Sanity in Science

Well in standard blogging style I’ve taken a break and intend to end that now.

In addition to the expected guilt, my motivation today comes from an article that caught my attention. It is written by a recently-tenured computer scientist at Harvard who writes about how she survived her tenure-track position by pretending it was a seven-year postdoc. Now, she writes this article as an associate professor with tenure. This is a different perspective than a faculty member who failed that test. However, she presents a compelling case for dealing professionally and psychologically with the rigors of a tenure-track life.
But her story also brings up larger questions, largely unaddressed in her own article, about the scientific profession. While I will comment on parts of her article, and I encourage you to read it, I want to focus on the items she left unsaid.
The essay begins by describing the challenges of the job. Talented scientists—the author’s friends—become miserable or opt out for fear of becoming miserable. After proving oneself for years getting a Ph.D. and then years more for a postdoctoral fellowship, a five to seven year tenure-track position seems masochistic. A researcher is likely to be in their mid-thirties by the time the position begins, perhaps with young children. (After all, while academic scientists are good at delayed gratification if anyone is, children can only come so late). In an unfortunate turn of phrase, this is what many researchers consider their first job. And it comes with a firm deadline that is easy to portray as an up-or-down vote: Are you a professional scientist worthy of tenure and a job, or a bum?
The author spells out several coping strategies she used. My favorite is the title: she considered this a seven-year postdoc position. On the bright side, few other jobs will guarantee you a seven year position at the end of which you either renew your contract, so to speak, or move on. I am sympathetic to this manner of thinking. When I was deciding to apply to graduate school, I considered instead becoming a laboratory technician for a year or two to really mull over the big question. Do I want to get a Ph.D.? But since I was not able to consider non-science jobs (verboten in the long science career) I thought I would get a job and a degree at the same time. Graduate school pays pretty well these days. And as long as I’m not a complete screw up, I have a job for five years right out of college in a tepid economy. Not bad.
So her redefining of the position helps dull the anxiety about the final decision. However, here is where I want to move beyond the article. She neglects to mention how failing to secure tenure is not merely a hit to the ego and being fired. It may well end one’s chances of managing one’s own lab in academia. The alternatives are: Try to get a tenure-track position at a lower tier school. Apply for teaching-only positions, which are notoriously low-paid, insecure and usually only a small part of what a talented researcher wants to do. Go to industry, where authority-adverse academics may not exactly thrive. Choose a new career in your early forties. Of course that’s an incomplete list. But failing to secure tenure is definitely a black mark on a scientist’s resume and complicates future high-powered job searches.
There are a couple other strategies worthy of noting. She worked “fixed hours and in fixed amounts.” The breakdown is there for you to read but it adds up to about fifty hours a week of work. Then of course her childcare and household duties, shared equally with her husband. Additionally, instead of cultivating influential friends who would help her win tenure, her work friends were those with whom she could talk openly and share ideas and feel comfortable.
I believe the author had a reasonable approach to her tenure-track position. She became a little Zen about the whole thing and made her research quality the product of a happy life and hard work. More successful researchers need to advocate for this approach. But at the same time, the fact that her strategies seem so novel is a comment on the unfortunate state of the scientific profession.
Despite reduced funding opportunities, graduate programs recruit and train far more graduate students than there are academic research positions. Yet most people earn a Ph.D. to remain in the field they love, academia. It’s not a perfect job, but there are serious perks to being an academic scientist. Yet while many other careers would naturally limit the training pipeline according to the demand for labor, academia seems a little stuck. The upshot is that there is fierce competition for the research jobs that are available. And competition is good. It drives innovation, which leads to novel discoveries and improvements for society. But it also drives good scientists away. It drives them toward industry (a fine choice, but a second choice for many academics), or away from research altogether. After all, being a workaholic does not necessarily correlate with being a good scientific thinker. But it is a necessary qualification for remaining in academic research.
I will end by saying: I am not entirely bearish on the future of science. Far from it, in fact. I believe that scientific funding can be increased again through the work of effective policy makers and scientist-lobbyists. The mismatch between the supply and demand of trained scientists will likely even out at some point. Academia moves slowly. I believe that by communicating with the society that supports our research, we can successfully advocate for putting a higher priority on basic science. That last part is key, in my opinion. Science does not operate in a vacuum and as long as we are supported by taxpayers it is both our duty and in our best interests to open up channels of communication with them. Doing so will likely bring additional support for the work that scientists do and that will lead to a healthier profession in the long run.
This article has inspired a slightly ranty day-in-the-life career track for scientists. I don’t feel in the mood to publish a more negative stance at the moment but I think I will return to the idea for a future post. Non-scientists are usually only presented with successful professors as their image of the profession. And usually the more photogenic, genial souls who put on a good face. But as with most careers, there is a lot of hard work involved and the peculiarities of the career path may be of interest to some. Look for that soon.