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.


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.


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.


  1. I’ve definitely noticed that during faculty applicant chalk talks, the men tend to never say “I don’t know” and will bluster their way through any question, while the women seem more likely to admit they don’t know.

  2. Regarding your Midwestership comments:

    My husband and I thought yesterday would be a great day for a walk. Blizzard snow, but it was a balmy 32 degrees!!

  3. Ok so let’s say hypothetically that postdoc adviser has something (physical) that no one else in the world has, and which I think is a great system I’d like to continue working with. Does using that resource automatically mean I am not “severing ties” appropriately? Is the fact that I am choosing to work with rare resource / unusual system mean that I’ll be seen as a “super postdoc” of that person, even if we intend not to publish together after the actual postdoc work is published?

    Also, congratulations on becoming a midwesterner. Your comments made me very nostalgic. 🙂

  4. Meanwhile I’m freezing at work because it’s like 50 degrees out there right now and the heat isn’t on for some unknown reason. At least I still know how to drive through snow.

  5. To Jojo – Yes, it will appear that you are not severing ties. That resource will always be known as the adviser’s as will any of the research from it.

  6. So, does adviser have to die before anyone works on that system again? Seems a pretty stupid way for science to work.

  7. Ok so let’s say hypothetically that postdoc adviser has something (physical) that no one else in the world has, and which I think is a great system I’d like to continue working with.

    Jojo, if you worked in a lab of someone who has a unique tool, chances are places will hire you precisely so you would build the same or similar tool on your own.

    This comes up all the time. We are currently working on bringing in a guy from a huge group with very specific expertise that we feel would enhance the college’s standing in a certain area. The plan is to give him enough money to start a lab with some pretty expensive equipment and bring that expertise to our university. The big investment into all that equipment and his expertise is meant to be attractive to other potential hires down the road. So it goes beyond just this one guy.

    These things come up in the interview, the questions of independence. If you say “I plan on working on this and that,” and the committee asks you how you plan to do it, and you say “Well, I will continue to use my old advisor’s tools,” that’s not great. It’s better to say “I might send my students to learn and use the advisor’s tool the first year or two, at which point I expect we will have our own system up and running. This is what I would need and how much it would cost.”

    Commonly, we expect new hires to be able to work with local equipment or to bring desired expertise that justifies a big investment into tools that we currently don’t have but that the candidate needs and is uniquely qualified to work with/build/etc.

  8. xy – thanks, that’s interesting. A lot of what you are saying is somewhat field-specific to be sure but I definitely see what you’re getting at. It seems like you’re being practical about independence – like, if adviser were to drop dead tomorrow, would I still be able to do the work I want to do, or do I require their lab to be active and available?

    I’m a biologist, so in my case we’re talking about actual lifeforms, and it’s very possible (and actually common) to inherit, move, or find more in the wild of the same study system (lifeforms, ecosystems, field sites) worked on by the adviser, so I don’t think that particular issue will apply to me.

    However, in biology it’s also common for particular study systems to be strongly associated with the particular (now) greyhair who first made them famous. I sometimes worry/wonder about being assumed to be a trainee forever simply because of that name-association if I keep working on the system. But it also seems wasteful NOT to work on the system, because it is a great system for doing certain science and I have training that I could only have gotten here.

  9. The severing-ties things has been a bit over-stated here (though maybe it does really get applied that way at xykademiqz’s university). What we expect to see at our university is a substantial body of independent work. Continuing previous collaborative work is fine, as long as there is *also* the substantial independent work. We also don’t *require* that tenure candidates have been successfully funded, though that is taken as evidence of research independence, and everyone who has gotten tenure in our department had funding (some of our assistant professor hires had funding even before they had their first tenure-track job).

    The midwesternization sounds about right. I’ve moved in the opposite direction—I put on a sweater when the temperature drops below 60°F (as it does every night, summer or winter). My snow boots haven’t been worn in 25 years (and have mold on them from the damp closet). And I still don’t have a drivers’ license nor watch football.

  10. I’ve got nothing on the tenure thing, obviously. But your discussion of the overconfident young men made me think of a Harvard Business Review podcast I heard awhile back, and so I went and dug up the accompanying article- it makes the case that one of the things preventing the promotion of qualified women is that we tend to overpromote unqualified men, because we conflate confidence with competence.

    Here’s the article:

    In the podcast, the article’s author (Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic) went on to argue that instead of trying to make women adopt the overconfidence that is more common in men, we’d be better off on the whole if we worked to get more men to adopt the humility (his word) that is more common in women. He also makes the case that being humble combined with being competent is actually a recipe for a very effective leader. The podcast (w/transcript) is here:

    I have been meaning to look up more of his work, but haven’t found the time.

  11. Jojo, I don’t have tenure, and I don’t claim to know what is really needed to get it. But I will comment on your issue with the waste. This is my story: I felt the same way when I left my post doc and started my faculty position. I was hell bent on proving that you could collaborate with your former boss if it brings the best science. The problem, in this case was the mentor. He still wanted me to do lots of freebie work for him. I accepted to do a ton of things for him (writing his papers, training his students on techniques I knew, etc.). It all seemed to be much more efficient that way. Why let a poor student take 3 months to learn something, when I could train them in a couple of weeks? This just made sense to me, and reinforced my sense of being nice.

    I was preparing grants based on my mentors “unique” system. But one day, I needed a bit of data for the grant I was preparing. I was told to get lost. What??? A big argument ensued. I was told that I would get no data for my grants. That I could use data for their papers, but not for my grants.

    So, I cut the cord. And life has never been better. Three years later I have developed a better system than he had, one that everyone knows is mine. The data I didn’t get remains not analyzed, and nobody is writing those papers. I was lucky to have a mean mentor, or I would have tried to work it out.

    Yes, it will be wasteful to abandon your mentor and his/her system. It is wasteful for kids to move out of home and get their own home. It’s for good!!!. You will not regret it.

  12. Some of my STEM resident graduate students are going to host a discussion about the confidence gap later this month, and I’ll be curious to hear what their undergraduates think. I’m not sure I buy the argument that confidence makes or breaks a career … because I don’t think that women who exude the kind of “petulant teenager” confidence that you describe are taken more seriously, and I also wonder whether men talking with your overconfident young colleague would see him in the same annoying light …

  13. The funding rates in my field are trending at the 10-15% level. I am wondering how this will play out for current young hires. Hell, our tenured faculty (even the productive ones) aren’t winning the grants they were awarded their entire careers.

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