Monday, December 22, 2008

Why DrugMonkey is Sort of Wrong

Note: Comment moderation and posting will be sporadic until early January, as the FSP Family is now on its annual FSP-Refuses-To-Spend-Her-Birthday-At-Home trip to an interesting destination. My plan is to post some of the more awesome entries of the Statement of Purpose Contest throughout the next week or so, as internet connectivity and time permit and after I've had a change to peruse the submissions more, but I have a few other topics -- e.g. today's -- to cover first.

Also note: For those of you with relatives and friends who have Christmastime birthdays, you may want to consult my posts from 2006 and 2007 on this important topic. I continue to rule Google for the relevant keywords, so am clearly the definitive source of information.

OK, now on to the main topic of the day: Why DrugMonkey is Sort of Wrong about whether junior faculty should 'go slow' in their first few years.

Actually, he's not wrong at all. It is a fact that tenure-track faculty need to do proposal-writing as if it were an extreme sport. And when I was told to go slow and not be "too ambitious" as an assistant professor, I was offended and ignored the advice.

That's the way it is now and has been for a while, but what I'm wondering is whether it has to be that way. What about those who can't or for some reason don't write swarms of proposals and try to acquire acres of loot and lucre? Are they by definition mediocre faculty who would become deadwood if awarded tenure? Should we write them off as unable to fulfill the requirements of a faculty position at a research university, or is it possible for someone to take a more moderate approach and not be deemed a failure?

Last week I wondered what the perfect number of proposals and grants is (for a science professor at a research university). I don't think anyone would argue that the number for most of us should be high, but I wonder if this must always be so.

Is it possible that we could be more flexible in terms of what is acceptable for the pace and size at which early career faculty build their research programs and not sacrifice our high standards (whatever those are)? There have been many times in the past 10+ years that I have encountered grad students and postdocs who leave science and/or academia in large part because they don't want to be continually trying to acquire grants that are getting more difficult to obtain. Maybe we should bid these people a fond farewell and conclude that if they can't take the heat etc. etc., but my impression is that many of these departing people are women.

This was in the back of my mind when I wrote the post last week. My gut reaction is to advise early career faculty to write as many excellent proposals as they can and rapidly build an impressive research group that tackles big interesting questions, but I wonder whether we should reconsider this approach. Is academia losing some otherwise talented people by requiring this level of activity from the very beginning?

Perhaps an early career professor (female or male) -- for example, one who has young children -- needs to start slow with a grant or two and a few grad students. If they are doing well with that and seem to be on an upward trajectory, even if one with a less-steep slope than that of we monomaniacs who worked 24/7 and ate take-out pad thai every night for the first 5 years of our tenure-track position, is that person nevertheless an unambitious failure who should be culled from the academic herd?

There is no reason why women can't write a swarm of proposals and get grants and build a research program just like the men do. If there were sufficient numbers of women who wanted to do this and who had supportive partners who helped with child-care and other family activities, perhaps we'd be all set. But we're clearly not all set.

My young colleague who is struggling right now is male, but he has young children and is having trouble balancing family and work. If he can't handle another proposal right now because it would harm his family in a way that is unacceptable to him, should we really advise him to do the proposal anyway? Is his inability to submit the perfect number of proposals a sign that he's not going to make it in academia and won't get tenure, or is it a sign that the culture isn't as family-friendly as it needs to be, or something else?

My daughter was born before I got tenure and I've done fine as a professor at a research university, but if I say "I did it and you can too" to an early career professor, am I being an inspiring role model or am I saying that you have to be a clone of me to succeed? The former has not shown itself to be particularly effective, and the latter seems kind of grim. Are there other options?

Whether I am a doyenne or a grand-dame (DrugMo - can we go back to when you called me a curmudgeon? I think I liked that better), I am also an anti-role model for those who see how much time I spend on work and decide they don't want to be like me. Again, does that mean that these people can't or shouldn't be science professors at a research university? The traditional answer would be yes. Those who want to spend an insane amount of time writing proposals and papers and managing a research group will be the science professors at the big research universities and those who want a different balance between work and the rest of life will go elsewhere.

I suppose that system works in a way, but is this one of the reasons why the women faculty in the physical sciences, math, and engineering at my university can all go out to lunch together and sit around a medium-sized table, and why it doesn't take much time to learn the names of the new women faculty each year? In fact, I've already met both of the new ones this year.

Any change that comes will likely be slow, so in the meantime, if you want to get tenure in a science department at a research university, listen to DrugMonkey.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday and Happy Holidays FSP and family!

DM called *you* curmudgeon? BAD monkey!

With all the budget crap happening, profs are getting slapped with classes and I don't think it's possible to do grant overload and keep sane, at least not this year.

(your word verification is 'ingrate'....HAHAHA)

DrugMonkey said...

I'm actually with you on the "it would be better if it weren't like this" thing. And by all means people have to seek their own level- I just think it is a whole lot easier to go big. To match the mid career peers quickly, if you can manage it.

