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Academic Prophecies

AssProfLyfe asks

Wondering what your thoughts are about the future of academia overall – this comes up in casual convos with seminar speakers when they come through the department. The bloating admin, the less number of college-age students available to attend, the steady paylines of grants that don’t scale with inflation and increased payroll for students/postdocs (which is needed/deserved!). As an assistant professor, these really make me question of if I can have long-term stability in the academy. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what you think academia will look like in 20+ years.

I think this is somewhat field-dependent and definitely differs between smaller, primarily undergraduate institutions (and even there, small public campuses differ from elite SLACs) and big research schools. My perspective is that of someone at a big public school, and I will share what I can given the limitations of what I know. 

I am not very optimistic, to be honest. I admit the job (faculty job at a big university) isn’t what I had envisioned, and the constant grant grind and overwhelming service are getting the best of me and basically spoiling all the enjoyment and efficiency of doing the other parts. During a semester like this one, when I am teaching a new course, I could easily spend 100% of my time on teaching, grant writing, and miscellaneous service. I love teaching, and I love the idea-generating and even the writing part of grant writing, but it is a struggle to find the time to meet with my students and even more so to write papers, and the stress associated with needing to get grants funded in order to keep going is just punishing. 

I know that graduate students in my subfield don’t want to pursue academia. Maybe I am not a good role model as I am clearly exhausted by the grant race. But who can blame them? Doing a PhD, likely years of a postdoc, just for a chance to compete? In my subfield, you can get well-paying jobs with big, successful companies and do really interesting work with brilliant collaborators. Unless you really put a premium on not having a boss (as I do, but it turns out that most people don’t), industry jobs really do offer a lot of benefits.  

There will be big closures or cuts to the small campuses of state university systems. It is happening already, so I’m not being particularly prophetic here. Schools are competing for enrollments, and, with dwindling state support, low enrollments will mean closures. 

There is increasing competition for donor dollars, and that affects all layers of administration. The roles of department chairs and deans include plenty of schmoozing with those who have big pockets. There are multiple new positions sprouting that are devoted to publicity and fundraising. There are also higher-admin positions being added to deal with students, diversity, etc. while, perhaps unsurprisingly at least from the budgetary standpoint, the positions dealing with students and faculty at the department level, where they’re needed, are being rolled back. We have 1/2 or even 1/3 of the department staff we had when I started out (nearly 20 yeas ago — JFC, it’s been a long time).  

Don’t get me started on the ridiculousness of grant math. Grant sizes have been stagnant during my time as faculty, while the overhead rates have steadily climbed and student and postdoc salaries, as well as grad-student tuitions have somewhat more slowly but still steadily climbed. We can literally do less science per dollar than a decade or two ago. Moreover, funding rates have dwindled to single-digit percentages, in part because people write more because one grant supports less than it used to.  

One thing that worries me about funding in my field is that big funding mechanisms (centers) seem to have overtaken agencies. There is far less money all around for single-PI or very small teams (2-3 PIs). Having been part of these centers, I can tell you I don’t like their politics and hierarchy, and I don’t think they are a good use of many PI’s time or talents. 

Overall, well-funded people and center leaders at big, prominent schools will continue to do well, probably better than ever. Smaller players everywhere, be it PIs or smaller schools, will continue to face an uphill battle to keep the lights on. Admin will  continue to proliferate and eat up resources. Undergrads will continue to be educated, if they are lucky, by dedicated faculty or permanent instructional staff, or else by grad students or underpaid adjuncts. They will pay ever more for that education. The best and the brightest among graduate students, except for those with impeccable PhD pedigrees, will not be pursing academic careers.  

What say you, blogosphere? How do you envision the (near) future of academia? 

From the Archives: Abandoned Manuscripts

Originally appeared here.

A few weeks ago, a colleague’s postdoc sent out a draft of a paper for comments. I looked at the paper and thought, “Wait, haven’t we published everything we had on this topic years ago?” To put things in context, I had an undergrad honors student working on the theory part of this project. Since the last publication, the undergrad had graduated, attended graduate school elsewhere, and is about to defend his PhD. So yes, it’s been a while.

