Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Could the faculty of yesteryear compete today?

Via Twitter, an interesting comment from a graduate student: 
"A successful, well-known chemist admitted that they probably wouldn't have been hired tenure-track today."
That's not the first time I've heard senior professors express such a comment, so I threw it out there on Twitter:
To senior professors among chemTweeps:  
Did you hear your elders say "I wouldn't have been qualified today" back when you were younger?
I thought the most thoughtful answer came from friend-of-the-blog Chris Cramer:
you know, it's more subtle than it sounds. when a senior faculty member says that, it's not really a "gosh, kids are smarter nowadays"  
it's more recognition that the "frontiers" of the field have moved (as they must) so that OUR proposals from xx years ago would now be / routine and uncompetitive. In addition, the graphical and word processing tools have advanced enormously, so the quality of proposals /and presentations is dramatically changed relative to, say, 20 yrs ago.  
I have no doubt that there has been a general climb in the qualifications needed to become an assistant professor over the years. However, it's not clear to me that anyone has any statistical data (yet!) on this issue. Readers, what do you think? Are we experiencing qualification creep? Have you seen it? When will it end?  

20 comments:

  1. I just think it is even more cutthroat on the grantsmanship, and the push to publish, and the wretched politics. Although I could be wrong. (I have seen a current Harvard faculty member giving a summary lecture before he got tenured, about two decades ago, and the level of shameless brown-nosing he produced during his one hour lecture was making the students in the audience to giggle. I just mention it because he did not really need it - he is a great chemist, just a terrible toad as a human being. Now it is him who is getting brownnosed.) So maybe things don't really change that much, except that the natural increase in size of research groups hit its limits, there are too many synthetic chemistry grad students and not enough grants and jobs to sustain the racket.

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  2. Memoirs of a recently departed prof discussed his being one of three simultaneous assistant professor hires at a major research university in the 1950s. The express intent was that only one would be eventually be tenured. Could increased selectivity in hiring correlate with greater success in attaining tenure?

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  3. To really grok this I think one would need to see a comparison of number of tenure track positions available and number of applicants. Everything I've seen/read would seem to indicate that getting a tenure track position is much more difficult now than 10, 20, 30 years ago. People that were on the high end of the distribution then would probably end up middle of the pack now. Clearly capable enough to build a career, but the competition is so much stronger now.

    As a grad student we had an industry speaker come who didn't quite say "I couldn't get hired now" but did explain that in his day he and his fellow students received four or five cold calls for positions. I don't think that happens these days.

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    1. I get cold calls...

      Albeit for tech/qc positions (I have an MS with many years experience) making ~ $15-20/hr.

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  4. When I was in grad school in the early 2000's, only the youngest professors had done postdocs. Today, this is a standard requirement for the job.

    When I was an undergrad in the late 90s/early 00s, the oldest professors in my department had been hired from the area, and everyone else was hired in a national search. At the time, there were a few recent retirees from the department who only had master's degrees and not PhD's (this was at a PUI).

    Qualification creep is happening in industry too. Technician jobs used to be a reward for a good plant employee, but today, new B.S. grads are being started as technicians instead of scientists. We just hired a kid with a 4-year degree as a QC tech at my workplace, and this position had traditionally been filled with promoted plant floor workers.

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    1. I recently joined a Fortune 500 company within the past year and we currently promote within our warehouse/packaging group to the lab tech type positions. I was rather surprised to see this when I first joined the company as everything I've known about lab tech positions have been a minimum BS degree. I don't look down on these guys and girls either; was just surprised by it. We are not in a popular location though, so maybe that's a factor in the company's reason for hiring decisions.

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    2. I've worked at places where the technician job title could easily have been called a scientist somewhere else, but my current employer just hired a kid with a B.S. in chemistry to stick a viscometer spindle in a cup and write down the number.

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  5. My PI, who started as an Asst Prof in the mid-1980s, did not have any students join the group until the 3rd year, and was still able to receive tenure. Such a circumstance would be unfathomable today.

    I do agree that the responsibilities and expectations have broadened. And that it might be the case that current professors spend less time thinking and doing their current research due to the increasing external demands.

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    1. That's brutal. I do recall Liming Zhang publishing at least one solo author paper after he started at Reno, perhaps more. What is doubly more impressive was this paper I recall was either submitted or published in August of his first year too, circa 05-06.

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  6. Within my own department, the older faculty got hired with shorter Ph.D.s and post-docs and fewer papers. Similar applications packages would NOT be competitive with those of recent hires. The real question is whether the hirees in question would have been able to adapt to the modern era. Looking at their mid- and late-careers, most of my department's older faculty did not adjust to the changes in the funding and research atmosphere. Looking at the admittedly small sample size from my own department, I would estimate that half would not be able to get any kind of R1 job if they entered the job market within 15 years ago. A quarter would struggle to get any kind of academic position.

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  7. I'm definitely of the opinion that life as a chemist was much easier pre-2000s. My graduate advisor, who is a top in his/her field, did his/her PhD in about four years. His/her thesis was about 70 pages long with two publications. Did a one year postdoc, and landed a tenure track position at a top department. No way it would work out like that now.

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    1. In the mid-90's things had already change, at least for my subfield. Most postdocs were at least 2 years. An average PhD thesis was appx. 150 pages and you'd need at least 5 or 6 publications, preferably first author, to get interviews.

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  8. Was talking with a former lecturer (UK) about, and the topic of tuition fees/ student loans came up- he said if they had been in place in his day, he wouldn't even have been a undergraduate, and not gone to university.

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  9. A buddy of mine, a very good teacher and well-published chemist at a major university did once remark to me on looking over grad school applications "there's no way I'd even get into grad school here".

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  10. My impression is that faculty hiring in the past was based more on interviews and connections, with less focus than we have today on graduate research output or "lineage".

    Certainly the older profs at my undergrad institution came from relatively unknown PhD institutions, whereas a top-flight PhD plus post-doc is now essential to even make it past the "discard" pile.

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  11. UK perspective here - our emeritus organic prof tells of how in his first academic job in the 1960s, he wasn't even asked if he had any research interests until his first day in the post. Luckily he did and was very successful.

    Even mid-career academics in their forties have told me they are intimidated by the long lists of JACS / Nature papers published by today's applicants. Is there an exchange rate? How many post-2010 JACS papers equal, say, a 1970s JACS paper?

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    1. We need an API: Academic Price Index to see the credential inflation

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  12. The startup package "arms race" has, in my opinion, contributed to landscape. R1's are routinely doling out >$1 million in startup with an expected ROI between 80 and 150%. With that kind of money on the table, you have to hire "ringers" who are going to be able to bring in big $$$. Competition has increased at PUI's and smaller MS-granting departments as administrators push deans and department chairs to increase publications and grants in an attempt to cash in on the indirect returns associated with federal grants. Even community colleges and regional lib arts schools that once employed masters-level instructors are now advertising positions requiring a PhD + significant teaching experience, and these institutions often draw on the pool of assistant professors who've been denied tenure at major universities to fill their open teaching positions. Qualification creep, indeed.

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  13. I would argue that it's much tougher today. More candidates and more requirements. I've heard of tenured professors not considering applicants who did not teach lecture (being a TA does not count). Yet, I doubt any of these guys were completely responsible for the undergraduate lecture in gen or orgo. A large portion of tenured factulty "from the past" are white males. They were hired when there was little to no emphasis on affirmative action, so if there was a bias in the system, they benefited heavily.

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  14. True even for community colleges. They are chaired by old white males with perhaps one paper from their PhD, and now they insist on degrees in chemical education, experience teaching large classes &c &c.

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