Food for Pessimists Regarding Careers in AcademiaApril 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.