Honestly, I almost completely forgot about this project; I certainly don’t recall any of the details. I would first have to go reread what we’d published before I can intelligently comment on this new draft.

Which really brings me to the topic of today’s post: When are you really done with a project? And how do you decide if an abandoned manuscript deserves resuscitation or if it’s best left to die?

I know people who more-or-less work on the same problem, or within the same narrow field, their entire careers. This approach doesn’t generally bode well for funding prospects in many fields in the US, but I admit that some who’ve pursued this strategy have been funded and productive on account of being the highest authority in the niche.

Most people do switch topics, or, more precisely, they slowly drift away from an old focus and toward a new one. As they do so, they might maintain some activity in the original area. I personally like to make more of a clean break after I’ve said what I had to say. At any point in time, I run several fairly disparate research thrusts; each will be active for maybe 2-3 grant cycles, which is usually enough for some nice results and papers and about as long as my interest can hold before I itch to do something else, after which I move on while downsizing and often completely shutting down the work on the old thrust. This does result in always feeling like an outsider in a new field — scary, but also invigorating.

I focus on getting papers out as fast as possible and don’t really have a history of sitting on manuscripts for no reason. However, I admit I currently have two papers that are semi-abandoned.

One I simply can’t bring myself to submit, because my gut tells me there is something wrong with it and I don’t want us to look foolish. The paper disputes the work of another group, which is led by an excellent scientist. Our argument is that the other group missed something fairly basic, and I honestly can’t believe that they did; instead, I fear it’s us who might be in the wrong and that the issue is far more subtle than it seems at first (my former student insists that it is that simple), but I just haven’t been able to devote to this problem the time and attention it deserves in order to convince myself one way or another.

The other paper that I have on the back burner was going to come out of a former student’s Master’s degree work; the student was supported during the study by their employer, a national lab. (The student was completely disinterested in getting a paper out of the work and only wanted a degree; I  generally expect one paper at the level of a Master’s, but it’s not a formal degree requirement.) This paper would be a very small contribution, but would have a head and tail and a clear pitch, and I think it might review well in a suitable minor publication venue. The question is whether writing up this little nugget and the hassle of getting the approval to submit from the national lab are worth my time, when the contribution is incremental and well below the standard of novelty I like to set for my group.

Other than these two, everything else I have in the pipeline is quite fresh.

The colleague whose postdoc sent me that manuscript is not a procrastinator; he’s usually good about submitting papers, but does seem to have a number that are five-to-ten-years old yet haven’t seen the light of day. I was really surprised that we had anything left unpublished on that particular topic, and it’s interesting that this work is being resurrected right now.

Dear readers, do you have any unpublished manuscripts that have been in purgatory for far too long? If yes, why do you think they never got their chance at submission? How long has it been since the first draft? Do you think they will ever be submitted? When do you think a manuscript is officially past its expiration date (assuming no one’s scooped you)?

From the Archives: Membership in Professional Societies

(This post originally appeared here.)

Show of hands: How many academics actually consider professional-society memberships to be useful?

I recently renewed my memberships of two professional societies. They were not cheap.

For one of the societies, I do not remember ever having had a real use for the membership. Ever. I understand that for people outside academia these memberships perhaps provide a way to stay current with the technical literature, but for this particular society I fully admit that I renew because sometime in the next few years I plan to go up for fellow, which is expected of a reputable academic in my department and at peer institutions. I have done service for the society, again mostly to help with the eventual fellowship application. I don’t like to publish in their journals (slow and don’t have high impact factors). I engaged with them in the past (the year Smurf was born) about the conference I was organizing, but they did not make anything better, easier, or cheaper — quite the contrary. Further involvement of the society would’ve resulted in vastly higher conference registration fees and far too much of a trade-show feel, both of which I wanted to avoid. So never again.

For the second one, my main reason for renewing is, also, that I eventually plan on applying for elevation to fellow. However, I am also more engaged with this society, as I like their journals; I both publish in them and review for them often, but I could do that just as well without the membership, if we’re being honest. The membership does offer benefits for the attendance of certain meetings, including a massive annual one, but far less now than when I was junior. The membership costs less than for the first society, so I don’t get quite as grumpy when the time comes to renew.

