Archive for the 'career issues' category

How Many Times

May 08 2012 Published by under career issues

How many times can a professor use outside offers to negotiate retention packages at their university?

I don't know, but a reader who is possibly in a position to get their second outside offer asked me this question. This person's first offer was early (tenure-track), but that was a while ago, so this person is not a habitual collector of outside offers. Nevertheless, they wonder if they should go through the outside-offer-ritual a second time.

I have discussed similar issues in the F/SP blogs and in The Chronicle of Higher Education, but I don't think I've ever directly asked for opinions about whether there is a maximum number of offers that is appropriate (whatever that means). Of course the only opinion that matters is that of the professor-in-question's institution, but it's still fun to speculate and opine.

I don't think 2 is excessive, especially if they are widely spaced in a career. I don't think 2 is excessive anyway, and even more would be OK (in theory). Your institution can always say no, they aren't going to negotiate and then you make your decision to stay or leave, depending on what you want to do given the various complex factors involved in these decisions.

That seems quite straightforward, but I know there are nuances, one of which is the effect of multi-offers on the opinions of your colleagues in your department and administrators in your university. If you are a cosmic superstar who brings fame and fortune to your university, maybe the administration (sort of) likes the fact that other institutions are constantly trying to poach you. Colleagues may even admire you for being so academically desirable. For most of us, however, the stakes (for the university at least) are quite a bit lower, and the threshold beyond which we would be widely perceived to be a selfish, greedy jerk (accompanied by little or no admiration) is encountered more easily.

That's why, although theoretically the sky's the limit for the number of offers you could bring to the table in your career, most mortal professors probably should consider a limit.

But what should that limit be? And should there be a particular spacing between outside offers that are sought or entertained, or should it be more random, such as whenever there is a major research accomplishment that helps attract such offers? The realistic limit likely does scale with level of fame and accomplishment, so we'd have to come up with a handy scheme (or equation) that can be consulted as needed. Something that can be used to estimate or calculate how many outside offers one can proffer in a certain number of years based on specific benchmarks, like number of papers in high-impact journals, number of highly cited papers (h-index), number of Nobel Prizes etc.

O great blog community, please opine on this issue: Do you think there is a realistic maximum number of offers that a semi-illustrious professor should entertain? How can one determine what that maximum is? Just keep hurling offers at your administrators until they hurl them back? Surely we can do better than that. If we can't come up with a more specific scheme (or equation), we will have failed to produce the deliverable with which we are tasking ourselves and there will therefore be no outcome for us to assess.


10 responses so far

Promote Yourself

Apr 02 2012 Published by under career issues

An interesting question/topic from a reader; touched on before in previous posts, but worth a revisit:

I would love if you posted on active self-promotion in the sciences... that is, the idea of specifically and intentionally promoting yourself and your work to others in your field.  In my field, this is almost a faux pas because "the science speaks for itself" and so its hard to get straight answers from people.  The people I've seen who are successful are active and effective promoters of themselves and their own work, even if that's not what they say they are doing.  (e.g. I have a colleague who regularly contacts strangers in other fields that he doesn't know to make them aware of his work because, "they need to know about this research, its so important"... it's really not, but the practice and his confidence have contributed to his success, I think)

I guess my question is, in your experience, what are (socially) acceptable and nonacceptable forms of self-promotion?

Does this vary from field to field? I don't know. My impression is that it varies from person to person, with maybe some departmental/institutional variation, and perhaps also variation by culture/country.

I think a key question is: What is the purpose of the self-promotion? Is it essential to your progression in your career; for example, making you more visible (as an early-career scientist) to those who might eventually write letters as part of your tenure evaluation? Is it important for your tenure evaluation that you give invited talks? Is it a way to develop new collaborations and recruit excellent grad students and postdocs (important for any career stage)? Or do you just generally want to be more famous in your obscure field?

In my discussion, I will focus on strategies for self-promotion as an essential element of career development, not for hunger-for-fame purposes. I am also writing from my point of view as a non-extrovert. You do not have to be loud, talkative, sociable, aggressive, or even supremely self-confident to self-promote in the interest of career development.

So, what can you do? What about the example given in the e-mail above? In a situation similar to that example, I have a colleague in my same general field who has long sent copies of pre-prints to others in the field, even to people he doesn't know well and even in the days of paper-and-slowmail, just to help spread the news of his work and results. I consider this a completely acceptable means of self-promotion (and beyond the self, also promotion of the work of a research group, including students, postdocs etc.). The pre-prints are accompanied by a simple statement that this work might be of interest. Does anyone think that is obnoxious?

There is clearly disagreement, even within fields, about what is a 'good' form of self-promotion.  For example, a young scientist recently suggested himself to join a professional service group of which I am part. My reaction was "Great, this might be a good person to join us in the future", but some of my colleagues in this group said (privately, to the rest of us), "What a jerk." They thought the young scientist was obnoxious for making the suggestion instead of waiting for us, in our collective wisdom, to think of him when we needed a new member.

