meg):

Teaching talks: Many places will have you give a teaching talk—they may give you a topic or let you choose one from a list. Some will want a sample lecture—others may actually want a verbal statement of your teaching philosophy. In general, ask those around you that actually teach those subjects for outlines or notes. It is usually fine to have notes for your teaching talk. They will probably ask you to not use slides, but overheads and handouts may be very useful. The faculty may interrupt you during your talk and pretend to be students asking questions. Try not to get flustered by them, but rather have fun with them.

Even before reading this, I began my canvasing of people for lectures on plant-pathogen interactions. So far I haven’t found it to be a common topic in ecology courses (if you lecture on the topic and are willing to share, yes please!). So after researching for this interview, I might also advocate for including the lecture in one of our ecology courses (I have funding for two more years regardless of the outcome of the interview).

I’ve only had one experience with this sort of interview requirement and that was indirect. When I was a masters student, my department was hiring a number of people to expand and we were also going to an Integrative Biology model from an organismal division (merging depts). So there were a lot of positions (~6) and likely a lot of opinions on how to best fill them from colleagues who hadn’t worked together before. In any event, I got to witness a bunch of job talks and meet with a lot of candidates. It was a useful lesson as a grad student but the one portion that was closed was the test lectures. I’m guessing these were to distinguish people’s ability from very different fields but I don’t know what the exact instructions were. We (the grad students) did hear rumours that some people’s talks were terrible, so it clearly doesn’t do to blow teaching talks off. But how to do it well?

Turning to advice on how to give lectures can give some clues. Improving lecturing has a bunch of hints and tips for generally improving your lectures. Another list of practical pointers for good lectures is focused mainly on the classroom but can also be helpful in thinking about how to demonstrate your teaching. I had to link this good talk advice for the hilarious nostalgia it created for the overhead strip tease (advice: don’t do it, and I think this also applies to powerpoint reveals).

From the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center (many useful pdfs here including one on giving effective talks), it is better to:

  1. Talk than read
  2. Stand than sit
  3. Move than stand still
  4. Vary your voice’s pitch than speak in a monotone
  5. Speak loudly facing your audience rather than mumble and speak into your notes or blackboard
  6. Use an outline and visual aids than present without them
  7. Provide your listeners with a roadmap than start without an overview

There is also this simple and eloquent advice from a twitter friend:

My plan is to demonstrate how I would give a lecture to a course, including emphasizing where I would stop lecturing and turn things over to the students. As I move away from straight lecturing, it feels a little strange to demonstrate my teaching through lecturing only. But I only have 5 minutes to describe the structure of the course, where this lecture would fit in and how I would evaluate learning, followed by the first 15 minutes of the lecture. Given all that is required to pack into 20 mins, this teaching talk is really a demonstration, rather than a lecture. I won’t prepare for it as I would do for a regular course lecture and given my unfamiliarity with the topic, it is also going to take a fair amount of research. This is a job interview, so I know it isn’t really a teaching lecture, it is a performance. One I’m hoping will convince the committee to let me get on with actual teaching for years to come.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done a teaching lecture as a part of their interview! Advice on how to nail this will be greatly appreciated by me but I’m sure others on the TT job search will also appreciate pointers.

*

relationships

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 4: Consequences of our social interactions

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This is the penultimate piece in a series on faculty-admin relations. Here are parts one, two, and three. You don’t need to get caught up to appreciate the set of tips inferred from prior observations:

  • Faculty are the ones who really run the show at universities. This is true as long as there is tenure, and especially as long as there is collective bargaining. Universities exist to let us do our research and teaching jobs, and any service on campus is designed to facilitate that core function. Any administrator that runs afoul of the faculty as a group will not be able to implement their vision with any kind of fidelity.
  • Administrators cannot be effective at serving students unless the faculty are on board.
  • In a university of adjuncts without tenure, the show is run by regional accreditors, because they can get administrators fired. This is why places run almost entirely by adjunct labor, such as “University” of Phoenix, have curricula that follow the prescriptions of regional accrediting agencies, without anything above or beyond what is required.
  • Faculty and administrators need one another. The more they can get along to meet shared goals, the better things are. When individuals pursue their own goals, that don’t contribute to the shared goal, conflict results. When there is cooperation toward shared goals, then all sides will be more able to fulfill their individual interests.
  • Good administrators and faculty share one common interest – serving students – but they also have many conflicting interests, and these are highly variable and shaped by the environment.
  • Professors typically want vastly different things from one another, so organization around a common interest is uncommon. This may result in administrators having their own interests met more often than the faculty.
  • Administrators can spend money on any initiatives they wish, but unless faculty choose to carry out the work in earnest, it will fail.
  • Conflict with your direct administrators over things that they are unable to change harms everybody. Individuals who can successfully minimize the costs of conflict are in a position to experience the greatest gain at the individual level, and these actions also serve to increase the group-level benefits of cooperation.
  • Administrators who don’t cooperate with their faculty will be ineffective, and faculty who don’t find common ground with administration don’t get what they need.
  • Universities have often evolved to take advantage of the faculty even though they collectively the machine that runs the show. Adjuncts have little power to individually control what happens in the university, and are highly subject to manipulation by administration and other faculty. If they wish to be a part of the system then they have little choice but to carry out the will of the administration.

