Tag Archives: academic tenure

SOME Q&A JUST FOR ASSISTANT PROFESSORS IN SCIENCE!

 

Assistant Professors now Spend Most of their Workday Applying for Research Grants!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Assistant Professors now Spend Most of their Workdays Applying for Research Grant Awards!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Assistant Professors in science are younger university faculty who work on research, teaching, and assorted BS.  They often also are busy with marriage, buying a house, and starting a family.  After obtaining their first research grant award as an independent investigator, they begin supervising graduate students in their area of science expertise.  The twin career targets of Assistant Professors are to get their research grant(s) renewed, and to obtain tenure.

This article is only for Assistant Professors!  It uses a question and answer format to give my advice about handling certain tasks and problematic situations commonly faced by junior faculty in any area of science.  This advice is based upon my own personal experiences and observations as a science faculty member in several universities.  I hope these discussions will prove interesting and useful to you!

Why is my salary so low as an Assistant Professor? 

Assistant Professors are at the bottom of the academic ladder!  Some prestigious universities limit the salaries of their junior faculty to inappropriately low  levels.  Upon being promoted to tenured rank, the former Assistant Professors then get a major increase in salary.  The usual explanation is that universities want junior faculty to prove their institutional commitment, and they need to keep all their senior long-term employees happy.  I feel that this policy actually is just another part of universities always trying to maximize their financial profits; the same self-centered business mentality also explains why some of these same institutions only infrequently award tenure to their junior faculty!

Upon being hired, I was given only a very small lab.  I now have a good first grant with one postdoc and 3 new grad students, and so need more lab space.  How can I get this without upsetting other faculty here? 

The first part of your question is easy: get a second research grant award and you will receive assignment of more lab space.  If additional space is not offered, then you should realize that your institution probably is not very serious about scientific research.  Tell your departmental chair that you see no choice but to move, since your grant-supported research is being hindered; that might cause a revision of your research space assignment.  Otherwise, take appropriate action to find a better employer and give yourself a greater chance to be satisfied with your career as a scientist. 

The second part of your question is totally difficult, because lab space always is tight, and all science faculty are competing with each other for space assignments.  If any faculty member is given additional space for their research activities, then someone else’s assignment must be reduced; even if it is completely obvious that you fully  deserve more lab space, human nature says that the person losing space will always have a grudge against you.  Try to find some senior professor who has your respect, and ask for advice about this very sticky situation. 

Are research collaborations important for Assistant Professors? 

The short answer is, “yes indeed!”.  External collaborations will help your research  publications become more solid, and these coworkers usually will be your supporters for promotions and grant reviews.  Internal collaborations within your department and your university often are the start of developing a small research group, and are particularly valuable when you are being considered for promotion to tenure.  Collaborations are good both for science and for business! 

I just got re-appointed as an Assistant Professor.  What should I do in order to become tenured? 

The traditional answer to your question is that achieving excellence in research and in teaching will qualify you to become tenured.  Those activities will help, but they certainly do not explain either why some junior faculty are tenured despite their weak accomplishments, or why some accomplished candidates are denied a promotion to tenure.  My best answer to your question is to pass on the advice that one of my more senior colleagues at a different university gave me when I asked him the same question: “What you really have to do is to fit in with the rest of the faculty in your department.  Make them see that you are valuable to them.”  I believe he is 100% correct.  Both grants and effective teaching have importance, but your ability to be part of the group is what will really make your Chair and other faculty support your promotion to tenured rank. 

Is it necessary to become tenured? 

In principle, academic tenure is a promise that you will never be fired from your job without just cause, thereby guaranteeing your freedom of thought and speech.  Of course, the very best long-term job security is not tenure, but is to have such good professional success that other quality institutions would be delighted to hire you.  I know one unusual scientist who decided to forgo tenure because it was such a bother to go through the evaluation process; he was independently wealthy and requested to continue working at his university without being tenured.  His employer said no way!  Eventually there was a crisis situation with his packing up all his stuff in preparation for moving (i.e., several other institutions wanted to hire him!).  His employer finally gave him a very expedited review and promptly announced that he now was tenured.   Thus, the actual answer to your question is “yes”; however, do not forget that the soft-money faculty at universities are not tenured. 

