Mentor and perish ?

In a recent post, Professor in Training expounds what is arguably a big dilemma that an academic scientist faces, trying to be at one time a successful, productive investigator and effective mentor for her advisees — graduate students, postdoctoral associates etc.

Fundamentally, the problem is one of different time scales. Junior colleagues need to learn how to do things on their own, in the process making mistakes, reinventing the wheel, taking a lot of time to do what an experienced researcher could have done in the blink of an eye. It’s inefficient, it is frustrating, but it is necessary. To my knowledge, no one has come up with anything better, when it comes to training.
But, why need it be a problem ? Because in the highly competitive environment in which a scientist operates, the pressing need to generate data and publish them quickly makes for a rocky marriage with giving a trainee the time needed to learn how to set up an experiment, prepare samples, learn how to use equipment properly, write a computer code from scratch, collect data, analyze them, write a first draft of a manuscript, and so on and so forth.

A Principal Investigator (PI) is often in the uncomfortable situation of making a decision between giving a trainee who has been assigned a scientific project all the time reasonably needed, possibly delaying completion and publication of time-sensitive research, or taking over and doing most/all the work herself, thereby depriving the trainee of the opportunity of acquiring the kind of hands-on experience that is sought.
Well, OK, so we all agree that this can be a problem but… an “unsolvable” one ? Is it really “not possible” to do what it takes “to advance [one’s] own career” while ensuring that “trainees get a first class education and training experience”, as PiT suggests ?
That seems a bit drastic. My observation is that, while some do it better than others, it is quite possible to achieve both objectives reasonably, that is to the satisfaction of everyone involved — scientists, trainees and administrators.

Goals — whose ?
First of all, a general remark: the reason why competition in science is so fierce — competition for funding, discoveries, prizes, everything — is that scientists themselves are by their own nature extremely, obsessively competitive. Simple as that.
Often times, the stress under which they operate is self-induced. This is typically the case with tenure-track faculty at second-tier institutions, or places with lesser emphasis on research than R1 universities. They will try to lay the blame on deans, directors and department chairs for (supposedly) setting unrealistic tenure benchmarks, when in fact those overly ambitious scholarly goals are really their own.
No sane dean or department chair at a non-R1 institution will ever expect, much less demand, that a newly hired faculty compete in research with peers at high-power institutions, enjoying lower teaching load and having access to facilities, funding, students and personnel that simply do not exist at a school whose stated mission does not include research as a main objective.
Everyone understands that, but don’t go telling it to the tenure-track faculty at a non-research institution, who still wants to operate as if that were Harvard, who is dead set on overcoming all odds and being the one who makes that jaw-dropping, Nobel-worthy discovery [0]. Just take it with a grain of salt, when they tell you “I either get that grant, publish on that important journal, make that discovery, or I shan’t get tenure“.

(How do I know that ? Well, simple, that was me, talking, when I was at my previous institution).

Compromise is the name of the game
It is possible to achieve all objectives, namely produce good science timely and be an effective mentor. Just like in every complicated optimization problem, pragmatism, flexibility, and a few simple prescriptions, can go a long way toward meeting all of the conflicting needs.
This is what I would recommend a junior PI, based on my experience and observation (much of it seems really common sense):

If it is time-sensitive, don’t give it to a beginner.
This really seems like a no-brainer. It is one of those instances where academia seems to have a hard time figuring out what the rest of society has always known. If a project must be completed quickly, in order to keep up with the competition and/or have something concrete to beef up a grant proposal, thereby strengthening one’s chances to impress reviewers, no inexperienced researcher should be put in charge of it. Yup, it’s that simple.
Postdoctoral associates, possibly advanced graduate students, or in any case junior scientists eager to build an impressive record of accomplishments in a relatively short time, who [are supposed to] have the maturity and expertise to tackle challenging tasks, are perfectly suited to take on time-sensitive projects. It is, after all, their chance to show society “what they’ve got”. It is unfair, out of line and seriously ill-advised, to put undergraduate and beginning graduate students under pressure to deliver as if they were professional researchers, as if they already knew how to do what they are there to learn [1].

