The Message That Is Sent

By Sean Carroll | May 8, 2007 6:48 pm

Rob Knop is blogging about the difficulties in getting tenure — his difficulties in particular, not the issue in some vague degree of abstraction. Very worth reading for a candid look at the kind of thing that goes on.

On a meta level, it’s interesting to contemplate how hiring and tenuring will ultimately be effected by blogs. Scott Aaronson is blogging at least some occasional facts about his job search. The proliferation of online rumor mills has already taken a lot of what used to be quasi-private information, shared among the old-boy network but invisible to outsiders, and put it out there for everyone to see. I can imagine a similar kind of effect if we ever get to the point that a critical mass of job- and tenure-seekers are blogging about their progress.

In the short term, I worry that the most obvious effect will be a deleterious one for the bloggers. For the most part, I don’t think that hiring/tenure committees care if you have a blog, occasional anonymous scare-mongering notwithstanding. (It might even help.) But blogging about the process might be the kind of thing that makes committees nervous. Personally, I would never blog about a major occupational transition while it was going on; when it’s all set up and the ink is drying, it makes sense to let people know, but in the middle of the process I would be (with good reason) worried about stepping on people’s toes. (Same thing with getting engaged.)

So, blogging about tenure and job searches: crazy or courageous? Or is there a difference? I guess we’ll see.

  • Aaron Bergman

    No offense to anyone who does it, but completely crazy.

  • Mark

    I just finished reading Rob’s post, and my heart really goes out to him – I truly hope things work out.

    Personally I would not blog about something like this. There are things about one’s job – the details of faculty meetings, contract renewals, promotion and tenure details, retention negotiations, committee deliberations, etc. that I think are conducted under at least the assumption (and sometimes the explicit requirement) of confidentiality.

    But in any case – best of luck Rob!

  • archgoon

    Rob, I recently clicked on your homepage link from one of your comments. It links to your old website.

  • Scott

    Sean, as you can imagine, I’ve been struggling for months with the tension between (1) my usual openness about everything (bordering on clinically-insane exhibitionism) and (2) the requirements of a job search. I did come up with a few simple ground rules. For example, I won’t embarrass anyone by name (except myself). I won’t talk about my actual decision process, at least until it’s over. And of course, I won’t say anything likely to compromise an offer before that offer has been made. 😉

  • Belizean

    Crazy. Absolutely no upside to it.

  • loonunit

    Unlike Aaronson’s posts, which have struck me as general observations about process, salesmanship, and the usual friendly “how am I doing today” updates, Knop’s post strike me as having the tone of an angry, disillusioned scientist–someone who’s been recently burned by the system he’s put his faith in, and who is this close to burning his bridges. Which is also passing wisdom of a sort… but I think it’s much more dangerous than what Aaronson is doing.

    Did you folks see Ivan Tribble’s Bloggers Need Not Apply column a few years ago?

  • JoAnne

    My basic blogging rule of thumb: never put anything in a post that you wouldn’t be willing to say out loud in a crowded room of people.

  • Sourav

    He sounds fed up. His observation is well-taken though: there are more researchers than society is willing to support, even the ones who have made the cut at the graduate and post-doc levels.

    If only the call to knowledge were as piercing as the call to everything else that seems much the lesser.

  • Rob Knop

    Knop’s post strike me as having the tone of an angry, disillusioned scientist—someone who’s been recently burned by the system he’s put his faith in, and who is this close to burning his bridges.

    Yeah. That’s about right, except that it’s “repeatedly and recently” burned, not just recently.

    Either that, or I really am just not good enough, and am a whiner for saying there’s anything wrong with the system. Either way, I’m very unhappy about the whole thing.

    I spent a good fraction of this semester struggling to get out of bed in the morning. “What’s the point?” is the question. “Why the hell should I get up and go in to give my all to this University that has made it clear that it doesn’t give a small liquid shit what I do for my students if I squeeze money out of the NSF?” As you can imagine, when I’m behind already, those kinds of hits to my productivity are not helpful!

    Going up to 225mg of Effexor helped with some of the acute levels of that, but all of these things are rational questions in addition to symptoms of depression….

    I have had a one-year delay on my tenure clock due to family medical reasons. (My wife has had 2 major surgeries in the last two years– not accident recovery or anything, but the result of her having a chronic disease.) I spent a lot of time helping her recover from each one. When I realized that people who had kids were able to get stoppage of their tenure clock, I figured I had a legitimate case. It was approved. However, I delayed asking for it — because, in all honesty, it’s not clear to me if I’m really doing anything other than prolonging the agony. I would like to have the attitude that this is a great job and I’ll enjoy it as long as they let me keep doing it, but the knowledge that I have all but already been judged unworthy to keep doing the job after another year or two is something I’m having a hard time putting aside.

    In any event, yeah, I probably shouldn’t say any of this. The alternative, though is for it to bubble and broil within me until I get so angry that I’m throwing my fist into concrete walls. (Again, I speak from experience.)

