Monday, August 01, 2011

Once a Student

At a recent conference, I encountered a senior professor in my field -- someone I had first met many years ago when I was an undergraduate and he was a professor at a university not far from the college I attended. He and my undergrad advisor were sort of colleagues, so this professor sometimes came into contact with us undergrads. I did not particularly like him at the time because he seemed obnoxious. Typically, when visiting one of our seminar classes or playing a role in an undergraduate research project, he wouldn't speak directly to us undergrads, but only to his colleague, our professor.

Over the years, I have had various indirect professional interaction with him. We haven't collaborated, but our research interests overlap enough that we have interacted to some extent. At this recent conference, we spent a lot of time talking about mutual research interests, and he was genuinely interested in some of my ideas. We had a very collegial interaction, although I don't think I will ever be entirely comfortable around him.

I don't hold a grudge against him because he was rather rude and dismissive of me when I was a mere student, but at the same time I am aware that he is the kind of person who treats people with varying levels of respect depending on their academic status. He was a big professor at a big research university, and he just didn't see undergrads.

But he sees me now, so I suppose that is a semi-good thing in that he is capable of evolving in his interactions with individuals over time. That is, he doesn't still see me as an undergrad just because that's what I was when we first met.

I was thinking about this general issue recently because someone asked me whether it is a good thing or a bad thing to be hired as a professor at the same institution where you were formerly a student (undergrad or grad): would your former professors/now colleagues always see you as a student, or would they see you as a peer?

I have no direct experience with this, so those in this situation as ex-students-turned-faculty or as faculty who are now colleagues in the same department with former students of that department can better address this issue.

Years ago, the chair of my former grad department informally asked me if I'd consider a faculty position there. We didn't go too far with this exploratory discussion, but it made me wonder what it would be like to be a professor in the department where I had been a student. Would the faculty who were there when I was a student truly treat me as a colleague, or would they remember me always as a student?

From my indirect experience with colleagues and friends in those situations, I don't get the sense that the once-a-student/always-a-student syndrome is common. If a former student of a department is hired as a professor in that department, it may indicate a high level of respect for that former student.

A cynical alternative hypothesis is that hiring former students involves cronyism and/or inbreeding.

Most likely, the answer varies quite a lot depending on the institution and department culture, but I'd be interested to see a discussion of examples and opinions.

21 comments:

studyzone said...

20% of the faculty at the SLAC I attended are former students (something the admissions office plays up as a selling point of the university). All of them went elsewhere for PhDs, and according to one of my profs, that time away allowed them to be more easily accepted as colleagues when they were hired by their departments. It also helps that the Biology department there is very laid back - everyone is on first-name basis with one another (including faculty-undergrads). I will freely admit that this SLAC is my dream job - I obsessively check their job listings, hoping that a position in my specialty will open up (even though my former research advisor has warned me that they're in a multi-year hiring freeze).

Anonymous said...

The research group where I earned my MS and PhD was notorious for "inbreeding" hires until recently. In fact of my dissertation committee, three of the members earned their MS and PhD under my major professor and two of them held all three degrees from that institution. Those that were initially hired elsewhere and then returned seemed to command more respect than the one who stuck around, but that very well could have been the "good old boy" network at play too since that one faculty member doesn't play their games. I'm often asked if I would go back should the right job come available. My answer is no.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Inbreeding is a serious risk in academic departments, and so departments should set the bar much higher for hiring one of their own rather than someone new to the department.

Sometimes you get a superstar student, though, who is interested in coming back and who is much better than other in your applicant pool, so there shouldn't be a hard rule against hiring your own either.

~BioGirl~ said...

I one interviewed for a lecturer position at Big Research Univ where I got my PhD from. I hardly had anyone I knew from my days there in the search committee. It was fun getting back together with many profs I knew though and it was interesting to see the way they treated me like a (potential future) colleague than a past grad student. Though I have to admit, I was more acting like the past grad student with some of them.

John Vidale said...

