Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Ask a Scientist

The Chronicle Review (the magazine-like part of The Chronicle of Higher Education) recently asked a group of "scholars and experts" to comment on stress in the lives of academics, using the Amy Bishop incident as a springboard for the discussion; i.e., what role might stress related to the tenure process have played in this tragedy?

The scholars and experts included:
  • a writer and PhD candidate in English literature
  • the chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education
  • a professor of international politics
  • a professor of English
  • an assistant professor of public policy and political science
  • an assistant professor of sociology and women's and gender studies
  • a PhD candidate in anthropology
  • a dean of a School of Arts & Sciences
  • a professor of management
  • a professor of history
Clearly there was an effort to consult a wide variety of academics associated with the US system of higher education: professors and administrators, tenured professors and tenure-track professors, professors at universities and professors at small liberal arts colleges, even some PhD candidates who have no direct experience (yet) with the stresses of being on the tenure-track. Many of these people had thoughtful insights; I was interested to know the opinions of sociologists and anthropologists and others.

Even so, Amy Bishop was an assistant professor of biology. Does it seem odd to anyone else that there were no biology or other science professors in this particular group of academics commenting on the incident? I looked up the chancellor and the dean and learned that their field of expertise is psychology, so perhaps they come the closest, but that's not the same as getting the opinion of someone who has recently experienced the tenure process as a scientist.

I realize that a biology professor would not necessarily have any more insight into the general implications of the incident than those who provided comments in this piece in the Chronicle. And I still stand by my overall view (shared by the PhD candidate in English literature) that the murders were the actions of an imbalanced person with a rage problem (and a gun), and the tragedy was therefore not a direct result of the stresses of academia in general or the tenure evaluation system in particular.

Still, I think it is strange that in an otherwise diverse group, not one is a science professor with direct knowledge of what it is like to get tenure as a scientist today at a university. Consider how bizarre it would have been if an English professor (for example) had committed a heinous crime that may or may not have been related to the experience of being an English professor, and the only people asked to comment (in a particular series of essays) were science, engineering, and math professors.

I also think it would have been illuminating to read, for comparison, the thoughts of a scientist recently denied tenure. With all due respect to the PhD candidates and literary scholars who wrote thoughtful essays for the piece, surely the Chronicle could have found some current or former science professors -- ideally in the life sciences -- to comment?

I don't want to perpetuate an "us" (scientists) vs. "them (non-scientists) mentality, but often when I read about academia, in the Chronicle and elsewhere, the point of view of non-scientists is the only one represented. This gives a very incomplete view of academia and the lives of academics, in general and in extreme cases. Although we have much in common as researchers and educators, there are also significant differences that, at times, merit consideration.


Sachi said...

Perhaps they contacted a few biology/other sciences professors, and those individuals refused to participate (out of whatever personal/legal/etc. concerns), so they decided to just go with the group they had managed to gather while the story is still relatively fresh in people's minds? Or even that the science professors they contacted didn't respond to the requests, either out of concern or just being busy or forgetful etc.?

Whatever the reason, though, I agree it's a significant and odd omission.

zed said...

I agree, that's odd. I've noticed that too about the Chronicle in general, but for a piece on Amy Bishop it's very strange not to include scientists in the mix. I think one reason for the bias is that PhD-level non-scientists work overwhelmingly in academia (I presume...) while PhD-level scientists work in a range of sectors, like government, industry, non-profit and also academia. So the non-scientists are more 'into' academia and its culture.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it would be useful to consult someone (or several someones) who had experienced the tenure process in biology. However, I would like to point out that psychology *is* a science.

Hope said...

This is a rather odd post. You don’t believe that the Amy Bishop case had much to do with the stress of being a prof in biology recently denied tenure. So, in this case, what’s the point of soliciting opinions from science profs?

I’ve noticed that scientists, in general, don’t seem to be very good writers. Maybe the people on the list are.

Perhaps there is something to your point about the views of scientists not being adequately represented in academia, but this seems like a weird example with which to make that point.

Anonymous said...