If this young scientist had said something like "I am so awesome, I know that you will want to benefit from my awesomeness and you are fortunate that I happen to be willing to help you", then OK, that would be obnoxious, but the communication was more like "I just wanted to let you know that I am interested in joining your group if you have need of a new member at some point. I have the following qualifications [list] and am looking for opportunities to be more involved in the professional community." I consider that entirely appropriate and even very welcome.

If there is a professional service opportunity that is of interest and would be useful for career advancement and valued by your department/community, I think it is good to look into ways to pursue this opportunity, perhaps in an (initially) indirect way, scouting out nice and knowledgeable colleagues who might have some advice or assistance to offer for each circumstance/field. If you ask around to learn more about the culture in your field and whether a proactive approach would be welcomed or rejected, you might get some clues as to how to proceed. Or, quite likely, you will get a range of opinions and just have to guess anyway.

I noted above that culture/country might play a role: that is, in whether we are likely to self-promote and in how such actions are perceived. For example, in the "self-promotion" scenario I described, my colleagues who thought the young scientist was obnoxious are not American. I -- the only American involved in this incident -- thought the self-promotion was appropriate and inoffensive. Did I feel that way because I am more used to a culture of self-promotion? Maybe. [I should note that the self-promoting young scientist in this anecdote is not American.]

Anyway, what are other possible forms of self-promotion in academia? One way to become more visible in one's field is to give talks at other institutions. Ideally, you will get inviations, typically because someone read an interesting paper of yours or saw you give an excellent talk at a conference. If you have been publishing and speaking at conferences but the invitations to visit other universities are slow to come, you could try to be more active in inviting people to visit your department (this might make them more likely to reciprocate with an invitation), or you could express your interest to a senior colleague, who might be able to help spread the word that you give interesting talks and would be a good person to invite.

A nice way to self-promote, in fields in which this is possible, is to organize or co-organize a session at a conference. This is seen as professional service, but it also gets you out there in front of an audience of people in your sub-field and gives you a chance to interact with co-organizers and speakers. If you pick a broad and interesting topic that involves more than just your close friends and associates, session-organizing can be an effective and non-obnoxious way to self-promote.

You could also let program officers know that you are interested in serving on a proposal review panel. I think this would generally be seen as less obnoxious than inviting yourself to do some other time-consuming service activity. Some panels have a habit of inviting early-career scientists to serve for a round or two, in part to give them a glimpse of how things work. If you serve on a panel, you will likely spend an intense few days working closely with a group of scientists you might not otherwise encounter, even if they are in your general field. I am only familiar with some NSF programs in this respect, so you'd need to ask around about other funding agencies that are relevant to your field; and, within NSF, whether this is how 'your' programs work.

Another service-oriented way to self-promote (sort of) is to be a diligent reviewer. I am not objective about this (speaking as an editor always seeking good reviewers), but my positive impression of thoughtful, thorough, and prompt reviewers can certainly affect my overall impression of these people and their research. It doesn't make me more likely to accept their manuscripts (if there are problems with the manuscripts), but it would make me more likely to invite them to give a talk in my department or in a conference session, read their papers, be interested in working with their students/postdocs, and to just be generally more aware of (in a positive sense) them and their work.

I suppose some forms of self-promotion also relate to where we send manuscripts for review (that is, the impact/prestige of the journal), but this involves a complicated equation involving many factors that I will not discuss here.

Are there other forms of professional self-promotion that most people would agree are acceptable, and even welcomed, or necessary? Do you welcome self-promotion in others, at least in some form, or do you think this is obnoxious ('the science will speak for itself' etc. etc.)?

11 responses so far

Mentoring Madness

In my recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on the topic of Mid-Career Mentoring, one of the comments cast aspersions on mentors and mentoring. I wanted to follow up on this point here and probe the opinions of blog-readers.

The specific comment includes this statement:

"Mentoring," I learned, is an intense form of the summer camp buddy-system premised on the bizarre assumption that presumably adult persons who freely choose to go into a profession are under no obligation to find out for themselves how things work."


I must admit that there have been times in my life when I have said the word "mentor" (as a verb or noun) in a somewhat disparaging way. It is one of the words that certain colleagues and I use when we are making fun of some aspects of modern academic jargon, of the type we get in memos from administrators; for example, "We are tasked with mentoring the stake-holders to empower them to create deliverables."

And yet, I think mentoring is overall a good thing. I think certain academic citizens have always been mentored, even if we didn't call it that back in days of yore. In particular, those who were part of the system -- the so-called 'good ol' boys' network -- were mentored, whereas those who were not as plugged into this network were not. In the past, and to some extent even today, the unmentored were typically women and minorities in most of the STEM fields.

Academia can be mysterious, even if you try to find out for yourself how things work, and there's nothing wrong with creating a system that tries to demystify this. It may be fine in the abstract to have a sink-or-swim attitude about tenure-track professors, but, aside from the human issues involved, institutions invest a lot in new faculty, particularly in the STEM fields, and it makes sense for us to help our tenure-track colleagues succeed.

I think even those of us who had to walk 7 miles to school in the snow and cold with only old newspapers for shoes and a raw turnip for lunch can appreciate that there were things about the "good old days" that were unnecessarily harsh. Academic careers are still quite challenging, even with all the mentoring going around.

