Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Professors, retirement and marriages

In this week's C&EN, a worthwhile article by Linda Wang on emeritus professors and their transitions, specifically Ed Vedejs, Al Padwa and Nancy Mills. It contained a very interesting (and unintentional, I suspect) contrast of marriages of the professors:
Nancy S. Mills, who will retire next year from Trinity University, a predominantly undergraduate institution in San Antonio, says she’s so busy finishing up her research projects that she hasn’t had time to think about shutting down her lab.... [snip] 
...Mills made a promise to her husband years ago that she would retire at age 65 so that they could spend more time traveling and hiking together. They plan to move to Oregon after the current school year. “I’m grateful to my husband for forcing us into this idea because the one thing I want to do is leave before the department wants me to leave,” she says. 
Being retired doesn’t mean disengaging from chemistry, however. In fact, in her emeritus status, Mills will be joining a research group at the University of Oregon that is doing computational chemistry in an area related to her current research. But she will be doing research at her own pace, and she will have the freedom to take extended trips with her husband. 
...In addition, Padwa continues to travel, climb mountains, build mobiles—and he’s dating again. After he retired, he and his wife realized that they had grown apart, and so they divorced. “What happens is that sometimes you go through a long period of time with someone you’re married to but you’re never really connected because you’re involved in your science,” he says. “This is what happens, I think, with very dedicated professionals.”
Professor Padwa's comments about very dedicated professionals is a bit frightening to me, considering that some version of that (although I'll never reach his stature!) is a goal of mine. The health of my marriage is more important to me than my career, but I am sure that a younger Al Padwa would have agreed with my statement, too.

To be sure, "growing apart" is something that happens to many marriages, dedicated professionals or not. I presume that there's a spike in divorces at retirement, too, but it's not something I have data on yet. (It'd be interesting to know what rate of divorce chemistry professors have, especially compared to other highly educated fields.)

26 comments:

  1. Im stunned that a faculty member actually said this: “I’m grateful to my husband for forcing us into this idea because the one thing I want to do is leave before the department wants me to leave,”.

    I have seen so many examples of faculty that have stopped getting grants in their 50's and just coast through on full salary (at my school) until they drop dead (or close to it), usually making 6 figs a year. We have former dept chair making 0.25 million a year even though he doesnt have a grant, anf has no lab. Mostly just sits in his office.

    And here I am about to lose my job as a research associate busting my butt making $47 K a year, in my 50's.

    Life is terribly unfair.

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    1. Let's start a "name-and-shame" list of people like that. There are too many of them. What do you say, CJ?

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    2. I've thought about calling my local newspaper. But I'm afraid it get back to me.

      We are told not to be judgmental, right? *sigh*

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    3. Indeed, one could not expect a local newspaper to want to get involved in what would surely appear to be regional politics.

      However, if it were done on a national, and not local level, then this would ultimately reflect on the university/college. And no shadow could possibly fall on you. If CJ were to sponsor such a list, then I will add in a few names as well.

      Finally, no change will ever come about if we accept the system, and not be judgmental, right?

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    4. I dont think giving names is a good approach, particularly since I really dont follow these people every moment, to know what they are doing exactly. Also, the possibility of lawsuits comes to mind for defamation, and I can't afford to get a lawyer.

      But I think my guess is pretty good.

      There is a terrible problem here, particularly in a Dept my boss has an affiliation with. I calculated (state salaries are listed) that if the University got rid of 3 deadwood profs in this dept it would say over 1/2 million a year. Even 10% of that savings would double my salary. These guys will probably each spend 10 years collecting salary before they retire, so that's a 5 million dollar loss to the taxpayer.

      There was another guy who made 6 figs a year for 10 years, without doing anything--for his teaching he made people read papers in class. That's a million dollar loss to the taxpayer right there.

      Millions and millions wasted, while I live in a cheap apt. with a pull-chain light fixture.

      Just kidding about the pull-chain.

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    5. Believe me, if a professor gets a grant, then his or her employer will let the whole world know through on-line newsletters, etc. If you haven't heard of the person who you refer to winning a grant, then s/he has not received one.

      I don't doubt your claims; tenured professors sitting on their butts until retirement is nothing new. But you are taking the easy way out by spending your time by carrying out the calculations which you refer to (and moaning) instead using your time to verify your story.

      As far as the hypothetical question of law suits is concerned, that is why this is an anonymous discussion. You could also start out by posting on Chemistry Reddit, as long as you don't include any photos of underage girls :-)

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    6. NMH this may sound a little overly but most of us learned the lesson that "life is not fair" when we were about 4 and sooner than that if you had siblings. "Life is not fair" has been reinforced a number of times throughout my life. Life "can" be "just" but it is rarely fair. We in the US are particularly blessed, but we are not (nor should we be) blessed with equal outcomes, but with equal opportunity (or as nearly so as we can be). Luck favors the prepared and we suffer the consequences of our own decisions. Fairness has little to do with it. If you don't like your situation, make a bold decision and change it.

