Monday, October 31, 2016

"A risk-averse person"

I read with interest the cover story on academic tenure (C&EN, Sept. 19, page 28). I believe it accurately captured the essence of the debate about the value of tenure in our current academic climate. In my 25 years as a faculty member at a major land-grant university, I have seen changes over the years. I have also had the privilege of serving under the leadership of some excellent administrators, but have suffered under the burden and the weight of others. 
Twenty-five years ago when I was hired as an assistant professor, the main mantra was “publish or perish.” The tenure and promotion process was unambiguous (at best) and lacked transparency. Today, our assistant professors have mentoring committees and multiple-year checkups and other systems to elucidate the process; all this is good. 
When I started here, the deans and chancellors knew me and knew what I did. Today, however, many administrators use a variety of metrics to “quantify” research, teaching, and service impact. I have no problem making these metrics, but I wonder sometimes if faculty effectiveness is quantifiable. 
My h-index is 19, I publish in journals with an impact factor of 1.63, and I generate XX external dollars; does this mean I am doing research that really matters and really makes a difference? In response to this, I share an idea with our new faculty, one that says, “Administrators can count, but they cannot read.” An administrator can tell you that you have seven refereed journal articles per year, but they cannot evaluate the relative impact or importance of those papers. An administrator can count your grant dollars, and the resulting overhead that comes with them, but seldom do they ever ask, “Why are you doing this research?” or ask, “What is the relevance” of this research to the state and nation? 
I am very happy to be in a tenured faculty position. I work in the area of agrochemicals, and the instability of companies, as demonstrated by massive mergers and buyouts, reinforces my attitude of being a risk-averse person. To quote a colleague of mine who commented after many company people were “let go” after mergers, “These low-paying government jobs are not all bad.” Yes, I could make substantially more money working for a company, but I really enjoy what I do and I have the academic freedom to pursue those areas of inquiry that matter to me and to my stakeholders and to my state. I can also write this letter. 
Thomas C. Mueller
Seems to me that Professor Mueller has it pretty good. Question is: will current students and professors have it equally good? I suspect the answer is 'no'?

(Can the tradeoff in pay versus security be quantified? If a professor takes a position for $10,000 less than an industrial position and gets tenure, how much is the potential pay gap at the end of a 30 year career, assuming the industrial person doesn't get laid off?

Back of the envelope calculation: In 2015, the median salary for academic ACS members was $78,000, while the median industrial salary (heh) was $115,000. Over a 30 year period, this gap would be a pretty substantial amount of money. I don't have the time at the moment to do the calculation, but my guess is that it would amount to a $500,000 gap over a career - that's a lot of money.) 


  1. I interpreted "academia" in that C&EN infographic to mean everyone employed in academia, including students and post-docs, so I don't think it is a fair comparison.

    1. It's a fair question, i.e. do they include students and postdocs? Here's the ACS ChemCensus report definition for "workforces"):

      "Workforce refers to respondents who were either employed full-time, part time, as a
      post doctorate or fellowship, or are unemployed by actively seeking employment
      (excludes not working and not seeking, and fully retired)."

      I sense that excludes graduate students, but includes postdocs. Here's the other reason that I think that academic salary number isn't being dragged down by graduate students. From the ChemCensus report:

      "Doctorate salary ranges from a median of $130,000 for chemists working in the industry sector and
      $79,300 among those employed in the academia sector."

      So if you exclude those without a Ph.D., the number goes up to $79,300.

      I think the reason the academic number is so low is probably the relatively high number of ACS members who are professors at B.S./M.S. degree granting colleges and universities. The median salary for those (see page 60: is in the 45k and 60k range respectively.

    2. i would say you have hit on the key point here. my PhD advisor was making $120k in salary alone prior to tenure. my undergraduate advisor was making around 60k with tenure

  2. I don't think academia will have it good, but looking at how companies employ people (not for long, or as "postdocs") I don't think industrial chemists will, either. You're also going to have to save more in an industrial position to mitigate unemployment and, perhaps, be willing to live in more expensive places to remain employed (meaning you can't do what you would otherwise like with your life). I don't think this calculation is going to give unambiguous results.

    If you're risk-averse (and ten year-long education cycles tend to select for risk-averse people, I think), I don't think science is going to be an attractive field. Talking about (S)TE(M) skills and actually paying people to work in those fields seem to be two very different things, and at some point, money talks and everything else walks.

  3. Your calculation neatly works out to tuition for two kids at a fancy private college.

    You also forgot that academic salaries are for 9 months, so they can often be 2/9 higher when folks are paying themselves summer salary out of grants. A well-funded prof making, say, $90k could actually be making $110k.

  4. Your calculation ignores the fact that academic chemists can have longer careers. Yes, industrial chemists make more while employed but their careers will likely end in their 50s when the company lets them go and they're unable to find new jobs due to pervasive age discrimination. Academic chemists, on the other hand, can work as long as they want to - many work well into their 70s, 80s, or even 90s. That extra 20-40 years makes a huge difference. Plus, the academic chemists don't have to constantly worry that some bean counter will decide to outsource the chemistry department to China where the work can be done more cheaply.