I am fortunate to have acquired several research grant awards.  Instead of being considered for tenure, can I just switch into a soft-money position?  That move will get me a higher salary than my hard-money position! 

Making such a switch would be quite unusual and will be questioned for the rest of your career.  I can only suggest that you should make a written list of all the positive and negative features for making that change, and then debate with yourself what you should do.  It is worth noting that many scientists working on soft-money positions in both universities and industries are not tenured, but still  have a good and productive career.  Their employment actually has quite a lot of security without any tenure so long as they always perform well and fulfill the needs of their job situation. 

After 6 years working as an Assistant Professor, my application for promotion to tenure was unexpectedly turned down!  What the hell am I supposed to do now? 

Think clearly about how you will answer the following key questions: (1) If that decision would be reversed, would you now want to stay on as a faculty employee? (2) Previous to this negative decision, did any other institutions ever voice an interest in hiring you?  (3) If you could magically be hired in any position at any location you wish, what would you work on and where would the new employer be located?  Your answers will indicate: (1) if you want to stay at your present job site, (2) what are your best opportunities for a new job in academia, and, (3) how much you still want to do research work at some university, versus switching into a research position in industry or a science-related job outside of universities (see: “Other Jobs for Scientists, Part II” , and, “Part III” ).  

Having to move saves some scientists from lengthy dissatisfaction and endless emotional turmoil!  Do try to calm down and clear your mind so you can better decide what you really want to do with the rest of your life and career.  I wish you good luck! 

I was just turned down for tenure, but I far outperformed another Assistant Professor who received tenure!  Should I file a lawsuit about my unjust decision? 

Mistakes about tenure are made rather frequently, so welcome to the club!  My advice is to try to picture yourself some years into the future … if you win a lawsuit and then are given tenure, will you really be satisfied and at ease 10 years from now?  I doubt it, and suggest that you will still be upset.  Recognize that lawsuits in academia take nearly forever to be adjudicated (e.g., several to many years), and always are very expensive for the initiator (i.e., you might have to sue an entire state or city if your university is part of some government). 

Concluding remarks.

Assistant professors undergo many trials and tribulations in addition to working on their research and teaching activities.  It is not an exaggeration to say that they are always under observation,  evaluation, and pressuring by someone (e.g., their Chair, the Deans, administrators, graduate students, postdocs, classroom students, fellow teachers, fellow committee members, manuscript referees and editors, reviewers of grant applications, officials at granting agencies, safety office, etc., etc.).  Those who continue to be active and productive researchers while dealing with all this crap certainly deserve lots of credit! 

Tenure is not everything, does not always protect freedom of opinion and speech, and, is not much used by faculty for its main purpose.  It often is misused and abused,  both by universities and by faculty.  I personally know an Assistant Professor who became tenured, and from the very next day on he never again stepped into his lab; how utterly disgusting! 

 

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SOME UNIVERSITY RESEARCH SCIENTISTS DO INDEED HAVE GUTS!

 

Don't Laugh, since He can See the Truth very Clearly!!  (http://dr-monsrs.net}
Don’t Laugh!    He can See the Truth very, very Clearly!!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Most people have a distorted view about what scientists working at universities really are like.  There certainly is some truth in the common feeling that scientists researching in the ivory tower have it easy while living a safe and comfortable life without ever working up a sweat.  In the modern era many university scientists worry more about their research grant(s) and their lab space assignment than they do about how to get a difficult experiment to finally work, or whether alternative explanations for their recent results make more sense than a traditional interpretation. 