I reserve my ire for the forces that suggest a junior PI who thinks s/he is ready for more should be actively discouraged or outright prevented.

Alex said...

Family is an important dimension to the demands of grant writing and running a research group, but it's not the only one. I'm the sort of person who does a little of this and a little of that in my research. (Being a theorist, I can change projects without buying new equipment.) I'm getting good results, but I'm not building a name as "One of the leading experts on subfield X" which one needs to succeed at a research university. It's also not the sort of research program that will easily obtain large multi-year grants, because generally I can't see any farther than one paper or two at a time. This is one reason that I chose an undergraduate institution: I am freed from the burden of having to focus enough to quickly become an internationally recognized expert in a sub-field, and I can instead wander intellectually, getting a paper or two on this, a paper or two on that, and so forth. As long as I'm publishing papers and some of those papers are on work with undergraduates, the Dean and the tenure committee are happy with me.

The price I pay for this intellectual freedom is that I have a heavy teaching load, but I like teaching. (I teach for free--they pay me to grade!) Of course, I still wind up living an unbalanced life, spending many late nights in the office. (My wife is there with me, having a non-university job that requires her to take some work home.)

So I wonder if it's really just about research universities, or if there's something about academic work that tends to become all-consuming in any sort of school.

Also, in regards to the gender dimension: I know that work-life balance is one of the reasons cited for the pipeline leaking, but the impression I get from my friends on the other side of campus (male and female alike) is that being a humanities professor and having a family is not an easy endeavor. Yet their departments are better than ours on gender balance. Maybe their pipeline leaks less because they have fewer non-academic job options, or maybe it's because the culture of science is different from the culture of humanities. Is there data to address that issue?

estraven said...

I went from the fast track to the slow track for one "bad decision": namely, having a child who took very long to develop a reasonable sleep pattern (i.e., something that would allow me stretches of more than one hour).

I had taken on commitments, thinking that the baby would start sleeping at six months. Then, at one year. Then, then,... until I was basically raving mad and had to scale down, having spoiled my health and taxed everybody's patience.

Luckily all of this happened post-tenure, so at least my job wasn't in jeopardy.

I am really grateful that someone like you, who did manage to keep running, hasn't lost esteem and respect for those like me, who had to slow down and are now timidly starting to accelerate again. Happy (welldeserved) holidays!

Candid Engineer said...

Here's the thing: I love my research, I think I'd love to be a professor at a top-20 sort of school in my field, and I think I'd get hired. BUT: All of this grant-writing insanity and 'hurry up and do everything now! now! NOW!' as an assistant prof, frankly, sounds counterproductive to the overall goals I have in my life, which are A) to be happy and B) to do awesome science.

FSP, I completely agree with you. Who says I have to do shitloads of awesome science to be an awesome scientist? As long as what I do is excellent, I don't see what the big deal is. Because the simple fact of the matter right now is that a lot of people can't handle the heat, and they are getting out of the oven. And where does that leave science? It leaves it in the hands of a limited number of unbalanced people; it leaves it less interesting, less robust, and less welcoming than if we changed our definition of "a productive career".

Part of me wants to go out and get that faculty position, and then show people what I can do in a reasonable amount of time. And if they don't want to give me tenure (as I will be unwilling to sacrifice my family or my sanity), then so be it. I will say that I will have tried, and the universities will have sent away yet another good person.

Storm_at_sea said...

As a social scientist at a Big Ten school, I have been told that I likely will not get tenure unless I bring in an NSF grant (in my discipline, currently 12% of proposals are being funded). That is pressure from the university as much or more than from my department, and the current budget crunch only makes the grant demands higher. So I'm having to come up with research projects that aren't really what I want to do but have greater potential for funding.

Anonymous said...

Storm_at_sea: who said you should get grants (tax-payers' hard-earned money) to do "what you want to do"? you're being funded to do the research that the government (i.e. the general public) thinks is worthwhile. the whole point of the competitive grant process is to keep researchers in-line with the needs of the public (who are funding your research) and to make sure that only the best (i.e. most competitive) researchers get that money. that is as it should be, imho.

Anonymous said...

As a junior faculty, I felt that I should have started slowly and gain gradually. Well, I only wrote several proposals in the first year, but luckily or unluckily, they were all funded. Now, what can I do? I have no lab, no technician, and no student. I have to put in all my time to keep the projects going, and somehow, the teaching is falling apart.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what candid engineer wrote. I'm a female pre-tenure science prof with two young children. I'm going at a moderate pace, because I want to be happy and that's right for me right now. I'll be going up for tenure next year and while I'll put together a good package and do my best, I basically don't care about the outcome. If what I'm doing isn't good enough, I don't want this job.

Anonymous said...