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 2: We are social animals

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I’ve noticed that faculty members are prone to discuss administrators almost as frequently as discussing their own students.

You might think that this is odd, because most faculty rarely interact with their administrators. However, our ability to do our jobs and our quality of life is controlled more by administrators than by students.

Administrators can give you time and they can take it away. The same goes for space, money, service, and – for the first six years – our jobs.

Faculty members are often in surreptitious or overt conflict with their administration. Many of these conflicts can develop from the fact that some professors are irrationally upset with, and overly judgmental of, administrators. While there are often rational grounds for being mad at your administrators, these conflicts are often amplified because some faculty misunderstand the fundamental nature of the faculty-administration relationship.

I’ve used my familiarity with the social biology of animals to consider the relationship between faculty and administrators. I’m sure a sociologist would hate me for this because of the oversimplification and duplication of existing theory, but if you’re not a sociologist, then please read on.

In every social group, relationships are forged through both conflict and cooperation. Groups of distinct individuals persist because the benefits of the group outweigh the costs of being in the group. Cooperation emerges, in theory, because the greater benefits of cooperation outweigh the cost incurred through cooperation.

Faculty members can’t really do their main jobs (research and teaching) without the cooperation of the university. Administrators can’t really do their jobs (make the university run and fulfill the overt and tacit missions of the institution) without having the faculty carry out the grunt work of that job.

Let’s be clear: Faculty are the necessary grunts of the university. We are the ones that do the essential job of the campus (except for some schools, where the coaches and athletes are central). Without us, the university has no way to exist.

Next week: How our universities are like ant colonies.

On being a tenure-track parasite of adjunct faculty [updated]

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My job, as a tenured associate professor of biology, wouldn’t be possible without a sizable crew of adjunct instructors in my department.

Here is some context about the role of adjuncts in my particular department: At the moment, the ratio of undergraduate majors to tenure-line faculty is about 100:1. This isn’t unprecedented, but is on the higher end of laboratory science departments in public universities. Because we have so few tenure-line faculty, and so many lectures and labs to teach, we hire a slew of adjuncts every semester.

It’s not like the adjuncts are there to make life easier for tenure-line faculty. They’re here to keep the department from falling apart and to teach classes that otherwise we would be unable to teach. One thing that keeps us tenure-line faculty busy is advising. All of our majors required to be advised every semester in half-hour appointments, one-on-one with tenure-line faculty, in order to be able to register for the subsequent semester. In addition to our base teaching assignment of four lecture courses per semester and the standard research and service expectations, we’re worked mighty heavily.

Lest I complain, I am thankful on a daily basis that I am paid a living wage, if below market rate, and I am in a union that has mostly held on to benefits like our parents fathers used to expect from their employers. That’s more than our many adjuncts can say. If it were not for a stroke of tremendous fortune in a very difficult time, I would not be able to be in this position.

While I do have some additional responsibilities that are not expected of our adjuncts, this disparity between job expectations is tiny compared to the massive disparity between our relative pay, benefits and job security. While I would hope to think that the things I offer on top of my teaching (research opportunities and individualized mentorship for a small number of students, external grants to bring money and reputation to the institution, and a meaty role in institutional governance) bring value, I cannot reasonably rationalize that those services justify the massive gap between the my compensation and that of my adjunct colleagues.

I also am conscious that many tenure-line faculty in my university do little to nothing more than some of the adjuncts, skipping out on faculty governance, making themselves unavailable to students outside class, and not providing research opportunities. These faculty are more like adjuncts with a full professor’s paycheck and pension. What’s worse is that I could choose to devolve into such a role with no consequences for my pay, benefits or security of employment.

I have particularly benefited from the contributions of adjunct labor. In my current university, I actually have never taught the full base teaching load, as I’ve always had some fraction of my time reassigned to additional research, administration, outreach or professional development activities. (And, to be clear, I spend more time on the jobs to which I am reassigned than is expected of me while teaching.) The only way that I have been able to carve out time to keep my research lab ticking, write grants and run some programs is because others have stepped in to get the work done. These people are as qualified as I am to teach these courses, have plenty of teaching experience, and are getting paid less than I would if I were to teach those courses.

Hiring an adjunct instructor as a one-off to cover a course that needs to be covered isn’t necessarily exploitation. But if this temporary labor pool is not truly temporary, and if these are not one-off arrangements but instead a machine that requires the dedicated effort of many contingent workers on a long term basis, this is overtly exploitative of the contingent labor pool.