Students are not technicians
Keep students away from any kind of repetitive technical task that does not directly benefit them. Students should of course become technically versed, should learn how to use equipment, or become familiar with computer technology and operating systems, and yes, one of the benefits of college education is precisely the acquisition of technical skills through research. However, there is a line that should not be crossed, and that is when a student is tacitly “promoted” to the role of technician. That should be avoided.
I see this happening over and over again. I can understand where and how it originates, for not only are technicians expensive to hire and pay, whereas students are “cheap” — often times students actually know more than technicians. It goes like this, a student is told to learn how to use a specific piece of equipment, or assigned the task of managing a computer system, or what have you — possibly a valuable skill to acquire but nothing that can be regarded as scientific credentials. Next thing you know, that person becomes the “resident expert”, the guru to whom everyone (yes, the PI too) goes for help with that particular thing — including when it is not related to the student’s project. In essence, the student comes then to be regarded as an “asset”, but not in a good way. There are two serious drawbacks with that: a) the person will waste a lot of time helping others, time that will come at the expense of her own research, b) when the student eventually leaves (because they are supposed to, at some point…), a huge “expertise gap” will appear, possibly in some mission-critical aspect of the operation of the whole research group [2].
This type of situation should not come about, ever. A technical job should be assigned to a technician. If the department within which the PI operates does not provide one, and if the PI cannot hire one, then the PI should take on the task herself (yes, I was the system manager of my own computing cluster at my former institution). If one finds that demeaning or otherwise unacceptable, considerations along the lines of note [1] apply.

Well, what project shall I give a beginner, then ?
A “safe” project, one that will not lead to any ground-breaking discovery, but one with a well-defined publishable result [3], which will be regarded as useful by the community and will allow the person to

  • become familiar with methodology
  • get started with literature review
  • develop an appreciation for the investigative process
  • start learning how to write an article

It is often possible (and a good idea) to have a beginning graduate or an undergraduate student contribute to the research effort of a senior graduate student or a postdoc, in the process learning the “trade” directly from her more experienced peer [4]. For an undergraduate student, that may well be the only research project in which she is engaged before starting graduate school, assuming that that is her choice. Once a beginning graduate student has contributed to the completion of a first, significant project, then she can be assigned something of greater breadth and more fundamental scope, on which she will be working continually as the leading investigator for, say, two to three years. That project, which will ideally yield a few publications (at least one on a high profile journal), will constitute her scientific training ground.
In a way, as long as one is working on a cutting edge project, one could argue that there is always some pressure to obtain results before competitors do, and I think it is appropriate for graduate students to appreciate that. However, I really do not think that it is ever a good idea to engage a trainee at any level on a project that has a well-defined deadline, whether that be motivated by the need of incorporating new results in a grant proposal or other reasons.

About those papers…
Teaching a student how to write a manuscript can be one of the most extenuating, frustrating, difficult tasks of the job of an academic. The temptation of telling a student “You know what ? Forget it, get started on your next project, I’ll write this myself” is sometimes very difficult to resist, especially if a student, for one reason or another, does not seem to learn. I am guilty of doing that myself. It should not be done. Students must be able to communicate effectively in writing, or their entire career will go nowhere, regardless of how good they are, in research and possibly outside as well (yes, we need to tell them this very thing in these very terms).
No matter how sick and tired we are with that work, no matter how appalling it is to read a third version that looks even worse than the first one, no matter how much they hate our guts for that, we need to send them back and have them rewrite it, again, and again, and again until they get it right. If, at some point, we come to the conclusion that they really cannot do it on their own, we need to have them sit with us in our office and write the paper together, line by line. This is what my own PhD advisor did with me, and I don’t care how much I hated it back then, he did me a favor.
Same goes for talks — their chances of landing a job depend on how well they can present their work to a general audience. They need to practice, a lot; their first talk may have to be rehearsed for hours and hours. We need to teach them how to make slides, how to stay within the allotted time, how to convey the cogent information and leave out irrelevant details, how not to make everyone in the audience car sick by constantly moving the laser pointer in circles, all over the screen (not that I am thinking of anyone in particular — I know you are reading), and so on. We cannot expect them to pick up all of that by themselves (albeit some will). It would be irresponsible.
Sure, all of this will cut into our research (and leisure) time, and at the end of the day it will often times be “just another article”. We may not get nearly as much out of it as we put in, in terms of time, but that is not the point (and any academic who says something along these lines is in the wrong line of work) — it’s an integral part of the profession.

