Monday, September 19, 2016

Stories of tenure denial

I wanted to highlight Linda Wang's article about tenure denial in this week's C&EN. It's more hopeful than I might have imagined, although there's plenty of sad moments. I suspect Mary Ellen Lane (who was denied tenure at Rice) sums up one of the most painful aspects of it: 
Another consequence of tenure denial is that you can lose your sense of belonging. “It felt like I was being cast out of this place that I had felt a part of,” Lane says. “In addition to the shame that comes with failure, there’s also the social disintegration. That was the biggest surprise to me. I didn’t have a lot of friends outside of science and Rice, and that network was suddenly gone.”
Another hopeful bit of the article was the story of Rebecca Conry, who was denied tenure at University of Nevada-Reno:
Typically, after a tenure denial, faculty are granted a “terminal year,” where they wrap things up and look for another job. “It certainly was an awkward year, but there wasn’t a lot of time to sit around feeling sorry for myself,” says Rebecca Conry, who was denied tenure at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1999. “You have students to educate, job applications to prepare and submit, and you have to fit in job interviews. Just one foot ahead of the other and get through the year.” 
Conry has also found a good fit. She says that one of the things she enjoyed most about her faculty position at Reno was mentoring undergraduate students. So after she was denied tenure, she focused her search on primarily undergraduate institutions. “Many people find out that the negative tenure decision is an indication that the institution is not quite the right fit,” says Conry, who is now a tenured chemistry professor at Colby College. “You can learn from your experiences to figure out what might be a better fit.” 
When Conry interviewed for positions at primarily undergraduate institutions, she highlighted her strengths in teaching and mentoring. She told the hiring committee, “Here’s how this position is a good fit for me, here’s what I’ve learned, and here’s what I bring to the table.” That helped her overcome the stigma of having been denied tenure. 
Read the whole thing.

(This is another place where we are woefully short on statistics. What percentage of assistant professors are denied tenure? Is the rate of tenure denial going up or down in the last ten years, due to shortages of federal funding? Where do tenure-denied chemistry professors go? What percentage of them go to different institutions? What percentage of them go to industry? What percentage of them leave chemistry altogether? What happens to their students - over a ten or twenty-year period, how do their salaries track with students who graduate from the groups of tenured professors?)  

38 comments:

  1. To add to your questions on statistics: What percentage are women?

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    1. I tried really hard to find statistics on tenure denial, especially in the chemical sciences, and I could not find anything. I agree with CJ that we need more statistics on these areas.

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  2. I forgot who quoted this, but it certainly caught my attention some years ago.

    "If you need tenure you don't deserve it. If you deserve tenure, you don't need it."

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    1. As a tenure-track assistant professor (note my bias), there is certainly some truth to that quotation above and I think we can all make a long list of people that fall into the first category and a shorter list for the second category. This idea gets at the heart of many of the modern attacks on the idea of tenure...terrible teachers/mentors should not be paid to continue teaching/mentoring terribly.

      However, there are several very good reasons that tenure was created and should continue to exist. On the teaching end, professors should have some protection from being fired for saying things that are politically unpopular (or unpopular with current university administration.) In some cases, professors may teach in a way that is unpopular to students but that genuinely prepares them for their future career better. Tenure offers that protection. On the research end, many ambitious, long-term projects need tenure to protect them from the whims of policy and funding fluctuations, or from a series of failures leading up to a success.

      The system needs an overhaul, I know, but it is important to keep both the pros- and cons- in mind when that overhaul is considered.

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    2. "professors should have some protection from being fired for saying things that are politically unpopular"

      Sure, just find me one faculty member that openly supports the Republican candidate and I'll believe you.

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    3. Plenty of other places to talk politics on the Internet.

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    4. Are there politically unpopular things in chemistry? Maybe this makes sense in political science or law school. Global warming, pollution, GMO foods maybe but I can't think of any chemistry faculty members getting in trouble over these things.

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    5. That's why it's a ridiculous "good reason" for chemistry faculty. I only hear it being used when they get caught plagiarizing, or faking data, or something.

      Yeah, we get off easy compared to [redacted] studies or whatever's going on in the humanities these days. But try stating your [redacted] beliefs in an open forum, just as an aside during a lecture, and see how much protection your tenure affords you.

      btw, I literally tried to use by analogy the mildest conceivable demonstration of academic non-groupthink and Chemjobber still managed to complain.

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    6. Plenty of other places on the internet to complain about campus bias, fella.

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    7. Comment by Anon6:46p deleted.