    It also pisses me off that our deans explicitly said to several of our interviewing candidates this year that it is a “myth” that you are required to get funding to get tenure. I mean, I’ve been a faculty member long enough that I expect administrators to routinely lie, but when it’s so blatant…!

    I really would like there to be more open discussion out there. For example, I’ve heard a lot of pre-tenure people talk about (a) the anxiety attacks, (b) going on anti-depressants, (c) the demoralizing effects of being unfunded and expecting not to get tenure. Is any of this really increasing our productivity in science? Or are we shooting ourselves in the foot by hanging a gigantic albatross around the necks of our young creative people? If my screaming from the rooftops helps shine a little bit of light into the cruddy morass that is the current academic tenure system, then perhaps it would be worth it.

  • Rob Knop

    Oops.. that should have been “…what I do for my students if I can’t squeeze money out of the NSF?”

    And I’ve fixed my “website” link.

  • Sourav

    Here’s a question:

    Some years ago, one of my undergraduate advisers wrote a column for a well-known science magazine. In one controversial edition, he argued that tenure should be granted in 10 year terms. His main point was that lifelong tenure makes the one-and-only tenure review a contentious, political process, and that older professors who are slacking piggyback on their untenured, overworked colleagues for both institutional prestige and funding.

    The response was, as one might expect, vituperative — he was accused of seeking to reduce intellectual freedom, destroy diversity of thought in academia, etc. etc.

    The economics of science has changed since 1900 — is it time for a rethink? Or do we need to change the economics?

  • Amara

    Sourav: I like that 10-year-tenure idea!

  • Rob Knop

    I honestly don’t know the answer.

    The notion of the older prof who no longer does anything, sitting back and enjoying the sinecure of tenure while being completely incompetent, is a stereotype. It does happen, but not as often as you might think, at least in my observation. I’ve known a couple, but only a couple. And the security that comes with tenure once you have it is nice.

    The problem is that Universities have motivation to be real careful about who they tenure. Unfortunately, what they do is come up with a stringent set of criteria, and then look for reasons to turn you down. The right questions aren’t always asked. Sean’s case shows that weird things can happen, and people really should not be turned down for tenure under any reasonable metric, are.

    What I’d really like is (a) a system where you’re judged by how well you’re doing, looking at everything, not just some arbitrary set of metrics (note that funding comes primarily from how good you are at saying what you will do, not at what you are doing), and (b) rational and reasonable people doing the judging who will judge wisely and, rather than rely on some set of numerical metrics and a one-size-fits-all template, and (c) judge without bias about a professor’s notoriety or political unsuitability. With those things in place, then five-year reviews or some such like any other job would be fine.

    Obviously, we will need to achieve some sort of utopia before that sort of thing could be in place.

    So, I really don’t know what one ought to do.

    All I know is that I personally have serious issues with the current system…. Obviously, some of those issues are mine, but I think that some of the issues are issues with the system too.

  • Anonymous

    If we are training ten times as many astronomers as there is room for, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that being a good teacher — and one who especially likes teaching advanced classes — isn’t that highly valued. If there are too many astronomers, then one reason is that there are too many good teachers!

    What’s the point in training future hedge fund workers to do astronomy?

    About tenure: I don’t see any good reason for switching to a ten-year plan. I agree with Rob Knap’s last post.

  • Amara

    The ten-year tenure (catchy tune!) would give an incentive to be fresh and innovative. The staid tenured professor is a stereotype, perhaps, but with a grain of truth in some environments, and more than a grain of truth (it’s the reality) in other countries. In Italy, it is sure that the current university system will not change until those inert folks retire.

    And while we are discussing possibly helpful employment times, please let’s seriously consider a 5-year grant proposal duration too. :-)

  • joe

    There have been articles written about the plight of Academic “system”, see below (link from People have been outspoken publicly, & unions have been formed. Websites (now blogs) have appeared. Rob is just an additional voice to the continuing stream of “Negative Reinforcement”. One of my ex-professors (Harvard alumni) led a campaign on getting his fellow professors unionized.

    Benton, a professor at a small liberal arts college, warns his students about trying to follow in his footsteps. “My experience as a working-class kid who finally earned an Ivy League Ph.D. is that higher education is not about social mobility or personal enrichment; it is one trap among many for people who are uninitiated into the way power and influence operate in this culture.”

    Here’s an exciting career opportunity you won’t see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment. Forget about marriage, a mortgage, or even Thanksgiving dinners, as the focus of your entire life narrows to the production, to exacting specifications, of a 300-page document less than a dozen people will read. Then it’s time for advancement: Apply to 50 far-flung, undesirable locations, with a 30 to 40 percent chance of being offered any position at all. You may end up living 100 miles from your spouse and commuting to three different work locations a week. You may end up $50,000 in debt, with no health insurance, feeding your kids with food stamps. If you are the luckiest out of every five entrants, you may win the profession’s ultimate prize: A comfortable middle-class job, for the rest of your life, with summers off.
    Welcome to the world of the humanities Ph.D. student, 2004, where promises mean little and revolt is in the air.