An outrageous oversight.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I seldom read things like the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed or Times Higher Education these days because the writing is 90% by and about non-science disciplines. The career structure in science and the problems people face have broad similarities but also substantial differences. I find this blog is one of the few places where I get to hear about academic life as a scientist.

Anonymous said...

I find the lack of science representation odd as well, since I believe that scientists face certain challenges that differ from those in other fields. For example, when I was going through the tenure process, I became very much aware of the extent to which the performance of others impinges on our own success. In other words, a new assistant professor may be a brilliant thinker and exceedingly competent at the bench, but his or her productivity is limited by the talents of the students and technicians in the lab. At the assistant professor level, one or two less-than-competent lab personnel can completely derail a tenure bid. Although I may be in error, this reliance on others is greater in science than in other fields, and it leaves the tenure track scientist with a certain lack of control over their success that can be daunting.

Anonymous said...

FSP you missed the worst part. This is a panel of people who can provide anecdotal evidence of the pressures in academia. Where are the experts??

Why do a I care about what a "PhD candidate in anthropology" or a "a professor of international politics" have to say about this? For all I care their experience (positive or negative) is atypical.

female Science Professor said...

Anon 12:33 - The psychologists are both senior administrators. I was careful in my wording so as to include them as scientists, but exclude them for other reasons ("not one is a science professor with direct knowledge of what it is like to get tenure as a scientist today at a university.")

John V said...

Yes, no hard scientists is a notable omission, but I'd echo anon@7:44 - where are the experts in workplace violence and her particular mental issues?

In my field, we must be vigilant to offer expert opinions only when we have the expertise in talking with the press.

It sounds like faculty senate meetings - non-scientists often enjoy long discussions posing as experts in construction, parking needs, recycling, scheduling, janitorial staffing, etc., even when they know less than the nothing.

Anonymous said...

In response to anon 12:33 and FSP. I guess it would depend on what kind of psychologist they are. As a graduate student in "psychology" I feel that that term is far too broad. The level of science emphasized in say educational, clinical, cognitive/experimental varies widely and to different extents at different schools. I may be biased but if the administrators with psych backgrounds specialized in cognitive science then I think their inputs should be weighed as a scientist perspective.

rocketscientista said...

Even when I put together a group of scientists for a discussion, I try to have a representative each from math, engineering, life sciences, physical sciences, because even the research and tenure track there varies.

While I, too, don't like to play "us" and "them", I think that they obviously tried to include a diverse group in terms of level of appointment (candidates to deans)-- how hard would it have been to include some scientists?

I also think it would have been nice to have the perspective of one denied tenure. I feel like that is often a story that is not told, not shared, and that learning about that side of things could inform all of us a lot more.

Dr. O said...

I’ve noticed that scientists, in general, don’t seem to be very good writers. Maybe the people on the list are.

Hope: While there might be fewer "good writers" in the sciences than, say, in English, there are still plenty of wonderful writers in our field. Proof - all the wonderful science bloggers that are found on the web.

FSP: Agreed completely. And I think it's not just about getting the opinion of a biologist to find out why Amy Bishop did what she did (although the current stresses of getting an NIH grant may be pertinent). But if their goal was to put together a "diverse" group of academics, I just don't see how they could justify excluding such a large field.

inBetween said...

Perhaps all of the scientists were too busy and stressed out to write navel-contemplating essays about how busy and stressed out they are...

My professional career is WAY different from the lives of my colleagues in English. I'm not saying more stressful, but stressful and busy in a very different way.

Hope said...

@Dr. O: We obviously have different ideas of what constitutes good writing.

@rocketscientista: I also think it would have been nice to have the perspective of one denied tenure. I feel like that is often a story that is not told, not shared, and that learning about that side of things could inform all of us a lot more.

I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Rob Knop. Or Sean Carroll. Which is odd, considering they’re both astrophysicists.

Anonymous said...

I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Rob Knop. Or Sean Carroll. Which is odd, considering they’re both astrophysicists.

Never have. Reading about them, Knop sounds like a total loser. Carroll case seems a lot less clear cut.