Sometimes a line-of-succession hire makes sense. I mean when a favorite grad student returns to replace his/her near-retirement advisor.

It can be helpful to know the history and structure of an institution in depth, which is hard to pick up even in a decade or more.

I don't think it is a particular advantage or disadvantage to return to one's department aside from knowing how things work better.

GMP said...

There are several faculty in my department who received either their BS or PhD degrees there, but in the case of BS received the PhD elsewhere, and in both cases received their first professorial appointment elsewhere and only came here as a tenured hire. A department staff member who's been there for a long time told me that they explicitly require that the former student prove themselves elsewhere as a high-quality faculty all on their own before seriously considering them for a job in the department. I suppose, in the case of people who received PhD here, that this philosophy minimizes hiring those people who would just be an extension of their (overbearing?) PhD advisor and would never really develop independently.

But, as gasstationwithoutpumps says, in case you have a superstar student, you should really snatch them if they want to come back. Very few departments can afford to be cavalier about letting superstars slip through their hands because of a technicality.

PQA said...

I have returned to the institution, same department, where I did my undergraduate for my post-doc. Upon my return, 10 years later, I learned that tales of my 'antics' where still being told. I was a rather precocious undergraduate, organized a lot of interesting drunken events for the department, did a lot of cool research.

Since I have a very unique name and I was often greeted by someone meeting with the first time with 'Are you THE PQA?". It has died out over the years since my return but was very disconcerted to say the least. So I suppose it depends on what kind of legacy you left behind when you were a student doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

I've been in two departments in which there were former-student-professors. In both cases, the former-student-professors (I guess I can't abbreviate that as FSP.. too confusing) were far from superstars. Both fell far below their peers in terms of research abilities and productivity. Both were hired because they were seen as allies of their former advisors. Both were hired decades ago, and I've sometimes wondered if they would be hired today. I wasn't around when they were hired, but things seem to work differently nowadays.

Athene Donald said...

I think there is another issue you haven't raised, which is whether the student - if hired - can themselves see the older faculty as equals and not as the senior staff they once appeared to them. I have known people who find that very hard when returning to their original department. It isn't simply a question of whether the professors see the student as 'grown up', the student-now-faculty has to believe that themselves.

Anonymous said...

I teach in an undergraduate institution with a very egalitarian culture, one that almost celebrates mediocrity because accomplishment is seen as dangerous to our equality. Occasionally the graybeards talk about someday hiring one of our alumni. Not so much because her PhD research is great but because they remember her fondly and think she has a great personality for teaching here. I arrived after she graduated, but I've heard the talk about her.

I agree that personality and motivation is important in a place focused on undergraduates. However, I met her once, and she said that if she went to a primarily-undergraduate institution it would be so she doesn't have to do much research. That instantly put her on my "do not hire" list, but who knows what the graybeards will do some day? On the plus side, when we talk about long-term plans and what fields we want to hire in, her field is nowhere on the radar.

Then again, these idiots hired an unaccomplished person after advertising in a field completely unrelated to that person's expertise. Why? Because the person is married to a senior professor, and every bit as mediocre as any of the senior faculty. So, who knows, maybe we'll advertise for a completely unrelated field, and she'll be encouraged to apply, and then the old farts will rig the game for her.

Anonymous said...

I went straight from my PhD to a faculty appointment in the same department. For the most part, the problem hasn't been how my colleagues see me, but more how I see myself. It's been a much harder transition from having a student attitude to a faculty attitude than I anticipated. I think going elsewhere might have provided a better transition process for me, but it's hard to know for sure.

I should also note that post-docs aren't the norm in my field, although that is starting to change as the field matures. Going straight from a PhD to a faculty appointment isn't unusual in my field. Staying at the same institution is more unusual, but not unheard of, even in my department.

FrauTech said...