How can chairs and deans make our lives easier ?
It is simple: by acknowledging that mentoring students and postdocs is a lot of work. By that I do not mean lip service — we do not know what to do with it. I am talking officially recognizing supervising activity at evaluation time, including for promotion and tenure purposes. Everything else being the same, the faculty who supervises a greater number of students and postdocs makes a greater contribution to the mission of the institution [5]. Individual student mentoring should at the very least be applied toward the fulfillment of a faculty’s teaching duties (justifying a classroom teaching load reduction). I also think that an institution should look favourably at the record of a tenure-track faculty who has proven capable of engaging a large number of students in her research program — even if that may not translate in a proportionally greater publication output (it usually does not, for the reasons mentioned above).

Notes

[0] Just to be clear: Being so driven and competitive is not a bad thing, it is a good thing. And it is also good if some of that determination, stubbornness and enthusiasm rub off on junior colleagues and students. However, one’s narcissism and personal obsession ought not become a problem for others. It is a delicate balancing act.

[1] If postdocs are not there, if the money to hire them is not available, if due to the very nature of the institution postdocs are not common where you are, and/or it is difficult or impossible to hire them, you are at a competitive disadvantage. You can either accept and embrace your institution’s different character, and attempt to set up a meaningful, possibly highly rewarding but scaled down research program, compared to that which you would be running at a R1 (more here), or you can try to do the best you can with limited means while looking for a more suitable position — obviously, in order to keep up with competition at R1 schools, you will have to work much, much harder, precisely because of the meager resources at your disposal. But, to expect your undergraduate students to turn into postdoc-level scientists is silly.

[2] I have seen computational research groups literally in disarray, after the student who had been in charge of installing or maintaining a crucial piece of software left.

[3] I can only speak (somewhat) knowledgeably about my own field, but my sense is that such projects always exist. In my case, calculations of equations of state, or of physical quantities measured or measurable in experiments for which theoretical predictions are missing or incomplete (and therefore a direct comparison is possible), or comparative studies of different computational methodologies, are my usual choices.

[4] This is a recurring theme in my posts (see here for instance). One of the most powerful, compelling arguments for maintaining a decent size (not too large) research group, is precisely that of promoting the interaction between junior scientists of different seniority. I am convinced that one will learn at least as much from fellow students as from her own supervisor. It is also the most natural venue in which one can develop mentoring skills.

[5] Like everything else, abuse on the part of an individual faculty is possible, and should be prevented. One ought not furnish any kind of incentive to faculty to keep advisees around for longer than needed, just for the purpose of listing a large number thereof on their annual activity report, thereby collecting extra brownie points or being granted reduced teaching. While obviously each case is different, in general a department ought be concerned with a pattern of students supervised by the same faculty taking consistently longer than average to complete their degrees.

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30 Responses to “Mentor and perish ?”

  1. Nathan Says:

    “R1 institution”….eh? Massimo, how about you go drink some Tim Horton’s and try to pretend you like it here in Canada?

    • Massimo Says:

      I was under the impression that R1 could be used quite generally, to indicate a research intensive institution. The (now obsolete) Carnegie Classification remains quite popular, colloquially, just to give people an idea of what they are talking about. As for me liking Canada: there is footage of me on Facebook a few seconds after Crosby scored that historical goal against team USA — that speaks for itself 🙂

      • Nathan Says:

        Obviously I was joking. But, I have never heard anyone say “R1 institution” in Canada. I have only read it on science blogs. Whereas, I have heard ‘research-intensive’ quite a lot, as GMP suggests. And, googling ‘research intensive Canada’ was infinitely more successful at generating pertinent results than ‘R1 institutions Canada’.

  2. Professor in Training Says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but your suggestion of “If it is time-sensitive, don’t give it to a beginner.” doesn’t really work for a new PI because you have to start with new students and many of us can’t afford to hire a tech or postdoc. So who are you left with?

    • Massimo Says:

      That’s right, whom are you left with ? That is the question ! 😉
      PiT, you know what my answer is going to be to that: if you find yourself wanting to operate as if you had access to resources to which you do not have access (to no fault of your own, obviously), something has to be re-evaluated. Someone is setting the bar too high. Getting aggravated trying to get a mule to gallop like a horse, is not a productive use of one’s time and energy — it’s not gonna happen.
      Believe me, I know exactly where you are coming from, in many respects your posts bring me back to my own time as an assistant professor. I wanted to get a lot of research work done, or otherwise, how would I ever be able to convince program directors that money was not wasted on me (or maybe people at places where I really wanted to be that they should hire me) ? And of course it is much easier for me, being a theorist — all I need is a computer and I can do the work on my own, but, the one thing that in my opinion is a must for anyone in your position, is collaborating with others. Is it at all possible for you to establish a collaboration with people at research intensive institutions, come up with a common project and offer them to support their graduate students or postdocs for 6 months if they do part of the work with you in your lab ?