There are a few exceptions to such generalizations, and some university science faculty do maintain their individuality and personal standards.  These persons frequently are known as troublemakers, weirdos, hard boiled eggs, creative geniuses, misfits, or ambitious workaholics.  Some of the same characteristics desired for successful research scientists also are found prominently in these distinctive individuals; such features include curiosity, creativity, and  inventiveness, as I have explained earlier (see: “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science” ).  In addition, these same scientists often are characterized by such features as idealism, pig-headedness, not fearing to speak the truth, and, dedication to being a scientist. 

This report relates a few true stories about actual university scientists I have known.  All have the personal courage to fight the system, and are unconventional.  Their identity must remain a secret in order to protect the guilty! 

University scientist X attacks the glorified institution of tenure! 

Scientist X is a very successful cell biologist who is hard-working, creative, well-liked, and highly individualistic.  He works at a very large state university, and has had his research grants renewed throughout his career.  He was overwhelmingly qualified to be promoted and tenured.  However, because he is independently wealthy, he decided to forego all the time and scrutiny involved with this academic ritual.  All other faculty are totally enthusiastic to accept whatever is necessary to get tenured.  His Chair, the Dean, and the senior professors in his department all tried to persuade him to accept becoming tenured, but he just would not give in. 

Academic tenure traditionally gives a faculty member the right to speak their opinion without fear of being fired by the employer.  How in the world can any university faculty not want to become tenured?  Prof. X readily explained his most unusal decision with something like the following (paraphrased):  “I do not have time for tenure.  I do not need tenure, since I can easily get a new faculty position elsewhere if I am fired here.  I always say what is on my mind, so tenure means nothing to me.  I am doing a good job here, so why do I have to get it?”  No-one could remember such statements ever being offered before!  His fellow faculty frequently commented about Prof. X (paraphrased):  “What is wrong with him?  He is just unbelievable!  Tenure is so important and utterly necessary!   Poor Prof. X must be mad!  No professor can survive without tenure!” 

For university faculty members, the decision about tenure is required, meaning that faculty candidates either must be retained with the promotion or else they are discharged from employement (i.e., “up, or out”).  After much further disputation, Prof. X still would not give in!  He reportedly told his superiors that he would be pleased to just continue doing his usual very good work without having any tenured status, but that was impossible according to the University bylaws!  Finally, a special arrangement was worked out when his employer realized that they strongly wanted him to continue working at this university; Prof. X became tenured without being evaluated further or having to sign any papers. 

This real story is amazingly unusual!  Nobody else ever rejects the chance to be promoted to the tenured rank, or actually offers reasons for that rejection.  Prof. X must be admired for having the guts to be outspoken and self-directed.  He stuck to his personal beliefs and challenged a long-standing university tradition.  In retrospect today, it is totally clear that becoming tenured made no difference at all to the continued good success of Prof. X as a professional research scientist. 

University scientist Y pays for some of his own research expenses! 

Scientist Y is unusual because he, unlike all other university faculty, is willing to spend his own personal money for some of his business expenses (i.e., payment for purchases of some small research supplies and for transportation to national or international science meetings).  Other science faculty at his urban university never ever do that; they could not understand Prof. Y and condemned his judgment about using his own funds.  They would simply not go to any science meeting unless their travel and hotel expenses were paid for by external funds.  Some of the other faculty thought that Prof. Y definitely must be some kind of weirdo! 

When asked to explain his unusual willingness to spend his own personal money for travel expenses to participate in a science meeting, he said that he viewed this as an investment in himself as a professional research scientist.  He actually was buying additional knowledge (i.e., the talks and posters he witnessed), making new contacts, asking questions about research to scientists he met, and interacting with some attendees as a potential collaborator.  Putting these same funds into investments indeed might get him more money, but that did not really help his science career as much as what he gained by being at the meetings. 

