It's not the blog

By Sean Carroll | October 11, 2005 5:49 pm

Nobody has ever accused me of being shy about talking to journalists. Not that I’m any sort of attention hound, mind you; I just consider it part of my civic duty to explain science blah blah blah. But in the last couple of days I’ve been fielding phone calls about a somewhat stickier topic.

Last week Daniel Drezner found out that he was denied tenure. For those of you who don’t know (and shame on you), Dan is a political scientist who has an informative and entertaining blog about international relations, monetary policy, things like that. He is also at the University of Chicago. The connection is that I have an informative and entertaining blog (yes, I mean this one, although at the time it was my previous one), and I am also at the University of Chicago, and I was also denied tenure. (Indeed, Dan has ruined one of my claims to fame, being the source of the only Google hit for “blogger denied tenure.”) Two points, as you know, determine a line, and there’s been a lot of conclusion-jumping going on: bloggers can’t get tenure, the UofC is biased against bloggers, etc. Stories have appeared in Inside Higher Ed as well as the New York Sun.

Blaming the UofC is just silly; anyone who thinks that there is some philosophical connection between the physics and political science departments doesn’t know how academia works very well. The blogging question is more interesting. I don’t have any real interest in hashing out the details of my own tenure case, but there’s a legitimate question for younger academics about whether or not blogging is a bad idea for your career. (We’ll put aside the obvious point that blogging under your own name and saying insulting things about your senior colleagues, or providing graphic details of your sex life, might be a bad idea, to concentrate on more academically-themed blogging.)

There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is “No, it’s not blogging that prevents you from getting tenure; it’s because some people in your department (or the dean, or whatever) didn’t think that your research was good enough.” The blog was not a hot topic of discussion in my case, and I’m pretty sure that many of my colleagues don’t even know what a blog is, much less have a negative opinion of mine.

The longer answer must deal with the issue of why someone doesn’t think your research was good enough. (You might wonder whether teaching and various other forms of service are also relevant; at a top-tier research university like Chicago, the answer is simply “no,” and if anyone says differently they’re not being honest.) I think my own research was both solid and influential, and Dan’s looks pretty good from the perspective of a complete outsider; certainly neither of us had simply sat around for six years. But these are judgment calls, and a lot goes into that judgment. Like it or not, if you are very visibly spending a great deal of time doing things other than research, people might begin to wonder how devoted you are to the enterprise. To first order it doesn’t really matter whether that time is spent blogging or playing the banjo; some folks will think that you could have been spending that time doing research. (At second order it does matter; some people, smaller in number but undoubtedly there, feel resentful and jealous when one of their colleagues attains a certain public profile on the basis of outreach rather than research.) Of course nobody will ever say that they voted against giving tenure to someone because that person spent too much time on public outreach, or put too much effort into their teaching. But getting a reputation at being really good at that stuff could in principle make it harder to have your research accomplishments recognized — or not. It’s just impossible to tell, without access to powerful mind-reading rays that one can train on the brains of the senior faculty.

Blogging may very well be a contributor to this image of not being perfectly devoted — although, given the lack of familiarity with blogs on the part of most senior faculty, it’s very unlikely to be playing a major role. But even then it’s not blogging per se, it’s the decision to make an effort to communicate with the public. Blogging is just a technology, not a fundamentally new activity. It’s part of connecting to a wider audience, in ways that can be either serious or frivolous. Also, blogging may very well have a positive effect. It gets your name out there, and we can’t completely ignore the fact that some people (even senior faculty) really do appreciate the attempt to bring wider recognition to your academic discipline. It’s probably a wash, overall, although the positive or negative aspects could be important in certain individual cases.

Of course, it goes without saying that I personally think that connecting to a wider audience is an integral part of being a professor, not just a diverting sidelight. I don’t think that each individual academic must spend a lot of time on it (there are certain professors I would just as soon keep away from the public), but the field as a whole needs to take it seriously. Blogging is in an early stage of development, but it’s becoming a powerful tool indeed. As Michael Berube says, eventually the radical newness of blogging will evolve into familiarity. Then having a blog will be exactly as deleterious or advantagous to one’s career prospects as appearing on TV or writing op-eds for the New York Times — no more, no less. Some will embrace it with enthusiasm, and some will look down their noses at it. Hopefully, we embracers will march cheerfully forward, and use the new technology to make some sort of real difference.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Internet
  • spyder

    “It’s probably a wash, overall, although the positive or negative aspects could be important in certain individual cases”

    And one should never underestimate the influence and authority of those from whom the university seeks to sustain its snout to the trough of expanding endowments. We giggle and smirk (well some of us) at the ever increasing size of the microscope on Tom DeLay’s actions as the Hammer. Among that morass of the nefarious cash blob, was a thing called the K Street Project wherewith DeLay began the process of transforming the boards of corporations, their lobbyists and their industrial/service association lobbyists, etc., by insuring that those that lead were good GOP party faithful. When corporation after corporation is vested in a singular political ideology, their great wealth generation will be focussed on insuring their own legacies among the elites and the schools that produce them. For example Cheney’s Halliburton stock options, waiting in a blind trust for his leaving political office, were valued at the end of 2003-2004 fiscal year at $241,498. At the end of fiscal year 2004-2005 (9/30/05) there are valued at over $8 million–a modest gain of 3281%. I seriously doubt he would provide the University of Wyoming endowment funds in his name for a professorship that would be held by someone not of his particular “cut of the jib.”

