Food for Pessimists Regarding Careers in Academia

April 14th, 2013

Here are some nice reads to get you depressed about a career in academia.

1) Last week, The Crimson published a wonderfully deep look into the process of getting tenure at Harvard.

“The ad hoc process is greatly shrouded in mystery; remarkably little is written about it,” says current Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Development Judith D. Singer. She smirks wryly as she swigs coffee from her mug, as if this is something she’s explained a hundred times before.

“What the ad hoc process does is it takes a recommendation that has come up out of a department, been through a dean, and says, ‘Let’s look at this with a fresh set of eyes. Let’s look at the totality of the evidence and make a dispassionate decision about whether the recommendations that have come up are really in the best interest of the University,’” says Singer.

In addition to the dossiers and area experts, the committee brings in a set of witnesses from the candidate’s department, typically the department chair and the chair of the committee that did the promotion review, among others. As the witnesses arrive at half-hour intervals, they see the membership of the committee for the first time. Until that point, the identities of the panel—except, of course, those who are ex officio—are kept confidential to prevent advance solicitation.


The cases are rarely cut and dry. Negative witnesses are often called in to dissent the promotion. “Even in a canonization there’s a devil’s advocate,” says Singer, “and that’s part of what the ad hoc process is designed to do: to raise all of the questions and say, ‘Are they of sufficient concern to not make a tenure appointment?’”

The ad hoc is the mostly anonymous end to Harvard’s tenure process—when the dozens of classes and published papers boil down to a single decision. Many tenured and tenure-track professors say the process is unfair, that it is too subjective, too anonymous, and too unpredictable. But fairness may be beside the point. Those familiar with the process say Harvard is not interested in promoting good junior faculty, but rather in making sure it has the very best.

Quite a few very successful chemists were formerly assistant professors of chemistry at Harvard (who left for a variety of reasons). Steve Benner is one of my favorites.

2) Earlier this month, Slate published an essay by a humanities graduate student about how going to grad school was a huge mistake for her.

Don’t do it. Just don’t. I deeply regret going to graduate school, but not, Ron Rosenbaum, because my doctorate ruined books and made me obnoxious. (Granted, maybe it did: My dissertation involved subjecting the work of Franz Kafka to first-order logic.) No, I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.

I know the situation is different for students in the sciences, but I think some of her experience is still applicable. Here’s a more charitable assessment of going to graduate school in the sciences from last year, also in Slate.

3) Finally, an oldie but goodie from 1999: “Don’t Become a Scientist!

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). American science no longer offers a reasonable career path. If you go to graduate school in science it is in the expectation of spending your working life doing scientific research, using your ingenuity and curiosity to solve important and interesting problems. You will almost certainly be disappointed, probably when it is too late to choose another career.

While I like Professor Katz’s piece, it should be noted that the man certainly has some strange opinions.

12 Responses to “Food for Pessimists Regarding Careers in Academia”

  1. NB Says:

    The Crimson article makes for interesting reading (I hadn’t known that Harvard didn’t technically have a tenure track until 2003); here’s the full article link.

  2. Paul Says:

    Just added the link to the post. Seven pages of goodness.

  3. Ian Says:

    Personally, I’m getting a bit sick of these ‘don’t go to grad school!!!’ articles. Yes, it is often a financially poor decision; yes, grad school shouldn’t be the ‘default’ option and it isn’t for everyone… but I feel like the internet is getting flooded with these articles and very little is actually being added to the conversation through their publication. At least blogs like Chemjobber, while having an generally dreary outlook on the market for a Chem Ph.D., do something proactive–compile and analyze raw data and produce meaningful thoughts about said data. Complaining about how one should not go to grad school might as well be an internet meme at this point.

  4. Paul Says:

    I agree that Chemjobber is the premier site for the analysis of grad school as a career decision, but I’m not so sure that the media landscape is saturated with anti-grad-school articles. I think one could easily argue the reverse: that there are too many sites/outlets saying “WE NEED MORE SCIENTISTS!!” with very little in the way of supporting evidence. I think that the piece by Katz is especially important because it was one of the first—if not the first—articles on the Internet to paint such a candid negative assessment of the world of academic science.

  5. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Harvard’s recent tenure decisions in chemistry do not reflect the ridiculously high standard described in the article, which is not to say that the decisions were incorrect.

  6. Paul Says:

    There’s definitely been a shift in recent years towards granting tenure to more assistant professors in chemistry. I remember people saying that Shair was the first organic asst prof to get tenure since Woodward, but I have no idea how to verify that easily (without going through the ACS graduate directory year by year). I know Friend got tenure in the 80s, and Shair, Liu, Park, and Zhaung more recently. Most profs, of course, were poaches (Myers from Caltech, Jacobsen from Illinois, Corey from Illinois, Evans from Caltech, Whitesides from MIT, Holm from Stanford?, Kishi from Nagoya, Lieber from Columbia, Xie from PNNL, Kahne from Princeton, Nocera from MIT). The department tried hard to recruit Bertozzi, but failed.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I sent in my grad school acceptance today. Everything Ian says appears to be correct, and I am shitting myself. Barely any grad student actually advocates doing a PhD in chemistry. Most of them strongly advocate not doing one… the Internet is full of these warnings. But I am doing it anyway. I am obviously completely mad.

  8. The Iron Chemist Says:

    At Harvard, Greg Verdine was promoted from Assistant Professor to Full Professor in the early 90’s. Stanford had a similarly long gap between Brauman and either Waymouth or Du Bois, depending on how narrowly you want to define “organic.”

  9. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I think people are finally waking up to the “We need more scientists” fallacy, based in part on a few incisive articles that have appeared during the last few years in leading papers and magazines. But I also agree that we need greater dissemination of this viewpoint; no harm in reiterating important stuff that may actually save a wannabe grad student’s career.

    Carl Sagan was denied tenure at Harvard. We all know how he turned out.

  10. wolfie Says:

    Remember, please, you are not at Harvard, not even in Ivy League. You are in St. Louis, at a Jesuit University.

  11. wolfie Says:

    My only affair I had when I was a PostDoc in Illinois was a Jewish girl with a physics degree from Caltech (really). After we broke up, she said to me : you must be catholic, or something.

  12. Chemjobber Says:

    Ian (and Paul!): thank you so much for the kind words. Keeps me going, reminds me what is good/important about my blog (and how others see it.)

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