Monday Night Grumps

I had a really, really long day. I spent 12 hours at work, and much of it on face time. I prepped a class, then taught the class, then spent the next 7 hours meeting with a total of 14 different students: 2 for office hours, 3 who are my research students about various points where they were stuck on their projects, and 9 for an internal examination procedure that is such a freakin’ waste of time that I break out in hives every semester as I have to do it. And then I graded the midterm. So I am very tired and very grumpy, I am late with my annual report, haven’t made much headway in grading the exam, plus there is a paper that we need to revise and resubmit and two more first drafts in the pipeline but I haven’t been able to get to any of it do it because I haven’t been able to dig myself from under the mountain of service and teaching. Too little progress on research makes me very unhappy; it is a key part of my work, one that’s creative, yet I seem to have to do everything else before I can treat myself to some delicious paper writing.

I try to keep it in perspective that I have a really good job at a really good place, and that I have tenure, a good salary, and good graduate students with whom I enjoy working. But when I am tired and grumpy, the things that I try really hard to not think about surface and sometimes get poured into a blog post.

There is relentless pressure from the administration to go get more money, money, money, money. I am usually able to convince myself that it is a good thing to go for external funds, that applying for funding helps differentiate good ideas from bad ones, but I have always held that applying for money is for the purpose of doing research. Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder to pretend that the administration actually cares about people doing research at all; they care about research success to the extent to which success brings prominence to the school/college/department and enables you to get even more money.

We constantly talk about money, getting more money, always more more more money. Nobody every shuts up about the goddamn money. If you have a lot of money, people listen to you (even if you have an abysmally low paper per dollar ratio, and even if your citations are nowhere near where they should be).  Now the department can’t cover basic operations because the higher-up administration expects that some of it will be covered by external funds and we are not buying out as much as we can (buyout = you can reduce teaching load by paying a part of your academic-year salary, normally part of the department budget, from external grants).  There is no return from the overheard (overhead =  the 1/3 or more off the top of every grant that the university skims). It is very hard to get matching funds for anything. TA support is asymptotically approaching zero. We will be facing a likely increase in the teaching load. I know, those who are not at R1’s are rolling their eyes and thinking “Boohoo, cry me a river!” But the thing is we are supposed to spend a large amount of time on writing grants and doing research. Now the time to do research is getting squeezed out from all sides — more teaching, more service, more idiotic paperwork of all sorts (the staff has been decimated so we are ll our own secretaries and accountants and travel agents), more emphasis on getting grants so we can not only give the overhead to the university but also buy out from teaching, which we have to do because the loads were increased to make us to spend more money just to reduce it back to the levels before, and only so we’d have more time to write more grants.

The push in recent years towards going big, going bigger, growing, building centers, building consortia, has become relentless. I hate that model of doing science, I was part of one center for a long time and it’s an administrative nightmare; for the people who use the shared facilities it’s probably more worthwhile, but, for me, it was one student worth of money, yet with a staggering time commitment and paperwork and constant reports and advisory committee presentations, all of which took way more time than my considerably larger and less bullshit-heavy single-investigator grants. Plus the politics was just ridiculous, and the potential for getting screwed over on account of money was tremendous. There are several colleagues with whom I will never collaborate based on what I learned about them during my time in the center; probably goes both ways.

But these are multi-million-dollar centers, which means they bring multi-million-dollar overhead to the university, along with the fame and prestige for the PI who is a big salesman in charge. I don’t begrudge the people who are good at doing this type of work, I really don’t, more power to them; being able to swing it in these  biggest of leagues is not a common trait. What pisses me off is that there seems to be no place any more for a person who has a medium-sized group and brings in enough money to sustain a research program, and then actually works with group members on addressing the proposed problems. This modus operandi seems to be headed for extinction, as it means you are not superstar material. Since when have thinking about and actually doing science become irrelevant for, you know, science? Sometimes I feel like I am in this vortex in which it’s all money, preliminary results to get more money, then more money, more preliminary results, and where finishing good hypothesis-driven work is completely irrelevant, especially in terms of how much sway you have in your local habitat.