  • Sam Gralla


    Speaking for a good contingent of the first-years here at Chicago, I can say with confidence that we’re terribly sad to see you go. Personally, my only consolation is that I’ll still be able to read your blog. There aren’t many who are capable of tackling such a diverse range of issues with a consistently fair, insightful, and (especially) well-articulated outlook. As with all clear thinkers, you know your talents and don’t need to hear them from others, but given your circumstances I feel a strange need to praise you. As if by adding my few words to the great noise of praise words out there, I do my small part towards making the world respect what matters.

    Wherever you go, your cheerful march foward will continue to inspire.


  • Jack

    Am I alone in finding all this inexpressibly depressing? Is academic life nothing but an endless process of being weighed and found wanting by senior people who don’t really understand what you are doing? Why should anyone become an academic?

  • erc

    Why should anyone become an academic?

    Research. Thirst for knowledge. The occasions when one gets to escape the “real world” of worrying about what other people are doing and instead become immersed in a problem which can be solved by rational thought.

    That is what I am hoping, anyway…

  • Sean

    Jack, it’s true that the constant evaluation and competition is a real downside of academia. On the other hand, just reading various posts right here on this blog should give you plenty of examples of upsides. There must be plenty of upside, or nobody would want to do it, and there wouldn’t be any competition!

  • Suz

    I really appreciated this post, partly because I’ve been thinking about a related topic: what makes someone “fit” into a particular field in academia? I don’t think getting an academic position is as meritocratic as many would believe – I think it has more to do with fitting whatever image is set forth by those already in the club. Anyway, that’s all I want to say for now, aside from best wishes for your job search.

  • Not quite anonymous…


    Now I understand why my Physics professors have been not so good with the teaching. It makes sense that if you have to spend more time getting your name on papers, then your students will suffer (for example, telling them you do not have time to help them figure out where they are going wrong with a simple (to them) undergraduate problem).

    Is this something that’s generally true? Or is it a property of UoC? Is cosmic variance accepting undergraduates in Physics yet?

  • Belizean

    Wonderful post, Sean.

    If only there was some way to do theoretical physics without being an academic.

    Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had Einstein faced the pressure to frequently publish citation-gathering papers, rather than having enjoyed the presure-free peace and independence of the Swiss patent office.

    Given that the altenative to academia is more likely to be mentally (and spiritually) taxing employment in some sort capitalist enterprise (rather than slower paced government service), who knows what sort of physics gems were never discovered?

    Feynman was also sensitive to academic career pressure. I remember reading that during his Cornell days things weren’t going well for him physics-wise. Everything changed as soon has he consciously decided to simply have fun. He ignored the pressure, just worked on what interested him, and had faith that things would work out. The problem is that many young physicists aren’t strong enough to do this.

    Re Blogging, I think you’ve made a case for doing it anonymously. Why take a chance?

  • Mike

    As someone who is familiar with your contributions
    cosmology/string theory, and your broader contributions
    to physics and science in general I think the University’s
    decision is unfourtunate and incorrect. I have benefited from
    your efforts as an active researcher (as many have) and
    I hope you will continue to do research in whatever way possible.

    I truly wish you the best of luck.

  • admin

    I think something that isn’t well understood outside academia is how the process of continually “being weighed and found wanting” extends from well before tenure to long afterwards. A faculty member can never do enough (or high enough quality) research to satisfy the dean, can never teach to the satisfaction of all of his or her students, and can never be the perfect department or campus citizen. A successful academic career requires compromise, and where a faculty member’s personal priorities run counter to the priorities and expectations of the local community, things can get unpleasant. But “academia” isn’t a monoculture, and for every department that looks down on public outreach there is another that sees it as a positive, just as for each department that thinks subfield X is mature and uninteresting, another believes it to be the home of unresolved questions of fundamental importance. Finding both a sympathetic environment and interested/interesting colleagues is the trick. Fortunately, both Daniel and Sean are talented, energetic, and yes high profile enough that they should find attractive professional homes.
    I’ve been in two top-five departments and been both a chair and a dean. The departments and universities were similar in some ways: in both, research was the first, second, and third most important variable for tenure. (Although mediocre teaching or service at either place would veto an otherwise good candidate, superb teaching could not make up for mediocre research.) The departments were very different in other ways, though. One was and is “selfish” in the sense of the Chicago departments, willing to make multiple errors of rejecting good candidates in order to avoid “making a mistake” and tenuring the wrong person. The other tenures most candidates who reach that stage, but has much more extensive pre and post tenure reviews. I can’t say I see a significant difference in the quality of the resulting departments, though there is a definite difference in the quality of life for junior faculty.

  • Also not quite anonymous

    why shouldn’t an academic become an expert banjo player as well? Is it reasonable to expect a job to take over your entire life?