Overall, I keep renewing grudgingly every year because it is expected, but I don’t actually see the benefits, not in my daily work or meeting attendance. Again, I understand there are benefits for professionals outside academia.

Blogosphere, what are your feelings about professional-society memberships?

Largely Levity Links

Why Meetings and Advice to Old Self

pyrope asked:

You’ve probably done this post before, but what advice would you give yourself of 5, 10, 15+ years ago?
Another question – why do I have so many f*ing meetings and how do I get out of them (I’m considering faking my own death)?

Second question first: Why so many meetings?

I wish I knew, honestly. Most stuff could be done via email. On the one hand, I understand the importance of shared governance; on the other hand, I wish some smaller operational issues were simply handled somehow, I don’t really care how and by whom, without everyone having to give input on everything. I am very grateful for Zoom meetings, so I can join and basically do something else while sort of listening. I get the needed info without having to sit for way too long listening to people who talk way too slowly. 

It’s interesting, the committees where a lot of real work actually gets done outside of meetings (for example, award nomination committees, where people really have to write letters and assemble nomination packages, or search committees, where we have to carefully look at candidate records before voting) also have efficient and substantive meetings that don’t bother me much. So my advice is try to get on the committees you find meaningful (sometimes they are a lot of work, but at least you don’t feel like pulling your hair out) and to avoid/shirk the rest as much as you can. I admit to sometimes skipping stuff when I am low on energy or time; I don’t offer excuses, but, if asked, I cite research conflict or personal reasons. In other words, I totally understand the impetus to fake one’s own death to avoid meetings, but sometimes playing hooky does the trick!

First question second: What advice would I have given myself 5, 10, 15+ years ago? 

This is a hard one, and I might need to revisit.

As my friend says, beautiful people are not more important than other people. I would tell have told myself to make fewer decisions because of guys I was attracted to and/or relationships with. I should have generally made less of an effort to impress people. I would have told myself to stick to my guns more, to listen to my gut more, and that I had more intrinsic value than I believed at the time. So much of young women’s worth is tied to external forces — dudes, parents, bosses. I wish I’d had more people to tell me I was perfectly fine and perfectly enough as I was. I can honestly say that my kids were the first people who really just took me for who I was and loved me for exactly that; I was/am enough. With everyone else (yes, parents and friends and romantic partners), I’ve always felt they wanted me to be something else, better, worse, more, less, quieter, louder, just not myself. There was always something to fix. Having kids has been, in this way and many other ways, transformative. To be just accepted, no ands, ifs, or buts. So, in talking to my younger self, 20, 30 years ago, I’d have tried to convince myself that I was already enough. 

Maybe this advice would also have saved me from burnout in my job. I should have made the time to stop and smell the roses sooner. I should have gone toward joy more often. I need to do that now. 

Five years ago, I would have told myself that it was time to start writing fiction, and to get on with it, because it would be wonderful and healing and fulfilling. That I would meet some great friends through this endeavor, and that these artists would enrich my life in untold ways. 

I would have told myself to go back to all the stuff I liked as a kid — drawing and writing — because those loves didn’t die, they were just buried under years of hyperfocus on science. 

I would have told myself that I would get the life that I wanted and that it was OK to just chill a bit, not be so tightly wound all the time. That the colleagues in my department were really good people and that I should relax and assume the best (rather then the worst, as is my wont) intentions. 

I would have told myself, “Good job! You’re kicking ass,” which was never forthcoming from the sources where I desperately sought it from. 

Speaking of grownup self healing younger self, my middle kid recently read this short story: “The Utterly Perfect Murder” by Ray Bradbury. I think it’s fitting. 

What wisdom do you have for pyrope, blogosphere? 

Service, Take Seven Gajillion

Recently I spoke with a very stressed-out junior faculty member. They are overworked, especially with service, yet feel shackled to it, unable to handle the time drain and feeling helpless about things ever getting calmer, more manageable. 

I like our current chair, but they are a little too service-happy. There is a proliferation of committees that we never had before, with unnecessary service tasks. (At the same time, real administrative support is way down.) Our department chair is also a politically savvy individual who gets people to do what needs to be done, sometimes despite the people’s better judgement. Department chair is the one who really should not have overburden the junior faculty member with far too much service, but did. 