Very interesting idea. This seems to apply to my industry experience moving from a clerical position to a technical position at the same company. I wondered whether I'd have trouble being taken seriously as a technical professional. The answer was yes. But time eventually degrades people's memories and more recent accomplishments and failures stand out. I do think it's sort of detrimental to the individual though, who might do better to "break out" and do more elsewhere.

Ms.PhD said...

In the cases where I have seen inbreeding, the quality of the inbred hires is vastly lower than new hires who were trained elsewhere. The standards seem to have been dropped due to politics. Unfortunately I don't have statistics on how many hires were former trainees who returned or moved up. Seemed like a lot (in some departments, the 20% quoted by studyzone would probably not be far off).

I'm generally against the policy of hiring people back who were trained there. I think it increases groupthink and decreases the potential for diversity and growth in the department. It also seems to favor males, at least in the places where I've worked.

The Lesser Half said...

My wife was hired in the department where I was an undergrad, and despite my having a PhD from a Top Research University, they made it clear they still saw me as that former teenager. So I left for a temp job at nearby Better University, and have never been happier.

Alex said...

I'm proud to say that my alma mater didn't even interview me. I applied, but they hired somebody better than me. I was worried that they might lower their standards and erode the value of my degree.

The downside is that I'm stuck in a place that values niceness over standards. Then again, if I'd been hired away from here by a place that valued the alumni connection over standards, that would sort of defeat the whole purpose of fleeing.

Anonymous said...

I know a place that did a search recently, interviewed some (apparently) great candidates, and hired one of their most mediocre recent grads because they felt that he would fit most easily into the department. No kidding. Who wants to have strangers wandering the hall, ones who don't even know where the coffee machine is?

Anonymous said...

There are some schools that don't have the reputation and are viewed as a 'stopping point' for a lot of potential hires. It's easier to get a faculty job once you've already had one, right? This may lead the faculty to give preference to former grads because they may have connections and want to stick around longer versus having to go through the hiring process every couple years (which costs lots of money and wastes everyone's time) because someone took off for greener pastures. Reliability can obviously play a role in such decisions.

Anonymous said...

The dept I did my Phd work in had at least two senior faculty who were former students/post-docs within the same dept. One of these people made his way through the ranks and became department chair and subsequently hired a former student of his own for a tt faculty position. The chain was all male.

Anonymous said...

I am an assistant prof in the department I got my PhD, after a postdoc overseas. I know that this counted against me in hiring but once I was hired, I have not felt anyone treat me like a student. (My PhD advisors are no longer there, which certainly makes a difference).

Funny enough, some grad students had the hardest time taking me seriously. There are still some who overlapped with my PhD who have not graduated. One asked me at my job interview who I'd be working with! But I expect this will stop being a problem soon (and frankly, it doesn't affect me or the faculty's opinion of me in any way).

On the other hand, I have a lot of memories from my grad student days and certainly feel like knowing how people treat you when you're young and invisible can affect how you view those people as you get older and more established. It can also be a positive - I also remember people who were kind to me and interested in my work and in my intellectual development even when I was "nobody".

Anonymous said...

In my relatively small field, hiring former PhD grads is only an option for superstars. When I made a simple routine visit to give a colloquium as a TT prof more than 10 years after I graduated, most of my old professors didn't even bother to attend my talk -- they showed up for the cookies and didn't even say hello to me. Highly regarded faculty who had been hired in the interim did attend and show great interest in my work, so I do attribute my experience to the Once a Student phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

I am tenured Prof in the same department where I did my undergrad and PhD (with the disclaimer that I am in a country where it is common to do your PhD in the same plac as undergrad). I returned here 7 years ago as assistant Prof after postdocs overseas. Until recently I had more issue with this situation than my colleagues. This got to a point where I felt that I should move on and was offered a position elsewhere. A counter offer too good to refuse and learning that no one else cared that I was a produc of this institution convinced me to stay - and I live in an awesome part of the world. Having said that I recognize that this has placed extra expectations on me to be stay internationally competitive, but as long as I don't lose touch with the wider world out there I can see that it hasn't harmed my career to be here.