The Tenure Process

By Mark Trodden | May 11, 2007 6:50 am

I have been reading with some interest the comments section of Sean’s recent post about blogging during the tenure process, and that of Rob Knop’s original post that prompted Sean’s observations. The specific topic of blogging while under scrutiny is something about which I think sensible guidelines are rather obvious – one may violate them at will, and such violations can make for wonderful voyeurism, but the consequences are clear and not necessarily unreasonable. However, what grabbed my interest most is the general sentiment that academia is broken and that the tenure process, and the requirements and guidelines that most institutions follow, are scandalously unjust. This also came up in another recent thread.

It is most certainly true that there are well-known examples in which the tenure process fails spectacularly – I know some of these extremely well. It is also true that some of the victims of failed tenure processes have blogged eloquently about the failings of the system, and, in general, I have no reason to doubt the facts in their individual cases. However, what one sees less often are descriptions of the well-executed tenure and promotion procedures that account for, in my experience, the vast, vast majority of cases.

Obviously, I cannot speak with authority or experience about all academic subjects, or absolutely all universities. However, I have spent a great deal of time at many different institutions, and have collaborators, colleagues and friends at an even larger number (I will generally not name institutions, for a reason.) Let me make it crystal clear in advance that I in no way wish to detract from the personal misery that many clearly talented people have described – I have close personal friends who have been or are in this boat. I merely think it might be useful to provide some balance.

So how is tenure supposed to work?

Some research institutions take the approach that, to a first approximation, they do not tenure junior faculty members, preferring instead to hire at the tenured level from the outside. Of those universities pursuing this approach (and there are very few) some have been extremely successful, and others notably unsuccessful. Far more common is the situation in which a university intends to tenure all junior faculty who satisfy certain well established and not batshit crazy (see first category for that) criteria in five or six years. This category encompasses almost all research universities in the U.S.

The typical criteria in physics are:

  1. Excellence in research, as demonstrated through peer-reviewed publications and (by far the most important thing) letters of recommendation solicited from a selection of external referees, a few chosen by the candidate and many others not.
  2. Funding of one’s research at some level.
  3. Competence in teaching, as demonstrated through peer review, innovations in teaching and, to a lesser extent, student evaluations. Note that the latter are often used in a general way to get a feeling for trends, and specific comments are not typically given any weight. This category also includes the successful mentoring of graduate students – ideally having graduated at least one Ph.D. student by tenure.
  4. Service to the department, the university and the physics community. This typically includes one’s work on departmental and university committees, innovations within the department, and any other ways in which one contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of the campus.

There is also the issue of potential and fit to the university’s future priorities. This seems a little nebulous, and I’m not sure how common it is, but I have heard more than once that “tenure is a forward-looking decision, whereas promotion is a backward-looking one”. There is definitely some interplay between these categories, and flexibility within them. However, number 2 is pretty standard, and the letters of recommendation (primarily from senior leaders in the field who have never collaborated with the candidate) better be almost uniformly highly supportive.

If one was to ask any junior faculty member at any research institution what the criteria for tenure are, they would, I am sure, give you pretty much this list – the criteria are not a secret. However, there is obviously a degree of subjectivity that enters when a given committee must judge whether they have been adequately satisfied. This subjectivity can be multiplied because a tenure case is usually put together by a departmental subcommittee, then voted on by the eligible faculty, then passed on to a college of arts and sciences tenure and promotion committee, who try to tear it apart before voting on it and passing it on to the dean, who adds a recommendation and passes it on to the vice chancellor, who makes essentially a final academic judgment, before asking the board of trustees to vote on the case. This is a lot of scrutiny.

One thing that departments can do to reduce the potential volatility in the system is to conduct frequent pre-tenure reviews of junior faculty, which are supposed to alert the department to any potential problems, and to advise the faculty member of any actions they should take in order to strengthen their ultimate tenure case. These are often performed annually, with the third year review being the most important and comprehensive, since it is then when a decision on extending one’s initial three-year contract is taken.

Another way to nurture and support faculty members and to optimize the chance of tenure is to provide research and teaching mentors. This doesn’t mean that a senior faculty member should guide the junior one’s research (one is supposed to be an expert with one’s own research program at that level), but rather to provide someone who can give advice on proposals, and other research-related questions, should they arise. A teaching mentor can sit in on a couple of classes and give detailed feedback regarding pedagogical techniques, class and time management, and grading.

In addition, the department Chairperson, typically responsible for service assignments, will often try to make sure that junior faculty members are doing their share (and building an adequate service record), while hopefully not being overburdened with the responsibilities.

So where can things go wrong?

Obviously, some people with sufficient credentials to be hired in the first place turn out to be unable to consistently perform at the standard necessary for a successful research and/or teaching career. Believe it or not, this can happen, although people very infrequently blog about it. I’m not talking about any of our friends here, but I have seen it happen, it is unambiguous, and while unfortunate and upsetting to a department, it is absolutely the right thing to deny tenure to such a person.

But there are obviously other possibilities. To give just one example (because the comment sections of two of our recent posts can provide you with as many others as you might ever need), which is particularly topical, funding sources can become much tighter than on average during the time that a given person is a junior faculty member. That can make number 2 particularly difficult to achieve for those academics who might otherwise manage it (there’s a joke about how clenched one spends much of one’s time as a junior faculty member in there somewhere). There is clearly a good case for taking this into account and, indeed, I have heard this discussed seriously at great universities.

However, one thing that I rarely see mentioned by people, particularly on blogs, is that at many, many fine institutions, physics departments work incredibly hard to make sure they feel they’ve hired the right people, mentor them pretty well, and tenure essentially all of them. As a friend and colleague at a particularly well-known university said to me a year or so ago – “I don’t remember the last time we denied tenure to someone, but it may have been thirty years ago, and we’re pretty happy with that.”

Certainly my heart goes out to the clearly talented people we all know in the blogosphere, who have been truly ill treated. However, at the risk of sounding like I’m sticking up for the Man, I also worry about the skewed impressions that many people might get from reading the associated comments threads. I was particularly struck by

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

If one has pursued an honest and balanced understanding of the pressures, the risks and the rewards of an academic career track, and decides to leave, then there is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that decision. However, I would urge readers, and particularly students, not to think of the comment sections of posts like these as such a balanced sample. There is very little incentive for people who have had a fair and enjoyable academic experience to chime in and describe it. Misery loves company, and that is what you see. One can learn many valuable insights from these threads, and we are lucky to have had such honest and thoughtful commenters. One should just be aware that they are not typical.

If one does choose to pursue a graduate degree in physics, with a possible future goal of being a tenured professor, then one most certainly needs to do so with one’s eyes wide open. Many people will not ultimately attain that goal. Some by choice, others because they are ultimately not competitive, and yes, some because they become a professor, but are royally screwed by a colleague, or a committee, or an idiot dean, or an unappreciated funding crunch, or the mistaken priorities of a funding agency or political administration, or any one of a hundred other logical possibilities.

On the other hand, as Rob Knop so eloquently put it

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.

It is a damn good job. And on the whole, if one looked at assistant professors of physics at research universities (I use this only because I can speak from experience there), I would think that the vast majority feels that they have been well treated, are appreciated, and are generally happy! Furthermore, most of them will end up tenured, even though the tenure process is a rigorous and challenging one.

Students – by all means gather as much information as you can to make the most informed decision possible about whether to attend physics or astronomy graduate school. But make sure you get your information from a range of sources. Go in with your eyes open and work hard. The road is hard, and contains many curves and a number of deep potholes. But there’s a lot to love and, for most people, if you make it to the tenure track at most research universities, your experience will be a positive one.

