Lifestyle Choices

By Sean Carroll | April 4, 2011 9:13 am

It’s hard to have a clear-eyed discussion about academic jobs and tenure, both because emotions and stakes are very high and because everyone (including me) tends to universalize their personal experience. So let me just jot down some closing thoughts in the interest of clarity.

As Julianne says, there is a worry that passionate young scientists who read about how hard it is to get jobs or tenure will be dissuaded from even trying. I certainly appreciate that, and wouldn’t want to be responsible for scaring anyone away from this job I love so much myself. On the other hand, there is a countervailing worry: that in our attempts to convey our own enthusiasm for this career, we will be insufficiently honest about the difficult challenges it entails. I want to be as clear and open as possible about both the joys and the hurdles, and leave it up to responsible individuals to make their own choices. Of course there are many people who happily violate various of the guidelines I suggested, and nevertheless have no trouble getting tenure. It’s the underlying of the guidelines, not any of the individual points, that I would rather have explicit than hidden.

I sometimes hear people complain that senior scientists paint a rosy picture to lure unsuspecting students into their labs, shielding them from the harsh realities of the job market, just to squeeze a few years of indentured servitude out of them before they are blindsided by the realities of the academic career path. Most such griping, I figure, has to be some kind of defense mechanism; I certainly know that when I was in grad school we were all completely aware of what the job market was really like, and talked about it all the time. I make sure to talk openly about it with prospective students, and with students who want to have me as their advisor. But my sense is that there is not as much open talk about the tenure process, so I thought I could add some perspective. My guidelines were quite purposefully stark, to balance some of the vagueness that often characterizes the topic. As long as the institution of tenure exists, some people will be denied it, which is inevitable; what is not fine is if people are legitimately surprised when it happens. That should never occur.

It shouldn’t come as news that getting tenure at a top place requires a certain amount of focus and dedication to the task at hand. It’s not nearly as bad as, say, a concert violinist or an olympic gymnast. Only a very few people get to have these highly sought-after jobs, and it will naturally be beneficial to try as hard as you can if you want to be one of them. My purpose in the blog post was to emphasize what form that trying should take if that is your goal, not to frighten people with how hard it is.

One thing I very purposefully did not say is that getting tenure at a super-prestigious place is the primary goal every scientist should have. That would be crazy, and I’ve argued against the academic tendency to fetishize prestige elsewhere. There are many ways to be happy, and your task should be to harmonize your interests and abilities with your opportunities, not simply to aim for some externally-validated goal and judge anything less to be a failure.

Put it this way: if I were to abuse my mastery of time and space to send that blog post back in time to myself ten years ago, so that I had a much better idea than I actually did what would count for getting tenure — I would essentially not do a single thing differently. A couple of tiny things here and there, maybe, but I wouldn’t want to have given up any of the things that I loved to do out of fear of admitting that there were things I enjoy other than doing research in physics. (I’ve made more mistakes than I can possibly count, but the general distribution of how I spend my work time hasn’t been one of them.)

You don’t get into this game for the money and the glamour; you do it because there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing, and I’ve taken advantage of the freedom afforded by an academic position. I have no regrets that I wrote my GR textbook; I’m proud of the result (even if there were more typos than were acceptable in the first printing) and it has helped some people learn a fascinating subject. If the alternative to getting tenure were living homeless and in poverty I would no doubt been more willing to compromise, but as it is I’ve managed to do what I like to do and continue to get paid for it. While my career has had its ups and downs, overall I’m having a blast.

At the same time, I don’t want to push an unreflective “you should always just follow your dreams, and the world will simply have to conform!” line. That’s a lazy conceit. Most people in the world don’t have that choice; they have to work to make money and put food on the table, not just to pursue their passions. There’s nothing wrong with doing work to earn a living. Most janitors, farmers, secretaries, and factory workers do it for the money, not for self-actualization. The fact that I get paid to think about the origin of the universe and write books about it is a privilege, and I never take that privilege for granted. Ten thousand years ago there wouldn’t have been any such option (and one thousand years ago it probably would have involved living in a monastery). It’s not an option for most people in the world today.

Working as a professional scientist (or scholar more generally) is an amazing gift, and I treasure it every day. I wish everyone who wanted to could do it. Being as that’s not the case, I hope people who want to join the club do so with an accurate as possible an impression of what it entails, for better or for worse. Almost all for the better.