That said, I can still relate a bit to the sentiment that inspired the anti-mentoring comment, especially if it is rephrased as an anti-whining comment, rather than specifically being against mentoring. I think that mentoring has its limits -- both from the point of view of the mentor, however well meaning and engaged in mentoring they may be, and the mentee, some of whom tend to ignore the wise advise of their mentor -- and I have little patience with those who say "but no one told me that I'd have to spend so much time [insert major time-consuming activity]", whether or not they had an official mentor.

For the sake of discussion, perhaps it would help to give some concrete examples of advice a mentor might give a mentee, and then you can see if this constitutes some form of coddling of presumably adult persons who should figure this stuff out for on their own, or something more constructive. In the comments, you can leave other examples to illustrate the use or disuse of mentoring.

Real example 1: Years ago, a tenure-track colleague asked me if they should submit an NSF CAREER proposal that year or the following year. I gave my opinion, but mostly we discussed the pros and cons of each scenario. Back in the last millennium, no one ever told me when (or if) to submit a CAREER proposal; I just did it. That worked out fine for me, but does that mean my "mentoring" conversation with my younger colleague was a "summer camp buddy-system" kind of thing? I think not.

Real example #2: A common question asked by people putting together their lists of potential letter-writers for the tenure evaluation is whether to include their advisor or other people with whom they have worked closely (explanatory note for those who need it: the candidate typically lists some names, and the chair can pick some of those names, but then also asks for letters from people not on the list; in the end, there may be a few letters from colleagues/advisors, but the majority are from "unrelated" people). This is a good question to ask of a more senior colleague or administrator because the answer may vary considerably from place to place, and even within different units of one institution. In some places, there is always a letter from the former PhD advisor and it would look strange if this were missing; in other places, the former advisor is considered too unobjective and is not asked to write a letter. How do you know which is the case? Does the distinction between being mentored and being a rugged individual lie in whether you know to ask about this or whether you are simply told?

So: it's time to confess your true feelings about mentoring and being mentored -- do the 'm' words indicate weakness and lack of personal responsibility, or do they signify progress in humanizing the academic system?


21 responses so far

Academic Fish Ponds

This is a recent e-mail from a reader, but it's a topic I was thinking about in a related context, so this is timely (for me):

I'm a grad student in a respectable PhD program in the physical sciences here in the U.S. (ranked by U.S. News as either in the low teens to mid-20s, depending on the particular year of the ranking).  I didn't realize until I was knee-deep in grad school just how tough the academic job market is (like, I think I know more PhDs without permanent jobs than I know with jobs!).  I'm starting to get very nervous about my job prospects.

While mulling over my options--Take the Master's and run? Switch to a different field?--it occurred to me that I could always apply to higher-ranked grad programs (you know, Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and their ilk).  Graduating from a Top 5 school would surely increase my prospects of getting an academic job, right? Provided, of course, I could get admitted to one of those programs...

I haven't asked too many people for advice (I don't want my professors or advisor to know that I'm considering leaving), but the one person I asked said it was better to be a big fish in a small pond (translation: stay where I am and try to stand out among my cohorts).

As an aside, if you look at the most recent faculty hires for my department, you'll see that they're all Harvard/MIT/Berkeley/Caltech/Stanford grads; there's not a single graduate from a 20-ish rank school in the bunch. We're good enough to be their grad students, but not good enough to be their eventual colleagues???

This e-mail raises many interesting issues, in addition to the usual ones involving stress about (potentially) seeking a faculty position in a field that seems to have an oversupply of PhDs. [insert required mention that academia isn't the only option for PhDs, there are many excellent careers in industry/business/government etc.].

I am going to ignore the issue of whether rankings have any merit and whether the Prestige Universities deserve their high level of prestige etc. Let's just take these numbers (Top-5, Top-20 etc.) at face value for now.

An important question for the person who wrote the e-mail is: In the context of thinking about possible future jobs in academia, do you think you would only be happy in one that is a research-ranking peer of your current university (or one more highly ranked)? I know it can be hard to predict (as a grad student, I was completely wrong about what kind of job/place would be best for me), but it's worth thinking about other options within academia: teaching-focused schools (small colleges, universities that are focused on undergraduate education, community colleges) or research universities other than the top-ranked ones. These jobs are difficult to get as well, but overall you may have more opportunities than you would if you only consider major research universities of a certain rank as job prospects. Perhaps you know some people who work at these types of institutions and could talk to them about their jobs, or you could do some investigating/mingling at conferences to interact with a broader group of academics and others.

But let's say that you are quite sure that you want to be at a major research university, a peer to your current university or better (in rankings), and jobs are extremely scarce in your field. I don't know about your particular institution/field, but from what I've seen over years of serving on various committees and panels and such, top graduates of top-20ish schools can compete with those from top-5-10 schools for academic positions. If you do interesting research, give conference presentations, publish, and put together an impressive application, you could be competitive with the top-5 people.