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  3. I fully agree that the data is lacking. Undoubtedly there are some who never make their way back to teaching and some that probably leave science altogether. I think the argument can be made that the woman who ended up teaching high school really just made lemonade out of lemons. But that is really a position that should be avoided, as it is wasteful of someone's PhD training and also removes a position from someone who is more appropriately qualified. This is the reason why companies don't hire PhDs to do BS level work. It typically doesn't satisfy either party.

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    1. I'd argue that a recent PhD or an ex-industry scientist is perhaps not "appropriately" qualified, but I take exception to the logic that a former university professor is not a good fit for secondary education. Many professors are very thoughtful and reflective teachers who have experimented with alternative pedagogy for several years. Many have experience in grantsmanship (yes, high school teachers are encouraged to write grants, too!) and all have had to consider the "broader impacts" of science education in the community every time they prepare a grant. Perhaps the research side is wasted, but research is only one part of what a professor does.

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    2. Monkey at a TypewriterSeptember 19, 2016 at 4:06 PM

      I don't know about that: so much of a methodology PhD is just being a pair of hands at the bench that I'm pretty sure that the only thing that they are qualified for is BS-level CRO-ing. I've seen some prodigiously idiotic people get PhD's with multiple CNS papers (followed by pharma jobs) as they just filled out tables no questions asked and no thought required. I think the bar is a little higher for getting an academic position (at lease SOMETHING has to be between the ears...) but I wouldn't say that a lot of PhDs in organic get much of a useful training/collection of qualifications.

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    3. I don't disagree with either of you. But that doesn't get to the heart of the problem. Sure, someone with a PhD and teaching experience is a great asset to a high school class. Is what they have to offer only attainable through PhD level education? I sure don't think so.

      The issue of substandard students getting PhDs is completely unrelated. Yes, people get PhDs who don't deserve it. Maybe you think teaching high school is all they're qualified to do, but that's not the point.

      The goal of graduate school is to train someone to function in the highest echelons of research. I don't think it should be a celebratory note that someone with that training ended up teaching high school, a profession where that training wasn't necessary. There's a bigger question that MaaT is bringing up, but that's separate from what I'm saying. I'm mainly pointing out that this article uses that particular example to paint a rosier picture than it should. I also wouldn't celebrate someone with a BS in chemistry excelling as a barista because their "analytical/organizational skills" really helped them in that position. But I bet the ACS would.

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    4. @Monkey: Why call out methodology in particular? Total synthesis requires mountains of starting material to be brought up through known chemistry. How much brainpower does that take?

      To borrow from Anonymous above: the issue of substandard students getting PhDs is completely unrelated to their chosen branch of study (methods, tot syn, computations, chem bio, etc.).

      I don't get the hate on methods from total synthesis people. It's not our fault art for art's sake isn't getting funded anymore.

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    5. @Phil: make some methods that work on at least one compound outside your hyperspecific substrate table and then I'll drop the hate.

      I disagree that it's unrelated to field. In many other sub-disciplines students are actually encouraged to take ownership of their projects, rather than just play the game and pump out a bunch of cookiecutter JACS papers that don't work for shit except on para-H/Cl/Br/CH3/iPr etc. Methods people convince themselves that they're providing useful tools for pharma and total synthesis, but almost everything I've tried from reputable labs is an intractable mess as soon as I leave the optimization table safe space.

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    6. @ Frustrated: I can tell you've had a very narrow experience with "methods people," and you're minimizing something you clearly don't understand.

      How long did it take before the Suzuki reaction was applicable beyond phenylboronic acid (hint: it wasn't widely adopted in pharma until the 90's despite being first described in the late 70's)? Were the first papers therefore not worth publishing (hint: there's a third of a medal that says they were)?

      If you want to rail against PIs selling their new method as God's gift to chemistry, or the fact that PI's from prestigious institutions seem to have no problem sneaking turds past the editors, have at it. I'm with you. The world ain't fair. Cheaters do prosper.

      But to generalize against a whole group of your fellow chemists - most of whom you have never met or interacted with - that's just inviting frustration.

      If you wanted to use my new method, but you told me it's shit because it doesn't work on your pet substrate, do you think I'm going to try and help you figure out how to tweak it to make it work for you? Or am I going to just write you off and keep churning out JACS papers on other new methods? Haters gonna hate, after all.

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    7. The image of total syn people vs. methodology people is pretty silly, and speaks to Frustrated Monkey's inexperience. G1 student getting a bit big for their boots, maybe.