  • Lab Lemming

    And what about those of us who live in countries which are dismantling their tenure systems?

  • B

    However, what one sees less often are descriptions of the well-executed tenure and promotion procedures that account for, in my experience, the vast, vast majority of cases.

    common disease of the internet. people favor writing about what upsets them. if things are okay they keep silent. thanks for the post


  • Mark

    Hi Lab Lemming. What about that? It probably deserves its own blog post, but isn’t really what I’m talking about in this one.

  • Count Iblis

    How does one “demonstrate competence in teaching through peer review”?

  • mollishka

    How does one “demonstrate competence in teaching through peer review”?

    Presumably it’s a bad thing if students complain alot about a teacher, and a good thing if they praise them. Many departments will have professors observe one another while teaching (just in general); faculty up for tenure get extra visits from e.g., people on their committee.

  • Andre

    Some number would add a lot to the discussion, otherwise it’s based only on personal experiences. Numbers like the ratio post-docs/tenured, or phd-students/tenured. If it’s something like 30% and i consider myself as top 10% then it’s wise to keep going. But if it’s 3%, then it’s interesting to consider jobs outside academia.

  • Mark

    Hi Count Iblis. Typically one has colleagues sit in and write critical reviews of one’s class.

  • Mark

    Hi Andre. Such numbers are probably easily available but I didn’t look them up. This is definitely personal experience and you should read it that way. I wanted it to be a direct counter to the negative personal experiences being described elsewhere. Although, my description of the process itself is just a plain statement of what goes on.

  • Steve

    Thanks so much for this post! I’m actually defending my Ph.D. thesis today (quantum information though, not cosmology), and I’ve been miserable from thinking about future job prospects, in no small part from reading those previous posts.

    It’s really good to know that I actually do have a shot at this, and I’m not just fooling myself.

  • Mark

    Thanks Steve! Best of luck today.

  • Rob Knop

    I think tenure is horribly, woefully, terribly broken — but not because of who gets tenure and who doesn’t.

    Yes, there are spectacular failures of the system (like Sean) where stupid egos and whatever else get in the way of good sense. But, yes, by and large, good people get tenured.

    What’s broken about the system is how amazingly stressed out pre-tenure people are. It’s not just me. I mean, I may be reacting more poorly than most– although it’s probably a combination of that and the fact that I’m more likely to speak out than about any other junior faculty member out there. (I have other reasons to think this besides the blog.) But there are a vast, vast number of people who have told me about sleepless nights, going on antidepressants, losing motivation and getting less work done because they think there’s little hope of succeeding anyway, etc. — it’s huge.

    Tenure is broken because of the side effects it has on those who feel the sword of Damocles hanging over their head, not necessarily because of the outcome of the tenure decision. We’re taking our creative young people and putting them in a pressure cooker situation that may in some cases squeeze out extra productivity, but in some cases does huge damage not only to those people, but to the science results. Although some would disagree with this, the former is already unethical. Those who disagree would, perhaps, sit up and take notice of the latter.


  • Rob Knop

    Typically one has colleagues sit in and write critical reviews of one’s class.

    I think this is less typical than you might think.

    At Vanderbilt — which claims to care about teaching — it’s based entirely on student evaluations.

    Alas, student evaluations, while not orthogonal to how much they learned, are close to it. Really bad student evaluations are evidence of bad teaching, I wouldn’t dispute that. But if you take classes with good student evaluations and medium student evaluations, at least in the sciences it will not correlate all that well with how much the students learned.


  • Rob Knop

    P.S. — since the tone of the post and of the comments seems to be that “people with sour grapes can’t shut up, so we shouldn’t pay too much attention to them,” I need to qualify my last comment with the statement that my student evaluations are just fine, and would look good in my tenure file.


  • Mark

    Hi Rob. By “typically” above, I meant that this is typically what peer review of teaching means, not that it is particularly typical for it to occur.

    Regarding the pressure and the stress. I certainly agree with you that a lot of people feel this way. However, I claim that at physics departments at research universities the vast majority of people end up tenured, and so at that stage in one’s career, the probability of tenure isn’t usually that high. I think many people ignore that.

    By the way, I hope I made it abundantly clear that my post is not directed at your sentiments about your personal situation.

  • Mark

    Rob. That isn’t the tone of the post at all. I have no idea why you would think that.

  • Nonnormalizable

    Regarding criterion 3

    Competence in teaching, as demonstrated through peer review, innovations in teaching and, to a lesser extent, student evaluations.

    How in heaven’s name would the prof’s peers know the slightest thing about his or her teaching ability? They’d know something about how much the person cares, I suppose, but that may or may not have anything to do with their competence. Is there any way but student evaluations to get a handle on this? I don’t know enough about it to say if Rob Knop’s comment #12 is right, but my feeling as a student is that we generally give evals that do differentiate well even between fantastic and merely good teaching professors.

  • Mark

    Hi Nonrenormalizable. In comment #7 I pointed out that class visits and critical reviews of the pedagogical techniques are a way to do it. I didn’t say they replace student evaluations, but they are a complementary measure.

  • Rob Knop

    I don’t know enough about it to say if Rob Knop’s comment #12 is right,

    I don’t have the data or the studies. However, at the APS/AAS/AAPT new faculty workshop several years ago, people who should know have said that student evaluations are uncorrelated with how much the students learn.

    Eric Mazur gives interesting talks about his “peer instruction” teaching methods. He had been one of the highest-ranked professors at Harvard. He figured out his students weren’t learning as much as he thought. He looked into it, changed teaching methods, and produced data that after the change his students were learning a lot more. His student evaluations didn’t change.

    The upside of this is that it is possible to use better pedagogy without sacrificing your student evaluations. Mind you, I would strongly recommend that pre-tenure faculty not bother doing this. There are easier ways to get high student evaluations. Since that’s what you’re judged on, rather than actual good teaching, use those and spend the rest of your time on the other things you’re judged on. But if you do care about teaching, it’s possible to teach well and get good student evaluations. It’s also possible to teach a by-the-numbers fact memorization course which doesn’t really teach the students all that much, and still get good student evaluations.


  • jack


    You mention in point 3 the successful mentoring of graduate students. The problem with this, it seems to me, is that it really isn’t in a student’s best interest to sign on with an advisor who is untenured:

    1.) There is a chance that you will either be abandoned or forced to graduate before you are ready in the case where your advisor is denied tenure
    2.) The advisor’s very high stress levels and inexperience mentoring students can create unreasonable expectations or a generally awkward work environment
    3.) An advisor who is not yet fully established in the field will not be able to open as many doors for you at the post-doc level and beyond
    4.) It is less likely that your advisor will be well funded which creates its own set of problems

    Many incoming students don’t know this (or don’t have other options) and end up as collateral damage.

  • Nonnormalizable

    That’s surprising. I wonder how much it depends on the format of the evaluation form–I’ve seen generic “what did you like/dislike about this course” forms, bubble sheets, and the occasional in-depth probing questionnaire designed by a teaching assistant (and myself, as I was a first-time grad student TA this year) that really tries to get at exactly what the students feel about each part of the course.

    And now I am putting my computer to sleep and working on my take-home GR final exam…

  • Thomas Larsson

    Andre, estimating numbers are not that hard. If we are in a steady-state situation, which you might expect in an old science like physics, each tenured professor will on average have one student that eventually gets tenure. If we assume that a typical professor supervises ten students, 10% of the graduate students will become professors themselves. Among the 90% that don’t make it, there will be many good candidates.

    Which means that the more students you supervise, the worse you make the problem for the next generation.

  • Thomas Larsson

    typical professor supervises ten students

    That is ten students throughout his career, of course.