The person you talked to was right to mention the 'big fish' scenario; if your department/advisor are respected in your field and your advisor writes reference letters saying you are the best student s/he has ever had, that can count for a lot. You may have to work harder to be perceived -- on first impression -- as just as good as the top-5 people, but it's doable.

Important considerations in whether you stay or try to move could include:

  • the nature of your research project (is it exciting? significant? can you play an important role in it?),
  • the reputation of your advisor as a scientist and mentor (will s/he write you awesome letters if you do well?), and
  • your assessment of your abilities (difficult to do..).

When you consider those (and other) factors, maybe you will decide that the best place for you for research and career development is a top-5 department, maybe it's another place, or maybe it's where you are right now.

Another question: Have you been around for any of the searches that resulted in the recent top-5 hires in your department? It would be interesting and instructive to look at the applicant pools (were all the interviewees from top-5 departments, or just the person who got/accepted the offer?). If you attended the interview talks and/or met the candidates, what were your impressions? If there are any upcoming searches, it would be good to take a close look at the process and the people involved.

And if you look at departments in your field at peer institutions of your current one, do you see a similar preponderance of top-5s on the faculty? That is, is your department typical in this respect? If so, and you want to try to stay in your field, perhaps you should send out some applications..

If you have the time, it's worth doing a bit of 'career field work' before making a big decision. There may be more options than you know about now, or you may find you are in the best place for you already.

26 responses so far

Mid-Career Mentoring

Feb 07 2012 Published by under career issues, faculty

Although perhaps no amount of information, obtained online or in person, can remove the uncertainty and anxiety associated with being a graduate student, postdoc, and/or tenure-track professor, in recent years there has been an information explosion targeted at early-career academics. There are articles, books, blogs, forums, webinars, conferences and more on how to cope with graduate school; how to apply for postdoctoral positions; how to craft a CV, cover letter, and applications when applying for a faculty position; how to interview; how to negotiate; how to maximize chances of tenure, and so on.

As part of these efforts, many of us professors are increasingly called on to improve our mentoring skills, to participate in panels and committees devoted to mentoring and career development issues, and to demonstrate in our grant proposals that we have mentoring plans for our postdoctoral researchers. I support these efforts and consider such activities an important part of my job (as long as the paperwork doesn't get any more abundant than it already it).

But what if the mentors need mentoring? Note that I am not talking about how we can learn to be good mentors (although this is an important topic). In this case, I am referring to how mid-career and senior faculty can get information about career issues that may affect us at later stages of an academic career. Do complicated career issues evaporate after tenure and/or do we all magically know how to deal with everything that academe throws at us? No, and no.

Mid-career+ career issues that some of us have to navigate without a lot of information include:

  • whether and how to pursue tenured positions at other institutions,
  • how to use an offer of a job from another institution to negotiate an improvement in our current job, and
  • whether to pursue a part-time or full-time position in administration.

(Please add to this list! I am working on a new essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education about some of these mid-career+ issues and would like to be as comprehensive as possible.)

Just as an example, for discussion today and in an effort to use a blog to help bridge the Information Gap for mid-career and senior faculty: Let's say you go out and get another job offer, or perhaps you are recruited without being active about it. You have an offer or a hint of an offer, but you are not 100% sure you want to leave your existing institution. If you did want to leave for sure, presumably you would just take your offer and leave without trying to negotiate with your current institution. But let's say you want to try to improve your situation somehow and therefore possibly stay at your current institution.

I am surprised when people write to me with questions about this and assume that they have to provide the details of their new offer(s) to their current institution. Has anyone had to do this? In the cases with which I am familiar, no one has had to explain the details of the new offer and certainly no one had to show an offer letter; the fact of the offer (or, in some cases, the rumor of an offer) was enough to start the negotiations for a retention package.

OK, so you have an offer and you want to negotiate with your current institution. The key issues are: What do you want? And: Are you going to get what you want?

So, what do you want? A raise (sometimes this is the only way to get a significant raise)? More resources for research? A position for your significant other? More respect from your institution/colleagues? All of the above? Other stuff? I have heard of places that have a standard retention package -- e.g., a certain amount of $ added to the faculty member's base salary when there is an outside offer -- but the possibilities at many institutions are more open-ended.

Here are some suggestions, for discussion, for how to pitch a request for What You Want in your retention package:

If you are leaning towards leaving, but a really awesome retention package would convince/tempt you to stay, ask for the moon if that's what you want. This is probably only likely to work if your offer is from a more awesome institution, or at least one with which your current institution feels competitive in some way. Don't be a jerk about asking for the moon; just make your request, and the administrators at your current institution can take it or leave it.

If you really aren't sure and you feel that you could stay or go, depending on how things shake out in the negotiations, then you should still ask for what you want, but perhaps don't ask for the entire moon (and perhaps consult with senior colleagues who have gone through this process, ideally in this millennium). Don't undersell yourself because you are worried about being seen as greedy or disloyal. If you know that you are underpaid relative to your peers, or if you think this is your only chance to get more space/resources from your institution, go for it: make a case for what you want and need.