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  4. Yet another reason I'm glad to be out of the backstabbing, feuding, vindictive world of academia! I suspect a lot of these tenure denials are over petty rivalries.

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  5. This article seems like an awful lot of cherry-picking. I doubt that more extensive research would come to the conclusion that the denial of tenure is a positive event in one's career. I also agree with prior commentators that having a Ph.D. teach high school is a waste of the resources that went into that Ph.D.

    I also can identify with some of the methodology hate. Thinking about what gets into JACS nowadays, it's clear that the bar is MUCH lower for that field than pretty much anything else. "Oh wow, its the 10001st way to couple esoteric functional groups into C-C bonds!"

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    1. More extensive research would mean having to include negative outcomes; even extreme ones like Amy Bishop. And you know ACS isn't about trying to turn people away from funneling into the grad school pyramid.

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    2. I absolutely agree that there isn't always a happy ending to a tenure denial, but I'm hoping that these stories will provide optimism in a situation that can otherwise seem hopeless.

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    3. @Linda: Fair enough. I can see the value in providing some optimism to people in that situation. Getting denied tenure is a serious set-back - and I was a bit leery about it being spun as a positive - but you are correct in that it does not have to entirely end one's career in the field.

      Thanks for replying to these comments!

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    4. What "resources", Iron Chemist? I remember working the whole way through, it was a job, the product was published research, the rewards were that the boss would get a promotion. Grad student, postdoc, second postdoc. No, I didn't get denied tenure but it was a similar thing: Federal postdoc with a possibility of going permanent, I did not know what the real odds were against me until I didn't win. Anyway I teach high school now and I ask, what resources again? I was basically lab equipment with legs.

      It seems like a waste but really my other options all involved ME throwing in large amounts of resources, both financial and psychological, that I did not actually have. I couldn't just go around and say 'job please' because I was overdegreed and underexperienced.

      So choices were: self-fund trips to conferences, socialize, and get buddy-buddy with people who already had industry jobs. Stay in touch, routinely send them flattering messages about how great they were and how great everything they were doing was, and hope that someday one of them would like me well enough to remember me when a job opened up. Or I could go teach high school and get an actual paycheck and actually get to do and teach a bit of chemistry.

      It hurts, though, let me tell you, when you're sitting there at a networking meeting with some creep who has a startup and offered to buy me and my gf a drink and then he sees a better friend and gets up and walks away and the sinking feeling and the look in her eyes as we realize this is not a cheap bar and we just blew a week's grocery money on that bastard. Talk about 'waste'? I did not have the funding or the mental resilience to pour money into a project of networking, I was never the Prom King in the first place and never wanted to be.

      Or maybe, I could leverage the fact that I know how to program a computer, by getting another credential, like go to a Boot Camp and do an internship or two and try to combine that with the chemistry to get a job in industry that actually pays. Or I could go teach high school and get a paycheck and do something socially useful for once in my life.

      Or I could hide my PhD, get some former coworkers to back up my claims of a lesser position, and go get a job as a quality control technician in a fertilizer plant somewhere and hope to excel and someday get promoted back up to where I could perform at my full abilities. Or instead, I could go teach high school and get a paycheck, awesome health benefits that let me mitigate some of the chronic medical problems that have been plaguing me for years and might be work-related, summers off, and oh yeah I get to teach kids that chemistry is actually awesome and useful and amazing and vital to everything in our society, even if nobody wants to pay one goddamned dime for it!

      Next time I'm lowering a burning candle into a beaker of oxygen, as the kids watch, I will say as I always do "I can't believe I'm getting PAID to do this!" because to be honest, I would probably do that for free. Yet nobody expects me to. Which is amazing.

      I did my part for science. And if anybody actually wanted me, you could honestly say that my training has been wasted, but I think my 'training' was just an excuse to burnish various PI's resumes and as such it fulfilled its goals entirely. Everybody knows I do chemistry and if they wanted any chemistry done they could come ask me. I'm free this summer. I'm free every summer. Nobody is asking. I don't feel that I wasted a goddamned thing. Maybe somebody else did, but not me.

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    5. You have the most difficult and most rewarding job imaginable. I bet your students love you...and I sincerely hope my kids are fortunate enough to have teachers like you. It is so obvious that you care deeply. Thank you for what you do.

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    6. CJ - Anon 6:44 PM's comment needs to be on the front page. People need to read this.

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  6. Interesting that most of the examples are women.

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    1. If there's a big push to hire one group, but not to keep them, and the other group(s) have to fight their way in, wouldn't that naturally select for the first group to have "disproportionate" failure?