In short: pursuing dreams = good. Ignoring reality = bad. Inner honesty = good. Making smart decisions = hard. Living with yourself the next morning = most important.

Enough with the tedious navel-gazing! Tomorrow: poetry!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Personal, Top Posts
  • Matt Dodds

    Good read, Sean. Yes, I am glad you wrote that textbook, I have learned a lot from it.

    Matt Dodds

  • James

    I’d like to second Matt @1’s comment. I particularly enjoyed reading a textbook that gave over enough space at the beginning to a proper discussion of the basis of manifolds, topology and (pseudo)Riemannian geometry etc (although I’ve never quite understood the segue from differential volume forms to integral measures).

  • Rob Knop

    I certainly know that when I was in grad school we were all completely aware of what the job market was really like, and talked about it all the time.

    It was the same here — when I was in grad school, we were generally aware of haw awful the job market in Physics was.

    On the other hand, *before* grad school, I had no idea. Indeed, just before I started grad school (in 1990), I remember seeing various news stories about how there was going to be a “shortage of scientists”, and thinking that I was in a very good position….

  • NoJoy

    I think there’s a typo in your parenthetical comment about typos in your GR textbook. :)

  • Sean

    Of course. Just testing you there. Good catch!

  • Bob McElrath

    I was totally aware of the difficulty of getting a faculty position. This is mostly due to the fact that every place I’ve been for the last 10 years has held a hire virtually every year. I never saw a poor physicist come for one of these interviews. I just didn’t think about it. I liked physics more, and figured if did good physics, other people would figure it out eventually and hire me. And if the physics I’m doing is not good enough, then I didn’t deserve to be here anyway. Boy, was I foolish. Physics is the only thing I really care about, and we should systematically be doing a better job of it.

    The hiring situation is simply perverse. When you have a 10:1 ratio of the applicant pool size to positions, crazy, ridiculous things can happen. In some places, applicants are required to spend their own money on a transoceanic flight to come *apply* for the job. (not even interview, *apply*). In some of those, they have to take a written test, as though they’re thrown back to grad school. In others, applicants are given 10 minutes to summarize everything they’ve ever done, and in a marathon of ridiculousness, people have to sit and watch this trainwreck, all day long, as hundreds of applicants come though, in some poorly thought-out idea of fairness. In other places, a small number of applicants are invited at the same time, as if they were on a dating show, each trying to one-up the other, in the hopes one candidate doesn’t try to scratch the eyes out of another. It’s easier on the university, but disrespectful to the candidates. In many other places, the desired candidate is a foregone conclusion, but a call is put out anyway to satisfy university or funding requirements. Applicants put their time and hopes into a fixed game. In most circumstances, people hire their friends in circles (and students of their friends), which can create self-propagating circles of idiocy, never having to face a critic. In many, many places, there is unstated competition between senior and junior candidates. (senior = already has a faculty position) It should come as no surprise that people who *already* have a faculty position, postdocs and graduate students have published more, and look a lot better on paper. But in actuality, this is used by the senior candidates as a game to get more money or other concessions out of their existing employer. I’ve seen many hires cancelled because the university unwisely selected a candidate that was playing this game. I’ve seen candidates do it over and over again, and somehow universities don’t get wise to it. That sexy long CV wins over a more rational evaluation of whether this person would actually come to North Idaho State… And of course universities are secretive about who the senior candidates might be, because each person on the committee secretly wants to play this game too.

    I claim that the difficulty of getting a faculty job has mostly to do with the size of the applicant pool, and the need to reduce it. The hoops put in place select only the determined or uninformed. The hoops do not, in general, improve the quality of physics being done by the community. Anyone *that* determined to be a physics professor, is spending too much time satisfying other people’s expectations, and is not working on his or her own ideas. It reduces the amount of serious thought going on. It increases the publication rate, and increases the amount of time we have to spend evaluating ridiculous ideas. If you have been to a conference with a show of hands on how many people believe in e.g. supersymmetry, you’ll know that the numbers are dismal (~10%) and all other theories are less than that. Everyone publishes on it anyway, and shelves their skepticism, in order to make it through one of these hoops. In the process, other ideas are simply not investigated, because they’re too risky, and won’t get you a faculty job. Why are we here again?

