Tag Archives: professional identity in science

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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