Month: February 2019

The Anointed

Monopolies are a feature of capitalism, but I (naively) never used to think they could be a feature of academia.

I am active in several subfields, and in each there is a small number of large, successful, well-funded groups that seem to pollinate the entire national academic ecosystem and largely the international one, too. People from these few groups take up positions everywhere, from primarily undergraduate institutions to research schools, then rise through the ranks and create  impenetrable in-groups that block others from access to jobs, grants, and high-impact publications.

A deeply worrying aspect of this uniformity of pedigree is groupthink. The situation in which  everyone who works in a certain subarea comes from a small number of nexuses and has the same type of training, while no one else is awarded opportunities, cannot be beneficial for the vitality of science.

This post has been brought to you by the annual job cycle, specifically by the flurry of on-site interviews in which I’ve had to partake.

There is no such thing as The One Best Candidate for the Job. There are usually 20+ excellent applicants, of whom some number both look good on paper and interview well; any of them would make a great addition to the department. When a department thinks about whom to hire, should members of the faculty worry that one or more sprouts of an applicant’s academic progenitor are already among their ranks? I think this is a legitimate concern, as it speaks to an important aspect of diversity — a diversity of thought.

I seem to be a minority in this line of thinking. I have heard people who came from famous academic lineage say that they see no problem with big groups having their offspring everywhere. They attribute a junior scientist’s high count of high-impact paper solely to the junior scientist’s individual awesomeness  (and somehow never to advisor fame/success, school prestige, etc.), likely because they recognize (or strive to recognize) their younger selves in the candidate. These folks actively push to bring in more faculty with a background identical to their own and generally respond to my concerns by being upset, because to them I am implying that the best, brightest, and most worthy (read: those like them) — the anointed, if you will — aren’t entitled to absolutely everything.

There is a strong and unhealthy careerism aspect to academic science that creates research-group behemoths and dynasties. Sure, there are variations among fields and in some disciplines larger groups are more common than in others, but, as a whole, what is clearly no longer a trend but a mainstay of academic-science operations is not healthy for the science itself, which — as much as any endeavor and probably more than most — needs many smart but differently trained people to pursue many interesting threads in many different ways in order for truly new insights to emerge.

Academic blogosphere, what are your thoughts on hiring multiple people with the same educational background? On the fact that dozens of people with the same training are on faculty in your field, especially if you are not among the in-crowd? If you are? 

Groundhog Hey


Is this thing still on?

Hi everyone, it is your friendly neighborhood blogger. Delinquent friendly neighborhood blogger. Very ashamed delinquent friendly neighborhood blogger.

I’ve been MIA for several reasons. One is that fiction has taken up much of my creative bandwidth, but there has to be a way to accommodate both blogging and other writing, so I will try (and likely fail, repeatedly and spectacularly) to be better at pursuing the two concurrently.

Another is Middle Boy, aged not yet 12 but wearing a size-11 shoe and being over 5′ 9″ tall. Every day I have to hunt and roast a buffalo in order to feed him. His basketball and general hormone-fueled middle-school shenanigans take up a fair number of my mental cycles.

I have had a lot of labor-intensive service. Rewarding, but labor-intensive. As I must’ve said a number to times already, I CANNOT WAIT FOR SABBATICAL NEXT ACADEMIC YEAR. I CANNOT FUCKIN’ WAIT. The first one I took a year late and I spent it writing grants, caring for a newborn (gotta love it when a request for a full proposal comes in when you have a week-old baby and they want the submission in two fuckin’ weeks), and organizing a sizable conference. I am taking this sabbatical again a year late, and while there is thankfully no newborn, there was almost a conference again. I won’t go anywhere for long because Middle Boy is a handful. I’m dreading the few years ahead, to be honest.

My research group is at its max size, computers and chairs are being purchased, and while it’s always tricky to start working with a brand new crop of people, it’s nice to have fresh not-yet-jaded folks around.  I am teaching extra this semester because I will be on sabbatical but have all the new group members who need the course, and all the extra teaching is not helping.

So the lack of actual time and head space is the reason for the lack of posts, but I am not going anywhere, I promise.

I do miss blogging, the stream-of-consciousness, personal-narrative nature of it, so hopefully more from me again soon, in this space.