It is wrong that my department has several people who teach lots of courses for us, year after year, and aren’t able to receive an appointment as a professional ‘lecturer’ that acknowledges their professionalism and compensates them as one would expect from an employer after providing years of service. It’s not criminal, but in some countries, it might be.

When I graduated from a mighty-fine private liberal arts college twenty years ago, the catalog had the name of a tenure-track professor next to every course. I had taken two courses with adjuncts the whole time I was there (one of which was taught by a senior and established person in the field who did for it fun and for the students). Now, students on this campus take many courses with adjunct instructors, the campus catalog no longer has the professor’s names tied to courses, and there is a large and growing pool of adjuncts clamoring for equitable treatment. This isn’t a sign of the decline of this institution, but instead an indicator of the adjunctification of higher education.

Like the house elves in the Harry Potter series, an army of highly-qualified and hard-toiling adjuncts make the magic happen in a university, without recognition or reward. Faculty members on the tenure-line are not ignorant of this massive injustice that empowers their existence, but mostly feel powerless to rectify the systemic situation. Universities have created a caste system, and how is it that individual members of one caste can create an equitable labor arrangement? Short of a quixotic revolution, what is there to do?

We can agitate for change. We can decry the situation. We can write blog posts, articles and books about the exploitation of adjuncts as working-class academics. That’s part of moving towards change, I guess.

However, I feel that this isn’t enough considering that I am a member of the caste that benefits from the labor of the adjunct caste. I’m not saying that I don’t deserve the compensation that I receive, but it is abundantly clear that long-term adjuncts don’t deserve the lack of compensation that they receive. I just don’t see any particular course of action that I can do within the context of my own job. I can, and do, treat adjuncts as full colleagues, and I can join the others in our union to advocate for adjunct rights.

I do not have the power to make right any systemic wrongs, and neither does my Chair, nor my Dean. I suppose the power is within the Provost’s office to make these changes but the budget isn’t there. The entire university system has been calibrated to cut costs on the backs of adjuncts.

If tenure-line faculty members are failing to press hard for the reasonable and fair employment of the adjunct labor pool, then it’s probably not because they aren’t aware or because they don’t care. It’s the same reason that they don’t take specific action in their lives to reduce their own carbon emissions, and it’s the same reason they don’t buy all of their clothes that are certified sweatshop-free, and the same reason why they don’t buy books from independent booksellers. The problem is so big and so systemic, that it’s overwhelming.

Individuals have trouble remembering that individual actions, at the right place and the right time, make change happen. The university is not making things easier for tenure-line faculty either, who need to take up a greater share of the non-teaching work as tenure-line positions fizzle away. I want to rage for adjunct rights, and it makes me upset, and I want to do something. So I wrote a blog post, but I can’t imagine that this will change anything.

So, what else should tenure-line faculty do?

Update 27 Sep 2013: The non-rhetorical answer to the rhetorical question above was provided by Jenny in the comments, who shared this story about specific and concrete efforts at Portland State University written by Jennifer Ruth. That is, apparently, what we should do.

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations: Part 1: Know Your Bosses

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Being a professor is a relatively unique job. We have near-total authority over how we do our jobs, but there are a lot of interests working to shape what we do and how we do it. How we interact with the administration at our university can affect whether we can be successful in what we want to do.

Here’s a way to think about how we approach our jobs, as researchers and teachers within universities.

If you have a salary, you have a boss.

We should consider what structures our relationships with our bosses. Because professors enjoy academic freedom, and those with tenure are free to speak their minds on nearly everything, this relationship is different than most boss-employee relationships.

To do our jobs well, we need to understand the nature of our relationship with our bosses. We need to know how this relationship affects how we interact with our students, and the research community outside our campus.

When the faculty vision of the boss-professor relationship is incongruent with the vision of administrators, things can fall apart.

Here I consider the differing roles of professors and their bosses in the university, and how these distinct roles can work together to maximize the benefit for all parties: administrators, faculty, students, and the scholarly community. By understanding how the faculty-admin relationship is structured, we can all relate to one another in a fashion that fits not only our own interests, but also allow us to provide more and better opportunities for students.

Administrators can empower, or minimize, your ability to get stuff done. By understanding the areas of cooperation and the areas of conflict with administration, we can work to maximize the benefits for all parties. Administrators won’t make decisions in the interests of faculty unless it meets their own interests as well. So, you need to understand not only your own interests, but also the interests of your bosses.

Less valid complaints about not getting a tenure-track faculty position

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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:

Discover the secret of the 17-year-cicada, but it won’t get you tenure

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.

and

“Frankly I’m shocked that you guys don’t both have prestigious positions, for the remarkable cicada discoveries you’ve made.”

Really?

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.