    I look forward to the coming data from the LHC, dark matter, and cosmology. Data, ultimately determines who is best at physics, and which one of us can explain the universe. Any psychoses that arose in unfortunate periods without a lot of data, will melt away in the face of it. (mostly)

    Does YOUR hiring procedure improve the quality of physics done by the community, improve the likelihood that candidates will make a fundamental discovery, or improve our understanding of the universe? Or are you just creating flaming hoops to see if a caged animal will jump through it, because you need to reduce the applicant pool?

  • spyder

    I suppose in some way, you are writing about jobs on this propitious day marking the killing of MLK, Jr after his speech on the rights of workers. Joseph Stiglitz also wrote about workers today, well actually he wrote about the owners of the workers, the One Percent. There is a humility that must be acknowledged when someone acquires tenure, because it took a great many other people working for that singular achievement. As Stiglitz said:
    The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.

  • grad

    Sean & Rob, you seem to agree that while grad students have a good picture of the academic job market, undergrads do not. I did not either and did not think much about the what would happen after six years in grad school. Do I regret my decision to come to grad school? NO, not at all. Would I have not come to grad school if I knew about the job market as I do now? Quite possibly. So what should I say to the similarly naive undergrads who are visiting their prospective grad school these days? Any advice, except to hide when they are around? I certainly do not want to scare them off by talking jobs before they are in grad school.

    Second, given the large bottleneck that exists at the postdoc-to-faculty transition, does it even make sense for the (passionate) just-above-average grad students to pursue academia? The odds are certainly stacked against him/her.

  • nevada

    If you look at the greatest scientist in each of the last five centuries, it appears that the trend is towards amateurs taking the top spot. Galileo in the 16th century was a professor, as was Newton in the 17th. But then the amateurs take over and the top guy in each of the following three centuries was a hobbyist (Lavoisier, Darwin, Einstein).

    So what are the odds that this trend will continue and that an amateur will avoid the tenure-track rat race and come out on top in the 21st century?

  • anon

    I am a little baffled, Sean, that in retrospect you wouldn’t have even decided to write that GR book after tenure. Would waiting a few years have done any harm? Don’t feel you have to answer if this comment is too personal, and sorry.

  • Julianne

    grad —

    Currently, when I advise undergrads who are thinking of pursuing grad school, I am very upfront with them. I stress that if there is any other option that is out there that they might find appealing, they should consider it. I try to explain that the job market is lousy, and that they need to be OK with their decision to pursue this, even if it doesn’t wind up with their being a faculty member down the road. So, some of us try to dissuade them, though frankly, it rarely works. (FYI, I’m more assiduous about it these days, as the market has gotten worse).

    And it turns out that sometimes the students are right to ignore the advice — I know a number of students who were unexceptional as undergrads, but turned into really top notch scientists during grad school, and then launched themselves into reasonable careers.

  • Kevin Lim

    I’m glad you wrote your GR textbook too. It was a great help in taking me along this path of being a grad student doing research in GR…

  • Jog

    It’s not about money or scarcity of resources. I am fortunate enough to be independently wealthy, and I sometimes wonder why smart physics graduate students who want to go into academia don’t go and become rich and buy their own chair(or building), tenure be damned? No, they want to earn that tenure, the respect of colleagues, and so forth. But if the system is as corrupt or broken as some say, it that really worth it or any different than simply buying it?

    It is relatively easy to earn a few million if you’re smart enough, and certainly physics grads are — perhaps society is saying something here.

  • Bee

    Your advices are all well and fine and, yes, quite depressing, but if you’ve been around long enough to think about tenure you know the depressing facts anyway, it’s not like they’re top secret. You could maybe add more explicitly that what you’re writing is about the USA. Some European countries don’t even have tenure-(track). You make it seem as if there’s no research worth mentioning outside the country you happen to live in.

  • anon

    #13: “It is relatively easy to earn a few million if you’re smart enough”. This is probably the most naive thing I’ve ever read on this blog.

  • Richard Scalzo

    Thanks, Sean and Julianne, for the thoughtful commentary. (And thanks to Sean for writing that GR book despite whatever negative impact it may or may not have had on your tenure decision — it’s the book I would have wanted to write if I were in a position to do so, and I recommend it highly to others.)