  • AndyS

    As you say, Sean, the rewards of the job are such that the competition is fierce which puts enormous power in the hands of those who get to decide on who gets to do what. That was my experience in graduate school as well as in Silicon Valley, and my conclusion is not much different that your musings. Although not all the power brokers require it, most demand to see single-minded devotion to “the cause” — whether it is the pursuit of knowledge or the corporation’s bottom line — even while mouthing the expected phrases about living a full life. So it is easy for me to believe some on the tenure committee would frown on candidates spending time blogging.

    The other issue is one of loyalty. As a successful blogger you are visible in a way that more senior non-blogging faculty are not. As strange as it may seem, some will see that as being disloyal, you have in a warped sense stepped ahead in line. While that’s not a rational view, it is an all too human one.

    Given the number of highly qualified people from all over the world trying to land tenured jobs in prominent institutions and high-paying, powerful jobs in corporations, who succeeds becomes more about who achieves best-fit in the local social structures than about whose work is the most effective by whatever standard their profession applies. That may sound like sour-geek-grapes, but I know of no one who would disagree with the general truth of the observation.

    So we take our skills elsewhere and seek a “best-fit” with a different group of people with whom we would like to associate. That change often comes at great personal cost — a sad reality of wondering about in the upper reaches of ones profession.

    I like your blogging and think the outreach you do is vital to an informed society and just plain interesting to this non-physist. Keep up the good work.

  • Not quite anonymous… still

    Also not quite anonymous,

    Is physics just a job?

  • JoAnne

    I honestly don’t think that blogging played a role in the regretful decision of the University of Chicago physics department to deny tenure to Sean. But it’s the first thing that everyone assumes. Which says something about the state of people’s impressions about blogging.

    Sean has a bright future and will land on his feet. However, Chicago will grow to regret their decision – it can haunt them in many ways. For example, they have an open search right now for an assistant prof in high energy theory. If their top candidate has multiple offers (not unusual for top people), he/she might think twice about accepting an untenured position at Chicago.

    Admin says:

    I think something that isn’t well understood outside academia is how the process of continually “being weighed and found wanting” extends from well before tenure to long afterwards.

    Amen! Couldn’t have said it better.

  • ed hessler

    When I read about Mr. Drenzler, I took the occasion to review some of your posts on preposterous. Wow, were/are they preposterously good, full of good energy and zest; smart and thoughtful. I’ve learned a lot from them (I think), at least my life has been enriched by them.

    I was made sad again by the tenure decision but for those of us outside academia and perhaps for those of you inside, this is one of the great mystery/black boxes.

    One of the things that I appreciate about you, Sean and now the cosmic group, is that as experts you don’t hold me at arm’s length. You make me feel welcome to your world as you try your level best to help me understand enough of it to enjoy, appreciate and be awed by the mystery of it all, the mystery that delights, enchants and bathes our souls and minds in wonder. The other side of it was captured in that incredible comment made by the former teacher with whom you talked: “The world is not magic.” It is knowable. That is wonder!

    Thanks again for your informed comments on blogging and tenure.

  • Also not quite anonymous

    “Is physics just a job?”

    I come from another less funded area of academia so I’m looking at this from a different angle. I think if academia was not regarded as a vocation like some kind of intellectual priesthood, then employment conditions would improve.

  • jaimito

    The “loyalty” and “dedication” things mentioned above are the key to understand this tenure situation.

    In every job I had, my bosses wanted blind and total devotion from me, and were driven to irrational jealousy by my extra-curricular activities. I was sacked for writing and lecturing, and that it was done in my own time was not accepted.

    And my attitude toward my own people was/is worse and even more unjust. I spend a lot of time wondering about what are doing and thinking, whom they are seeing and talking to. I am only relaxed when I feel I have a complete grip of the person’s life and I have him/her classified in a safe box. Safe for me, I mean.

    Sean is wrong to assume that his colleagues were unaware or uninterested in his blogging activity. Everybody is intensely, passionately interested in others sexual life and personal connections. And if the dynosaurs in the Dept. did not understand a thing about blogging – it is worse for you, they formed their opinion on the basis of two-world comments (which probably didnt hear clearly).

    Sorry, I am old enough and far away to tell what I think is real life.

  • kmeson

    Sean –
    This post addresses the question “Were you discriminated against due to your status as a blogger?” I wonder if you think that your status as a member of an even more often discriminated against group might have played any roll in the decision? “Were you discriminated against due to your status as an atheist?” I did not pick up on any thing like that kind of hostility while I was there but I was just a lowly grad student.

  • Dissident

    JoAnne wrote: “Which says something about the state of people’s impressions about blogging.”

    It says more than something about the state of people’s impressions about academia…

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  • Doug Natelson

    I think there is an attitude on the part of many serious academics that anything that takes time away from research, whether it’s teaching, outreach, textbook writing, blogging, and for some even family life, is a misallocation of time that could be spent furthering one’s research impact. We’ve all seen this in action – comments like if you’re a junior faculty member who gets really strong course reviews, it’s probably a sign that you’re spending too much time on your teaching….

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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