When it comes to burdensome service tasks, everyone says, “Just say no.” This drives me bananas. There are all sorts of interpersonal dynamics that make it hard for people to say no, the most common in the professional context being a real or perceived power differential. Someone who is your boss or otherwise has power over you asks you to do something and tells you to “Just say no” if you don’t want to. The thing is, you know and they know that you may not feel free to say no because of the  potential ramifications (direct or oblique) that stem from the power differential between you two. So no, it’s not enough to say, “Feel free to say no.”  The ask itself is not neutral. The ask itself is an imposition. 

This is the reason why I don’t schedule meetings with students outside of Mon-Fri 9-5 and why I don’t have social gatherings with students for barbecues and such. I know faculty invite grad students to their homes, and more power to them, but I never have and never will. I do not want to impose on my people’s personal time, and I don’t want to ask them to do a) something that is not essential to their role as graduate students or postdocs, and b) something that they might want to say no to, but might not feel free to because of our power differential. For example, students would presumably rather spend weekends with their friends and families than in some group-bonding exercise, or might have other personal weekend engagements that I don’t have (and shouldn’t have) a clue about. Outside of weekday 9-5, I assume they would want to say no to anything I ask if they were free to honestly respond, so I do not even ask. (We do get together for a group lunch or similar when someone graduates and is ready to leave the group. I consider this an acceptable level of imposition; I always pay for everyone and I try to have it happen during work hours and on campus — or at least I used to, in pre-Covid times.)

Which brings us back to the junior faculty member. I heard them beat themselves up for not saying ‘no’ more often, and it is good they are aware that they should. It is also true that they are being oh-not-so-gently nudged by senior faculty far more politically savvy than them toward not saying ‘no’ when they definitely should. Those senior faculty know very well what it is that they ask. They know they are imposing. Maybe they have a good reason (e.g., really need someone to do the work and are at their own wits’ end), but the ask is still an imposition on someone in a position of relative weakness, who cannot respond truthfully. 

People speak of the importance of communication and making yourself heard. This is great when there is equality and trust that your honest opinion won’t land you in some $hit. In reality, we communicate in all sorts of nonverbal ways. You can tell from body language (OK, this is technically true for neurotypicals, perhaps not so much for those on the autism spectrum) when someone is uncomfortable or unenthusiastic, and merely acquiesces. Most know very well when they’ve overstepped the boundaries of someone’s discomfort, yet they push anyway because the discomfort and reluctance supposedly haven’t been communicated verbally in no uncertain terms. Expecting unambiguous verbal communication is a bullshit tactics, because it puts the onus on the one who is being imposed upon to fight against this imposition in a way that the imposer finds both acceptable and sufficiently clear. (If this sounds like the enthusiastic-consent lingo, you are right, and it is not accidental.)

What happens with the junior faculty member? We discussed what service they could ask to be removed from in the near future.  We discussed the need to find a long-term balance, that they could have anything they wanted to in their professional and personal lives, but probably not everything at the same time, and that they really should pace themselves in general. Some professional opportunities don’t have to happen this year; they can happen in two or five. Focusing on the stuff where their presence and input are really irreplaceable and/or the stuff they are deeply passionate about, and try really hard to decline the rest. Or call someone like me to advocate on their behalf when they feel like they’re in an unfavorable situation. 

That’s one thing I think I have found meaningful on my voyage toward Old Fartville. I wish I had had people who had my back, but generally didn’t. I am trying to have the backs of junior folks, faculty and students alike. I am trying to be the faculty mentor I wish I’d had, the graduate advisor I wish I’d had (although mine was pretty good in many important ways), the teacher I wish I’d had (and I had some really good ones). Basically, I am happy to throw my weight around (literally and metaphorically) in order to  make life a little easier for those who come after me, in a way I wish (more) people had done for me. That, I think, is something. 

As for this junior faculty member, we will touch base in a little while. I might need to go to bat for them about service reduction,  or not. I might simply continue to be there as a support system and sounding board when needed. 

What say you, academic blogosphere? 

(I have received several service questions already, so I will be revisiting the topic at least a couple more times during this  November.)