On an unrelated note, I am having a really tough class this semester. It’s the same course as last semester, where I had great rapport with the students. This semester, you can hear a pin drop in the classroom. Everyone is completely quiet, it’s  very hard to get a peep out of anyone, no matter how much I try to engage them. There is a kid in the back who drives me crazy by constantly texting in class. This class is an elective, why are you even here if you are not paying attention? Why are you in class if you don’t want to learn? What are your parents paying for?

The class seems to be even more poorly prepared mathematically than the class last semester. I try to keep myself chipper, and I know they are young and they can learn and they weren’t educated all that well, but it is so frustrating not being able to teach them this advanced material because we are forever getting stuck with getting algebraic expressions to a common denominator, or pointing out that i^2=-1 and thus -i=1/i (i is the imaginary number).  Usually I talk myself into “it’s not a big deal” mode, but sometimes it’s really hard.

I hate it that we shelter the students from math so much; everyone is always apologizing for serving them any math at all. There is a derivation that we did in class today that they easily could have done freshman or sophomore year. They say it was sort of shown to them but they were told to just remember the end formulas, and they did. Nobody had any idea about the assumptions that resulted in the formula and they looked bored as we went into the details. Considering that the material coming up is going to be considerably more abstract, I am bracing for some difficult months ahead…


  1. Much empathy!

    There SHOULD be room for sales-stars and for people who are damn good scientists when they work on a smaller scale but not good at running a giant group or doing the necessary politicking around funding and running a big center – they’re different skills. But everyone is meant to do EVERYTHING these days…

  2. Considering that the material coming up is going to be considerably more abstract, I am bracing for some difficult months ahead…

    Now, now, you have to understand, students can’t succeed if challenged with abstraction. You need to meet them where they are at, and focus on things that freshman STEM majors in other countries would be able to do. Otherwise, how will we ever be internationally competitive?

  3. Funny Researcher, we are likely talking about the same numbers. See the wording in the post, 1/3 of the total money skimmed off the top — it’s really the same thing as having the overhead rate set at 50% of the direct costs (which means that you have to budget for 1.5x direct costs or, in other words, once you get a grant 2/3 will be towards direct costs and 1/3 will be overhead).

  4. Your complaints are what we are all facing. At my university, we went through enormous budget cuts, entire departments cut, support staff seriously eliminated and now that we are recovering from that, all they do is hire more administrators. They create new administrator positions everywhere, who dream up new service and teaching duties for us while screaming that we need to bring in more money. Meanwhile I have to do everything because the support staff are so decimated. Doing research is increasingly impossible. The number of roadblocks put in front of me have increased 10-fold and the administration doesn’t do anything to help, in fact I think they are absolutely clueless as to what it actually takes to do research at this institution. How the hell can we do all this? There is absolutely no time left in my 24/7 week of work. It makes me seriously reconsider what was so great about academia.

    My choice is to become an administrator (which would mean a nice pay raise) but no research/no creativity, or continue to slave away in this nightmare of work. I’ve begun to do the things I abhor in others, such as just not do a very good job of some service duties because it is just BS. And I see that those who don’t do their job well get rewarded. Those of us who do our jobs well just get more work piled on us. Academia is a haven for the passive-aggressive. It disgusts me.

  5. Ditto. It’s all about the money here. They don’t even try to pretend like it’s not – we talk about it at just about every faculty meeting (to be fair, I think my chair is just passing down the message from the top). Scholarship (except as it affects grant dollars) is not really a subject of discussion. Big TEAM science that brings in big Center dollars is very popular here too. Apparently, it increases our “market share” of NIH dollars (one of our top administrators actually said that). It doesn’t help that the federal government is adding regulations like there is no tomorrow, forcing the university to create additional training, busy work and restriction in order to be in CYA compliance. However, we were informed that in response to the recent crunch in external funding, that there would be a hiring freeze for administrators, halting the 2 administrator: 1 faculty position hiring trend of the past 20 years.

  6. I was lucky to have two offers for TT position. One in a R1 flagship state university in the US and the other in a foreign university. During two interview visits to the state university in US, the only thing everyone talked about was money. No one even cared about my research interests or tried to tell me about theirs. Not even a pretence. I took it as a huge red flag and decided to take alternate offer.

    Career wise this may as well turn out to be a mistake, I will never know. My current place also talks about money of course, but there are fewer opportunities to get money and this is at least understood. On objective terms, though the state university is slightly better than the foreign university, the foreign university ranks within top 5 in its local scene and my home department within top 3. So that is also a factor.