  • Sean

    I’m a big fan of the tenure system, and of academia more generally. Tenure (or something like it) is needed (1) to help compensate for the fact that academic salaries are generally lower than what the same people could get elsewhere, (2) to protect the academic freedom of scholars who do controversial work, and (3) to give advanced researchers the intellectual freedom to explore subjects other than their original expertise. Despite the flaws, you’re really not going to come up with a better system to achieve those goals.

    I also think there are ways it could be improved. I don’t think that any steps along the academic path — whether grad school or junior faculty — should be experienced as soul-crushing, and sometimes they are. Grad school should be fun! And academics could be more open-minded about what makes someone a good scholar, which was the point of my “Focus” post.

    So I don’t think that Rob’s original post should scare anyone away from academia if they are passionate about it, since it’s the world’s best job. Nor do I think that Mark’s post is glossing over any looming systematic injustices; it’s just making the sensible point that the system is well-intentioned and largely works. We should give ourselves enough credit to be able to simultaneously hold in our brains the ideas “the system is pretty good” and “there’s still room for improvement.”

    And good luck to Steve!

  • anonyma

    Thanks for this very clear description.

    #1 Lab Lemming: some countries have shorter tenure procedures then the US. And most countries are willing to hire you even if you don’t speak their language, but promise to learn. Nowadays moving around in Europe is comparatively easy.

    #21 Thomas Larsson: “a typical professor supervises ten students in all his career”
    The good news is that I will be done with typical supervising in less then three years. The sad news is that, indeed, a typical professor is male.

    #16 Nonnormalizable: student evaluations are great for some things: does the professor arrive on time? Is the handwriting legible? Are the finals graded with care? Etcetera.
    However, it is easier to deliver clear and pleasant lectures by carefully cutting out all or some of the difficult parts of the program. I don’t know how a student can evaluate that. Especially since you later don’t notice that you have a problem because you weren’t taught enough; one often tends to blame oneself.

  • adam

    Indeed, good luck to Steve. I still remember my own defence, oh yes. Somewhat nervewracking before, but the actual defence flew by (I guess that it was about two and a half hours, but it seemed more like 10 minutes).

  • spyder

    One of my pet peeves in the process has been the glaring lack of pedagogical training of the professoriat; and by pedagogical training i don’t refer to one quarter/semester practicums followed by a couple of TAships. NO, for years, the professors that taught in the education departments were not required to learn how to teach before they taught how to teach. That has only changed substantially in the last couple of decades (and much progress still needs to be made). It is a problem, and one where peer review within departments does not foster the best of future (as Mark notes) teaching at the universities. I have been in favor of junior faculty receiving attention from senior (or even emeritus) Education department full professors, and dare i say, being mentored towards better pedagogy in the universities, across the disciplines. One really doesn’t learn to teach by being taught, though like religion and arts, we all want to claim our own expertise.

    This problem exists at all levels of the sphere of public education. More and more of our population are receiving instruction from educators taught in various “teacher certification” mills, by staffs, whose sole contributions to the field of education consist of being in it long enough to garner “cred.” Thus, those student evaluations of junior faculty begin with inherent flaws regarding the best praxis. I really don’t know how it can be fixed.

  • adam

    And on the subject of the tenure system, I said in the other thread that it’s a human process. It seems to me that most (although not all, as Rob points out in his unfortunate illustration of his own travails) of the things that might go wrong are, in essence, human problems rather than systematic ones.

    High time for you fallible human-units to be replaced by something more robust.

  • adam

    Spyder #25; It’s my opinion, with which I haven’t been that shy, that many lecturers could significantly improve their performance by addressing little technical details (such as “don’t write on the board something that the students need to record whilst at the same time explaining things that the students have to know and understand”).

    The biggest secret to improving teaching is brutal self-evaluation, regularly repeated, I think. Some student feedback will be well thought-out and useful, but picking that from amongst the feedback that is driven by the grades that the students achieved, or their personal feelings towards the lecturer, isn’t sufficiently easy that the results of parsing the feedback should be the dominant figure of merit in evaluating success.

    Teaching training starts with some basic technical rules (relating to the ability of students to learn, how to write on a board or OHT or use whatever device on which information is displayed, the technical stuff I mentioned earlier) and then learning how to teach proceeds best, in my experience, by doing it; initially, external evaluation is perhaps more helpful (performed by someone for whom the key value is results rather than orthodoxy) and then continued, career-long, self-evaluation.

  • Bill C

    If you’re interested in some statistical data on research positions in high energy physics, you might want to check out .
    The DOE and NSF sponsor this annual census of HEP.

    In my opinion, this data does support the statement that less than 10% of graduate students entering HEP at a US institution can expect to eventually obtain a tenured position at a US HEP research institution. Sounds scary. But remember that a substantial fraction of these new students came from non-US institutions and will return to non-US institutions. A majority of untenured faculty will eventually move on to tenured positions (again US only). Most of the attrition occurs before the untenured stage with people moving into industry, smaller teaching institutions, or changing fields within academia (medicine, solid-state, etc.).

    I agree with the sentiment that a research university should feel that IT failed if an untenured faculty member is not promoted to tenure. The university should take a hard look at its hiring practice for untenured faculty and its mentoring procedures afterward. It is a lot easier for a person to make a career change in their early-to-mid thirties than at forty+.

    We should also disabuse young people of the notion that they “failed” if they move into industry or teaching rather than obtaining that tenured position at a research institution.

  • Sam Gralla

    Thank you for this post, Mark.

  • Bob

    Indeed, weblogs and articles tend to focus on the cases where things go bad, leading to a very biased view of the tenure system. I think that the tenure system, like Churchill said about democracy, is the worst way to run a university except for all others that have been tried.

    More seriously, it has been my experience as well that in 90% of the cases it works quite well (I’m a computer scientist). Of course there are counterexamples – people that get tenure and then abuse it or people that are denied tenure for the wrong reasons. However, show me any other institution or company that doesn’t have people that are unproductive or people that are fired for the wrong reasons. However, in almost all cases I’m aware of, people that did good research got tenure, and people that got tenure continued to be productive members of their department.

    Of course, different departments or universities give different weights to different criteria. Some might base everything on the reference letters, while others might value teaching more highly. But whatever the policy is, it’s typically pretty consistent and hence easy for assistant professor to know the criteria. (Indeed, even in Rob’s case he is very well aware of the need to get funding even before his case is up.)

    Regardless of tenure or non-tenure, there will always be more demand for lawyers or doctors than scientists, and that’s the basic fact that sometimes makes this line of work hard and forces people to relocate to find a position. Most scientists have the talent to do other, higher paying and more in demand jobs, but they feel that the chance to do what they really love is worth it.

  • Bob

    just a clarification: most people who get a tenure-track position will get tenure. getting that position, especially in a location that’s feasible for you, is a different story, but that has nothing to do with the tenure system but just with the fact that there are not as many research universities as law firms or hospitals etc…

  • Lab Lemming

    Tenure elimination is relevant to this post if it is done by moving the goalposts at a rate faster than scientists can keep up. I think the following point obliquely made above should be emphasized, however:

    Whatever the theoretical ideal is for academia, observations confirm that some departments are unhealthy. While we can debate the reasons for this at length, the practical point is this: If you are working in a department where people are taking drugs just to face their jobs, think about finding new employment.

    The actual people I know who have bailed from bad departments and left the academic stream are all happier than those who gritted it out and adopted the self-destructive lifestyle. A few of the “quitters” are even publishing more as relaxed techicians than they were as stress-addled postdocs.