Similarly, if you really don't want to leave and just got the offer because you felt you needed to play the game, you should still make a reasonable request for what you want/need and see what happens. You don't have to give any indication of how likely you are to stay or go (although people will try to guess this). If you have an offer, the opportunity exists for you to leave, so you might as well find out what your current institution is willing to do to keep you.

If you got the outside offer because you are desperately unhappy about some aspect of your current position and want to use this chance to change things for the better without actually leaving (because, for various reasons, you don't want to or can't leave your current institution), I think you should keep your expectations reasonable (i.e., low) in terms of how much positive change you can wring out of a retention package. That is, you might get a raise, perhaps even an impressive one, but if you don't like your colleagues, chances are you still won't like them even when you are being paid more to spend time with them. They might respect you more (outside offers tend to have that effect), and that can help, but the positive results of that are unlikely to be experienced in a rapid, dramatic, satisfying way (correct me if you have experienced the contrary).

And that brings me to an important point: YOU DON'T HAVE TO LEAVE. If your current institution doesn't give you what you ask for or (worst case) doesn't even try to keep you, you still do not have to leave if you don't want to.

Of course you can leave if you want, but some people who write to me seem to think that just by entering into discussions about retention, they are implicitly threatening "Give me this stuff or I'm leaving." You are not (I hope) saying this, unless of course you are definitely set on leaving. If you are not definitely intending to leave, you may be just finding out what your options are, exploring the various opportunities, considering the pros and cons, and then you making a decision about whether to stay or leave.

If you think there is a chance you want to stay, and you keep the negotiations calm, professional, and constructive (i.e., don't rant to the chair or dean about all the things you hate about your department/institution/colleagues), you are not burning any bridges by entering into these discussions and negotiations. Administrators expect to deal with these situations; they may not welcome the chance to deal with such issues, but it is a normal part of academic life, for better or worse. Everyone does it isn't the greatest justification for seeking outside offers, but you can try to do it right (don't be an egotistical jerk, don't be a drama queen, don't issue an ultimatum etc.), and don't feel guilty (unless you are a habitual accumulator of outside offers) or disloyal.

Does anyone have any advice to add to (or contradict) any of that?




12 responses so far

Wrong and Stupid

Jan 13 2012 Published by under career issues, interviewing

A reader wonders:

Consider this hypothetical situation: two individuals (married, but with different last names) apply for the same job but do not disclose their relationship. The search committee determines that the two individuals are in fact a couple, based on similar research interests and shared academic histories.  One of the members of the academic couple is the #1 person on the short list in terms of grants, publications, and teaching experience.  However, based at least in part on this person's personal situation (e.g., we can't hire two people, we'll never get them both, we don't want them both, etc.) the committee decides not to invite one or both of them for an on-campus interview.
Is this considered discrimination? If so, what law(s) are being violated?

In the case described, the search committee/department doesn't have to invite the second member of the couple to interview, but they should invite the first one; the one identified as the 'top candidate'. There are two reasons why a department should not use a concern about a "2-body" situation to eliminate the top candidate:

1. It is wrong. Imagine putting in the job advertisement that candidates who are otherwise highly qualified for the job will be disqualified if they are married or otherwise significantly involved with any other applicant or even with anyone else in their field. If you are going to ask (just ask) for a second position, don't even apply because your application will be tossed no matter how good you are. Also, it would be best if applicants did not plan to have babies, health problems, or aged parents, and preference will be given to those who closely resemble faculty hired before 1990.

I will leave it to others to discuss legal issues, but this is an inappropriate (to say the least) criterion to use to reject a candidate who would otherwise have been invited for an interview. Probably the couple is hoping for 2 positions (and hence both applied for the job), but this is irrelevant to the early stage of the search.

The 'best' candidate should be interviewed, and, if this person is still the 'best' candidate, they should be offered the job. If there really is only one position and no possibility of a second, this person can decline or accept the offer, depending on their options and priorities.

2. It is stupid. Yes, of course I know that searches are time-consuming and expensive and it is in the interest of an institution to select a candidate who is likely to accept the position, but (even ignoring the ethical issues) there are so many variables involved in this process, there is no point in second-guessing what someone will do if given a job offer.

I have seen searches in which there was concern about the 2-body problem of a top candidate who ended up accepting the job anyway (even though there was only 1 position), and I have seen cases in which it seemed impossible at first for there to be a second position created, but then one was, and the department got their top choice candidate and a second person who ended up excelling as a faculty member. In all of these cases, it would have been unethical and unwise for the department to eliminate these candidates from consideration owing to their marital status (specifically, being married to another PhD in the same field).

Hiring committees and administrators should be advised by their institutions about what is appropriate and not appropriate to use as criteria in a search. There are ways to circumvent these 'rules' -- you can find a flaw in any applicant and say that that is the reason why they should not be interviewed or given a job offer -- but if the real reason is concern about their being a member of an academic couple, that is wrong.



67 responses so far

Stay or Go?

Nov 22 2011 Published by under career issues

A reader wonders whether it is a bad idea to do a postdoc in the same department/institution as the PhD (but in a different research group, with a different supervisor). This is an interesting question, and raises some related questions.

