Monday, February 15, 2010

Academia (Tenure) as a Profzi Scheme

The headline hogging news to affect academia (at least in the US) this past weekend is the Amy Bishop Anderson tenure-denial mass murder case. Much had been discussed about about her sanity and intentions, and I won't dwell into them.

But it has brought to the forefront the issue of tenure for professors (the ultimate prize for all academia-focused postdocs and grad students). Even getting a tenure-track assistant professor position these days is highly competitive. Anecdotal stories by faculty search committees across a wide spectrum of disciplines tell of 500 - 700+ applicants per advertised vacancy.

A friend of mine, in his 4th or 5th year as a postdoc, was recently told that there is nothing else that he can do to improve his chances for a faculty job but to publish in Science or Nature. This was not for a job at Harvard or Standford[sic] or anywhere close. It came from people well towards the end of their career, who are sitting on the hiring committees and who have never ever published in Science or Nature.

Unrealistic expectations and pressure...

- Foreign and Female in Science

I chanced upon the webpage of someone who turned down a Singapore NRF to be an assistant professor in South Carolina (as of Feb 2010). He had a Science paper as a 1st author coming out of his postdoc in a respected lab and many others in well regarded high impact journals. Yet for all his efforts he only accepted a position at the University of South Carolina. No offense to South Carolina, but if someone who is highly productive with a Science paper can only get an offer from South Carolina then what about the rest of us with no Science or Nature publications?

On a side note, it is telling that Singapore's supposedly 'prestigious' research fellowship ranks below that of a tenure track assistant professorship at a second-tier American university. Why else would he choose not go to Singapore with a guaranteed seed funding of up to US$1.5 million in the first three years? I certainly do not think SC would be able to match Singapore's cash offer. Most US research faculty start-up packages in the sciences/engineering are usually in the region of about US$300K - 600K for up to five years.


Edit (24 Feb): Scientific American published a highly critical assessment of the state of the US academic job market.

Many Applicants, Few Academic Posts

The competition for science faculty jobs is so intense that every advertised opening routinely attracts hundreds of qualified applicants. Most PhDs hired into faculty-level jobs get so-called “soft-money” posts, dependent on the renewal of year-to-year funding rather than the traditional tenure-track positions that offer long-term security.

...But scientists are not generally recruited from the average students, Salzman notes, but from those with the top scores, of whom America has large numbers. Compared with the products of Asian secondary schools, American students “are free thinkers,” says Vivek Wadhwa of Duke and Harvard Universities. “They didn’t spend the last 12 years of their lives memorizing books…. They’ve spent the last 12 years dealing with real problems and solving them. [In America], you can walk up to your teacher and tell her that she’s wrong or he’s wrong.” In Asia, he continues, “you wouldn’t dare do that.”

...The American approach of temporarily funded labs staffed largely with student and postdoc labor offers several important advantages. It enlists the finest talent at the nation’s great universities in projects that meet national priorities set by the funding agencies or by Congress. It permits flexibility in selecting studies and researchers and the opportunity for rapid changes in direction because the grants are for specific purposes and last only a limited number of years. It elicits the best ideas and best work from highly motivated scientists because it chooses the grantees through a competitive system of merit rankings done by peer committees composed of academic experts in each field who serve as part-time judges. It frees the government from owning the labs and managing their staffs. And it allows federal dollars to do double duty—produce research results and provide education and support for the graduate students and postdoctoral associates who work on the projects in labs run by professors who pay them out of the grants.

This system produces superb science, but it has several serious drawbacks from the standpoint of recruiting and retaining scientists. First, it makes the funding of any particular lab inherently unstable and dependent on winning repeated grants and renewals, which places individual careers at the mercy of annual competitions. In times of very tight federal budgets, such as the present, this means that many labs, and even many well-established scientific careers, do not survive. Second, it produces not only educational opportunities and research results, but also a constant stream of newly fledged young researchers who need opportunities to start their own careers. “The way that U.S. staffs its labs puts so much pressure on the system to absorb the continual new cohort. And we haven’t had much luck in absorbing it,” says Georgia State’s Stephan.

1 comment:

leenewt said...

It is about academic freedom and the choice to do what you believe in as useful for both you and the wider public..and not what is paid for....The freedom of pushing your own ideas through to success is what makes academic life very difficult in many ways but can be self fulfiling as well.