Credit Where Credit Isn’t Due

Reader asks: 

How have you dealt with people taking credit for your work? I assume this has happened to you. For example, rebranding your research as theirs, seeking your input then cutting you out of a proposal, taking all the credit for committee work, claiming original development of shared course content, etc.
 
I don’t think people have stolen my stuff, although I might totally be too oblivious. I have been dropped from centers proposals once or twice after the budget got slashed, even though the center leadership certainly liked having a female PI and a theorist on the proposal for the sake of diversity and expertise completeness during the review stage. That was kind of shitty, but in a completely expected way, if that makes sense? It didn’t hurt because I wasn’t really surprised. As they say, key to happiness are low (loooooow) expectations.
 
When it comes to courses, I share all my materials with other instructors who ask for them, and they can use them or not as they see fit. I don’t use PPT slides, but do share lecture notes, HW, exams, and the codes I write for student assignments and/or clarifications. I have never been in a situation where someone took credit for co-teaching mostly because I’ve (mercifully) never co-taught. I do occasionally get asked to do something of the sort, which I flatly refuse to do, because I think it’s generally stupid and needlessly painful. If we offer multiple sections of a course, they can be different and moving at slightly different paces.  Coordination is just an exercise in pain for the faculty (who, let’s face it, all think they know best — I am certainly guilty of this) with no particular benefit to students. Luckily, I have plenty of teaching accolades so at this point no one has much of a leg to stand on when it comes to pushing me to do something I don’t want to do teaching-wise. 
 
I do get upset by people not citing my work when they’ve clearly read it. As in, instead of citing my work published in paper N on a topic, they cite around it, like papers N-1 and N-2, and then go on to basically duplicate what I’ve done in paper N. This drives me up the fucking wall. I don’t think this is a practice aimed against me in particular. It is simply a practice of people downplaying the work of others in order to make their own contribution look more novel and important than it actually is. It is pretty widespread, by the way; as editor, I see it all the time. I wish people had more professional integrity, but when the publication pressure is on, cracks in people’s ethics appear. I understand it, even though I hate it. 
 
As for committee work, I kind of lay low these days as much as I can. Thank heavens for Zoom meetings! In the past, I was on some very time-consuming committees, but generally felt they were worthwhile. I can’t recall credit misappropriation, but I might just be misremembering. I can’t really say I’ve worked with people who are credit hogs in this respect, perhaps because I am not really itching to do more than absolutely necessary or get credit for anything in particular. 
 
What say you, blogosphere? Has someone taken credit for your work in the past? How have you dealt with it? 

Daily Blogging in November is Back!

NovemberBlogging

OK folks, I’ve been a delinquent blogger, yadda yadda, but, as in years past, I will try to post every day through the month of November, doing an unofficial NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month, the blogging companion to NaNoWriMo). Based on past experiences, I can’t eke out more than 1-2 deep essay posts per week, but: a) Who knows? b) Who cares? There are always Twitter bookmarks to help us out.

Let me know here (in the comments) if there are topics you’d like me to discuss. I will try to get to them if I can. Over the 11 (11!!) years of blogging between Academic Jungle and here, I’ve probably discussed every academic topic at least once, but I might be wrong, plus there are always new readers and new topics. 

Looking forward to hanging out more with you this month!  

Octobleurgh

I’ve always thought that the amount of work would plateau at some point. That the busyness would no longer increase. But nearly 20 years into being a faculty member, it doesn’t seem to be true. 

This is a semester in which I have a new and very challenging course that takes a lot of energy; several committee assignments that take more time than they would have to but there isn’t much I can do about them; too many grant proposals on which I am working simultaneously; several new collaborations; work with my graduate students and papers that need to go out; editorial duties at two journals, one of which is keeping me very, very busy. I know, these are all normal, but there’s more of each of them than before, or maybe I am more tired than before, or perhaps both, so it all feels just a little bit overwhelming. 

The fuckin’ service is the worst. So much work that totally wouldn’t have to be done. It’s entirely self-inflicted. More precisely, college-or-department-inflicted. Ugh. 

I feel like I might have written all of this every October for the past 10+ years. I also might be writing the same thing in April. 

How’s the spooky month treating you, academic blogosphere?