Nomadic Professors and Other Thoughts from Anaheim

April 11th, 2011

I jotted down a couple of things from the recent ACS conference in Anaheim, where on the whole, I had a good—but not great—time.  I think there is one big thing that is missing from ACS conferences, but that will be the subject of a future post.  In the meantime…

Giving Total Synthesis a Fair Shake

I decided the program was a good opportunity to reassess my disdain of total synthesis.  There is good total synthesis, and there is bad total synthesis; both were on display in Anaheim.  Baran gave an excellent talk on palau’amine and some interesting chemistry that followed.  At a later session, I sat through a 45-minute talk (by a huge name in synthesis) that was easily the most dull presentation (on insipid work) that I experienced during the entire conference.  The student talks in total synthesis did a good job of framing the common trials and tribulations associated with the sport…in which I have no desire (or ability) to compete.

Dreadful Attendance

I attended most of a session on reaction methodology that comprised talks from grad students and postdocs.  At one point, the room contained 14 people—yes, I counted.  Why pay hundreds of dollars to travel to California when more people would hear your talk if you opened your office door and shouted down the hallway?  And it’s not like this was one of those late Thursday sessions…it was on Monday afternoon.  Yes yes, these students are gaining valuable experience in public speaking and they get to attend the other talks at the conference, but still…14 people?  That is just sad.

Nomadic Professors

Aside from the science he presented, Stephen Buchwald‘s talk contained two interesting tidbits of information which were not necessarily new, but were new to me.  First, I was unaware that his ligand RuPhos was named after his cat Rufus.  Second, Buchwald casually mentioned during his talk that John Hartwig is moving from Illinois to Berkeley.  That struck me as peculiar, since it seems just like yesterday that Hartwig moved from Yale to Illinois.  Perhaps it was fitting that Buchwald’s talk was in a symposium honoring David MacMillan, whose career saw him move from Berkeley to Caltech to Princeton in a span of 7 years.  On one hand, you can’t fault someone for working his way up in the world (Illinois is an upgrade over Yale, Berkeley is an upgrade over Urbana-Champaign).  Also, sometimes tenure, promotions, and lab upgrades play a role.  On the other hand, such rapid movement has got to wreak havoc on all of the students/postdocs/families caught in the wave.  I imagine there could also be frayed nerves among the faculties of the spurned schools, who probably went to great lengths to recruit the jumpy professors in the first place.  When you live by the sword, you die by the sword, I suppose.  Perhaps the most interesting case of professorial movement is that of Jonas Peters, who moved from Caltech to MIT in 2007, then back to Caltech again in 2010.  And yes, I know of at least one student who made *both* moves.

51 Responses to “Nomadic Professors and Other Thoughts from Anaheim”

  1. Matt Says:

    … Poor Caroline :(
    Life is rough when you work for a prof with wandering eyes.

    on pins and needles here … how are you going to FIX ACS conferences??

  2. Hap Says:

    1) I guess Ellman is taking the contrathermodynamic route then? (Berkeley to Yale)?

    2) I don’t know how secure I’d feel at Berkeley – it’s a better program but I wonder at what point the state’s shredding of its education will make it hard on profs there. Berkeley is the crown jewel of CA’s college system, but the setting is taking a beating, it seems. I guess you could wander to Stanford when Trost retires, though.

    3) What’s with Barry Carpenter going to Cardiff?

    4) I assume you know why Peters made the moves he did, but considering that lots of profs didn’t learn how to play nicely with each other, is that a possible explanation (either as an evil donor or acceptor)?

  3. Joe Q. Says:

    The Peters case was interesting — people made a lot of sacrifices to bring him there. And there had been a similar case a few years earlier with a physical chemistry prof who only stayed a few years before moving on.

  4. Corey_Student Says:

    I’m not sure I agree with your statement about “Illinois is an upgrade over Yale” etc. Yale may have hit a local minimum in the mid-2000s (as it did in the early 1990s), but it continues to attract a lot of top-notch graduate students and it has historically been a very strong program in chemistry. Plus, the teaching demands and research environment at Yale are very different from Illinois (and Berkeley)- I’m not trying to bash Illinois or Berkeley (and I have no affiliation with Yale- I went to Harvard). I just think your statement merits a little pushback.

  5. Paul Says:

    I agree that Yale is a good program, but Illinois was almost certainly an upgrade when Hartwig made the decision to move. In fact, that defection might have been the low-water mark for Yale, which has recovered quite nicely since then.