      • Professor in Training Says:

        So I’m getting grammar lessons from a non-native English speaker now, am I!!? 🙂

        Anyway … unfortunately, you have to push data and papers out in order to be even remotely competitive for funding and reviewers and funding agencies don’t care whether you come from a rich department or not. If I can’t compete with other grant applications, I simply won’t get funded.

        In terms of collaborating: this is also a major issue because you have to prove that you’re establishing yourself as an independent investigator and collaborating too much with established peeps raises reviewers’ questions about independence.

        Sigh. It’s a sucky situation all around. Thanks to friends and mentors, I’m learning how to play the game and it looks like things may have turned around at long last. Maybe. Hopefully.

      • prodigal academic Says:

        I agree with PiT. I am running my lab with all students. We’ve reached the point now where my early students are fairly independent, and can help out my later students. I am planning/hoping that this is the year that our tantalizing results become publications, since I am flat broke and spending a lot of time chasing money.

        I get what you are saying about adjusting expectations to available resources, but I think it is a little different for an experimental group than for a theoretical group. There just aren’t many quick “get-your-feet-wet” PUBLISHABLE experiments to do in my research area with the equipment in my lab. My research uses expensive equipment, so we have had to work on figuring out what beginners can do on what we’ve got. This has lead to quite a lag in publications (which directly impacts funding chances), though like PiT, I think it will be better now. I took the double whammy by coming from National Lab, since I am no longer eligible for many of the new PI funding opportunities due to the time since my PhD. This means I need to compete with fully functional labs from day one. Ouch.

      • Massimo Says:

        There just aren’t many quick “get-your-feet-wet” PUBLISHABLE experiments to do in my research area with the equipment in my lab.

        I understand that you may not be able to do as much as you wish, but, nothing at all ?
        So, are you saying that you were hired to do something that is impossible ? That your institution is setting you up for failure, flushing money down the drain, by creating and filling a meaningless position ? That at some point your chair, your dean, your direct supervisor, will sit with you and say “look, I am very concerned about the fact that your productivity is significantly lower than that of your peers at research institutions. Yes, I know that they have graduate students, postdocs, bigger and better labs, and teach half as much as you do, but I say that’s a load of hooey. This school expects you to do as much as they do if not more, with fewer resources and with double the teaching load, pal !” ?

        Come on…

        I insist: the problem lies with the expectations of the young faculty themselves, who took the job that was available, thinking and hoping that they would be able to do as much as if it were the job that they really wanted. I sympathize with that, because I was in that position myself. Our peers at high power institutions are getting papers published, the gap between us and them grows, and that means that we may be permanently stuck there — I get all that. But it’s not the student’s fault. Implicitly charging them with the responsibility of keeping our own research program afloat is unfair, and out of line. And it’s not gonna work.

      • GMP Says:

        I must side with PiT and Prodigal here.
        I know for sure that you can have a slow first year on TT but after that, at leaast in my dept, you are required to start cranking out papers and bringing in grants. Nobody cares about the fact that postdocs are expensive so you may not have any (or they are rare, like in my field, and people mostly work with grad students), or that it may take several years to train the students them to be able to do anything nontrivial. (For instance, in my subfield, which is thery/computation the ramp-up time is probably 2 years for the student to be able to attempt anything independent). Bottom line is — nobody cares. You are evaluated annually and these evaluations are part of your permanent record. You’d think the department cares about the woes you are facing as a new TT but they really don’t. They just want you to do great, and even if they have been less than helpful with resources or teaching loads. People who can get publishable results quickly on easy-to-use equipment are at a great and definite advantage over those who have complicated experiments that take long (or any subfield where the ramp up time is long).

        In my first two years, most of my papers were either me as a sole author, or me doing service theory for experimental groups, or conference papers with prelim data with students showing some signs of progress. But no papers in the first couple of years would have been a disaster from the standpoint of department good will and tenure evaluation (my dept is ranked 14-15).

        What I am trying to say is that not all pressure is self-imposed. There is plenty of pressure from the departments to perform, regardless of whether or not you have what you need for the performance. And those poor students who sign up with beginning TT faculty — well, they have to “grow up” fast.