    Having now spent 3+ years in my job, I believe that I have had more time to spend on research than I would have at another place. This is reflected in my track record — I have less money to show but more papers, and I am happy with that.

  7. It is comforting to hear that others are also forced to be their own travel agents, secretaries, etc. I beat my head against the wall constantly — the admin approach to saving money is so myopic. Get the faculty to do all the staff work and then you can lay off the staff! That saves a lot of money in the short-term, but loses so much in the long term. After the accounting fiascos I’ve faced this year, I am really not confident submitting grants. What if I get them? It is really hard to work around all the bureaucracy to actually be able to spend the money, and then the accounting is done so poorly that I risk my own livelihood and neck that the university won’t screw it up. I almost had $70,000 reported to the IRS as income because a staff person didn’t realize that they needed to do something with all those receipts I had handed in 6 months ago.. OMG. AND I AM AT A MAJOR R1 UNIVERSITY!!! Un-fucking-acceptable, IMHO.

  8. I think the academic model is breaking down and as everything is falling apart people are doubling down on the stupid. At my last R1 school, we had a grants office that seemed to prefer that we not win grants, as it only increased their workload. The idea that their job was to help enable our research was completely alien to them. At my current university (also R1), teaching is being reduced to a cost benefit analysis and classes cancelled if insufficiently profit-generating.

    And many of my colleagues make me shake my head too. As money gets tighter, there is this rising tendency to ask for work for free. I lost out on a major instrumentation project largely (I believe) because we came in at a higher $$ amount because we charged salaries for the non-faculty scientists and engineers on the project. Crazy talk. The winning bid was heavily leveraged by salary support at a foreign research consortium, but they have yet to sign a contract for the build phase (two years later) because said foreign government backed out of providing work for free. The facility asked me if I would consider “cost-sharing” to make up the difference between what they thought the project should cost and what we bid. The amount would have completely wiped out any overhead return generated on our end. Since they also did not guarantee us time to use the instrument for science once built, they were effectively asking us to devote four years of our careers to this project out of the goodness of our hearts. As you can perhaps detect, I’m still cheesed off about that aspect of it.

  9. How do people keep getting funded with a low paper to dollar ratio? Seems like the funding agencies would catch on to that?

  10. Your post makes me feel very lucky, but I think I am well sheltered by my department. In many ways, tenure in a couple of years might bring more negatives than positives because I know much of that shelter will dissolve.

  11. Pyrope, yes, you don’t see all the warts until after tenure, when you start attending the tenured folks meetings (often called the executive committee meetings).,,

    EarthSciProf, there are agencies that are willing to throw A LOT of money at you if you are going to produce something they want, and do it fast. Funding from them can be abundant and fairly stable long-term, and it all depends on whether or not you are able to establish and maintain relevance to the interests and portfolio of an individual program manager. In contrast, with agencies such as NSF and DOE, considerably less money is available, and there is rigorous external peer review and in general expectations of very good productivity (as viewed through papers) in order to continue being competitive.

  12. Astra and inB – I am with you 100%.

    Although, I am sorry to hear that these problems are not constrained just to my university. These “decision makers” don’t seem to understand that by making us do accounting, travel, purchasing, insurance, teaching, counseling, legal, janitorial and other work all part of faculty responsibilities, we don’t have the time to be writing the grants to bring in the god-almighty dollars they are screaming for.

    It is really getting worse. Essentially none of the staff or administrators that I interact with seem to understand that they are supposed to be supporting us – faculty! Instead the cart is definitely leading the horse, and most staff I interact with work harder at finding ways to NOT work that they screw everything up which results in a doubling or tripling of the time I have to spend on it.

    And – it is the faculty who have all the liabilities. If a student gets harmed in your lab – YOU, personally, will be at fault. If you take another person in the field in your car and something happens, YOU, personally, will be at fault (of course, that is another matter of complaint – just the roadblocks in place to get a university-sanction car (that runs) to do fieldwork). Then of course, we have the risk of even giving lectures since now so many students might actually be carrying a handgun and might not like your lecture!

    Just let me rant for the time it takes to write another grant!

  13. My personal (and vicarious) experience with funding agencies has been entirely NSF and DOE so I guess that explains my lack of understanding. Thanks for the info

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