In this business you are told from early on that your work is not good enough. Happens all the time, by your supervisor, by the journal reviewers, by the grant reviewers. It's one of the very first things to teach new grad students: "rejection is no big deal, don't read too much into it, take the positive and learn from the comments". Knop didn't seem to get it and went into a funk, thus destroying a promising career.

PWlab said...

There are always omissions on panels like this, though I too found the omission of recently tenured science faculty a bit puzzling (i assume psychologists are scientists, being a psychologist myself). And i agree about the oddity of omitting workplace stress experts (who would likely be psychologists). But i wonder about the creation of implications about how difficult and awful academic careers can be for a more broad audience (admittedly not chronicle readers, likely). That is, if the coverage of this incident makes science and science careers seem really like something to be avoided....

Hope said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SamanthaScientist said...

Agreed. Very odd not to include the persepective of a hard-science professor. From discussions with academics in humanities, the demands, pressures, and everyday lives of humanities and science academics are very different. For one thing, it seems much more difficult to get a paying job in the humanities (as a grad student, as a professor, or as anything else.)

The student-professor relationship also seems very different. Students who work as research assistants in humanities seem to get paid, but get no credit on publications for which they assist? And students' research may have very, very little to do with their advisors' research. In contrast, Ph.D. advisors in the sciences seem to have huge responsibility to their students, often providing funding, lab space and equipment, the big idea behind the projects, and various degrees of involvement in their students' research process. All that responsibility is in exchange for co-authorship on publications, which seems to be the main determining factor on tenure decisions for all academics.

It seems like science professors are more managers and project leaders, while humanities professors continue more directly doing research and writing. That difference is much larger than just the disparity of the fields.

And there's also the difference that in science, researchers have to conceive of an idea that is interesting and not already published, design and build instrumentation to test said idea, acquire data (which may or may not provide interestingly interpretable results, and then analyze, interpret and publish said results. In the humanities, researchers get to skip right from conceive of an idea to the analysis. And they never have to worry that it just won't work. Effing science.

Anonymous said...

The differences in fields are important in this case, particularly since postdoctoral training in the biological sciences is now ~6 years long. From my understanding, many other fields require much shorter, or zero, postdoc training, which means you get to the tenure decision earlier in your career/life. I think the longer training time adds to the pressure one feels and how one might react to a failed tenure bid.

Anonymous said...

I’ve noticed that scientists, in general, don’t seem to be very good writers. Maybe the people on the list are.

You think humanities scholars are good writers in general? At least scientists want to be understood...

Hope said...

Really, FSP? You’re going to censor me because I objected to Anon’s quick-and-dirty characterization of Knop as a “total loser” and called him an asshole? You let all sorts of garbage through all the time that adds absolutely nothing to the discussion, but *this* offends your delicate sensibilities? So, lemme get this straight: disparaging someone’s career knowing almost nothing about them is OK; calling someone who engages in this type of behavior an asshole is not? Honestly, I had no idea your blog was like the joke that is American TV, where things that are not fit for human consumption are broadcast all the time, but saying “shit” or “fuck” is a big no-no.

I guess I should have replied to Anon, “No, you’re the total loser!” Then my comment would have been childish, rude, *and* uninteresting – but you, no doubt, would have published it.

MiddleClassNonwhiteFemaleInHumanScience said...

I would say that the distinction between science and non-science is an epistemological/ontological claim that requires more attention to its accuracy. A better (but not only) distinction might be the ideas of natural science versus human science. There are many fields of human science that are able to address issues that fields of natural science could not. I would say that natural science and human science complement each other.
Regarding the lack of responses from professors of natural science regime, that might take the detailed analysis of the play of power (cite M. Foucault) to tease it out.

Anonymous said...

So, lemme get this straight: disparaging someone’s career knowing almost nothing about them is OK;

yeah, because getting details of Rob's career it's so difficult and time consuming.

because I objected to Anon’s quick-and-dirty characterization of Knop as a “total loser” and called him an asshole?

The loser label was meant in the same tone as when teenagers say "this was the best movie _ever_" or "Joe is a total loser". In neither case it is meant literally, relax.