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    7. H: I basically agree with what you are saying, but you should not take more than you deserve. If you do not have to good ethical conscensce to stop cheating the system (milking the academic gravy-train, despite the fact you may be doing very little) then I'm all for setting up laws to direct you to stop, if you cannot properly direct yourself.

      GC: I see nothing wrong with "whining" (my word) about lazy, overpaid professors. At times it is difficult to see another perspective and so mine, as an older, underpaid academic laborer, should be heard. It is important to consider the perspective of the "deadwood" as well, but I think many outside of academic science would be disgusted, which suggests to me that there is something very wrong with the current system.

      I am not certain how the system should be changed.

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    8. NMH and Generic Chemist, this is somewhat relevant to your discussion and you might find some interest in it:

      http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/most-university-undergrads-now-taught-by-poorly-paid-part-timers-1.2756024

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    9. I'd guess that systematic (and pervasive) abuses of the tenure system led/are leading directly to the benefit-less adjunct system we are seeing today. So, unless something changes, this will continue until the deadwood literally gets cleared out by retirement or more likely actual death (like with a doctor's certificate), and departments will increasingly balance their books on the backs of nontenured adjuncts.

      Maybe like other retirement benefits, we'll see a move away from defined-benefit lifetime employment guaranteed to defined-contribution limited contracts. In our lifetime?

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    10. Ah, "O&G Chemist",

      Actually, I am a 51 year old (like the lady featured in your article) who just lost his job as an assistant professor in OC because my employer wants to stop doing ANY organic chemistry research. After I've located a new job, then I may go public on the matter. But not before. My former employer is in a "hire-at-will" state. The AAUP was a bunch of wimps. This university can, and will, go to hell.

      So anyway, I was teaching as an adjunct over this summer. I was paid roughly $ 4K for teaching Gen Chem 2 to roughly 45 students.

      Your article indicates that 50% of all Canadian university classes are taught by adjuncts. Reliable information from the Internet indicates that this number is 70% in the US.

      Did you hear the story of the + 80 year old adjunct at Dunesque University who could not afford her cancer medicine and died of a heart attack? Just do a Google search for "dunesque adjunct" if you are curious.

      Only now, adjuncts in this country are starting to unionize. It was my impression that unions were stronger in Canada than in the US, right? Also, socialized health insurance in Canada sure beats "Obamacare" down here.

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    11. Wow, that was quite the read! In light of the fact that I will probably lose my job next year, with only and adjunct teaching to support me, I guess I'm doomed.....

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    12. I'll chip in:

      With respect to the deadwood issue, certainly there are a lot of faculty who coast after tenure. I have a bunch of colleagues like that. Some guys are just plain lazy. In some cases though, the deadwoodification is involuntary. The funding situation is terrible, and just wanting a grant really, really badly hasn't been enough to get one for a long time. As a depressingly large number of people in our field have discovered, you can beat yourself up for 5, 10, however many years and have nothing to show for it. If there's no benefit to doing something that's annoying and stressful, why do it? A lot of money was spent training these folks, and it's a crying shame that the scientific world has discarded them.

      With respect to the adjuncts, it's shameful how poorly they're treated. Now that universities and colleges have realized how cheaply they can teach the courses with them, they're not going back to the old ways voluntarily. Lower salaries, no multi-hundred thousand dollar start-up packages, the ability to essentially fire an employee on a whim, and best of all a large pool of desperate applicants. What's not to love? The Generic Chemist is right in that the only way for things to change for the better is if the adjuncts form a union. He's also right in that the AAUP is just full of hot air.

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    13. Although difficult for me to think about another persons woe's if I am not in their shoes, I think I can possibly understand how frustrating it would be to be a faculty and not be able to get grants. I would presume most faculty would prefer to have grants and do the work that the school hired them to do, but of course that it is only possible if you have grants.

      I guess what I would like to see is that pain felt when the grants don't come in be passed around more equally through the department and school. It seems that administrators and faculty on 100% salary do not suffer in a manner comensirate to the people who lose their jobs if the grants don't come in. I guess what I would like administrators and faculty suffer some kind of paycut, say 10%, if they have no grants and the department is losing grant money. Just an idea.

      Of course, if this happens, then that, in part, takes away the carrot of wanting to work-hard to be a faculty member.