    “The best phrase I’ve heard for us is the intellectual lumpenproletariat,” he says, using the Marxist term for the ground-down members of the underclass who lack the class consciousness for revolt. “If something happened to empower those people, there would be an incredible efflorescence of culture in this country, because there’s more of them now than there ever has been. But they are too busy scuttling around getting shitty jobs.”

    Professor of Desperation
    Bad pay, zero job security, no benefits, endless commutes. Is this any way to treat PhDs responsible for teaching a generation of college students?

    “There once was an unwritten deal. If you were smart and willing to devote up to 10 of your most productive years studying for a doctorate, certain things would likely happen. A college or university somewhere would hire you. And if you did well there, there was a full-time tenured job in your future. The money wouldn’t be great, but you’d be part of an academic community. You’d do research in your field. You’d live a life of the mind.

    Then the deal changed.”

    ” “The very fact that we are here means that we mean business,” labor union organizer Scot Hamilton says to the group. “It’s ironic. Universities are supposed to be the bastions of freedom, but when you look behind the scenes, they’re very exploitative.” ”

    “The last application responses eventually trickle in. By March they’ve all told her no. She tries to stay positive, but she can’t help but wonder sometimes if maybe, just maybe, she’s not good enough to make the cut. It’s been nearly two years since she graduated, and 38 places have said they don’t want her.

    “It’s frustrating because I would have thought at this point in my career, I would have at least gotten an interview.” ”

    Wanted: Really Smart Suckers
    Grad school provides exciting new road to poverty,kamenetz,53011,1.html

    “But the Internet means no isolated community has to stay that way. A new group of tortured, funny, largely anonymous websites are providing an outlet for academics who feel like they’re getting spanked by their alma mater. They have names like Invisible Adjunct, (a)musings of a grad student, Beyond Academe, and Barely Tenured, and they address the emotional just as much as the practical consequences of competing in, and losing, the academic job-market lottery.”

    Brain drain in tech’s future?
    John Miano’s career course is the sort of thing to make tech industry leaders wince and worry about their future work force.

    There is a solution out there, but it will only come after the current fiasco in Academia results in a crisis/catastrophe. Driving out competent people (“Brain Drain”) is self-defeating, as the above article shows.

    “Is this anyway to run a University?”

    “Stupidity is it’s Own Reward”, as the saying goes

  • Scott H.

    For the most part, I don’t think that hiring/tenure committees care if you have a blog

    “Anyone who is stupid enough to blog as junior faculty can’t be surprised when they are denied tenure.”

    Actual quote from senior colleague at MIT.

  • Counterfly

    I mean this in the best possible way, but if someone from RK’s tenure committee read either his recent blog post or his comment(s) here, I think his chances (which may still be non-vanishing) would vanish entirely. It just doesn’t feel right, or in the least professional, to provide those evaluating you this kind of insight into your personal life or psyche.

    But maybe I’m part of the problem by thinking this?

  • Pingback: Cosmic Variance: Tenure, job searches, academic freedom, and the blogosphere « Identity Unknown()

  • Lee Kottner

    It’s taken a fellow grad school friend of mine almost fifteen years to land a tenure track appointment at a place he actually likes. In the meanwhile, he’s been poor as a churchmouse (literally; at one point he worked for the Episcopal archdiocese in Detroit) and snapped up just about anything that came along, including an overseas posting at which he stayed for only 18 months. It’s not because he’s not competent. He’s a great teacher and a dedicated and interesting scholar. But his path illustrates why I got out when I did: the Academy insists that the best job you could possibly aim for is a job in the Academy and they are blissfully unaware of any other type of employment. They project an air of deeming it unworthy of their students to even consider anything but an academic job, while helping to make it impossible for their students to support themselves (adjunct hell, anyone?) in that milieu. It is a Catch-22 of the most outrageous proportions.

    The Academy is broken. It needs fixing. A dose of reality about job conditions would be a good place to start.

  • adam

    I guess that what you put on your blog is dependent in part on why you do it. If someone gets cathartic relief from posting this stuff, then it might be worth the potential harm it could do their tenure case.

    Incidentally, I don’t entirely agree with Sean that general blogging might not do harm. Tenure review is essentially a human process and judging what might piss other people off isn’t always possible. Safer, perhaps, not to blog or else to do it with some anonymity, if minimising potential career damage is the aim.

  • Rob Knop

    But maybe I’m part of the problem by thinking this?

    Yes, but the guy that Scott H. quotes is a much bigger part of the problem.

    If those judging tenure cases want to stifle expression, then the justification for tenure in the first place is a complete and total sham.

  • mollishka

    So, Scott, what about grad students who blog?

  • graviton383

    I hate to say it but I have to agree with Scott H.’s source who said:

    “Anyone who is stupid enough to blog as junior faculty can’t be surprised when they are denied tenure.”

    There are people on tenure committees who will find SOME or ANY reason to criticize a candidate. It may have nothing to do with WHAT they say on their blog.. it is the simple fact that they BLOG in the first place. After all, they shouldn’t be wasting their time blogging and should be doing research (or teaching or…) instead, right?