      • Massimo Says:

        Bottom line is — nobody cares. You are evaluated annually and these evaluations are part of your permanent record. You’d think the department cares about the woes you are facing as a new TT but they really don’t.

        But GMP, you are missing the point, or I am really not making msyelf clear, here.
        You are talking as if R1 and “Cute Little College” (as my esteemed former CSU colleague would put it) are one and the same. I am sorry, that is ridiculous, and I am not even going to argue anymore — pick the web page of the physics department of a non-research institution, go through the roster of its faculty, look up the publication records of their associate professors, and you tell me if those people would make tenure at University of Michigan, or Penn State, or any UC.

      • GMP Says:

        Massimo, I don’t think we disagree all that much. Certainly there are different institutions and very different promotion criteria, and non-R1s operate differently than R1’s.
        However, my understanding of your post was that the bulk of it was meant to be general — spanning different types of institutions. I think PiT and Prodigal were reacting to “if it’s time sensitive, don’t give it to a beginner” from the context of a beginning TT at R1 institutions, and I think we are trying to argue that R1 institutions do require productivity fast even if it is unfeasible, so it’s not really always possible to shied the students from undue burden — often there is simply no one else to do the work (for experimentalists it may be much harder to actaully continue doing the experiments yourself when you also have to write grants and teach…)

      • Massimo Says:

        I think PiT and Prodigal were reacting to “if it’s time sensitive, don’t give it to a beginner” from the context of a beginning TT at R1 institutions

        Well, it may well be my mistake, here, but my understanding all along (since she started blogging) has been that PiT is not operating from within a R1. My comments in response to her post(s) have been based on that assumption. If that is not the case, well then obviously it is completely different ball game. However, in general I think it is important to distinguish the individual ambition from the institutional expectations, which, in my opinion, are always reasonably in line with the mission of the institution itself.

  3. GMP Says:

    FWIW, R1 is an outdated designation even in the US. I think Massimo was referring to research-intensive institutions, and of course these are well-defined internationally.

    I liked the post overall.

  4. Professor in Training Says:

    Just to clarify … I AM at an R1. However … my dept has never had a strong research program which is why they hired me. This is also why life here has often been harder than it needs to be. I’m under pressure to get funded, teach, kickstart the dept’s research reputation, etc, with little/no support except from those much higher up the food chain. I’m basically starting everything from scratch, including the grad program.

    Funding agencies don’t care about any of the above. They just look at your biosketch & judge whether you’ve been productive or not. Considering what I’ve had to work with, I’m doing totally fucking amazingly well!

    • Massimo Says:

      OK, in that case things are different, but then I am wondering:

      1) A R1 institution decides that it’s time to establish a presence in field XYZ, including starting a graduate program, and they do so by hiring a single assistant professor ? No senior hire ?

      2) That single assistant professor will be expected to start a R1-level research program on her own, without a start-up package allowing her to staff her lab appropriately (namely, hire one or possibly even two post-docs, considering that there are no doctoral students available) ?

      3) That single assistant professor will be expected to shoulder the same teaching load as her tenured colleague ?

      4) That lone assistant professor will be expected to spend a significant amount of time engaged in academic service ?

      As an outsider, I would find the above … strange. And it is not quite true that “funding agencies don’t care about any of the above”. If I were a program director, and had to evaluate the credibility of a proposal, I would want to see solid evidence of institutional commitment, otherwise I would conclude that the school is not really serious about the research program, that they are only after overhead money…

  5. Professor in Training Says:

    No senior hire ?

    No. Long story but the short version is: state school, state budget crunch, hiring freeze, salary freeze, squeeze as much as possible out of those that were hired before the shit hit the fan, etc. This is the reality at most public universities in the US right now.

    That single assistant professor will be expected to start a R1-level research program on her own, without a start-up package allowing her to staff her lab appropriately (namely, hire one or possibly even two post-docs, considering that there are no doctoral students available) ?

    My research spans two fields and my startup package was unbelievably fantastic for one and very poor for the other. Even then, startup funds only last for so long and the well is now almost dry.

    That single assistant professor will be expected to shoulder the same teaching load as her tenured colleague ?

    I have a somewhat reduced load but again, state school, state budget crunch, hiring freeze, salary freeze, etc. Everyone is overstretched. Well, those that can’t hide behind tenure, that is.