This unusual use of personal money undoubtedly was an expression of Prof. Y’s very strong  commitment to science.  Many famous scientists show this same commitment as a notable feature of their professional success.  Such personal commitment unfortunately is becoming infrequent in the modern age. 

University scientist Z calls into question whether a research grant is necessary for  faculty  scientists to continue researching and publishing! 

Professor Z lost his research grant 1 year ago, and is trying either to get it back or to acquire a new award.  Traditionally, for all faculty at his university, losing their external grant support means that they will soon have to relinquish their laboratory space assignment unless they can soon acquire new research funding.  Although composing several applications takes up almost all of his time, Prof. Z continues to work actively in his research lab and has published several new research reports.  He openly maintains that: (1) he had purchased enough research supplies to last for another few years, (2) he and one graduate student continue their research work, so no additional lab personnel are needed, (3) his output of new peer-reviewed research reports in good journals continues just as it did before he lost his grant, and, (4) he wants to continue his lab research. 

Other faculty now complain to the Chair that they need more lab space for their grant-supported projects, and want Prof. Z’s space assignment to be re-assigned to them.  It is totally unheard of that any former grantee can continue to do research and to issue new publications without having a research grant award.  His Chair is very uneasy with this situation, particularly because Prof. Z is still actively researching.  Prof. Z’s intention clearly calls into question whether researching can be done without having a grant. 

This dilemma arises because all positions are seen only as being black and white, rather than as different shades of gray.  Even Prof. Z admits that he did even more when he was funded than at present.  Nevertheless, it is completely false to state that Prof. Z presently is not producing good research, because he obviously still is doing so.  As more and more university faculty members lose their external research grant awards, this entire situation now will arise more frequently; with the vicious cut-throat hyper-competition for research grants now in effect (see:  “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants” ), the former grantees almost always rapidly lose their argument and become very bitter.  The usual response to this situation indicates that modern universities are after profits from research grants more than seeking additional contributions of significant new knowledge and understanding; in other words, the inflow of money is more valuable to them than the production of new knowledge.  

Concluding remarks.  

These stories illustrate that some individual scientists at universities do have much personal integrity and a strong commitment to their work.  But, it certainly takes guts to be different!  Scientists in academia usually must restrain their individualism in order to function and succeed in their job situation.  The personal courage and strong determination of the individual scientists described above should be applauded by all the other faculty; instead, those individuals usually are ridiculed.  It never is easy to stand up and do what one believes to be right when many others have the opposite opinion.  These real stories show that some academic traditions and rules are made to be broken.  The story about Prof. X particularly shows that modern universities must be forced to do the right thing!   

 

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YOU WILL NEVER HEAR ABOUT THESE GOOD SCIENTISTS (PART I)!

 

You Will Never Hear About the Life of These Good Scientists!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
You Will Never Hear About the Life of These Good Scientists! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Not all university scientists are so blessed as to acquire multiple research grant awards, have dozens of research students and collaborators working in their laboratory, produce 5-10 new research publications every year, and easily advance right up the career ladder.  Most faculty researchers work hard to achieve some fame while dealing with the large problems involving time, money, and integrity.  To demonstrate the perverse atmosphere now commonly present at too many modern universities, I will describe here some eye-opening stories from the life of two fictitious members of the science faculty at some large state university in the USA.  I will not hold anything back, and do not exaggerate anything.  These stories are very realistic since they are based on actual faculty scientists I have known during my own career as a university scientist; although the stories will be difficult for many adults to believe, these episodes can be considered typical of the undeserved problems facing today’s modern academic scientists.

Joseph H. Smith, Ph.D.