  6. CR Says:

    Your statement about the atrocious attendance at the “Reaction Methodology” sections isn’t just the Anaheim meeting – they are always (or have been for the past 5 years) poorly attended. Basically the students presenting; and their friends/family.

    Why? 2 reasons…(outside of the 8 AM start)

    1. The presentations are usually horrendous. There is a 20 min time slot and most take 15 minutes presenting “previous” work and the last 5 minutes (2 or so slides) showing their current work. This assessment is the norm – there will be a few good talks out of the entirety of horrible ones. I generally attribute this to the fact that there is no peer review (how could there be?) and anyone can apply and get accepted to give a talk. Some may not be their fault either – the deadline is so far in advance that maybe they thought they would have more results but the research didn’t get there? Practice the talk at least once, please. Frame the issue with previous work, but in 20 minutes it should not be the majority of the time – 5 minutes tops.
    2. Generally reaction methodology is useless. Again, this is the norm – there will be a few useful reactions, but by-and-large there isn’t. How many diethylzinc additions do we need? Or do we need a catalyst that takes 9 months to prepare?

    Profs moving – isn’t Hartwig’s wife a professor as well? Was/is his moving anything to do with her?

  7. userlame Says:

    Another one of the perennial nomadic professors is moving to Berkeley. At least his group won’t have to change time-zones this time….

  8. Chemjobber Says:

    So what are the non-obvious incentives for a professor to move? I mean, there’s the obvious ones: prestige, better salary, more desirable climate, etc.? Non-obvious ones: I dunno.

    It’d be terribly fascinating to know which departments are the ’98 Yankees, (i.e. “homegrown talent”, blah blah blah) and which departments are the ’04 Yankees (or insert your favorite “bought” team here.)

  9. CR Says:

    ’98 Yankees:

    U of Pittsburgh? Wipf, Curran, Nelson, Floreancig, Koide. And historically, Danishefsky, Rebek, Greico, Dowd.

  10. CR Says:


    I think those are pretty much the only reasons to move, outside of a spouse conflict. Although, a non-obvious might be quality/quantity of students or a move “home” (ala Wood).

  11. excimer Says:

    Hartwig is taking over Bergman’s position, as he winds down his career. Anne Baranger, Hartwig’s wife, is dissolving her lab (Berkeley didn’t give her a faculty position) and potentially taking up an admin position at Berkeley. I think she got screwed over hard in this deal, especially because her research really started to take off in the past few years.

    After bending over backwards to get Hartwig here, he stays at Illinois no longer than I do. Dick.

  12. Chemjobber Says:

    CR: I’d really agree. But I’m a Pitt booster, even though I’ve never set foot there.

    Columbia, maybe? Hard to say.

  13. Orthogon Says:

    I have to agree with Excimer on this: If Baranger wanted to stay in research, it seems she got the short end of the stick. A lot of people at Illinois were under the impression that Baranger and Hartwig moved to Champaign-Urbana so that they could both be on the faculty at the same school. I’d be curious to know what the reasons for overriding that original concept were.

    On another note, which chemistry faculty member has moved around more than any other? Roush? Stoddart? (I think each of them are on their fourth school.) Is there someone else with more?

  14. userlame Says:

    I think Harry Atwater (EECS/Materials Science) was at Harvard for a few months before he moved his entire lab back to Caltech. They say that many leases and relationships were laid to waste by this excursion.

  15. Chemjobber Says:

    (by a huge name in synthesis) that was easily the most dull presentation (on insipid work)


  16. Chemjobber Says:

    Not that I have anything against him or his students, but I’ve just never been very excited by his talks.

  17. Paul Says:

    It’s interesting that the UIUC student paper publishes a database of all the employees’ salaries ( Hartwig is the second-highest-paid prof in the chemistry department.

  18. bad wolf Says:

    Plus salary is only half the story. Who knows what added inducements were thrown in.

    This is something that really undermines my respect for a professor. One lab move is understandable for whatever reason but multiple rapid moves seem like just a complete dick move. Even Corey only moved once. Moving is basically something that benefits the PI with added salary, spousal job, prestige but doesn’t really impact their lifestyle and productivity (pump out grants, give occasional lecture). The group suffers through their experiments interrupted, lives disrupted, and the drudgery of breaking down a lab and building it back up and rarely gets anything out of it (a little more space?). Especially after one move ‘up’ there’s little prestige increase. Do MacMillan’s students look better in Princeton than Berkeley or Caltech? Doubtful.