There are many possible combinations of staying and going in an academic career, from undergrad to postdoc and/or faculty position. I don't think it's worth making a distinction between those who do an MS and PhD at one or more institutions, as some departments require an MS along the way to the PhD, some don't require an MS at all, etc. Of course some people do get an MS and PhD at different institutions, but staying at one institution for an MS and PhD is not as significant as staying for some or all of the other stages of an academic career.

With that in mind, I would classify the extreme cases as:

case 1: different institution for every stage from undergraduate to faculty position (probably the most common, especially since those who go to undergrad institutions without grad programs have to move, by definition); and

case 2: two or more institutions the same for consecutive stages of undergrad, grad, postdoc, and/or faculty stages (most extreme case = all stages at one place).

I included the word consecutive in the second case because I think it is important to distinguish between those who return, perhaps many years later, to a former academic home and those who just stay.

I have seen diverging views of those who stayed in one place for undergrad-grad or grad-postdoc, from "S/he stayed at the same place because no one else wanted them" to "S/he is so awesome, University X didn't want them to leave".

I have also commonly seen in reference letters for undergrads applying to grad school, "I would gladly have accepted Z to stay on as my graduate student, but I know it is in his/her best interest to move on to another department." (implying that it is conventional wisdom that moving = better?).

As usual, I have lots of questions, and as usual, the most likely answer to most of them is "It depends..", but I think we can be a bit more specific than that, if only to make things more interesting. As usual, I hope that there will be many different points of view represented in the comments; e.g., from those who stayed, those who went, and those who are in a position to make decisions (e.g., hiring) about those who stayed vs. those who went.

Questions for discussion:

  • Is case 1 always better than case 2?  (my opinion: I think it is good to move if you have that flexibility, but case 2 is not by definition bad.)
  • And if you think so, is case 2 necessarily bad, or just not as good? (my opinion: case 2 is not necessarily bad; in some cases it might even be a better career opportunity to stay, although probably in most cases it's not better. I guess we could debate what are good vs. bad reasons to stay in one place, and whether we think this has positive or negative consequences.)
  • Does it matter which stages are involved? For example, undergrad and grad at the same institution is good (or bad), but grad to postdoc is bad (or good)? (my opinion: Above, I wrote about how many people think that it isn't in a student's best interest to stay from undergrad to grad, and I guess I have to agree with this. I have never wanted my best undergrads to stay on and work with me as grad students; I think they should move on. However, 'should' does not mean that I would be critical of someone who did this. I also think that the grad to postdoc situation is different, maybe even indicating something good about research momentum, ideas, independence, excellence etc.)
  • If someone does stay at one institution -- for example, from PhD to postdoc, as in the case of the person who wrote to me with this question -- does your opinion about staying vs. going change if there is an internal change from one research group to another? (my opinion: I don't think it is a strike against someone to stay in their grad department as a postdoc, especially if it's a short-term postdoc and certainly not if the project and/or advisor changes. Perhaps the grad/postdoc-to-be got their own funding? It's good if you can move and want to move, but it's not dire if you don't.)

I think these are the situations of most interest. Postdoc-to-faculty at one institution is going to vary a lot in goodness or badness depending on whether the postdoc is largely an independent scientist who clearly deserves to be hired in a faculty position (= good), or whether that person is someone's favorite minion and they are hired in an inside-job political move (= bad).

I have moved around a lot in my career, and I'm glad I did that (and had the flexibility and opportunities to do so), but academia is not one-size-fits-all, and there is room for all sorts of career paths followed by many different people with many different priorities, preferences, and experiences.

For me, it was important to move on from time to time. I met many interesting people, gained new collaborators, and developed new research directions in each place. Perhaps you can do this as well in a very large and dynamic institution, and therefore perhaps the key to whether staying vs. going is good vs. bad depends on what you do with your opportunities in each place.

27 responses so far

Pity PhD

Aug 16 2011 Published by under career issues, graduate school

A question from a reader:

I'm about to start my 3rd year of grad school in a physical science working at a top 10 university in my field for a world leader in my sub-field. I'm terrified that I'm going to wind up with a pity PhD, and its going to hurt my chances of getting a good job. Its not like I'm not working really hard, but my project just seems to have an unwork-around-able fatal flaw caused by years of neglect on a major piece of equipment in our lab. I'm trying to fix it, but maybe this means that in about a year I'll get transitioned to a different project, but pretty much no matter what happens at this point I'm going to wind up tainted as the grad student who didn't produce that many publications.

I used to have dreams of being an awesome grad student who produced a couple fantastic publications and maybe had a shot at doing the tenure track. At the rate I'm going, that seems like a pipe dream. So now I'm hoping that I get a fantastic letter of recommendation from my boss and get a good postdoc where I manage to produce enough to demonstrate that it really wasn't my fault as a grad student. If you (or maybe some of your readers) are looking for a postdoc, would you seriously consider a candidate that doesn't have any publications but has a letter from their advisor swearing that they worked really hard, are really smart, and that it just isn't their fault?


