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

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)

 

In Part I, a fictional story about a tenured Associate Professor, Dr. Joe Smith, was presented to illustrate some of the job problems that can be encountered by science faculty members working in modern universities (see:  http://dr-monsrs.net/2014/12/24/you-will-never-hear-about-these-good-scientists-part-i/ ).  These situations do not occur at all universities and medical schools, but the possibility is always there.  Part II now describes the story of an active young member of the science faculty in a different department at the same large state university; her problematic situation is different, but occurs commonly and often has sad consequences.

Jill Annette Jones, Ph.D.

Jill A. Jones is a 26 year old new faculty member in the small Department of Neuroscience.  As an untenured Assistant Professor, she lectures in a large team-taught required course and also presents her own graduate school course every year; student critiques about her teaching activities are very favorable.  Her research investigates laboratory models for the membranes of nerve cells; she has received a research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support her experimental studies.  Jill Annette is very dedicated to her career as a professional research scientist and enjoys working on research experiments in her laboratory.  She has postponed thoughts about getting married and having children until after she becomes 30 years old.  The next steps in her career as a university scientist are to get re-appointed as an Assistant Professor, and to merit the renewal of her NSF research grant.  Overall, she is proud and satisfied with her university employment, and does not feel that she has been hindered at all by being female.  

One day, Jill Annette is invited to visit her very senior Chairman.  Following a few pleasantries, the following conversation takes place.

Chair:  “Jill, I want to discuss your faculty activities here.”

Jill:  “Okay.  What about them?”

Chair:  “You are publishing good research results, but you never have articles in the main Neuroscience journals.  Why is that?”

Jill:  “My research on neuronal membranes is a better fit for Biophysics journals.  What is the problem with that?

Chair:  “It is just that you appear to be functioning outside our special field, and are not on the same wavelength everybody else is on.”

Jill:  “Neuroscience is still innovating and developing its methodologies further.  The older professors in our Department should be glad they have a young faculty member here who is a modern type of Neuroscientist!  Many of them barely seem to know about the new approaches for research in Neuroscience!  Who are they to say where new aspects of Neuroscience should be published?”

Chair:  “Even if you are totally correct, you are making a strategic mistake!  You must realize that you and your work will be judged by the senior faculty for your upcoming re-appointment promotion.  You should be more realistic and play up to them, Jill Annette.”

Jill:  “I can accept being judged by them, but I do not play up to anybody!  That is not my style!”

Chair:  “You know what I mean.  You definitely should strengthen your identification with our Department.”

Jill:  “Please tell me how you, our leader, see my research and teaching activities.”

Chair:  “You are funded, actively publishing, and teaching in our large course. Those all are quite good.  But, your professional identity as a Neuroscientist seems questionable.”

Jill:  “Neuroscientists at other schools also publish in Biophysics journals.  I now have had 3 articles published in the #1 journal in that discipline.”

Chair:  “Biophysics is not Neuroscience!  Nobody in our Department has ever published in Biophysics journals.”

Jill:  “Every year I present an abstract with my latest research findings at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.  That very large Society accepts my research as Neuroscience, and the audience receives my oral presentations with enthusiastic interest.”

Chair:  “Yes, but …  I advise you to publish several articles in Neuroscience journals, in addition to those you send to Biophysics journals.  Please recognize that with this suggestion I am just trying to assist you for your career here.  You will stand a better chance of getting re-appointed if you can accept my advice.”

Jill at once went to talk candidly to some faculty colleagues in several other departments.  She thereby learned much more about what her Boss had just told her.  One senior Full Professor asked her why she didn’t try to transfer into the Biophysics Department.  A female tenured Associate Professor reminded Jill that the amount of money available in federal agencies to fund research grant awards had not increased in recent years despite the larger number of applications received every year; Jill was counseled to view getting her research grant renewed as being something necessary, but inherently uncertain.  Another science faculty member pointed out to her that giving a few lectures for a team-taught course was not exactly any major contribution to teaching.  Jill thus came to recognize that her status as a recent Assistant Professor was not so safe and on track as she had previously believed.  

My analysis of Dr. Jill Annette Jones

Although Jill is sincere and is generally doing a good job as a new young university scientist, she only has a limited understanding about how decisions for re-appointments, later promotions, and grant renewals are made.  This young and spirited Assistant Professor indeed is quite naive.  She makes several assumptions that often are not true: (1) everything is on the up and up, (2) research grants are awarded and renewed readily, (3) the hyper-competition for research grant awards will not affect her application for renewal, (4) she now is doing an outstanding job as a member of the science faculty, and (5) the opinions of old faculty do not really matter.  These mistakes undoubtedly will work against success in her career.  

In my opinion, Jill Annette definitely is in a weak position and needs to quickly learn to play hardball. Her experienced Chairman is giving her very good advice and instructions!  She clearly needs to strengthen her status and reputation in her department.  If she intends to stay in her present Department, she must keep her critical views about senior faculty colleagues to herself, and become more fully identified as a Neuroscientist.  She also must accept that promotions are not usually given to those who are not considered to be essential and fully committed to being part of the group.  If she cannot make these changes, she will be cast off by her department.

To remedy her weak spots, Jill Annette needs to make a determined effort to:  (1) apply and acquire a second external research grant award, (2) start saying “hello” to those departmental faculty she does not usually converse with, (3) publish a few articles in a Neuroscience journal, in addition to those appearing in Biophysics journals, (4) become even more involved with the Society for Neuroscience (e.g., volunteer to serve on one of their committees), and, (5) suggest and accept taking some more substantial role in the major departmental course.  All of these will help correct her present weak positioning. 

Concluding Remarks for Part II

Some young members of modern universities, just like Jill Annette,  are naive about important details of their job situation.  There is not enough instruction given in graduate schools about business and political aspects of being a university scientist.  Conversing with fellow faculty who have recently passed upwards on the career ladder usually reveals important details about unrecognized problems soon to appear.  All new faculty must become more aware about what can happen to them in modern academia.  

The fictional stories in Parts I and II are based on real events and real academic faculty I have known.  Sordid attacks by Chairs, Deans, and other Administrators, and traps unseen by new young faculty, are very real.  It is completely essential that young research scientists in universities must become much more knowledgeable about these difficult problems, and learn how to avoid or deal with them effectively. 

Some university science departments are headed by a very good, fair, and supportive leader, and provide excellent working environments for their faculty.  The choice of working environment is a most important determinant of the career success and satisfaction for dedicated research scientists.  In my personal opinion, the condition of the working environment is much more important than all other parameters (i.e., geographic location, salary level, availability of tenure slots, laboratory space, amount of start-up funding, size of department, reputation, number of grad students, etc.).

General conclusions for Parts I and II

When confronting any academic official, nothing they say should ever be taken as final.   Each of these officials is strongly obliged to obey their own superior(s), meaning that their announced position or decree can change drastically or even reverse on a moment’s notice.  As the saying goes, there is no honor amongst either thieves or deans. 

The situations presented in Parts I and II are better avoided rather than confronted (i.e., select a better working environment).  Fighting these situations directly always is very risky and costs a lot of time, cash, and emotional energy.  It is nothing less than absurd for any faculty scientist to think that either being tenured or having right upon your side, will protect you and assure your being victorious. 

At present, the only certain method for preventing this problem, winning any such dispute, and being able to readily find a good new employer is to acquire 2 or more simultaneous research grant awards.  Yes, money is absolutely everything in today’s academia (see:  http://dr-monsrs.net/2014/01/02/why-has-money-become-everything-in-scientific-research/ )!

 

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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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