    It is also kind of insulting to all of you scrambling after faculty jobs how the superstars are treated. Academia is not unlike the sports teams and Wall Street firms willing to pay anything for the Next Hot Thing, while crying about funding and pinching pennies for anyone else.

  19. Chemjobber Says:

    Okay, let’s do an actual measurement:

    Can we think of prominent professors that have actually moved and the dates of their moves? Let’s measure their productivity in papers before and after the move.

    Nominees? MacMillan and Hartwig (CT to IL) immediately come to mind. Any others? I think we need a data set of about 10 or so for it to be worthwhile.

  20. CR Says:

    I believe that Professor’s salaries at a school like U of I are publicly available (being a state-funded school) so I wouldn’t think it would be a surprise that the school paper would publish them. A bigger surprise might be they still have a school paper.

    CJ – Overman would be a good guess. The only problem with nominating Columbia for the ’98 Yankees is their biggest star is Danishefsky which was not homegrown (Yale by way of Pittsburgh). Although one could stay with the analagy and say Danishefsky is the Paul O’Neill (Reds). Outside of him that would be a good guess.

    Bad Wolf – Academic politics can play into a lot of what goes on. It may have nothing to do with prestige or salary; but something that was ‘promised’ someone and then later revoked (lab space, monetary commitments, etc.). A professors only card to play is to move – but one has to be careful and be ready to use the “move card” if played.

    Also, how is it “insulting”? Whether is be “superstar” professors (or bankers, or management, or consultants, etc.) anyone that can bring in the money get treated differently. You have to remember, universities do not spend money, they only take money so if someone brings in more money for them to take, they will be treated differently.

  21. Paul Says:

    I wonder when chem departments will start following the model of contract-buyout clauses used by athletic departments at universities. When big basketball programs poach coaches under contract at other schools, the poaching programs usually have to pay off the schools getting raided.

  22. Hap Says:

    I thought Overman’s work was pretty cool – it’s hard for me to see it fitting the “insipid” part.

    At Boston, I saw a person’s talk on alkaloid research in which they (his advisor’s group) were targeting the (originally proposed but) incorrect stereoisomer of an alkaloid class, and hadn’t done very well (it’s alkaloids, after all), and he sounded soul-crushingly depressed. It seemed like a good summary of why not to do total syn.

  23. bad wolf Says:

    Offhand Donna Blackmond, Richard Zare and Julius Rebek come to mind aside from those already mentioned. Looks like most of those settled down eventually though.

    CR- The politics may indeed be the mystery component we don’t see. Is it hard to imagine the other profs in a department feeling slighted at how the powers that be shower favors on the new golden boy? And how much more could be gained by hiring promising newcomers instead of an overpriced established superstar? Who knows. Someone thinks they get value/ROI. It is the way of the world, certainly.

    The downside again seems to be all on the shoulders of the students, who must endure the disruptions and are expected to maintain productivity.

  24. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    The reason for many of these moves is that universities don’t increase mid-career academic’s pay based on merit unless they have a written offer from another department.

    Taking that Illinois list as an example, if Christina White wants to get bumped up to the $175K+ level, she isn’t going to get there simply by publishing a lot of JACS and Angewandte papers and raising a lot of grant money. She will need an outside offer at that level. In order to secure that outside offer, she would need to get pretty deep into negotiating with another department. In doing so, she might just decide the other department might be better and more supportive of her research anyway – they certainly will be excited to have her. Had her original department rewarded her accomplishments along the way, she might not even be looking around in the first place. However, it is less expensive for the system overall to creative this huge barrier of attracting lucrative outside offers and then paying off the people able to get them.

    Bad Wolf: Academics are people too. Moving be a way to start new projects, new collaborations, or just get a fresh perspective on one’s chemistry. You have a fairly cynical view of what a professor actually does (pump out papers, travel around, raise money) as opposed to the crucial aspect of staying at the cutting edge over decades: staying creative, coming up with new ideas, putting in the massive amounts of time it takes to reach that level. Personally, I don’t blame Hartwig at all, purely from the standpoint that I’d rather live in Berkeley than Urbana. If he turns them down now, they won’t be coming back 5 years from now when he might be more ready to go.

    There are definite complications associated with graduate students and postdocs associated with such a move – I involved in such a situation during my training. Good advisers look out for their people and do the best they can to minimize such things, but this certainly isn’t uniformly done. I think every department should have a written policy for how they treat incoming, outgoing, and leftover students from these moves.