  • Ben

    Two comments: 1. Not everyone becomes tenured faculty. In fact many people have lifelong careers in astrophysics without becoming tenured faculty. Focusing solely on the 10% (or whatever the actual fraction is) tends to reinforce the idea that the be-all and end-all is becoming an associate professor and that anyone who doesn’t has somehow failed and is a worse person. This idea, rather than tenure issues, is one of the more pernicious side effects of academic elitism and tends to make people depressed and blame themselves, as I think Rob’s post showed.

    2. I agree lots of junior people are stressed out, but I think they would be so even if the tenure process were rejiggered or burnt to the ground. The basic problem is that the academic system is a labor-intensive business that is trying to do too much with the too-little resources that society allocates it. There was a period during the postwar expansion of the US university system where jobs were thick on the ground and the money flowed like wine and the wine flowed like water. Well, not really – and people got screwed even then – but it was less of a crunch. Unfortunately, it is impossible for a labor-intensive industry to keep past with the productivity improvements that technology brings to capital-intensive industry, and so academia gets more and more expensive to run every year.

    This article by James Surowiecki on Baumol’s cost disease is an eye-opener on why we cost so much. There are technical criticisms of it, but the basic gist is important. The principle also explains why departments used to have eight secretaries and one computer, and now have one secretary and a computer on every desk. Of course, a provost or state legislator can look at that and envision a university with one professor, eight adjuncts, and a computer in every student’s lap. That is the real worry; tenure vs ten-year review is a perturbation on it.

  • ike

    It’s clear there are a lot of problems with tenure and with peer review in general (of which tenure can be thought of as an extreme example of). Bad papers slip through the review process, and not-so-excellent professors do get tenure, but the process is generally transparent and has produced some of the best research departments in the world.

    However, in certain areas of science there is a worrying trend towards funding being the only real consideration. What’s been happening is that universities are pushing professors to enter into ‘public-private’ partnerships, proprietary and secretive agreements, and so on. This doesn’t directly impact astrophysics and high-energy particle physics, but it is very prevalent in chemistry, molecular biology and electrical engineering departments. It does indirectly impact the ‘pure physics’ departments, because more and more university administrators are steering funds toward those departments that ‘produce the most funding’. University administrators from private industry backgrounds are particularly likely to follow this approach.

    One of Ernest Rutherford’s students, P.L. Kapitza, had this recollection: “During my stay in Cambridge I was approached several times to help in solving technical problems in industry. In these cases I used to take advice from Rutherford and he always said to me; ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon at the same time.’ Of course he was right.”

    Unfortunately, due the Bayh-Dole Act of the early 1980’s which allowed universities to enter into exclusive agreements with industry, this notion is now viewed as ‘quaint’ by many professors and administrators. Nevertheless, good science relies on the open and free exchange of data and ideas – something that industry can’t allow. In many science departments today, one must add a fifth point:

    5. Professor must be willing to enter into proprietary agreements with private industry.

    There is a simple solution to this problem: amend Bayh-Dole to make all university patents non-exclusive, so that anyone can use them, free of charge. Private industry wants exclusive patents, of course, but they can afford to set up their own research centers! At the same time, scientists must explain to the public why they should fund basic science – spending a little time on books (or on blogging!) is very beneficial to all academic scientists.

    Thanks for this very timely post.

  • JoAnne

    Thanks for this post, Mark. You are right – by and large the tenure system basically works, although there is always room for improvement. Tenure is always more difficult at the more prestigious places, however, and sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for a particular deicision. Since I’ve been at SLAC/Stanford, 6 people have been awared tenure in particle physics and 5 have been denied. Of the 5 that were denied, I think 3 of the cases represented a fair decision. As for the other 2…well….institutions can and do make spectacular mistakes! Interestingly, one person (myself) is actually in both categories, so sometime institutions themselves can admit that they made a mistake (with *mucho* prodding and an entire year of sleepless nights on the behalf of the poor miserable individual).

    BTW, a most famous and spectacular historical bad tenure decision was made by Columbia University, which denied tenure to Steve Weinberg.

  • Moshe

    Great post Mark, I absolutely agree with the sentiment which reflects my personal situation as well. I’ll just add that one way of reducing stress is making the requirements for tenure as specific and transparent as possible, beyond the general guidelines you mention. The process is always a little subjective, but one of the roles of a good mentor is to give some ongoing advice on what precisely is required and how you measure up to those requirements. That way the tenure process itself is almost predictable. I am definitely grateful for my department for making the process as straightforward as possible.

  • Rob Knop

    (with *mucho* prodding and an entire year of sleepless nights on the behalf of the poor miserable individual)

    I wouldn’t call that “basically works.” I would call that “has a functional base and is sound in concept, but is badly broken in execution.”

    Taking creative young people and putting them through an entire year of misery and sleepless nights is bad. When these are the very people who are doing the work that the tenure system is supposed to promote, it’s absurd.

    I know it’s always easier for us to excuse our misery and suffering once we’re successfully past it. Let me gently suggest that those of you who are successfully past it do not forget or gloss over the suffering that you went through before you were! All it does is make the rest of us feel like we must be even bigger pieces of shit for thinking that there’s anything wrong with what we’re going through.


  • Mark

    Rob. This is not about you, and, once again, nobody is glossing over anything or trying to make you feel bad. I think we have been basically uniformly sympathetic and supportive.

    I do not, however, agree with some of what you are saying. What I’m saying in my post is that most people do not unduly suffer and do not go through an entire year of misery and sleepless nights. On the off chance that I haven’t been crystal clear, this is in no way supposed to suggest that it is OK that you or anyone else has gone through that, or that we shouldn’t work hard to stop it happening. It is important though, I think, to provide some balance in this discussion rather than leaving people with the (mistaken in my view) impression that this is the norm. That is all.

    It is possible for one to be sympathetic to and supportive of you and your position while simultaneously wanting to clarify how academia generally works.

  • Rob Knop

    But Mark, we’ve got JoAnn saying “the system is working well” and “I suffered for a year.”

    Hearing a lot of tenured people talking about how great the system is sounds to me like all of us with group health insurance talking about how we’re pretty happy and comfortable with the American health care system. For most of the USA the American health care system is just great. But many would argue that the system is horribly broken because it fails some terribly.

    Again, it’s not just me. I’ve heard from a lot of people that they have gone through periods of terrible stress as post-docs and pre-tenure faculty. Most people are much better at me in taking the advice to keep their mouths shut, but again, when I fight back against you guys, it’s not because I think it’s all about me. It’s because I know I’m not alone.


  • Mark

    Who is telling you to keep your mouth shut Rob? If you think that is implied by anything in my post you are absolutely mistaken. It is fine that you speak out, and, I think, fine for others to try to add balance.

    Am I missing something here? Nothing I’m writing is meant to set us up as adversaries. Do you think students shouldn’t be told that things go swimmingly well for the vast majority of tenure track assistant professors at research universities?

    In any case, I’ve been as clear as I can about what I’m trying to say. I truly wish you only the best of luck with everything.

  • Peter Woit

    While anybody who wants a clear picture of how the tenure system is working should take into account the difficult situation Rob is in while reading what he has to say, they should also take into account the fact that getting a permanent position in the academic system tends to come with a pair of rose-colored glasses. You might want to take this into account when getting career advice from senior people.

    I’m basing this not just on observing the behavior of others, but also my own. When I had to worry about my employment prospects, I was pretty appalled at the way senior people in particle theory seemed to think that a system that trained ten times more people than there were jobs for, subjecting them to an ugly game of musical chairs which produced a lot of personal carnage, was something that worked well. After I entered a permanent (although un-tenured) position, this all of a sudden started to seem like a much more theoretical problem, not one worth getting worked up about. Not having tenure, I don’t seem to have strong opinions one way or another about how it is working: sometimes it works fine, other times it sucks (and not only because of who doesn’t get tenure, but also because of who does). On the other hand, I get a warm fuzzy feeling all over when I think about the way great academic institutions often find ways to keep on deserving folks who couldn’t get tenure by the normal standards. You probably shouldn’t pay much attention to me if you hear me going on about this.