    And it is not quite true that “funding agencies don’t care about any of the above”. If I were a program director, and had to evaluate the credibility of a proposal, I would want to see solid evidence of institutional commitment, otherwise I would conclude that the school is not really serious about the research program, that they are only after overhead money…

    The funding agencies I apply to (NIH, plus other non-federal places) all want to see institutional support which isn’t that difficult to cover in a good letter from your Chair or Dean. What they most want to see though is a solid training background, evidence of preliminary data, publications and money from other sources. They don’t care that you’re overworked and getting by with minimal resources (including people).

    • Massimo Says:

      institutional support which isn’t that difficult to cover in a good letter from your Chair or Dean

      Well…. sure, if the letter, or the “institutional support” section of your proposal spells out the start-up funding, what you have done with it, what you still need, and then your teaching load compared to the departmental average, if it includes a commitment to offering matching funds in case you are awarded the grant and so on, it will be convincing. If the letter says “Gee, we would have loved to give her all that but, you know how it is, state budget crunch, hiring freeze, salary freeze, squeeze as much as possible out of those that were hired before the shit hit the fan…”, then even if it is signed by the Dean the program director will say “gee, sorry but… no”. That is my experience anyway.

    • Professor in Training Says:

      Agreed (finally!). My letters definitely spell out the former.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Are all R1’s created equal? I mean, is there not a substantial difference between the resources someone at Harvard has and those of someone at a middle-of-the pack state school (that also happens to be R1)? I guess I’m wondering if the standards for tenure are also quite different as well.

    • Massimo Says:

      Yes, there is a substantial difference, and yes, standards for tenure will be different too. Data are out there, you can see for yourself how much grant money is brought in on average by a faculty at a top ten and how much by someone elsewhere. If standards were the same 90% of people would not get tenure, instead 90% of them get it.

    • GMP Says:

      Some top 10 places, like Harvard, also hire multiple faculty on TT to compete for a single tenured spot down the road, so the chances of getting denied tenure are extremely high. Plus, the competition is really brutal and it’s not enough to be very good at what you do, you have to be better than everyone else both in your subfield and in your cohort (this information is often solicitied explicitly from tenure case letter writers — is candidate better than A, B, and C young stars?) So, yes, these are extremely stringent tenure criteria.

      But then again, Harvard is not most places, for many reasons, not all of which make it desirable. At most R1 places, where for each TT hire one envisions a tenured position, and where the hiring process is not completely disfunctional, I suppose the tenure rate is fairly high. Not sure if it’s 90% as Massimo says (I bet that number doesn’t include people who leave in year 3 or 4 but rather just those who are put up for tenure).

      As for resources, don’t get me started. I am at a big R1 state school; the university support leaves much to be desired and it’ getting worse all the time due to the economy. Our overhead on grants was just raised, furloughs will go into the foreseeable future, raises are minuscule or nonexistent, and employee contributions to all the benefits are about to jump drastically. So yeah, there is no money.

      • Massimo Says:

        Not sure if it’s 90% as Massimo says

        According to the data that I managed to dig out, it is approximately 90% (see here). No, it does not include those who leave before going up for tenure, but, as I also expounded in that same post, I do not buy in the least the contention that most of those who leave early, do so out of belief that they will not get tenure. I know people state it almost as though it were a truism, but unless one comes up with solid data to prove it (anonymous exit interviews, for example), it amounts to nothing but speculation. There are many, many other reasons for leaving, not unlike those who induce people to leave any other kind of job.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    OK, so then does it really matter whether PiT (or others) is at an R1 or not, since it seems decisions and expectations are dominated by the local environment? I mean, no one would think of comparing the amount of grant money that a mathematician and a biomedical scientist bring in, even if they’re both at the same school. So in that sense, it seems to me that Massimo’s observations about differing expectations at different schools—even if they’re all R1’s—are on point.

    As to Harvard, I assumed that was being used in this context as shorthand for a highly competitive, research-intensive school. I think it’s common knowledge that for many years, the expectation for an untenured prof who was offered a spot at Harvard was that that person would *not* get tenure. The reason for going to Harvard was to bolster your CV – when Harvard wanted a full prof, they would lure an established person away from somewhere else. This is changing nowadays, but for many years, this was how it was at Harvard … I’m not aware of any other schools in their league where this was the norm.