    Paul – no contract buyout clauses are needed. Illinois can hire at least 3 assistant professors with the salary and retention package that they will not be paying to Hartwig. Given the choice, I’d take the assistant professors over the next 10 years. These senior hires are tricky. You might get performance or you might get a person that shows up and doesn’t stay at the top of his/her game. Rest assured, you are going to be paying free agent rates – you will not get value hiring the “big name” person.

  25. bad wolf Says:

    SGL- you have got to be kidding me.

  26. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Bad wolf: I stand by my opinion above. What about it do you find absurd?

  27. CR Says:

    I would have to agree with most of what SGL has to say. I think the “start new projects” could be a major factor as the funding options are being shifted. I could easily see an organic chemistry professor wanting to move to a university with a larger medical school in order to establish collaborations with biologists. I know of one example where this was the reason for moving – person at university A moving to university B to take advantage of university B’s commitment to collaborative research with the medical school.

  28. lejuscara Says:

    I’ve heard of a number of professors moving following divorces. I wonder if departments keep abreast of that kind of thing when they make offers.

  29. CR Says:

    @lejuscara – Not sure what you want the university to keep abreast of?

    Are you asking if universities have marriage counseling to see how strong a perspective professors marriage is? Divorce is kind of a “shit happens” sort of thing that would be difficult to keep abreast of?

  30. bad wolf Says:

    SGL-your first and last points were well made, but the paragraph directed at me sounded overly subservient. An up and comer may do well to move to a more appropriate or appreciative department. My impression is only cynical in being informed by years of observation. Professors typically are a one-person-show, so new department colleagues or climates can’t have that much of an impact on them. I was specifically complaining about multiple movers: when someone has barely unpacked their lab and is already looking for new horizons, my impression is that they are moving out of careerism/egotism.

    These are people who already have the extremely generous Tenure package, plus jobs for significant others, plus who knows what. If they look like they care more about advancing their big names than the people in their lab, i would hope prospective students look twice before before joining. As you say, good advisers look after their people.

  31. lejuscara Says:

    CR- Allow me to clarify. I know of two rather high profile moves (none that I will mention), that took place on the heels of a divorce. I am just musing (cynically) that a raiding department will use that kind of information to know when a good time to make an offer to a desirable prof.

    It’s just idle speculation

  32. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Bad wolf – sorry to come across as condescending. It was not my intention, and looking back, I made that point poorly.

    Profs being one person shows is field dependent. I do a lot of collaborative work, so it does matter. Moving universities would open new opportunities and bring collaborations nearing the end of their lifespan to a natural close. More even actual collaborative projects, you get new ideas from new colleagues. Recruiting students, putting together big money center grants (more and more common) and supporting shared facilities are activities that depend on the ability of others to play nice together, even if they aren’t formally collaborating.

    I agree on the point of serial movers – the other category that are less obvious are those who court outside offers to score repeated retention packages. There are plenty of examples of people scoring big money and lab renovations to stay in their current location, then go back to the well or leave two years later. I don’t know how many years of high level performance are fair to expect for giving someone a lavish retention package.

  33. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    -At one point, the room contained 14 people—yes, I counted

    That seems to describe 80% of the ACS sessions I have attended (and I have attended three meetings)

  34. You're Pfizered Says:

    U of I has been building a nice chemistry department the last several years. Makes me wonder, however, how long the likes of Marty Burke and White will stay in a fairly rural setting, a la Eric Jacobsen, before the call of Ivy or something similar beckons…

    Interestingly, I tried to look up Burke’s salary on that salary site above and he wasn’t listed in there. Strange.

  35. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Christina White moved there from Harvard, hard to believe she’d go back. Princeton seems to have massive $ right now though.

  36. Hap Says:

    I wonder when the problems with funding universities in the public realm are going to haunt them. If the states try to protect them the way they haven’t their other employees, they’ll get shredded, and if they don’t, I’m sure there are greener pastures, at least for the better ones. The quality of students at the grad level probably won’t suffer, but the undergrad quality may or may not (concentrating on the smarter ones might increase overall quality, unless they decide to go somewhere where they can actually graduate in four years).

    I think after the Pettit and Holton debacles, I don’t really feel the need to show any sympathy for the universities. Grandma would get thrown under the bus by most administrations if they could make more money from her splattered body parts, or unless she can teach young men how to throw sixty-yard touchdowns or thirty-foot bombs for the old alma mater.

  37. You're Pfizered Says:

    I figured White moved from Harvard to be with her husband, that and Harvard tends not to tenure their assistant professors, at least not typically….