    I think Sean’s earlier specific notes about what might be going through a tenure committee’s collective consciousness during the review process are just the kind of thing we (as aspiring academics) need to hear. It took me till postdoc #2 before I feel like I really started to figure some of this out, thanks in part to a few excellent informal mentors who were both blunt and very specific. It’s one thing to know that being an academic involves thinking about the universe and writing papers, and another to know which personal strengths to exploit and weaknesses to shore up, how to spin and market your (already good, hopefully) work to the community, how to choose which problems to spend your time on, how to form and manage effective research collaborations etc. That takes not just stubborn tenacity, but also more self-awareness and initiative than many aspirants may at first realize.

    Also, when advising undergrads and grad students, I tell them about the crap job market, but I also impress deeply on them that it’s their own sole responsibility to look after themselves in the context of that market. Mentors are out there, but you have to find them and cultivate the mentorship relationship. Supervisors and managers are not (necessarily) mentors, and often, whether intentionally or not, they may require things of you that get you off track — and it’s then up to you to negotiate and maintain healthy boundaries. And so on. All of which is probably just as true in any job market as it is in academia, for that matter.

  • Dave

    I am just wondering how much of this discussion applies generally and how much is specific to theoretical physics/astronomy. I feel like a PhD in an applied subject, such as computer science, statistics, operations research, engineering, or even chemistry or biology, has many more industrial applications. Thus, the demand for candidates from industry is much higher, and perhaps an academic job is easier to get.



  • lolwut

    13. Jog Says: “It is relatively easy to earn a few million if you’re smart enough, and certainly physics grads are — perhaps society is saying something here.”

    Relative to what?

    You really think everyone at the physics-grad level of intelligence who is NOT a millionaire just doesn’t want the money?

  • AC

    Grad students are often aware of the dismal academic job prospects in their field … and yet, nonetheless, (t00) many of them are convinced that nevertheless they will be one of the few who land that tenure-track position. There is a bit of a Lake Woebegone effect going on.

  • Eliahu

    I would like to point that the discussion omits a few important points such as what is the purpose of tenure and what happens after you get the tenure.

    Before getting into the discussion as a response to Dave; in the last several years with an average of 2 open positions per year (in computer science) we get more than 250 applications for these openings. Per my experience, it is much more difficult to get a “good” (use your definition of good) job in academia than in industry.

    Back to the tenure system I found out that many tenured professors, and non-tenured professors, students, and people from the general public have managed to forget that the tenure system is in place in order to protect academic freedom. So that people like Sean can “prove” that the sun is circling the earth (or vice verse) without being afraid of loosing their academic position (in the best case).

    Related to this, many professors view the tenure as an early retirement or an early partial retirement. In any case, the tenure comes with unprecedented job security (in US terms). For some, this is a driving force for seeking the tenure.

    I apologize for the negative tone; my intention, however, is to shade light on other aspects of the issue, beyond the prestige and the ability to combine work with passion.

  • Charon

    “farmers… do it for the money”

    Are you f&*@ing kidding me?

    Do you know anything about farming? About how many small farms disappear all the time? About how the average age of farmers is rather high, because it’s an incredibly hard job without monetary reward, and most of the kids are staying away?

    “As the U.S. farm population has dwindled, the average age of farmers continues to rise. In fact, about forty percent of the farmers in this country are 55 years old or older (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The graying of the farm population has led to concerns about the long-term health of family farms as an American institution.”

  • Charon

    “Low profitability of small commercial farms contributed to their declining shares of farms and production. Nearly 60 percent of small commercial farms had negative operating profits in both 1991 and 2007.”

    And the vast majority of farmers are working small farms.

    I know this might seem like a minor point, but it really, really irritates me than Sean thinks farmers are in it for the money. (And I know “doing it for the money” isn’t the same as “earning lots of money”, but farmers could earn a lot more money doing something else. Any wage is higher than $0. No one ever loses $200,000 in a year by flipping burgers at minimum wage.)

    And for the record, I’m an astrophysicist who doesn’t even have a garden. But farms are really important, because, you know, we all eat and stuff.

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  • Cutter McCool

    As a chemist working for over ten years in the chemical industry in research & development, where industry jobs get MANY applicants, only a few of the top scientists–often after having worked in the company for a decade or more and having built a reputation–seem to land academic or federal jobs. Off the top of my head: one left for NIST (experience: 8 yrs), another for Los Alamos (experience: 20+ yrs), another for Lehigh University (experience: 10 yrs), and another for the national laboratory of Spain (experience: 20+ yrs).


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About Sean Carroll

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


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