I would hire such a person as a postdoc if I knew and respected the advisor or someone else who could confirm that the lack of results and publications was not owing to an inability to finish projects or write papers. I'd be concerned, of course -- I have supervised more than a few postdocs with major writing problems and would prefer to work with those who can and will write their own papers -- and it would be best if there were some evidence to back up an explanation for lack of awesome research results and publications.

If at all possible, a PhD student who wants to pursue an academic career should find something to write up, and the advisor should help with this effort.

My situation may not be analogous, but as a postdoc, the main project I was supposed to be working on was clearly headed for failure because a key collaborator wasn't going to provide a necessary and promised part of the research. My supervisor wasn't about to be proactive and help me with another project, and I feared that my future was going to go up in flames. So I kept working on the original project in the hopes that something would come of it (nothing ever did), but I also started dividing my time between that project and another one -- something I came up with myself. My supervisor didn't mind that I was working on an additional project, which required very few resources, and in the end, the only publications from my postdoc work are from that 'side project'.

I learned a lot from that experience: how to survive a failed project and how to come up with my own research project and carry it through to completion (publications). These are very useful skills for an academic career. I know that some graduate students can have a lot less freedom to take on additional projects, even if they are related to the main thesis project, so it may not be possible to do this. In that case, the student will have to rely on the advisor's ability to make a compelling case that the lack of results/publications is not the fault of the student and should not be taken as an indication of their abilities (or lack thereof).

Readers who supervise/mentor postdocs: Would you consider hiring a candidate such as the one described in the e-mail above? Have you hired such a person before?

Readers who have supervised graduate students with projects that failed, through no fault of the student: What, if anything, have you done to rescue the student (and their future career opportunities)?

Readers who have had a failed project as a graduate student (or postdoc, or assistant professor, or at any vulnerable career stage): What did you do?

41 responses so far


Jun 28 2011 Published by under career issues

A reader wonders whether to take a one-year non-tenure-track teaching position that seems like it might become a tenure-track opportunity after a year or wait and apply for the TT position, should it come into existence. In this case, the institution in question is a teaching-focused university, with some (but not major) research expectations for faculty.

The underlying question is whether being the temporary person gives you the inside track (if they like you) or whether you would spend the entire year making newbie teaching mistakes and thereby damaging your chances of being considered for the TT position. Would colleagues be likely to say "Hey, look how hard s/he has been working! Wouldn't it be great to have him/her as a colleague?" or would they be more likely to say "Hey, we know this person and they seem to have some imperfections. Let's try to hire one of these shiny new perfect people whose applications clearly demonstrate -- particularly in the letters of references -- that they have absolutely no flaws whatsoever!"

My personal experiences with this are mostly from my early days; i.e., as an applicant and visiting professor. I don't have any experience with it as a professor making decisions about hiring; for various reasons involving how my department works, we seldom have people in this position. It is also rare that postdocs become TT professors here, so I can't discuss a possibly analogy from personal experience either.

In ancient times, when I was on the job market, I interviewed at two places that already had 'visiting professors' who were candidates for the tenure-track job. The first time it happened, I figured I would just get some experience interviewing, but couldn't imagine why they would want to hire me instead of keeping someone who had been there for several years and had a lot more teaching experience than I did. I was quite relaxed during the interview because I was so sure it wasn't a 'real' interview, and was therefore shocked when I was offered the job. I didn't end up accepting that offer, but I remember feeling apologetic when I later saw the person who was passed over for the TT job. Fortunately, this person ended up with a good TT job at another institution. I think in that case, it was a situation of a department's favoring of the unknown over the known, and not necessarily for any good reason.

Then it happened again, not long after that experience. I went to an interview for a tenure-track position, again convinced that it was the 'visiting professor's' job, and this time I was right. This time, I was told directly by more than one person that this was X's job, and the interviews were pointless. One professor, scheduled to talk to me for half an hour, told me that I was wasting his time. It didn't occur to him that he and all his colleagues were wasting my time, but whatever. It was an unpleasant experience to be told directly (and often) that there was no chance I would be hired. Thanks for the free trip to Unpleasant City! So they hired X, who did not ultimately get tenure. I could gloat about that, but I happen to like X very much.

Another time, I was the visiting professor, but there was no chance of this job becoming tenure-track, so I didn't get to run the experiment with me as the known being compared with shiny new unknowns. In that case, I took the job because I wanted the teaching experience (this turned out to be very useful, even in my first TT job at a research university) and because I thought I wanted to be at a small liberal arts college (I was wrong).

So, those are my experiences. I'm not sure if they add up to anything coherent in terms of answering this question because I think they show how variable these situations can be. It's hard to predict whether your colleagues are going to appreciate your hard work or whether they are going to have a 'grass is greener' view of applicants for the tenure-track position.

Nevertheless, even if you don't end up getting the TT job, I think the experience can be very useful. If your life is such that you are mobile enough to take a short-term job (or two), you can make all sorts of newbie mistakes (ideally not so bad that your students suffer for it..) and then if you do get a TT job, you will be awesomely prepared and ready to roll, at least in terms of teaching. You can also check out a certain type of institution (as I did at a SLAC) and see if that is a good fit for you, and you can see if your colleagues are people you'd want to work with long-term or whether you want to run screaming away from that place as soon as you are able.