  • Rob Knop

    There are people on tenure committees who will find SOME or ANY reason to criticize a candidate. It may have nothing to do with WHAT they say on their blog.. it is the simple fact that they BLOG in the first place. After all, they shouldn’t be wasting their time blogging and should be doing research (or teaching or…) instead, right?

    Re: “you should be working instead of doing X”: I know that this attitude exists, and it is one of the stupidest and most hypocritical pieces of, well, you know, that is out there.

    I’ve heard colleagues say that “grad student X should be reading ApJ instead of novels,” which makes me want to stand up and scream at them, “then how do you justify coaching your daughter’s softball team!?!? How do you justify flying planes for fun!?!?” Obviously, yes, grad student X should be reading ApJ. However, this notion that scientists, particularly junior scientists, are supposed to sacrifice all other vestiges of humanity towards being 100% drones working on research is poisonous and evil… and completely unrealistic.

    Re: people on tenure committees looking for reasons to shoot people down: this is one of the biggest broken things about tenure. Tenure isn’t like proposals, where no matter what you might like, you can only grant a subset of them. (I have experience with this on the NOAO TAC.) With tenure, the question should be whether or not this person is making the kind of contributions to the university that warrant a permanent job, not whether or not this person has never shown any flaws.


  • Joe


    I’m just finishing a DPhil (that’s oxonian for Phd) and have just gone through the process of looking for a job. My blog was never brought up in any of the interviews, and I doubt if anyone really cared. Unless you go off on stupid rants aimed specifically at belittling people (particularly by name), I don’t think there is likely to be a problem. Strangely enough I got to job offers on the same day, and spent a week in the happy position of choosing where I wanted to go.

    Of course, this could all come back to bite me in the ass in 3 years, but I doubt it.

  • graviton383

    Hey, I once heard a young colleague SEVERLY criticized for not showing up at a high energy physics workshop. It turns out that his wife had just given birth, but this was NO excuse. We have a real problem in science…We have to break this cycle. The reason many of the people on these committees are such bastards is that they went through hell themselves & now they’re taking revenge on the next generation.
    Instead of REALLY remembering what that hell was like for them & sympathizing with
    the candidate, as perhaps a normal person would, they go to the other end of the
    spectrum…they learned the wrong lesson from their experiences. I have always told students and postdocs not to forget how they felt going through all these early stages of their careers so that when it is THEIR turn to have students and postdocs to treat them with understanding.

  • Binh

    If you think Rob is having a hard time, imagine how Norman Finkelstein feels. He’s been hounded by David Horowitz and may not get tenure because of Horowitz’s ability to round up far-right wingers to pressure the university not to give him tenure because he is a principled anti-Zionist (who also wrote a great book destroying Horowitz’s poorly-researched and dishonest book about Israel).

  • Rob Knop

    Here’s the thing re: professors being exploited and all of that.

    I don’t buy it.

    Bad pay? Well, it is true that many people with the number of years of education that I have are paid a lot more than I am. It is true that the engineers straight out of college were getting job offers with salaries that would match what I got six years later straight out of a PhD program.

    However– we’re pretty well paid. We’re above the median. So many people live in poverty that I can’t claim that I live in poverty. Yes, my wife and I struggle with money sometimes, largely for medical reasons, but also because we have a standard of living that’s more than a lot of people in this country. I’m not in this for the money, and I’m paid enough, no question about that.

    Second, it’s a really nice job. I get to spend a good fraction of my time doing what I love. I get to go to telescopes, take data, analyze that data, and think about and explore in detail the implications for galaxies and the Universe. I get to share my enthusiasm for physics and astronomy with college students– some of whom, frankly, are lumps in the mud, pains in the ass who couldn’t care less, but a huge fraction of whom are bright, intelligent, and curious. It’s a blast to be able to interact with those people, and to help them learn about physics and astronomy. I get to travel and share my enthusiasm with popular and high school audiences across the country.

    It’s a damn good job, and I don’t buy this “professors exploited” thing.

    Alas, one of the key parts of the job is getting funding, and I hate it and suck at it so much that it (literally) is going to ruin the whole rest of the job for me. It’s too bad that that is such a key part of it, but realistically, it is. It’s too bad that, despite what I believe are substantial skills and performance in the parts of the job that (to my perspective) really matter, I’m going to be booted because of failure in this one area.

    But to turn that into a portrayal of professors as an exploited class: that just doesn’t make sense. Yes, the selection criteria are going to select out a subset that may not overlap the best set of selection criteria, but the simple fact of the oversupply means that the academy has the freedom to set whatever potentially arbitrary criteria they want. They are still going to get quality people. There are so many of us that there are good researchers and good teachers who *also* know how to get funding. Do I make contributions that aren’t being made as well by some who will get through? Yes, I definitely think so. But to be honest, my scattering out of the system probably isn’t that great a loss, because there are 20 hotshots who are at least as good as me at the junior level lined up and ready to replace me.