Marching toward the end of my Ph.D. I can't think of anything more distasteful than the prospect of jumping into the tenure track, proposal-spewing rat race. I know I'm not alone in this sentiment. Very few of the dozen or so female Ph.D.s I know in my field of physical science have any inclination toward this path, despite being wholly in love with their chosen field and astute scientists. The reasoning is always the same - 'I don't want to spend the rest of my life writing proposals never having time to actually do the science.' Many look at the haggard female assistant professor in our department and simply say, 'I don't want her life.' Many more wrapped up their M.Sc. and said, 'what's the point in getting a Ph.D.? I have no desire to spend the rest of my life writing proposals!' (It's a common tune.)
My route instead - a teaching position outside of the U.S. where I'll be granted some time for research, but not have my performance judged by attracting lucre. Maybe in three years the scars of grad school will have worn off and I'll be excited for research again, but I highly doubt I'll be interested in selling my soul to the American system.

Anonymous said...

The sad truth about R1s is that you have to do it ALL - get grants AND publish. I had fairly poor junior-faculty mentoring (though I didn't know it at the time) and focused on getting my lab going and on getting grants, rather than writing. I got small pots of money for small-ish projects that yielded generate preliminary data, which paid off with an NIH grant. Those little projects weren't publishable though. So I have the NIH grant and my outside letters were all (reportedly) glowing, but because my number of pubs is low, my department did not recommend me for tenure. Apparently the people who do nothing but work want clones of themselves. I'm now looking pretty hard at a SLAC. I want to do good science but not enough to work 70 hours a week.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it shouldn't be as it is, but the reality shows its ugly face once we stop dreaming. Those who slow down, male or female, may be worthy, even fabulous, scientists, but we will never find out about their groundbreaking science if they listened to the advice that says "don't WRITE too many grants". That is because they will just write one grant per year and unless they all have a 100% hit (like one of the posters here:)), they will just not get tenure. Then we will be left to mourn the death of their career.

anon said...

Yeah... I was just thinking about this topic. I was talking with a senior prof in my department about my plan to do research in Germany, and he started going on about how the system is different there, and you have to do a habilitation and then move to a different city, etc...

After five minutes of this lecture, I said, "I don't want a tenure track position in a university". I'm not insane. Research institutions is where it's at. Max Plank, National Labs, CNRS, or RIKEN. Being professor sounds great, in theory. Being a research scientist working at one of those places on research that you enjoy without sacrificing aspects of personal life sounds great in reality.

franglais said...

I must have evolved on another planet, or things were quite different over 20 years ago when I was on tenure track. When I came to the US and submitted my first grant proposals, I was energized by the realization that I could submit my research ideas and be instantly in competition with the best people in the field. I got reasonably funded quite quickly, and I remember the rest of my tenure time as being a lot of fun with lots of interesting grad students. I never thought about the tenure clock, I was simply having fun and never worried about getting tenure (advienne que pourra!).

Also, I never (or rarely) submitted a proposal that I didn't like, as I have seen many colleagues do, putting one in every 6 months because there is a deadline, and therefore why not put one in? More than 20 years later, I still feel this way about writing proposals. I write when I think I have a good idea, it is a lot of fun, particularly as proposals are getting increasingly collaborative. The proposal I submitted last month is probably the one I had the most fun with in my entire career.

In conclusion, perhaps I have been lucky, or perhaps I have a different outlook on research. I see a lot of cynicism in the posts and a lot of worries/criticism of the system, etc. In general, I have been successul whenever I felt I had (1) a good idea and (2) a lot of intellectual satisfaction in writing the proposal, like the one I just submitted. And to think I have a paid job to do this is just amazing at times. So yes, perhaps I have been on another planet.

franglais said...

And Happy Birthday FSP!!

Anonymous said...

I want to reply to Anon 7:07 and basically back up Franglais... I just finished my first semester as an Assistant Professor, coming right off finishing my Ph.D. I wrote two largish proposals and a few smaller ones. Personally, I find writing proposals to be a lot of fun. They do involve doing research, since I had to (a) justify why the work I am proposing to do is worth doing w.r.t. everything that's been done before, and (b) come up with preliminary data to show it's worth doing.

Plus, by the end of grad school I had gotten to a point in my science where I could determine very quickly if an idea was going to lead to a publication or not. Once that determination is made, getting the paper done is largely a tedious matter of dotting i's and crossing t's. It's just not that interesting to me any more, and I'd rather hand it off to a grad student who will get something out of that process.

So I find the type of research necessary to write proposals to be conducive to where I'm at as a scientist now: high-level idea generation, with grad students filling in the details and (hopefully) coming up with new high-level ideas themselves. YMMV, of course.

Anonymous said...

Senior faculty in our dept. say that over 20 years ago you just had to simply write a grant and you'd get the money. In any case, it seems that the funding rates were much better back then. What a bliss indeed! Why worry about tenure and why write 10 grants a year, just to get one funded?

EliRabett said...

You need a lot of grants to support a large group. Why do you need a large group?

Anonymous said...

In my field, awesome, productive labs range in size from three (1 PI 1 Postdoc or technician and 1 Grad student) to 30+. As long as the PI can support the people in his/her group and is publishing consistently then all is well.