Anonymous said...

Ummmmm...I have to point out that anthropologists often are scientists. We are those anthropologists that are referred to as biological (or physical) anthropologists. We use science to answer questions about the human evolution and biology. The anthropologist who participated in writing this article may not have been a physical anthropologist (I'm guessing not), but we are here, and we make up a substantial portion of the anthropological community. When we go up for tenure, we face the same issues other scientists face. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

That said, I do think it is a strange omission....why not someone from her field? And I agree that the Chronicle seems to be more relevant to the humanities....which is why I rarely read it.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Yeah, I thought the whole thing was bizarre.

The us versus them mentality is very strong here at PermaU. It's exhausting constantly defending my insane course load or justifying our department's budget.

estraven said...

@rocketscientista: as a side remark, thanks for including mathematics within science. E.g., how many __mathematicians_ have been asked to write on seed? I love Chu-Charroll posts, but a mathematician he's not. And there's plenty of blogs out there.

@hope: "scientists are not good writers". You're not Italian, I assume. We study Galilei in literature, because his style is so damn good. You might also have heard of Lewis Carroll.
For a more recent example, I suggest you pick up the autobiography of André Weil. I think he writes as well as his sister, and much clearer.
Or if you want a US example, try Feynman.

Janos said...

The omission of a closely related field is bad -- especially because we are not talking about a newspaper where speedy reporting is important. The editors could have waited another week to find a biologist who could write.

In particular, it would have been useful to have a feeling for the quality of her research -- to an outsider it seems that she was not productive at all, and the little she did was not great.

As others pointed out, in Biology one's scientific productivity is strongly influenced by the environment--quality of students, colleagues, labs, research infrastructure, administrative hurdles, etc. It would have been useful to have a read of the lab/academic support she had at her job, and compare it with similar places. A biologist could have commented on that.

The culture of lab science and humanities is very different: rhetoric is an integral part of the enterprise in the humanities, and writing tends to be a single-author task (Marx and Engels seems to be the glaring exception--other candidates, in humanities or Social Science, anyone?) In contrast, achievements in the lab sciences have a larger proportion of non-rhetorical skills (with grant-writing as the big exception.) This is another big reason why a biologist would have been useful in the panel.

Of course, many of us seem to agree that the tenure process was at most a trigger, not the cause of her coming apart.

John V said...

I just finally read the article - what a waste of words. Discussion is entirely based on the one instance, then conclusions generalized to how to change the system for hundreds of thousands of people.

The comments were far more sensible than the quotes in the article itself. "Fat-and-bulbous" nailed it in comment 4 - like FSP also said, Bishop was nuts, the system was not the problem.

By the way, the link, which took a while to find, is here:

female Science Professor said...

Anthropologists are scientists but PhD candidates are not professors.

Rob Knop said...


Knop sounds like a total loser.

You are correct, he is a total loser.

I would point out that there is a difference between rejection, and repeated rejection that spells the end of your career. The hard data was: get the NSF grant or fail to get tenure. The next bit of hard data was: NSF grants repeatedly denied, coupled with something like a one in six acceptance rate for astronomy NSF proposals. And, the advice from the proposal officer the last year made it sound like I was starting from behind, given that I wasn't at an institution with a large telescope facility.

So, yeah, sooner or later repeated rejection and nothing but rejection led to me leaving where I could actually do something productive and have sense of accomplishment for it, instead of pouring my heart and soul into an institution that was going to toss me aside regardless of contributions I made, regardless of the fact that I was the #1 advisor for undergraduate honors theses, because of an inability to get federal funding.

By definition, I was a loser. I lost. You decide if that's how it "should have been." If you really think that the way we SHOULD choose scientists is to only keep the ones who are so blinded by their own sense of self-worth that they continue on regardless of repeated outside insistences that they're no good, then, yeah, the current system is great. If, on the other hand, you think that that isn't necessarily what makes a good scientist, then perhaps, just perhaps, there might be an iota to learn from my experiences other than the fact that I'm a total loser.