  38. Dirt McGirt Says:

    Wasn’t Jacobsen primed to move from Harvard to MIT a few years back? It was even announced by Swager in a press release. Clearly it didn’t happen…..

    Re: the Peters thing, I believe most of the tension was to do with having Grandpa, Daddy and Junior all in the same dept.

  39. Hap Says:

    But then why did he go back?

  40. Hap Says:

    I’m confused – if they were at MIT, why did he go there in the first place? If they were at CalTech, why did he go back?

  41. Dirt McGirt Says:

    @Hap: he was the “trailing spouse”. They wanted his wife and he was part of the deal.

  42. biochembelle Says:

    Re: student/postdoc talks session, that is very unfortunate. Conference organizers need to accept that given the option between listening to a professor or a student, 99.9% choose the prof. And if there’s nothing else going on during the student/postdoc session, most people are going to bail to go eat, sleep, or do something non-conference related.

    I’ve attended a few meetings of a much smaller professional society (e.g. meeting attendance is 1/10th that of ACS). The society selected a handful of postdocs and grad students to give talks (based on poster abstracts) and integrated them into the regular sessions.

    There were a few issues the first year I attended. One, the student talks weren’t at the same time in concomitant sessions, so people would leave to go catch the end of big shot’s talk in the session next door. Also since the student talks were 1/3 the length of normal talks, the schedule in concomitant sessions was not synched. Finally several of the student talks were lined up immediately before breaks or lunch, so people were leaving early.

    The next year I attended, the student talks were scheduled for the same time in concomitant sessions and were interspersed throughout the sessions, not before breaks. With this approach, most people stayed in their seats and listened to the student talks and asked questions. I’d say it was a better experience for the students.

    Of course, given the scale of ACS meetings, it might be impossible to apply such a model there.

  43. Hap Says:

    Oops. Sorry for the presumption.

  44. Rebecca Says:

    If the poorly attended session was scheduled on a Monday, chances are it was competing against an award symposium. The truly crazy thing is that you can have 1000 attendees pack into a super-sized ballroom for the MEDI and ORGN awardees while the other 10 organic chemists at the meeting go to the topical sessions. The irony is, of course, that the award addresses are invariably a review of stuff the guy published five and ten years ago.

    I was an ACS program chair/secretary for 5 years. Much like democracy, it’s a terrible system but nobody’s come up with anything that works better.

  45. octahedral Says:

    This topic really hits home for me. I left the Hartwig group for industry due to the Berkeley move. I was in my first year of postdoc when the announcement came and there was no discussion as to why. All John said was that Berkeley was a “good place to do science, as was Illinois”. My wife and I were expecting our first kid (who has since been born) at the time and there was no way that my postdoc salary would support us in Berkeley. Money was unfortunately the reason why we left Cambridge for Urban-Champaign, and if I wanted to be broke with a newborn I would have much rather just stayed in Cambridge where we had friends already.

    I was also at MIT (Ph.D. with Schrock) for both the Peters and Jacobsen debacles. We had a ceremony in Lobby 18 with champagne and everything for Jacobsen and then he never showed up. And yes the whole Jonas Caltech-MIT-Caltech trip was influenced by his wife but they did also have a kid right after moving to Cambridge, which, as the parent of a 2 week old, can change your outlook on things.

  46. eugene Says:

    “We had a ceremony in Lobby 18 with champagne and everything for Jacobsen and then he never showed up.”

    Of course, the obvious question that I’m sure many others want answered: Did you get to drink the shampagune? Or did some jerks take it back to the faculty lounge or wehreever?

  47. Just Curious Says:


    Other than the inconsideration for his students for the abrupt move to Berkeley. How is it working with Hartwig? I am asking, because I am currently looking for a postdoctoral position, and I would like to apply with him because I really like his work. Thanks in advance!

  48. bad wolf Says:

    @JC–It’s kinda sad that you would read Octahedral’s story and still think that. “Other than the inconsideration for his students” I guess if you think he’s going to treat you better than the last postdoc he had… because you’re “special” or “different” some other battered-spouse syndrome word… go right ahead. Just don’t get that surprised look on your face when he screws you over without a word of explanation.

  49. wolfie Says:

    @ eugene and all others:

    The Physics and Chemistry behind the Bubbling Properties of Champagne and Sparkling Wines: A State-of-the-Art Review

  50. Old Timer Says:

    I know a man who has 3 family members in academia, including a Chem Department Chairman at a state university. He told me the mindset of chem professors is “my work comes first; by the way, who are these people in my house?”

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