    This proposal business is extremely, extremely soul-killing to me. The only reason I haven’t left academia altogether already to escape it is because I love all of the rest of it so much that, at least until now, it’s been worth fighting the battle to try and stay in. Alas, as the disappointments stack up, and as I make a realistic estimate of my chances of succeeding next year, this whole thing is poisoning all of the positive aspects of the job for me.


  • EDT

    I’m working on my third grad degree and have come to realize that there are lots of stupid “rules” in academia. In my case, “Part-time PhD students aren’t dedicated to their field.” That’s crap. I work 40hrs a week at my job, raise an infant son and still find time to do just as much work in physics as the full-time grad students (while getting only a small fraction of the sleep).

    Other stupid rules: “Woman shouldn’t get pregnant since it’ll hurt their career.” and now this blogging crap (there are a lot more, I just can’t think of them all on the fly).

    From what I gather, it sounds like the big problem Rob is facing is that the requirements for tenure aren’t concrete and known to all. If 7 years ago someone had said “You must do X,Y,Z to get tenure,” I’m guessing we wouldn’t be discussing this right now. My sense is that going for tenure is a lot like running for political office. You need to put the right image forward, conform to what your audience expects from you, etc.

    My advice to Rob is this: bust your ass over the next year and make yourself the perfect model of what a tenurable prof should be. (if you have any contacts on the tenure board (either at your school or elsewhere) find out what they’re REALLY looking for.) Even if it doesn’t work out there, this will make you more attractive to other schools if you were to transfer.


    PS if Sagan were alive, I’d bet he’d have one HELL of a Cosmo blog.

  • Rob Knop

    “You must do X,Y,Z to get tenure,” I’m guessing we wouldn’t be discussing this right now.

    I knew I needed to get funding.

    A quick look at the vast list of “declineds” in my NSF fastlane shows that I knew this since the beginning.

    I just haven’t figured out how ot od it.

  • Counterfly

    Well, to me this screams two things: since I believe your scientific goals are as sound as anybody else’s, and you have an excellent pedigree and qualification, either you’ve politically offended someone way up the food chain in NSF, or something about the way your proposals are written is off. You’ve probably already done this, but having someone who’s either gotten proposals in observational astronomy granted or worked on an NSF committee look at your proposals is a great idea.

    Your connections with the supernova community should be ripe with people like this…

  • TimG

    “Some years ago, one of my undergraduate advisers wrote a column for a well-known science magazine. In one controversial edition, he argued that tenure should be granted in 10 year terms. His main point was that lifelong tenure makes the one-and-only tenure review a contentious, political process, and that older professors who are slacking piggyback on their untenured, overworked colleagues for both institutional prestige and funding.”

    I’m just a grad student, so I’ll have to beat the odds to ever even make it to the point of being reviewed for tenure. So I don’t speak from experience, but . . .

    It seems to me the main problem with the tenure process isn’t that you have older professors hanging onto their jobs after they’re no longer productive. The problem is that you have competent people being fired from their jobs because they weren’t sufficiently outstanding. Most careers aren’t like that.

    For example:
    My parents are lawyers. No one’s ever going to say to them “Well, you won 60% of your cases this year — that’s pretty good, but we really can’t afford to keep on anyone who’s winning less than 90%.” Because everyone knows that sometimes you’re going to lose a case due to circumstances beyond your control — like the fact that your client is guilty — and it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good lawyer. Maybe an amazing superstar lawyer like Johnny Cochran would have found a way to get the guy off, and maybe that guy is the guy who gets the big promotion or the massive bonus. But no one’s going to fire you for just being a competent lawyer and consistently presenting a good case.

    But in physics (and perhaps in academia in general) that is the way it works — at least, that’s what everyone says. You can even be a great teacher, or a great researcher, but you have to be damn near perfect at everything to have a chance at tenure. (Actually, so far as I can tell you don’t have to be that great a teacher — I’ve had some tenured profs. who were truly outstanding, and some who were largely unintelligible to much of the class.)

    I can’t even begin to imagine how the problem would be fixed, but I can’t see how firing competent people after 20 years as well as 10 would make things better. Sure, there’d be more positions available for newcomers, but ultimately it just means that many more people going to work every day with an axe hanging over their heads.

  • mollishka

    There’s also the fact that, practically by definition, on average, lawyers “lose” 50% of their cases.

  • Jerry

    Well, this is pretty depressing to me, as a grad student currently working in experimental cosmology. Maybe I should get out while I can…

  • Sourav


    If you’re at an institution that is counting on your research grants to support you and your students, that’s the way it’s going to be. At a university, your chances of tenure will depend on your funding prowess, and at national labs the ax is indeed always hanging over you.

    There are two alternatives. First, be badass enough to obtain a position at a prestigious university with a large endowment (in which case there is argument for having periodic tenure reviews to gently push out older faculty who aren’t as productive as their younger colleagues). Or, move to non-PhD-granting institution where you are supported by your lecturing, and you can get a little research work done with exceptional undergrads.

    This is why I think Rob Knop’s point that society is only willing to support a certain number of researchers is so important. There just isn’t enough cash to go around, and the good “businessmen” will survive. Would having a larger funding pool, say $500 billion, help? Probably.