  8. Massimo Says:

    OK, so then does it really matter whether PiT (or others) is at an R1 or not, since it seems decisions and expectations are dominated by the local environment?

    Well, you cannot take it too far in the opposite direction either. The record of a tenure applicant will be compared to that of her peers at similar, competing institutions. Being the best in a weak department won’t cut it. In my experience and observation, in general I would say that tenure will be awarded as long as the person has:
    1) a reasonable publication record (at least two per year, and out of all those at least two should be “high profile”, i.e., on important journals and/or with a good number of citations)
    2) at least one invited talk at a major international conference)
    3) evidence of continued activity (no gaps, i.e., two, three consecutive years without anything published — there are of course exceptions for specific research areas)
    4) Good classroom teaching evaluations and a strong advising mentoring record (graduate and undergraduate students supervised)
    5) External letters assessing that she is a respected member of her community, that her work has had impact in her field.
    6) sufficient grant activity, defined as a relatively constant stream of funding, in line with that of her peers, with strong grant reviews.

    On top of all that, some “local” corrections can and will be applied, for instance in situations like PiT’s.
    Naturally, all of the above should be directly, unambiguously attributable to the tenure candidate. Anything suggesting that she has simply kept riding on the wave of work done as a postdoc or a graduate students, i.e., mostly inspired, helped or supervised by others, is going to result in an unfavourable evaluation. In other words, publication and funding record should yield evidence of originality and independence.
    I am very skeptical of any claim from probationary faculty having been denied tenure, that that was the result of them not bringing in enough grant money. I have never seen anyone with a strong record in 1-2-3-4-5 being denied tenure, and some of them, either by bad luck, bad timing, general scarcity of funding (like in the early to mid 90s) or the sheer fact that they worked in an area of research not particularly “rich”, did not bring a lot of money. Every single case of tenure denial I have seen or heard of, was characterized by weakness in one or more of 1 through 5.

    If you think about it, it scarcely makes sense to let off the hook someone working in string theory, while demanding lavish funding of the polymer theorist…

    • Anonymous Says:

      The record of a tenure applicant will be compared to that of her peers at similar, competing institutions. Being the best in a weak department won’t cut it.

      You misunderstood what I meant by “local environment.” For me, peer institutions are part of one’s local environment, i.e., a candidate at a middle-of-the-pack state school will be compared to those at other middle-of-the-pack state schools (in the same field) and not to those at Harvard, Stanford, etc. My point is that the designation “R1,” or “research-intensive school,” apparently conveys precious little about the standards for tenure and promotion at a given R1 school.

      FWIW, I was very touched by PiT’s original post. You don’t often see profs expressing such sentiments in the science blogosphere – I found it refreshing and courageously frank.

      • GMP Says:

        I fear I have become a pest in this thread (sorry Massimo!)
        But I must contribute my $0.02 here. I know that external evaluation letters in my department (again, ranked 14-15) are solicited from people who are ideally members of National Academies (Science and/or Engineering) or at the very least professional society fellows. These are university guidelines. There are always at least a couple of letters from the Harvard/Stanford/MIT etc league and the rest from peer institutions. The rationale is that, at the university level, where faculty from different physical science departments evaluate your case, everyone knows what an NAS or NAE membership means, or what being a Named Prof BigCheez at a Top 5 school means. So when a letter writer with such credentials writes for you, even committee members who are from a vastly different field and understand squat about what you do will take such letters very seriously. If such letters are positive, you are golden. If not, well,… I have seen a tenure denial over one BigCheez letter from Snooty School saying the person is OK but not all that (together with a slight to my university “he’s good for you folks, but would not be for Snooty School”). That did not go well over at the university level, as we do have several top 5 physical science departments…

        I guess the point of my multiple comments in this thread is that there is tremendous variation in the tenure process among R1’s, and even at a given university the differerent fields will push and pull in different directions. I know of a decent R1 where the tenure process is nearly laughable (you need to publish some and have had a grant or two and not be despised by students and you can go up for tenure early), to those where the decision is at the university level and mutliple hoops must be jumped through and it all hangs on extrenal letters or whims of a provost-like entity. I know of enough tenure denials at my university alone, where the tenure requirements are failry high, that I try not to trivialize anyone’s anxiety regarding tenure…

      • Massimo Says:

        GMP, I agree with everything you say. If I may be allowed to be a pest too (oh wait — it’s my blog 🙂 ), I would like to (re)state the following:
        0) Each individual case is different, and there are clearly many ways of losing a tenure bid, even at places that are particularly lenient. So, unquestionably not getting tenure is possible.
        1) I have witnessed and observed countless more cases of people who did get tenure and should not have gotten it, than the other way around.
        2) I do not believe that there exists a single chair or tenured faculty at any department of any institution, who will not tell probationary colleagues that they should do more than they are doing, in order to get tenure — regardless of how successful they are being.
        3) It remains a fact that approximately 90% of all tenure bids are successful.