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    14. The institution I recently left has a similar problem, several faculty at $250K a year that have not published in years (mid to early 2000's), that no longer have grad students, and teach one class a semester. I think if the tax payers did know (this was a state university) there would be wide spread outrage. These men combined bring in $1 million a year and no longer contribute to the development of the university. the University needed to hire new research active faculty but didn't have the money. These men are essentially killing the future of the dept. that they help to create and define. I think one solution could be a non research active status. If you don't want to retire that is fine, but if you are no longer doing research at a primarily research university, you should be teaching more and you should not be collecting $250k a year for 3-5 hours a week of work. Honestly it has made me not want to pursue a faculty position because the only way these professors can continue to take advantage of the system is untenured faculty that come in for a fraction of the price and bust their butts getting grants, publishing papers, teaching classes, and mentoring grad students.

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  2. My recollection of grad school (UIUC, early 2000's) was a lot of divorced profs and a lot of screwed-up teenage and young adult children of professors. My own advisor was still married, but had a son who dropped out of high school and was in a reformatory for a while. It probably didn't help that his dad spent a lot more time at work than home; I recall he was often in his office past midnight. I also recall a woman professor who seemed like a nice person, but was rumored to have an adult daughter who was estranged from her - very weird.

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    1. Likewise, while an undergrad at McGill, all of the faculty were divorced and many were dating their grad students. The only exception was a Korean quantum chemist, who never married. One very well-known organic professor there (now deceased) even had kids with his grad student. His children from his real wife refused to speak with him.

      During grad school, the professor in charge of the NMR lab was shagging his co-ed grad student. His buddy (my supervisor and head of department) looked the other way. After the retirement of the NMR Professor, guess who got his job?

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    2. When were you an undergrad at McGill? I worked one summer in the chemistry department in the early 90s (but I was an engineering student) and I had no idea!

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    3. I graduated in 1985 with a BSc. Do you remember George Just? He was a really great guy and super organic chemist. I regret not staying there for a doctorate with him. But he was still humping his co-ed grad student at the time.

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    4. Huh. It appears that our superficial sexual predilictions become clear in this particular environment. Perhaps I can publish this idea in PNAS, become a faculty member, and hump grad students. Nice......

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    5. Hi "Bring the Movies",

      This is a great idea which you suggest. However, we must be scientific about it. Along those lines, we need some data. I know of someone who is interested in polling faculty members about employment-related issues pertaining to their PhD students. It might be interesting to add a polling question along the lines of "Do you know of faculty members in your department who are currently engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with graduate students, and if so, then how many faculty members?"

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    6. I'm game. You get the data, I write up the discussion. Of course, the mechanism is clear: Evo pysch predicts that Old profs will be attracted to young fertile women, and young women will be attracted to relatively high status profs to satisfy their hypergamy and desire to pay for the private school for their kids. But as to why this manesfetation of normal, basic Evo Psych is particularly acute in this environment I'm not clear about. Perhaps that can lead to another grant proposal'

      But I sure as heck wouldn't mind riding that gravy train. Its good to be an old male prof. Tenure, and young chicks. What's not to love?

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    7. Hey, "Bring the Movies", wait a second: it sounds like your plan calls for me to be the "co-worker", while you get to be the PI, along with qualifying to get the young chicks. That isn't the way it works here!

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  3. This is exactly why I decided to teach and research at a PUI, where I am currently. I was a B- student as an undergrad but fell in love with research. Somehow I got into a pretty decent chem grad school at a major big 10 university (maybe they mixed up my transcripts?), then (because I loved research) worked my butt off to earn a postdoc at a top 5 ivy league school. I was married, and already recognized the strain this unsustainable work-life balance was taking on my relationship with my wife. But it really hit me hard when I was around some of the most "successful" chemists in the world, very few of whom were truly happy, and many who had depressing personal lives. I couldn't rationalize working under these conditions my whole life, and I also couldn't justify asking young grad students to spend 5-6 years getting a phd in org synth with very little chance of getting a good job. It's really a shame the way things are right now.

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  4. This sort of thing is one reason (among others) that I decided not to pursue a tenure-track position at a PhD-granting university after my successful post-doc. Not saying that it was a guarantee that I'd get one of those positions, but I knew, in the back of my head, that long term, it was unlikely that I would be able to correctly prioritize my life. I'd love the research, continued learning, the challenges, the teaching, and the mentoring, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of my current industry job and get to work regular hours, more or less.

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  5. It has become a totally miserable career ladder for all but the most successful, and I might qualify for the top percent of successful. It is basically a multilevel marketing scheme at this point where you make a decent living only by having a pyramid of drones under you who do not. The effect on personal and family issues let alone health and happiness is ultimately unacceptable in my opinion.

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