  • TimG

    There’s also the fact that, practically by definition, on average, lawyers “lose” 50% of their cases.
    True. You can have the world’s two greatest lawyers going up against each other, and one of them still has to lose (unless you count a settlement as a win for both sides). Of course, you can also have many excellent scientists competing for the same funding . . .

  • adam

    I would imagine that one’s win/loss percentage in criminal law depends on whether one is a prosecutor or a defense attorney, as much as lawyer quality. Even in other areas of law, whether you tend to mostly bring, or defend, cases is probably correlated with victory percentage.

    Rather aside from the point, of course.

  • Rob Knop

    Well, this is pretty depressing to me, as a grad student currently working in experimental cosmology. Maybe I should get out while I can…

    Don’t do it on the basis of this, or on the basis of my story.

    Talk to a lot of people, and talk to them frankly.

    If you went into grad school so that you could become a physics faculty member, a fast one was pulled on you. On the other hand, if you went in to grad school so that you would have a chance to become a physics faculty member, you’re doing the right thing.

    The key thing is, at all stages, to have your eyes open. Is what you are doing right now enjoyable enough that it would still be worth if if you have to change careers at the end of this stage? If no, then get out. If yes, then great.

    I have always been in that state, at least until a few years ago. Right now I’m wondering if I didn’t make a mistake not getting out a year or two ago, and may get out right now. But my first several years of being an assistant professor were well worth it, even if it was a dead end with no future for me in research astronomy.


  • Jerry

    If you went into grad school so that you could become a physics faculty member, a fast one was pulled on you. On the other hand, if you went in to grad school so that you would have a chance to become a physics faculty member, you’re doing the right thing.

    I went to grad school mostly because I was interested in learning more about physics and doing some sort of higher-level work. From what I see around me, to even have the chance to become a faculty member, you really must be dedicated completely and totally to what you do, not only to the exclusion of interests outside physics, but even to the exclusion of other interests within related fields. I don’t feel passionate enough about physics to commit myself to such a course, which means that I don’t really have the chance at a faculty position to begin with.

    Plus, it’s just a numbers thing. When so many smart people are graduating with more publications from better departments and still can’t find the kind of work they thought they might find when they got into the business, what chance have I got?

    The key thing is, at all stages, to have your eyes open. Is what you are doing right now enjoyable enough that it would still be worth if if you have to change careers at the end of this stage? If no, then get out. If yes, then great.

    That’s pretty much been my strategy. So far, it’s interesting enough, but I suspect that I would do better by bailing past a certain point (Ph.D.) than I would if I let the system winnow me out.

  • Bob

    This is one particular story at one particular university. Universities and departments within universities vary greatly in how they handle tenure.

    In my field (Computer Science) in most places at least 80% if not more of assistant professors get tenure. The biggest problem is that most people will have to be *very* flexible geographically to get a job in the first place, and might also have to be in a place that’s not as high quality as where they got their Ph.D.

  • mollishka

    All it takes is looking at a department and noting that nowhere is the faculty-to-grad-student ratio 1:1 to know that not all who enter grad school wind up with professorships. It’s not that a “fast one” has been pulled on anyone; it’s just an obvious fact.

  • Rob Knop

    I went to grad school mostly because I was interested in learning more about physics and doing some sort of higher-level work.

    That’s about the best reason there is to do it.

  • Count Iblis
  • ike

    Oh, this is just the tip of it… I’m not sure how many people know how the funding game works, but Rob Knop might as well blame his university for not getting staff in position inside the NSF.

    It’s standard practice at the University of California to get a few retired professors to take jobs at federal funding institutions in order to guide proposals through the first few hoops. Bad proposals won’t get funded at the NSF (the NIH appears to be a different story) but this ‘guides’ the proposal to the top of the stack.

    However, just try and do work on renewable energy and see if your proposal gets funded by ANY institution, other than ‘private partners’. I recall reading about the Director of Sandia National Laboratories taking a job in Australia because he wanted to work on solar photovoltaics, and “there were just no opportunities available here”.. Getting the job of Director at Sandia is no mean feat – and the guy still couldn’t get funding.

    I still recall the most eye-opening thing my MS advisor ever told me: ‘Look’, she said, ‘Science IS politics’. What she meant, of course, was that getting the opportunity to do science is all about politics… merit is a secondary concern. What a bummer, huh?

  • Dave

    I’d say that the scare-mongering is not completely off-base. Quite often, a department will run into difficulties if they try to promote all their tenure candidates, and so there may be professors in the department that are “out to get” you in order to promote a different candidate. If so, they can try to find things in your blog to use against you. I can’t think of anything in Sean’s blog that might be easily used against him, but I would imagine that a determined adversary might be able to find something to take out of context.

    On the other hand, blogging about science and research topics is an activity that can be a part of NSF and NASA funded research as a public outreach activity. So, CV could help a proposal that is otherwise “on the bubble” to get funded. Presumably, using the blog to say nice things about your colleague’s research might also help, but in departments in which the politics are particularly nasty, it could hurt to say nice things about the “wrong” colleague.