    One lesson I’ve learned in life is that people’s personal interests color the way they look at things to a depressingly great extent, and unfortunately one must always keep this in mind, about oneself as much as about anyone else.

    There seemed to me to be relatively little discussion here of the somewhat more abstract problem Rob was raising: should getting grants be a condition for tenure? I’m curious what the justification for this is in astronomy. Can one successfully conduct research without a grant? In math and theoretical physics, one doesn’t need grants to get research done, and, from what I’ve seen, the grant question is not a huge one in tenure decisions. In other experimental sciences, where sizable funds are needed to run a lab, I can see how the grant question would be crucial. It would be a very legitimate argument that one shouldn’t tenure someone who wasn’t going to even be able to do research for lack of funding. But what’s the situation in astronomy?

  • Mark

    The grant question most certainly is considered important for theorists also Peter, at least at most institutions I know of.

  • Peter Woit


    The word I used was not “important”, but “huge”, referring to the issue that Rob is raising, that of whether or not the grant question should be decisive in a tenure case. Do you know of any cases of theorists who had excellent publication records, letters, etc. but were denied tenure because of failure to get a grant? Would such a decision be justifiable?

  • Mark

    I see what you’re saying Peter. The “justiiable” bit is a whole other discussion. As for whether it is a huge issue, I think it is. Institutions I know of make it extremely clear it needs to happen for theorists. I’m not sure I know any theorists who have been tenured without it, (although I do know some who were denied tenure although they were funded). But I don’t know that I have a great sample to go off.

  • adam

    Surely by bringing in grants, which pay your summer salary and/or PhD and postdoc wages, all of which the university skims for overhead, you become a more valuable employee to the university? It seems logical enough to me that more valuable employees, in this case, those who have a track record of attracting the government grants, are more attractive to tenure comittees, who are basically assessing the costs, risks and rewards, to the institution, of granting tenure. Yes, as Peter says, without grants experimentalists aren’t going to get anything much done at all, but the reasoning based on the value of overhead applies to experimentalists and theoreticians both.

  • Rob Knop

    Who is telling you to keep your mouth shut Rob?

    Not you — but there’s a lot of advice out there re: grad students, post-docs, and untenured faculty not blogging. Sean’s original post was “courageous or crazy?”

    I’ve been told by other faculty that the are surprised how much I speak out at faculty meetings. Not that I speak out very much — but that I do for an assistant professor.

    A number of people in the comment thread on my blog have indicated that they suspect I’m shooting myself in the foot by being so open about this.

    There is a very strong message out there that junior faculty have to keep their mouths shut and avoid offending anybody at all.


  • Rob Knop

    Do you think students shouldn’t be told that things go swimmingly well for the vast majority of tenure track assistant professors at research universities?

    I don’t believe that that is true.

    Even if a substantial fraction of those who go up for tenure get it, those statistics miss a point. How many people leave before going up for tenure because they see the writing on the wall? They should be added directly into the “tenure failure” column.

    How many of those who get tenure suffer unreasonably before so doing? If I take JoAnn’s description above at her word, she goes into that category, even though she’s one of the ones saying “tenure is great” here.

    “Swimmingly well” is a strong statement, and there’s a lot of ground between that and “made it through.”

    Students need to know the level of stress and pain that can come with the uncertainty and out-of-control-of-your-life feeling that comes from being untenured and on the tenure track. If it really is true that things are just so great for the vast majority of people, then by all means, spread that message– but I think the burden of proof is on you to convince us that things really are so great. Sugarcoating pre-tenure stress is just as bad as sugarcoating their prospects for getting a faculty job in the first place.


  • Rob Knop

    It would be a very legitimate argument that one shouldn’t tenure someone who wasn’t going to even be able to do research for lack of funding. But what’s the situation in astronomy?

    The funding one needs in astronomy is pretty much the same as the funding one needs in theoretical particle physics. You have to pay for your students, you have to pay for travel (we have observing trips in addition to conferences, but that’s not a huge difference), and you have to pay publication fees.

    Except… here, it seems to be accepted that the theoretical particle physicists don’t pay for their students. They don’t even ever manage to come up with summer salary for their students. And, they’re on a block grant that gets renewed each year as long as they look good, whereas in astronomy every grant is a new venture. Astronomy has been particularly hard hit in the last few years (the NSF funding rates have gone from 1/3 to 1/5 or 1/6 in the last few years).


  • Rob Knop

    more valuable employee to the university?

    This is all part of that “universities should be run like a business” idea which I think is a bit of a cancer.

    Professors are hired because of their ability to do research and (hopefully) their ability to teach. Universities are more than development offices. Bean counting the bottom line and valuing most the people who bring in the most money is missing what the real criteria ought to be.


  • Lab Lemming

    When evaluating the uncertainty and stress factor of life on the tenure track, you need to normalize against the other employment options for a person of equivalent education and skill set.

    Also, a question about grants: Who pays for the telescopes (and the people who tech them)?

  • Pingback: The Futile Cycle » Blog Archive » The 95 (give or take) Theses…on Tenure()

  • Rob Knop

    Also, a question about grants: Who pays for the telescopes (and the people who tech them)?

    It depends on the telescope.

    Some are privately funded. The “haves” in astronomy are the faculty at Universities that pay to maintain big telescopes. Caltech is the most extreme example, with private access to something like 40% or 45% of each of the two Keck telescopes. All of UC has most of the rest of the access. Hawaii has huge access because they take a telescope time “tax” on all telescopes in Hawaii. Etc.

    Naturally, this gives them all sorts of advantages. Not only do they have guaranteed access to big telescopes, allowing them to try “riskier” projects that would have a hard time getting past the conservatism of the NOAO time allocation committees (of which I have been a part), but they also have an advantage over the rest of us when writing NSF proposals. NSF panels are far more likely to rank a proposal as “feasible” if you come from a University that has guaranteed big-telescope time. The “double-jeopardy” problem is well known; you can get money, but not telescope time to do the observations you said you would in your proposal, and vice versa. The solution seems to be to favor the “haves” — those at big-telescope-owning institutions have an advantage in NSF proposals, and we’ve been told on the NOAO that we should take into account whether or not people applying for telescope time have funding.

    At Vanderbilt, we’ve convinced the administration to pay a yearly fee so we have some guaranteed access to the 1m-class telescopes in Chile. This is a completely different scale of telescope, but I’ve been very grateful that we’ve had that.

    Operation of the national observatories are funded directly by the NSF. This includes Kitt Peak, the 4m telescope and most of the infrastructure at CTIO in Chile, and the US access to the two 8m Gemini telescopes, as well as the telescopes in the National Radio Astronomical Observatories.

    So, in a sense, when I’ve written NOAO telescope proposals and have received telescope time, I’ve received a grant. Not one that my University can take overhead from, mind you.

    We still have to pay our own travel and lodging to get to and stay at the telescopes; those come out of our own research funds.


  • Alexey Petrov

    In our place having external funding for research is universally understood as part of “scholarship” — meaning one should acquire sufficient funding for one’s research program (which implies that smaller grants are acceptable for theorists). It also helps to get some special grant/award (DOE OJI and/or NSF CAREER and/or Sloan fellowship, etc.) — I don’t know of any cases when a person who got one of those things was denied tenure. This of course does not include that list of universities that just don’t tenure junior faculty as a matter of principle…

    I think securing a grant is viewed by senior faculty as another way of “others” endorsing junior faculty’s research program on the national level. The point here is that any physics department has many people working in different branches of physics who would not always judge the value of each other’s publications unless they work in the same field… of course external letters help here too.