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  7. To Ms. Wang,
    Are most of the examples in your story about women because they were more willing to talk to you, versus men that you attempted to interview? Or was it more difficult for you to find men who were denied tenure.

    A related question for anyone to answer - to get tenure, must all professors on the tenure committee agree on the candidate, or just a majority?

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  8. I've seen far too many tenured faculty members unfit to teach dog school or research their way out of a wet paper bag. On the other hand, I haven't seen a single tenured professor expressing unpopular sentiments. Tenure has become a shield against accountability, it needs to go.

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    1. Nearly every PI has a pet idea that bucks consensus. People who don't have a few unconventional and controversial ideas probably aren't creative. A lot of times these ideas turn out to be right, not always, but researchers need the freedom to take a chance and explore or these discoveries won't be made . Also, where are these sucky professors? At the institutions that I've been at, the PIs were brilliant, committed to their students/postdocs, and worked their tails off. Is this just an organic synthesis thing to be whiny and resentful? Not trolling, it's just as much as I love this blog I don't get the bitterness towards success (often dripping with misogyny, btw) that pervades the comments.

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    2. The bitterness you are detecting stems from an often noted imbalance of power between PIs and their subordinates. Graduates from some programs encounter serious difficulties finding jobs that are appropriate for ther education. This isn't bitterness toward success, it is an emotional (and in some cases, appropriate) reactionary to a broken system.

      The occasional misogyny is a different, usually anonymous, phenomenon and it is easily ignored.

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    3. *reaction* (thumbs!!)

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    4. You're right, I shouldn't say words like whiny and bitterness, when I know well how scary the job search can be, and how ridiculously competitive it's become. I apologize.

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  9. It's completely fair, too, that you point to PIs who are entirely committed to their work and to helping their students find suitable positions. That has been my experience, too, for the most part, though I have many friends for whom this was absolutely not the case.

    As far as gender-bias in tenure denial goes, I have personally known only male professors who have been denied tenure. The ratio of male-to-female faculty here in my present situation, though, is 7:1, so this adds nothing to the discussion. As CJ and Ms. Wang pointed out early in the thread, there is no statistical data. The C&EN story is qualitative and the examples, incidentally, are women.

    Whether or not anyone receives tenure in my particular institution is, perhaps in not such a small way, dependent on how compatible their personality is with the larger body of tenured faculty. Yes, they have to be creative, successful, driven, and hard-working, but at least here, they also have to be willing to participate in committees and administrative functions, they need to be optimistic during recruitment, and they have to avoid any hint of personal controversy, the list goes on...in addition to other, more subtle characteristics...deference, respect, and willingness to take on petty, low-prestige responsibilities. The long and short is that they cannot rub anyone the wrong way, and that may be equally difficult for men and women. Right or wrong, it's political. (And, like the article on tenure denial, this is me relating an observation/experience, not providing conclusive data on the issue.)

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  10. echoes wrote:
    "This isn't bitterness toward success, it is an emotional (and in some cases, appropriate) reactionary to a broken system.

    The occasional misogyny is a different, usually anonymous, phenomenon and it is easily ignored."

    The first sentence I wholeheartedly agree with. I graduated back in 1989 with my Ph.D., and I'm disheartened by the downturn in the prospects for chemists at any degree level. Fortunately there is this blog to share insights and help counterbalance the (mis)information that is out there.

    As for the second sentence - it's not so easy to ignore when you're a woman. And the comments - and the attitudes behind them - persist in part because everyone is just supposed to ignore them rather than responding to them in a constructive manner, even to just say they are unacceptable and add nothing to a discussion.

    I'm not calling out this blog specifically for this issue, because I see it elsewhere on science-related blogs. Plus, the owner of this blog isn't responsible for the comments of readers. I'd rather see the comments actually, simply to see how prevalent these attitudes actually are when people can post anonymously.

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    1. The problem is that the attitudes behind these comments are unlikely to change because of anything that is said here, no matter how constructively the comments are addressed. They make me mad, too, because I (also a woman, also sensitive to the hostility of men who feel threatened by affirmative action), tend to take them personally if I do not make an active effort to disregard them. I don't have the energy or the desire to get into an unwinnable battle of the sexes every time I encounter incidences of misogyny, no matter how much I like a blog or its commenters. For me, it just isn't worth the raised blood pressure.

      You're right. I suppose my comment "it is easily ignored" could be interpreted to mean "we're just supposed to ignore" it. No, I don't think that. But my world is a nicer place when I pick my battles wisely.

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