  • Amara

    Dear Rob:

    Join the club, my NSF proposal was not accepted either. Since I’m currently living on an unliveable salary, and all of my financial support will soon (as possible) be derived from my grant proposals, a rejected proposal has a serious impact in my life. My suggestion for you is to dive deep into the writing, edit it like crazy, and get as much (painful) criticism on the proposal as possible from your bosses and colleagues and write, write, write until your fingers are exhausted.

    After six months (and continuing) of me doing just that, I think that the writing style of proposals deserves its own category. It is not a research paper, it is not a business proposal, it is not a popular science essay.

    A scientific proposal is a type of of played-down marketing and sales brochure, but extended to a story, that amplifies your special insight and enthusiastic curiosity, of a phenomena that can explain, predict, and possibly link other physical phenomena in your field. The style is a formula. It must be written boldly, concisely, with the boldest parts up front to grab the reviewer so that he/she doesn’t get bored on page 3. You must read all of the fine print on the NRAs and make sure that your margins and font sizes are exact, that you’ve precisely identified which NRA points your proposal addresses and with their lettered reference. You must prove to the reviewer with every shred of documentation that you have that you have the experience to do the job, that you have colleagues who support your idea, and that after a well-defined and described work plan, that you can produce for the government agency a particular valuable ‘product’.

    So that’s the conclusion I have, so far, but I think it is worth repeating what Julianne wrote on your blog too, as it seems right to me:

    “Writing proposals is a somewhat orthogonol skill to producing good science. A good proposal has to be pitched at just the right level — where it’s understandable, but still reeks of expertise. It has to be compelling and seem novel, while at the same time being obviously feasible. It needs to have an “angle” which hooks it into broader science themes, without seeming gimmicky. It has to seem both exciting and practical, but must also rise above simply seeming “useful”. It’s a small sweet spot that’s hard to hit, and aiming for it is not a skill for which one is consciously trained. It’s nearly impossible to write a winning proposal if you’re not a good scientist, but it’s more than possible to be an excellent scientist who has not yet figured out the formula. The only way I learned was by getting examples of good proposals from others, by having my proposals visciously edited by others who were better at writing proposals than I was, and by serving on panels to learn the many ways in which good proposals wind up sinking. Once you get it down, the positive feedback loop gets started where you can afford students, so you write more papers, so you have more results, which makes your next proposal look more compelling, and so on.”

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  • Tim Schneider

    Its no different in the “real world” ™ The higher you ascend, especially on the technical track, the more of this “soul-killing” work you have to do. The tenure track is just academia’s equivalent of a ‘management’ track in the corp. world.

    There are very very few companies that actually reward ‘individual contributors’ on a level comensurate with management. Many companies claim to have a ‘technical track’ but very few actually deliver on those claims.

    The overall underlying themes are:

    a) ability to communicate, written, verbal, presentation.
    b) know your subject backwards, forwards and sideways.
    c) ability to articulate the value that your expertise can bring.
    d) positioning yourself for success, how to make your skills relevant to the times, task at hand.

    and finally.. did I mention the ability to communicate? :-)

    It seems that I have to re-invent myself nearly every year.. it’s a lifelong learning process for sure! There is nothing wrong with being a “jack of all trades.. master of none” although this thinking may not get you tenure, it just may be one of the keys to having a happier/healthy life.

    Be true to yourself, do what you love and the rest will follow.

  • Rob Knop

    Be true to yourself, do what you love and the rest will follow.

    That is one of the most egregious lines of bullshit that has ever been uttered.

  • adam

    I’m with Rob on the ‘bullshit’ call, I am afraid.

    If the world was fair, you’d all be as handsome, funny and brilliant as me. Which you aren’t, so clearly it isn’t. In unfairWorld*, you may need a strategy that is somewhat more complicated than ‘true to yourself, do what you love, wait for rest to follow’.

    *I am starting to lowerCamelCase everything, godamnit. I should take a break.

  • Sourav

    Yeah, you have to compromise what you want in order for your self and family to live securely. But is the line bullshit beyond that?

  • Rob Knop

    The line is bullshit partly because it directly contradicts the rest of Tim’s post.

    He says first that in order to succeed, you have to learn to get good at marketing and self-promotion.

    If you’re somebody who doesn’t have a taste for marketing, then in what way is following what you love going to help you succeed, according to his own criteria?

    But beyond that, it’s a platitude. It’s an empty, feel-good platitude that’s just as meaningless as all those motivational posters that makes so much fun of. You should pursue what you love, but just doing that won’t get you anywhere. You have to be realistic as well. You have to recognize what is in the real world. You have to figure out what it is you really like about what you do, and then figure out what is available for you to do that captures as much of that as possible. You will have to make sacrifices. Life is complicated. Just following what you love and getting everything you want– that may be the “secret,” and it may work for a small number of lucky people (and, indeed, most of the way through I’ve been quite lucky myself), but the world doesn’t sit back and hand you success just because you’re doing what you love. Sometimes you have to make choices, and do what is feasable and palatable because it’s the best you can do.