    And last, but not least: even if a department has a clear set of tenure guidlines, the tenure vote is still by secret ballot. So there might be some room for personal agenda too… although in our place every tenure case goes up with two recommendations: one by the tenure body and another by the Chair. And they don’t have to agree…

  • JoAnne

    Rob Knop, #35 and #37, how dare you put words in my mouth and twist my thoughts and feelings and experiences on this complicated issue into a single soundbite. Since you obviously read my comment above with jaded glasses, let me repeat myself:

    Thanks for this post, Mark. You are right – by and large the tenure system basically works, although there is always room for improvement. Tenure is always more difficult at the more prestigious places, however, and sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for a particular decision.

    For what it’s worth I stand with what I said: by and large the system does work, although sometimes places do screw up. That is not the same as “the system is working well” which was your summary of my statement.

    I went through personal hell. I have not forgotten it. I will never forget it. It probably took years off my lifespan. It took more strength and courage than I knew I had to climb out of that hell, address the situation, get past it and move on. I have never and will never gloss over what I went through and I cannot describe my disgust and resentment at being characterized as forgeting my experience now that I am past it.

    As for the future generation, I advise my students to follow their passion, what ever that may be. Having me as an advisor, I think my students are more than aware of the pitfalls of academia. I would never discourage them from following their passion, because then they have given up without trying, and to me, that would be worse. It’s a basic component of human nature to fight the odds when we are passionate about something.

  • grad student

    Thanks, Mark. I breathed a big sigh of relief when I read your post. As with other graduate students, reading the previous columns was like beathing in noxious fumes. It is good to be reminded that publications in peer-reviewed journals is the first criteria that is looked at when the tenure is reviewed. We have spent a whole lot of time discussing how good teaching needs to be, so how much do you need to publish?

    I would also be grateful to anybody who could point me to where physics grad students end up after their PhD (I did try the AIP website but found the data only for the physics bachelors). I would love to stay within academia, but if people like Rob Knop and Sean Carroll don’t get tenure, should I even try? Tough question.

  • Analyzer

    There is a very strong message out there that junior faculty have to keep their mouths shut and avoid offending anybody at all.

    Isn’t this the case for anyone who is new to a job? If you’re working in the corporate world, and you’re the new guy, and you have no experience, then you have to shut up and prove yourself before you can start making waves. When you’re more established, then you can speak up a little more. But when you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, in any profession, you have to pay your dues first.

    I’ve heard from a lot of people that they have gone through periods of terrible stress as post-docs and pre-tenure faculty.

    This just in: competitive jobs are stressful. Film at 11.

  • jepe

    Thanks for all of these very informative and valuable posts for “newbies” like me. I get mixed messages of what’s needed for tenure, depending at which level of the hierarchy I ask. For me, the emerging trends are as follows (caveat: I’m not a theoretical physicist; just an experimentalist interested in biological physics):

    1. No grant, tenure is extremely extremely unlikely. And there should be multiple grants. The feeling one gets is ‘this is a business, after all. Pull your financial weight, or face the consequences.’ This would suggest an unfortunate correlation between the average funding levels/ availability of funds, and the number of people getting tenure.

    2. # of publications. Generally, quantity over quality [of course, one can imagine the sage, older professor saying with a smile…’ it is both, you silly asst prof’ ].. People can readily consult your citation index (e.g. via web of science) to get a feel for what kind of impact you’re making. Quality is less favored b/c it is harder to judge by people outside your field; it’s just plain easier to point to a “score” and say ‘great’ or ‘I have concerns’. In principle, outside letters should help here. In principle.

    3. Serving on committees. Some committees degrade into arenas for power jousting, others are really aimed at trying to improve the university and education for students. Choose wisely.

    4. teaching: very mixed messages here from those who have made it. It can be used against you if there are already gripes abound. It seems to rarely help you, since its benefit isn’t as immediate or obvious as bringing in grant money. Savvy tenured folks advise me: “never spend more than 2 hrs preparing for teaching prior to a class; papers and grants should be your first priortiy”. I try to adhere to that, as painful as it is sometimes when I give an unintentionally crappy lecture b/c I’ve burned too much time trying to get an experiment to work. This will earn you mediocre TCEs, often by people suffering pre-med angst, and who are acutely aware that the grade game is a game they have to win. But that’s a whole other universe of controversy….

    5. political x-factors: very hard to control… disastrous cases, they can apparently override 1-4. Fast talkers may do better here. However, as someone pointed out above, political x-factors come with any job. In industrial science, one is constantly circling the wagons…..

  • Rob Knop

    JoAnn — I’m not twisting your words or putting words in your mouth at all.

    You have “by and large the tenure system basically works” and “I went through personal hell.” I really don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to see some sort of contradiction, unless you think you’re the only person who has ever suffered.

    It sure as hell sounds to me like you turned 21 as Chad describes here:

    I know you’re pissed at me for “using” your past suffering.

    But I’ll tell you what: I’m really pissed off at you for what it looks like your doing: having gotten through the process, you’re breathing a sigh of relief that you are done, and you are coming to its defense rather than wondering if, just perhaps, other people might be going through some lesser version of that personal hell, and, just perhaps, the system may be rotten because of it. Bully for you that you got through it, but you aren’t the only person that the system steps on.


  • Rob Knop

    I would love to stay within academia, but if people like Rob Knop and Sean Carroll don’t get tenure, should I even try? Tough question.


    Sean deserved tenure, there’s no question about that.

    There is question as to whether I deserve it or not.


  • Rob Knop

    Two comments back:

    REALLY pissed off, by the way.

    Hell with this place.

  • Sean

    Rob, you have to calm down and stop taking things so personally. JoAnne explained very clearly that, while she had significant difficulties, she thinks that “by and large” the system works. It’s absolutely clear that there is no contradiction there. I also went through hell, and I don’t have tenure, but I agree with JoAnne and Mark that by and large the system works. It could certainly be better, but personally insulting people who are basically on your side is not a path to progress.

  • JoAnne

    Thank you, Sean. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • graviton383

    Rob, I agree with Sean. I sympathize with what you are going through..BELIEVE me I do. But you should be a little more careful when you start to trivialize what terrible experiences other people have had during the tenure process. Like JoA, I do think that the system by and large does work BUT mistakes are made & they are too common. I can attest to what JoA experienced..hell is an understatement. To say that in her case it’s all behind her is to minimize her experience..she will NEVER forget what she went through & neither will I. Some of us will feel the cost of that experience for the rest of our lives. My own experiences? Well, that’s another post entirely.

  • Jennifer West

    I think Rob made a good point. People on the inside do tend to forget what it was like to be on the outside, and how easily they could have been kept on the outside had it not been for luck. JoAnne says his assumption is wrong, that she remembers clearly how it was and that she still thinks the system works.

    There isn’t any need to patronize Rob for making that assumption. In fact I thought the same when I read JoAnne’s comment. Now it is clear that he and I were both wrong. But no one needs to be told to “calm down” and “stop taking things personally,” it wasn’t a hysterical thing. It was an incorrect assumption.

    For what it is worth, I think the tenure system works in one way, which is that it tends to give the most productive people permanant positions. Productive is defined to be highest quantity of papers with high citations. Many papers without citations doesn’t cut it, and few papers with many citations usually doesn’t cut it (unless you’ve done something really groundbreaking).

    If you want to know why a person did or did not get tenure, or was on the bubble, all you have to do is check their publications. Period. Did they write many papers every year with high citations. Sean took a year off from publishing to write a text book. No publications for a year at Chicago, no tenure. It’s a simple equation.