  9. GMP Says:

    Regarding how much money needs to be brought in for tenure, we had an exchange after this post, so I am not going to repeat myself. I certainly know people who have been denied tenure in engineering disciplines and external evaluation letters spoke of insufficient funding with respect to peers, so it was a significant black mark on the dossier. I think we should agree to disagree that different physical science fields and different institutions have different views of how important funding is for the tenure decision.

    Regarding how much one needs to publish, it’s probably not a good idea to generalize the number of papers or citations that one is supposed to produce per year. Two papers per year (society level journals or above) would certainly not be sufficient in my department, and I think in most physical science departments at my university. I have heard that for a strong tenure across physical science disciplines (since all physical sciences are evaluated together at the university level) you need more than 20 over the course of the TT (with the possible exception of math), and I know in some departments like Chemistry or Chem Eng (both very highly ranked at my univ), faculty are easily expected produce 20-something papers in a single year.

    • Massimo Says:

      I certainly know people who have been denied tenure in engineering disciplines and external evaluation letters spoke of insufficient funding with respect to peers

      I respect what you are telling me, I am not disputing it. I would still be very curious to examine those cases in detail, just to make sure that funding was the sole criterion based on which tenure was denied, against excellent publication, teaching and mentoring records. It may well be the case, but forgive me for being skeptical.

      it’s probably not a good idea to generalize the number of papers or citations that one is supposed to produce per year.

      It was just a general criterion, but your point is well taken. And of course, merely discussing “number of papers” is misleading. It’s not like papers are counted equally, are they ? I mean, I know nothing of engineering but, if someone goes up for tenure in your department with just five papers, all of them in Nature, is the person in trouble ? Conversely, if they have 200 papers cited by no one, on a journal with IF < 1, are they a slam dunk ?

      Come to think of it, it may be an interesting exercise to compare values of the h-index of associate professors across disciplines.

      • GMP Says:

        I am not sure anyone is really ever denied tenure because of a single criterion — where everything is stellar but one thing subpar. I think for most people it’s 2-3 things that are stellar, the other ones are OK/passable. For people who are denied, it’s likely the one subpar thing that breaks the camel’s back…

        I know nothing of engineering but, if someone goes up for tenure in your department with just five papers, all of them in Nature, is the person in trouble ?

        Nature is certainly highly respected, but I would say five papers would still be too few, even if in Nature. A person in my department held off for a GlamourMag cover paper that came out in his year 2 or 3; this holding off resulted in very few papers in preceding years, and he wasn’t fully able to recover from this dip before tenure time (ended up being denied) even though he ramped up his publication output afterwards (and the journals were really very good). Apparently the two years afterwards were not enough for his work to permeate deeply enough into the community for him to be sufficiently recognized (as per what the letter writers said). My point is that decisions such as where to publish and how much time to invest into grant writing have higher-order effects that affect the other criteria you listed (recognition by peers, invited talks, success in recruiting and advising students etc).

        Conversely, if they have 200 papers cited by no one, on a journal with IF < 1, are they a slam dunk?

        Of course not. We totally look at the citation count, h-factor (Web of Sci as well as Google Scholar), and impact factor of journals in which a person publlished (all these are part of the tenure dossier); letter writers all look at this information too. For instance, my field is not unrelated to what you do – I do theory/simulation in what’s essentially an applied branch of condensed matter physics and happen to be in an engineering dept. My publication rate is considered pretty good, with about 7-8 papers/year, and I typically have a mixture of PRL’s, PRB’s, APL’s, ACS Nano’s, and an occasional GlamourMag or GlamourMag Progeny with experimental collaborators. (I think my output is on par with my collaborators in physics [both my dept and physics are in top 15 or top 20), but your opinion may differ.] The most prolific people in my department (experimentalists) maybe produce up to 10 papers/year, but more than that is rare, and some lower tier journals may be involved (IF around 2, as is common in hard core engineering journals).

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