  • Sourav

    Not to put words in Tim’s mouth, I think that’s what he was getting at: if you know what you’re about, what’s important to you, you can roll with the punches (e.g., learn to market yourself, distasteful as it is) and not just survive, but accomplish something you feel good about.

    Certainly, it’s far easier said than done. Maybe Tim left out the part about fasting and meditating at the summit of Mount Whitney to secure this perspective.

  • Count Iblis

    I agree with Tim Schneider that things are no better outside the scientific community. In fact, I think that things are far worse there. The stories I hear from friends about unfair work evaluations make your stomach turn.

  • Rob Knop

    if you know what you’re about, what’s important to you, you can roll with the punches (e.g., learn to market yourself, distasteful as it is) and not just survive, but accomplish something you feel good about.

    I’m having a real hard time seeing how that translates to “Be true to yourself, do what you love, and the rest will follow.”

    And perhaps that’s a big part of my problem. I’m not good at twisting and obfuscating the truth beyond recognizability in the interest of presenting an appealing package.


  • Sourav

    What you called a contradiction in Tim’s post, I saw as a context that perhaps could have been presented better.

    In any event, we agree that the reality is that to do good science in this world, you have to do a lot of crap work. My argument is that instead of seeing this as a soul-sucking trial, you can focus on the priorities — family, doing science — and let the rest roll off your back. Definitely, it’s harder to keep this perspective when you have demands heaped on you, as when you are on the tenure track, but it’s been done. As Mark writes in his post, faculty mentors are supposed to reduce the stress by helping your learn the ropes.

    In the distant future, you hope society will be more amenable to your noble goals, by making research funds more available. It’s a lot better now than before industrialization :)

    PS: If you’re seeing a therapist, hopefully (s)he just doesn’t sit there like a brick for 45 minutes and then tweak your meds. If so, find one who’ll get in your face a little bit.

  • MedallionOfFerret

    You guys don’t understand Darwinian theory I guess. There is an overproduction of applicants at all levels of life–some make it, some don’t. Selections are almost always better when there are an overabundance of applicants–but that means there are losers. Those of you who are bright enough that you’ve never had to learn to lose need to learn to accept that it is always possible that you will be relegated to thetop 0.001%, rather than in the 0.0001%; there are many of us that had to learn that at a much lower level. Get out of your ego a little and look at how the world really works, make the necessary adjustments to your world picture, and get on with life. Your psychological health should not depend on whether or not you get tenure, or a teaching post, or accepted into the graduate school of your choice, or an NSA grant. It’s one thing to be disappointed–it’s another to blame the system for your personal unhappiness. Success in life is based on adjusting to the environment one is forced to exist in, and it does absolutely no good to blame the environment for one’s lack of success.

    If you should be so lucky as to attain a measure of power over that environment, then change it to match your ideas as best you can, and it may help the next guy up the ladder. My bet is that if Rob Knop gains tenure his perspective will change, too, and the ladder will be very similar for those who follow him.

    Of course, if you should be tied to a romantic concept like “Be true to yourself, do what you love, and the rest will follow”, then there really isn’t much hope for you. Substitute the word “may” for “will” and the concept becomes more realistic. The vast mass of men seldom get to do what they love; the trick is not to live a life of quiet desperation because of it.

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  • jepe

    Reading some of the clear, incisive, and thoughtful prose above, it’s discouraging to know people are having such a hard time writing proposals that get funded. But as Amara said above, it seems good proposal writing is not trivial; and right now, what’s needed is excellent proposal writing to get funded. I’ve never been on a review panel, but I imagine it’s quite exhausting. I.e., if a proposal isn’t catchy and painfully clear to a reviewer at 3 Am who probably hasn’t slept for days (and has angst about her/his own proposal), it’s most likely game over for the applicant.

    The following article was revealing concerning current funding/proposal issues:

    It was published recently in Science 20 April 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5823, pp. 356 – 361 re: current difficulties of NIH funding, and the impact on scientists’ careers. Apparently, many cannot recall such a stressed-out period. Now, I know NIH is supposed to be gravy compared to NSF. {Heh…I’ve tried both repeatedly, w/no luck, and my tenure, too hangs in the balance. Tick..tick..tick} But the challenges described in that article are very educational, and speak to many of the issues raised here, and may be relevant to NSF too.

    I’ve gotten similar advice to just dive into solitary-confinement grant-beserk mode, mixed w/frantic data aquisition and pretty pictures (time to get a graphic designer?) Hasn’t worked yet, but nothing else to do but keep swinging and get hard-to-take but oh-so-necessary wicked criticism from someone kind enough to take time to do it.

    re: tenure, even w/funding, the process seems rather capricious. I know colleagues that have had multiple federal grants, papers, and decent teaching evaluations that still somehow miss the mark.

    Even as this whole funding/tenure/political miasma can sometimes get frickin’ frustrating, for me it’s also been quite nice to actually pursue some research themes that would’ve been otherwise impossible for me. Ok..back to proposal writing!

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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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