So, if a short-term job is at all possible for you and even somewhat appealing (relative to other options), I say go for it. Check the place out, check the people out, get some teaching experience, and get some visibility.

IMPORTANT NOTES: In my field of the physical sciences, these short-term positions do tend to lead to real jobs. They do not tend to be low-wage, low-respect, dead-end positions. Most people do not bounce around in these visiting positions for long periods of time. These positions are a respected, accepted way to get some experience that is a bit different from what you get in a postdoc. The person who wrote to me is in my field.



17 responses so far

Drinking Culture

Jun 20 2011 Published by under career issues

This week's topic isn't really a question, but I thought it would be an interesting subject for discussion:

It seems that a lot of people in my field consider drinking beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages an essential part of being an academic. Sometimes at professional meetings during the social hour, beer and wine are the only things available to drink. Groups in my department or at meetings commonly meet in the pub for informal discussions, and so on.

I don't like to drink -- even a little bit makes me feel sick -- but I am comfortable around people who are drinking, and don't disapprove of it at all. Unfortunately, some, maybe even most, people who are drinking are not comfortable around me. When I order a soft drink at a pub, or drink nothing at a wine-only professional society event, I am almost always confronted about it and insulted. Examples, not counting the "Are you pregnant?" question (apparently the only acceptable reason for an adult female not to drink): "Grow up" (said by my department chair!!), "Are you an alcoholic or something?", "Are you too uptight to drink?", "If you don't drink, you should leave". I am a friendly person and would like to enjoy these professional/social events, but I am often made to feel unwelcome.

I should say that of course not everyone is strange and mean about my not drinking. There are some people who have given me a chance, and then tell others that although I don't drink, it's fun to go to the pub with me because I can talk and laugh and argue even without drinking beer. That's nice, but it is sad that so many people think they need alcohol to have a good conversation.

For a long time, I've worried that my not drinking will have a negative effect on my career. I have been at professional dinners where drinking wine was considered an essential part of the experience for everyone, so I have a large repertoire of excuses, from honest ("I just don't like to drink; it makes me feel ill", although that is kind of a downer) to outright lying ("I really wish I could, but I've got some important work to do after this dinner."). Sometimes I don't say anything, I signal the server to just put a bit of wine in my glass, and then I pretend to sip at it during the meal. That doesn't really fool anyone, but at least it puts off a direct conversations about my not drinking.

I feel like I spend a lot of time accommodating the drinkers so that they won't dislike me and exclude me from professional events. This is kind of pathetic, but I don't know what else to do. For example, when the cost of a dinner is split among a group, I never mention that I didn't have any wine or beer, even though this often makes my share of the cost of the meal significantly more than it would be if alcoholic beverages were figured separately.

Anyway, this isn't really a question, more just an expression of anxiety. I really don't need it explained to me why people who are drinking are uncomfortable around people who aren't, but I wish it weren't such a big deal and I wish I didn't have to worry about it negatively affecting my career.

I would go to the pub with you, and we could order a pitcher of a caffeine-laden soft drink and get a little wild and crazy arguing about Science (or whatever). It might not seem like it at times, but there are other non-drinkers in academia, and it is possible to succeed, even in a culture that values the wine-soaked social functions at conferences.

I agree that it is unfair and irrational to expect every adult to want to drink beer, wine etc. at all professional/social events like job interview dinners, professional society events etc. Aside from pregnancy, there are other health issues, religious reasons, and personal preferences for not-drinking, and this should be taken into account when planning any professional event. There should always be an alternative for the non-drinkers in a group, and no one should have to explain why they aren't drinking.

Perhaps some commenters will have suggestions for new additions to the repertoire of Why I Am Not Drinking explanations, to be hauled out when someone is inevitably confronted with questions in socio-professional settings.

It is unlikely that there will ever be an end to the annoying comments from others about those who are not drinking wine etc., but perhaps it will cheer up the non-drinkers to hear one small anecdote that happened to me at a conference years ago. I had just arrived late at a socio-professional event at the conference, and stopped to talk to a group of people, including one of the organizers of the event. I didn't know him and he didn't know me, though I recognized his name as an applicant for an open faculty position in my department; I was on the search committee. I asked him if there was anything besides beer to drink, and he said, loudly, "If you don't like beer, you should get out of here", smirk-sneered, then turned his back on me.

Not long after that conference, he was sitting in my office for a one-on-one meeting during his interview. I tried to be nice and objective and all that, but he was clearly very uncomfortable talking to me. Fortunately, I didn't have to work too hard to be objective about him because no one liked him, and, by the end of his interview, he wasn't considered a viable candidate for the job.

Of course he should have been more polite whether or not I was on the search committee, and whether or not I wanted to drink a beer at the conference event, but I hope that incident put an end to his "drink or get out" mindset.

I am hoping that there will be comments that help assuage the anxiety of the non-drinking academic, but it would also be useful to hear from those who admit to being uncomfortable around non-drinkers: why is that? what can you and the non-drinkers of the world do to get past that discomfort in professional situations?

93 responses so far

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