    I think the tenure process weeds out some of the most creative people, who can do the groundbreaking work. It also can suppress creativity in the rest of the population. In my opinion that loss is very important, which is why I think there shouldn’t be any such thing as tenure.

    People say that tenure gives faculty intellectual freedom and the ability not to be penalized for working on new ideas or ideas that turn out to be unfruitful. My guess is that just the opposite happens, that it is the younger scientists who come up with the best ideas, that go in totally new directions.

    But I could be wrong. But I hope we can keep the discussion on topic, and try to be as sensitive as possible to people on both sides of the fence.

    For what it is worth, I’m grateful to Rob for sharing his experience, and I’m sorry to JoAnne that he and I took her comment the wrong way. I really believe it was an innocent mistake (I’m never been in tenure-track academia, I’ve no axe to grind) and not a twisting or turning of words.

    All the best,

  • Analyzer

    But no one needs to be told to “calm down” and “stop taking things personally,” it wasn’t a hysterical thing.

    Bzzzt, wrong. To quote Rob, “REALLY pissed off, by the way. Hell with this place.”

    Sounds pretty hysterical and calm-down-worthy to me.

  • Rob Knop

    2 out of 3 of the Cosmic Variance bloggers who say that by and large the system works have gone through personal hell because of the system.

    How many more people need to go through personal hell before “by and large” becomes not good enough, and we admit that there is something seriously flawed about the process?

    Just asking. Please do not interpret this question as a personal insult; I’m not sure exactly what I said earlier that was interpreted as a personal insult, but it’s clear that this is an amazingly touchy subject.

  • Jennifer West

    I respectfully disagree, Analyzer, but to each her own. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in a small town bar in northern Italy, where a card game gets orders of magnitude more emotional and personal that this thread could ever be.

  • Mark

    Hi Rob,

    Well, I suspect we’re thinking about a much larger sample – that of all the people we’ve known in the field. At least, that’s what I was guided by in my post.

  • Brian

    Many (all?) of us go through some externally rocky times. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. “Vita brevis, tempus fugit.”

  • Julianne

    But no one needs to be told to “calm down” and “stop taking things personally,” it wasn’t a hysterical thing.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think there has been a single moment in the History of Humanity when someone has calmed down or stopped taking something personally because they were told to.

    To add to the anecdata, I had a painless tenure process. But, I was fortunate enough to have some good results in the previous years, a good funding situation (thanks partially to lots of how-to-write-proposal training from colleagues), a long history of great mentors stretching back to my undergraduate years, and a fair bit of equinamity that I’d land on my feet if it didn’t work out (i.e. husband with a job, supportive family, no health issues, etc). The whole undergrad+grad+postdoc+professor track worked just like it’s supposed to, with no egregiously unfair obstacles. However, I’m not ignorant that it’s not always like that, and that good people suffer mightily sometimes for reasons outside their control. In addition, the same set of circumstances can be more or less debilitating for different people, depending on background and temperment. Everyone deserves to have the process go smoothly, and I doubt that the system is yet optimal. Worse, the system often works in a nasty feedback loop, where unhappy people get less done (which has been one of Rob’s points about the tenure process destroying the productivity of young talented scientists).

    As to Jennifer’s points about what tenure does, for me it’s allowed me to pursue larger multi-year projects that I couldn’t pull off pre-tenure. There are many important scientific advances that come after someone has spent years fighting to launch satellites, or build new instruments, or shepherd new telescopes/experiments. You can rarely make those kinds of critical investments before tenure.

  • Amara

    Jennifer West:
    “Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in a small town bar in northern Italy, where a card game gets orders of magnitude more emotional and personal that this thread could ever be.”

    But drama is an important part of their game.
    (And you will never experience road rage in Italy)

  • Jennifer West

    Amara, and they are a wonder to watch, these eternal card games. I find them more passionate than dramatic, but either way I love sitting at the bar with an ice cream or a glass of sweet wine and watching the fracas. I have a theory for why there is no road rage and certain other societal ills in Italia, and it has everything to do with the fact that if you have a boisterous card game the night before, when your partner made a mistake and you told him exactly what you thought of his card playing, and not in a whisper, then you have nothing piling up inside. There is no tinder box for a spark to land on. I’m going to be quiet because this is very off topic, but I’ve thought a lot about it.

    Julianne, I hadn’t thought about the big projects – I am very familiar with the history and evolution of the Chandra x-ray telescope but not other big space projects. Chandra was all private industry at first, as was all of x-ray astronomy (late 1960s?), but there must be many more that were conceived of by tenured professors who were able to see them through. I do know that the Chandra people had to do all kinds of amazing things to keep the project funded, that might not be feasible if you were busting your chops to publish for tenure – i.e. printing out information sheets and running down to D.C. to talk to senators and committees and calling everyone and their mother to ask politicians not to cut funding (as they did over and over again). But also, Chandra was a 20 year journey. Most of the movers and shakers were research scientists or professors doing other things most of the time.

    I’ll look into the big projects, I’m curious about who starts what and when, for my own edification…for instance I don’t even know how Hubble got started, I think COBE was Berkeley professors (although one junior guy, Lubin), the supernova project was professors and some younger academics (Rob Knop, appropriately enough)…anyway, it’s a very good point, grazie!

  • Amara

    Jennifer: We probably have a similar conclusion. The hot emotions (and drama) pass through the Italians like the wind, puffed up air, hands waving wildly, then, like the wind, it is gone, and back to baci, affectionate arms, vino, pasta, laughter…

  • Amara

    P.S. The NASA Dawn, mission, presently due to launch June 30, might not be the best example. The Project manager is certainly extremely experienced and tenured, and each of the instrument P.I.s have permanent positions at their respective research laboratories (not universities). However, the project was canceled twice by NASA, with the ensuing chaos of people being moved on and off the project and instrument parts being taken out of and put back into manufacturing queues. On the Italian side, the payment from ASI came three years after the contract signing to the instrument builders and scientists (the majority of which have temporary one-year-renewable contracts). So I can’t say the the tenure-ship of the Project Manager and P.I.s helped pull that project together and get the spacecraft to the Cape Canaveral site, where it is now. It looks more like the collective wishes of a hundred people thinking like the little engine chugging up the hill: “I think I can” “I know I can” …

  • Christine

    I think the tenure system works in one way, which is that it tends to give the most productive people permanant positions. Productive is defined to be highest quantity of papers with high citations. (…) Did they write many papers every year with high citations. Sean took a year off from publishing to write a text book. No publications for a year at Chicago, no tenure. It’s a simple equation.

    “A frog in a well shaft seeing the sky” (chinese proverb).

    If it serves as a consolation, we should realise that almost everyone go through some private hell at some period of their lives. So whoever you are, you are not alone.

    Well, “it’s a simple equation”: too many (excellent) people for very very very limited positions. And what defines who is really the “most excellent” is given above by the simple counting formula. So that’s it and the game is over for almost everyone.

    (A caveat: those who get high citations *tend to be* those well known in conferences and in the community: those who have a high social capital. So if you work your path with this in mind you might increase your chances. But still, it is not certain. There are many many many people better than you on this, who have very early realised the importance of social capital.).

    What to do?

    Try to be happy doing something else. And read the stoics. You have only one life and it is unwise to suffer for so long.

    Best regards and good luck to all in the same boat.


  • Count Iblis


    How many more people need to go through personal hell before “by and large” becomes not good enough, and we admit that there is something seriously flawed about the process?

    If history is a guide, this will only happen after the system is replaced by a new and better system. Many Russian officials/politicians of today would have told you in the 1980s that despite some flaws, the communist system was “by and large” working reasonably well. :)

    People tend to compare the system under question to no system at all, and not to a hypothetical better system.

