Day: February 1, 2015

Bits of academia, winter, and sci-fi

I recently spent some time with a very junior faculty member at my institution. Young, from a prestigious institution, male. Thinks he has everything figured out. When I tell him what some very explicit requirements for tenure at the university are, he pouts and objects that they are unreasonable (they are not) and that if he feels that doing things the opposite way is the way to go, he will do that instead. I have to bite my tongue and muster quite a bit of patience. Even if we forget that I have been been doing the job for a decade, so I might know a thing or two just from being a non-ancient and fairly successful faculty member, I am at this very moment on the effing university-level committee that reviews tenure cases; trust me when I tell you what is important. We may discuss why it is important if you don’t understand, but rest assured that the requirement is not stupid, and it is not going anywhere, whether you like it or not.

To get tenure in most STEM fields at major research universities, you need to show that you are capable of working independently at the level of leading and supporting a vibrant research group. That means you need to:

  • Sever ties with former advisors (or let their involvement taper to nothingness over no more than a year or two), no matter how much you like working with them, or whatever the expertise/tool you could easily get from them; if you need it, find it locally, find it elsewhere, or develop it yourself; you need to show independence; we gave you the startup, the startup is not funding for a super-postdoc-you to continue working for your advisor;
  • You need to apply for funding early and often and show that you are capable of coming up with fundable ideas, the sooner the better; yes, you will get kicked out if you haven’t landed a grant  by the second half of your tenure track. It may be unfair, but it is the rule in my college, and we’re hardly alone in this attitude. There are a ton of resources to help with grantsmanship. Seek them, use them. If you aren’t getting funded, that means something is wrong with your grant proposals, even if the system as a whole isn’t perfect; work on your skills and work within the system.
  • You need to train students and postdocs, and train them well, so you can publish quality work with them, and often;
  • You need to establish collaborations on your own, all the better if they are local, and we will love you if they result in large center grants for the university;
  • You need to do a good job teaching, it can be great if you wish, but not at the expense of your research;
  • You need to publish well and often, in prominent venues; you also need to travel and be seen, so the community knows and respects you, and your colleagues say as much when we ask them for letters;

We are looking to tenure the people who can do this job at high productivity and without burning out for several decades; people who will clear the tenure bar without difficulty, not just barely squeak over it; an ideal tenured faculty member has an internal engine and will keep pretty much at the same or similar pace on his or her own past tenure.

Young faculty, especially male, who trained in prestigious groups tend to think they are destined for greatness. Perhaps they are; thinking they are is probably better than being crippled by the impostor syndrome, as the likes of me are. But there is a bit of a rude awakening that comes when your start realizing that papers without your famous advisor can’t easily get into Nature Progeny, or that you can’t get money from the program managers whom you know through your advisor and who you think love you, because trust me when I say that they love your old, established, National-Academies-member advisor much better and he’s doing pretty much the same stuff you propose; all the more reason to distance yourself from advisor, don’t you think?

I know confidence it the way of the American male academic, but I sometimes wish people would turn down the volume when they toot their horn. I was a complete ball of nerves when I started on the tenure track; I quickly realized I knew very little and I soaked all the information that anyone cared to share. I don’t know what it is with young men, especially pedigreed ones. Doesn’t it cross their minds that they might not actually know everything already, that they don’t in fact have everything figured out before they ever started, and that now might be a good time to shut up and listen? DH tells me that’s just the way of all men, always having to appear to know everything especially when talking with a woman, and that the young’un will go home and think about what I said. Well, if DH is right and it’s the way of all men, then all men are fuckin’ exhausting. The whole meeting was like talking to a petulant teenager. I already have a teenager to whom I gave birth and one is plenty, thankyouverymuch. I’d rather not have to deal with another one as part of my service duties.

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I may or may not be en route to true Midwesternship:

  • Anything above 15 degrees Fahrenheit is very pleasant,  nice enough to take a walk. Anything above 30 means a winter jacket is unnecessary; a sweatshirt will suffice.
  • I drive through blizzards like a champ.
  • The fact that there’s a blizzard outside does not faze me at all when I am determined to get to Costco.
  • I am watching the Superbowl.

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I just finished “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie. It’s excellent! Highly recommended for lovers of space-opera sci-fi. I just ordered the sequel, “Ancillary Sword,” and can’t wait for it to arrive. I am not going to spoil the book for you, but I will say this much:

  • The book will have you question your understanding of gender, I can promise you that.
  • As much as many sci-fi writers love apostrophes in the names of aliens, people, or places, Leckie loves double vowels, especially aa (Anaander Mianaai; Seivarden Vendaai; Amaat; Aatr; Lieutenant Skaaiat) and, to a lesser degree, double consonants (Garseddai; Liutenant Issaaia; Jen Shinnan). I am sure it’s all meaningful within the context of the Radchaai language, but it was a bit much and honestly made me itch for some apostrophes.
  • Best alien species name ever: Rrrrrr (that’s exactly 6 r’s).
  • New favorite curse: “Aatr’s tits!” Commonly used in the contexts where “Holy $hit!” would fit. Aatr is a minor deity. With tits, obviously.