Joe Smith is a 42 year-old tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.  Every year, he gives lectures and teaches laboratories for both the very large undergraduate chemistry course and the biochemistry course; he also presents an advanced graduate course in Environmental Biochemistry.  In addition, Joe serves as Director of Graduate Studies for his department.  He has a research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that provides salaries for 3 graduate students and one Postdoctoral Research Fellow; he has successfully renewed his grant one time.  Joe’s salary is quite decent and he manages to stay home on weekends to be with his family of 5.  Joe enjoys his research work immensely and is respected by other scientists in his very specialized field.  His departmental colleagues all consider Joe to be a successful scientist, a good teacher, and a friendly associate.  Joe feels confident that he has nearly achieved enough to merit promotion to become a Full Professor.  On the surface nobody has any reason at all to suspect that Joe is not fully successful or is troubled by anything in his career. 

Unexpected events occur (i.e., shit does happen!)

One day, to his enormous surprise, Joe is notified by an official letter that his application for the second renewal of his NIH research grant has been approved, but cannot be funded (i.e., his priority score is below the cutoff).  This means that his Postdoc must finish her work, get manuscripts submitted, and leave within 6 more months.  Two of his 3 graduate students are just  starting their training, and so decide to move out of his lab to start working with a different professor.  Joe therefore decides that he now must start working on weekends to compensate for his new much smaller research staff.  He also immediately begins work on a new research grant application; Joe is dismayed to see that there are only 5 more months before the next deadline for submission.  After changing his own work schedule, Joe comes to realize that he now is extraordinarily short on time in his new situation, since he also has upcoming deadlines for revising 2 manuscripts, submitting abstracts for a science meeting, finishing revision of the  Department’s graduate training booklet, mentoring a new Assistant Professor in his Department, and revising all the student handouts for his class lectures for the forthcoming semester.  To put it mildly, Joe now is extremely busy and begins to feel somewhat stressed. 

A new character enters this drama

The Chairman of Joe’s department is a famous old chemist who is well-liked by his entire faculty.  The old professor suddenly has a heart attack and must retire.  The search for a replacement succeeds in attracting a middle-aged bright and very ambitious polymer chemist.  This new Chair soon announces that his academic unit now will be renamed as the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science, and that the biochemistry course now will be listed only by the Department of Biological Science; Joe will continue working in that course despite these changes.  Nobody voices any dissent or concerns about these changes, and Joe initially does not perceive any bad consequences for himself. 

During his first interview, the new Chair explains to Joe that the Dean wants him to modernize and rejuvenate this old department, and so he must act vigorously to get this done.  Several distressing pronouncements then are given to Joe: (1) if he cannot win a new grant award within 6 months then Joe’s laboratory assignment will be terminated, (2) Joe will stop directing the graduate student training program, so as to give him more time to work on his new grant applications, and, (3) in recognition of his long service at this university, the new Chair is prepared to write a salutary letter of recommendation on Joe’s behalf should he ever need to apply for a new position elsewhere.  Joe is startled to hear all this, but does not comment.  The new Chair then continues that he wants to make room for several new faculty appointments in polymer chemistry, and so more lab space will soon be needed for those newcomers.  The new Chair ends the conference by smiling and telling Joe, “Please let me know if I can help you with anything!” 

Joe initially wonders what all of this means.  After discussions with other faculty in his department, he starts to realize what is going on and exactly what now is happening to him.  Through no fault of his own, Joe the biochemist suddenly has become an “odd man out” in the new regime.  Joe starts to feel increasingly uneasy and worried about his career. 

About 6 weeks later, the new Chair calls Joe in for another private conference.  Joe has since gotten advice from several senior faculty members and feels fully prepared to protect his status.  However, he is utterly shocked when his Chair opens by announcing that Joe’s efforts with his new situation are progressing too slowly.  The Chair pauses and leans over to look very closely at Joe, and then continues in a somber voice, “I expect a lot from all my faculty, Joe, and I have been trying to help you.  However, I must tell you that if you cannot be more reasonable and accept all I suggest, then you might be officially investigated for insubordination!  We need to work together here!  I also am wondering if maybe you should now try to find a new job somewhere else?”  The new Chair then again ends the session by smiling and telling Joe, “Please let me know if I can help you with anything!” 