  • adam

    This is all part of that “universities should be run like a business” idea which I think is a bit of a cancer.

    Professors are hired because of their ability to do research and (hopefully) their ability to teach. Universities are more than development offices. Bean counting the bottom line and valuing most the people who bring in the most money is missing what the real criteria ought to be.

    Given that research is expensive, I don’t see any alternative to acknowledging that Universities are, in fact, a business. They don’t have to be run like WALMART, because they’re working on a substantially different business model, but they’re competing with other universities for employees and customers (and, additionally, putting a lot of effort into extracting money from alumni) and the more money they get, the better a university they can run, getting better employees and students by using some of the money to create a more attractive experience for those people. Yes, professors are hired to do reseach and teach; doing research with grant money benefits the university more than doing the same research without the grant money (even when it can be done without grant money); how much more valuable is the researcher who better attracts grant money, well, that’s going to be contextual, but it’s a decision that the University, at some level (down to Department or even research group, I guess) has to make.

    It seems to me that one can easily be unhappy with the process by which grants are awarded without denying the fact that the funds skimmed for overhead are used to maintain or improve the university and, therefore, that bringing in those funds makes you a more valuable employee. At some level, universities do have to be understanding, because figures show that not everyone is getting the grants; it may be (although I am not making anything so bold as a claim to truth) that your institution has adopted an approach towards that funding that is inappropriate with respect to the chances of getting funding that their astronomy employees have (based, at least in part, on the amount of telescope access that they have arranged), in which case, yes, you are getting screwed for something that is statistically likely to be beyond your control.

    Of course, they could just be talking it up because they want you out for some other reason (although I don’t see why they would do that, given that they have oodles of ways to refuse tenure to people if they want to), but otherwise, maybe you are in the wrong national system. You could always try, say, applying to UK universities, I suppose. Not the same tenure system at all, but neither is there the same focus on attracting big research grants (although, to be clear, a big research grant never hurt anyone’s research).

  • fh

    “Given that research is expensive, I don’t see any alternative to acknowledging that Universities are, in fact, a business.”

    They are on some level like almost everything, and like most things that doesn’t mean they should be run like one (and not just that it should be run according to some non standard business plan).

    The point of a University is not to generate as much research as possible per amount of money. The very way that statement is phrased is wrong and harmful. It suggests a completely wrong and unnatural perspective, that is fundamentally counterproductive!

    Basically what I’m saying is that just because everything can be phrased in terms of economy doesn’t mean everything should!

    The malaise of our time if there ever was one.

  • adam

    If Universities don’t get a lot of money, they can’t afford to run. People are, after all, pretty expensive to employ and generally loathe to take paycuts. Maximising revenue isn’t the goal, because there are plenty of other imperatives, but if a University believes that they can get an employee who is more likely to bring in overhead money than some other potential employees, that’s bound to be a factor. Before making a tenure commitment, which is a very large, and long-term, financial commitment, why wouldn’t they consider the same sorts of things?

    If you want a different system, then persuade voters to vote for candidates who wish send more of their taxes to research funding. Except, of course, that would probably cause a further expansion in the number of researchers in the end, with institutions coming to enjoy and eventually expect the additional funds, the ability to attract which would remain as an employment and tenure criterion and, when funds again contracted, a bunch of people would end up being screwed (and that makes sense, in part because there’d no longer be money to support them all).

    I don’t think that universities work the way that they do because of some misapprehension of how research works, or an explicit rejection of the ideals that many researchers have, but just because, one way or another, the system works in the majority of cases. If market forces change, maybe the system will, but unless researchers start working for free with donated equipment, there’s always going to be an eye on the money, both from the spending and the giving sides.

  • juniorfac

    Just to add some two cents to this discussion. I have been a junior faculty member in astronomy and astrophysics at a research university for the last three to four years. I sympathize with all those who have failed to secure grant money from NSF, NASA, or other agencies, and whose tenure may have been affected due to the lack of grant money. I didn’t have any grants for my first two years as a faculty member. I must have written close to eight to ten proposals during those years to both governmental agencies and private foundations. I went out of my way to get feedback on my proposals from senior scientists outside my institution who I knew would help me (I couldn’t approach anybody within my current institution as I knew none would be able to help me). They did in fact guide me and provided me with more feedback than I could gather from review panel comments, which we ought to know are completely useless and written in a way to guarantee less complaints to the program managers but has less to do with actual contents of the proposal. But, just to get some advice, I also talked to program managers countless of times and made myself available for review panels so I can read and study how others manage to secure research money.

    I realized that there are certain set of criteria that I need to satisfy to secure money from an agency like NSF in either astronomy or physics divisions, though none of these are fully spelled out in some guide book. Over the years, I slowly moved away from what I used to do (mostly astrophysics theory) to start new projects within large groups and to analyze data. I have managed to publish more because of these new projects, but also supervise a large group of students and postdocs now. My third year as a faculty, I was able to go back to NSF again and lay out my whole research program in a new proposal and managed to secure one of the top grants for junior faculty. Beyond NSF, I now have funding from various other agencies to support multiple postdocs and students. Finally, I am up for an early tenure decision this year. While I regret not getting funds right away as a junior faculty, as some of my colleagues elsewhere did, I have no complaints of my experience so far. I believe it is challenging, but I never blamed neither diminishing research money at funding agencies, the politics in this country, nor the lack of knowledge of review panels to comment on my proposals as the reason why I was not funded. It is clear that best research will eventually get funded some way or another. The challenge is to figure out how to do best research, as we all know in a highly competitive field.

    In some way, I am also glad that I didn’t get lots of research money right away since it allowed me to figure out on my own how to be an effective researcher. In my opinion, the tenure process is just right for somebody like me to adapt to changing research directions, funding priorities of national agencies, and to learn politics of doing funded research. I believe universities provide lots of freedom and large startup packages just because of these reasons. If you are a student or a postdoc reading this and are discouraged by the thoughts of troubles as a junior faculty in an academic job, I suggest you reconsider. For every person who is complaining, I bet there must be at least another ten to twenty who are happy with their research, funding, and the support they received from their department and university while a junior faculty. If you have a clear plan, it is hard to fail. If you do good research that impact others, I do not think funding agencies and your peers either at your institution or elsewhere want you to fail. There is a support structure, though it may be hidden. While I felt like I wasted two or more years writing proposals and not papers, at the end, I knew back then I had and I know now that I have the best job in the world and would not trade it for anything else.

  • Tony Smith

    A 12 May 2007 article in The Ames Tribune (Iowa) said:
    “… Guillermo Gonzalez, an assistant professor of astronomy and physics who argues for the theory of intelligent design, was denied tenure this semester by Iowa State University. …
    Gonzalez’s department of astronomy and physics sets a benchmark for tenure candidates to author at least 15 peer-reviewed journal articles of quality. Gonzalez said he submitted 68, of which 25 have been written since he arrived at ISU in 2001. …
    ISU considered 66 faculty cases for promotion and tenure during the past academic year. Only three, including Gonzalez, were denied tenure. …”.

    Are any of the astronomy people here on this blog able to comment on the quality of Gonzalez’s professional work ?

    If Gonazalez’s professional work is regarded as good, would the Iowa State denial of tenure be most likely based on hostility to his religious beliefs ?

    Should religious beliefs be relevant to tenure decisions in astronomy ?

    I know that this is Mark’s post and that Mark and Sean have strong views against religion, but (from their point of view) couldn’t this be a case such as the ACLU defending the rights of the USA Nazi Party to expression of free speech ?

    Tony Smith

  • Pingback: ‘Tis the Season for Tenure Flaps | Cosmic Variance()


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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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