Sunday, February 10, 2008

Boycotting assistant professorships

I'm currently reading A Ph.D. Is Not Enough: A Guide To Survival In Science. There is one chapter devoted to deciding on a career path, mainly between academia and industry/government.

It brings up some good arguments against going into academia. One oft-cited reason is the "begging for money"-- while you have the freedom to study whatever you like, you're limited by what you can find funding for. One thing that isn't often mentioned is that even fully-tenured professors still don't get to do whatever they like. By the time someone has tenure they're pretty well-known and have a lot of administrative stuff to take care of. Giving invited talks and schmoozing with NSF officials tends to crowd out time to spend meeting with students, never mind actually doing nitty-gritty research like they did in the golden days of grad school.

According to the chapter, junior professors generally have that minus the job security. Grants are often awarded based on track-record, which junior profs haven't had time to get. Also, in the first few years they need to start teaching courses from scratch rather than re-using things from past years. And, of course, they need to make a place for themselves in the community by reviewing papers, serving on PCs, writing papers, mentoring students, etc. Then, if they don't get tenure, they have to go away and start all over somewhere else.

Feibelman makes an argument that we simply shouldn't stand for that. By accepting an asst. prof job as-is, one consents to that mistreatment by The Man. And the intense competition that goes on for these few prized positions isn't giving The Man any incentive to change the way he does things. Feibelman suggests that one closely evaluate his or her priorities and recognize the inherent bias one who's spent so long in school may have toward academia (as in, we want to emulate our heroic advisors). He also suggests the option of making a name for oneself in industry/government labs and then walking right up to a university and getting a tenured or almost-tenured job right away.

I would tend to agree that a 6+ year hazing period, if that is indeed what it is, isn't good for the system. It appears from the outside that of the set of {JuniorProfessorship, Sleep, Family}, a mortal being can pick two at most. And whining about it won't do jack until enough sought-after PhDs start making ultimatums. However, I am not convinced that the ones fighting for professorships are going into it blindly. Anybody who's been in grad school for a few months knows the demands on their professors. People who have a choice between academia and industry and choose academia are usually willing to make sacrifices somewhere, whether it means their family or their hobbies or their health. Scientific research is the greater good. People who actually score academic jobs probably have done little else besides work for the last 10 years of their life-- if they didn't like it that way they would have changed some time ago. It works for them.

On the other hand, being focused to the point of peripheral blindness does somewhat correlate with being in grad school, so maybe some people are shooting for academia without knowing all the costs.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Sadly, I doubt that your average assistant professor candidate has much leverage on their prospective departments over how much room the department gives its junior faculty to establish themselves. That being said, I do hear from my friends who've gone through the process recently that departments tend to vary quite a bit in how many administrative and teaching duties they require of their new hires. When I go through that process myself, I know that I'll be biased more favorably toward such departments. Of course, I'm also in the midst of trying to do a bit of an end-run around the whole notion of struggling to get one's career going simultaneous to getting one's teaching going. Postdoc stints don't seem all that common in Computer Science, but I think they can be an extremely valuable experience -- right now, my one and only responsibility is to produce good research. Everything else (the guest lecturing, the invited talks, the applying for grants, etc.) is optional, although I'm still trying to learn as much about them as I can in this relatively protected environment. That being said, I'm a little worried about the kind of overt and indirect pressure I'll receive once I start teaching for a living...