Joe becomes very upset.  All his actions to be a good member of the faculty now seem to count for nothing with his new Boss.  Joe cannot believe he really heard that last query and so  replies, “You are very wrong about me!  I have always done a good job here and am a successful faculty member!  I publish my research results in good journals, serve my employer, and receive good reviews from the students for my teaching!   Furthermore, I don’t have to take this crap from you, since I am tenured!  You can’t just push me out!”  The Chair smiles and calmly replies, “Yes indeed, but you now appear to be slowing down and deactivating.  Since I was hired to reform this moribund department, we have no use for slackers or dead wood.  I myself have several big research grants and publish many full articles every year.  I certainly expect my entire faculty to be as productive and successful as I am!  Please be more cooperative, Joe!  You must try harder to do much better!  ”  

My analysis of Dr. Joe Smith

Joe Smith certainly is a good person and a good faculty scientist.  He suddenly finds himself put into a very difficult situation in the reorganized department.  He clearly is at a disadvantage in resolving this  problem because he has always been sincere, honorable, and committed; unfortunately for Joe, this type of situation in academia involves another world that is based on power, deceit, personal politics, and aggressive actions.  Thankfully, not all universities have this type of situation occurring with aggressive leaders who are power-hungry and duplicitous, but some most certainly do so. 

Won’t academic tenure protect Joe Smith?  Achieving tenured rank in universities very often is taken by the public as the golden protector of an academic career.  In theory, academic tenure protects and enables faculty freedom (i.e., ability to hold and announce any conclusion or belief, no matter how controversial that is).  In practice, tenure only goes so far and really can be only an empty promise.  There are at least a dozen ways that academic tenure can be negated, ignored, superseded, or limited.  Like many other perfectly good academic scientists, Joe Smith learns about this aspect of faculty life only through his actual personal involvement in the new situation described above. 

New chairpersons often are given a mandate to reform and improve some dusty university department.  They seem to have a strong general tendency to hire and then favor “my new faculty”, instead of also putting effort into improving the activities of their inherited faculty.  Certainly, some older faculty members with high salaries often are not so modern or productive enough, but that does not mean that those employees should be booted out with no regard for their earlier accomplishments.  Truly good leaders in universities are able to deal with these issues in an effective manner without causing the undeserved problem that Joe Smith innocently ran into.  

It is very likely that the new Chair will try to remove Joe in one way or another.  I believe it is unlikely that Joe can win this conflict.  Even if he does manage to retain his position, he will be labelled as a troublemaker, his salary will be reduced, and any of his requests for assistance will be rejected.  A grievance or lawsuit is unexpected to help Joe.  He is too young to take early retirement.  Joe simply is trapped, and I see only 2 possible ways for him to escape doom.  One possibility is that Joe might be able to transfer his status and tenure into the Department of Biological Sciences; his ongoing major teaching role for their large biochemistry course provides strong support justifying moving Joe into that  department.  A second possibility for this innocent scientist is to seek a new position with a different employer where he and his work are not viewed with such hostility; this is not easy to do until he gets funded again, but is the only effective way to totally remove his very negative situation with his current employer. 

Concluding remarks for Part I

All readers are urged to accept that the very distressing situation encountered by Joe Smith actually does happen in modern universities.  Yes, university scientists live a dangerous life because unexpected changes can and do occur easily.  Being a good and hard-working research scientist at universities or being tenured does not offer much protection against such unanticipated predicaments.  Acquiring several research grant awards simultaneously now gives more protection to the career of a university scientist than does academic tenure.  I emphasize that Joe Smith is innocent of any wrongdoing, and is simply a victim of perverse circumstances. 

This disgusting situation is not unique to Joe Smith or to any of the hundreds of universities in the USA.  In the forthcoming Part II, I will relate a different fictional story that also is strongly based upon real university scientists I have known. 

 

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