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

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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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