Adventures in Ethics and Science

DrugMonkey has a poll up asking for reader reports of the science career advice they have gotten firsthand. Here’s the framing of the poll:

It boils down to what I see as traditional scientific career counselling to the effect that there is something wrong or inadvisable about staying in the same geographical location or University when a scientist move across the training stages. From undergrad to grad, grad to postdoc or postdoc to faculty.

First, if you’ve gotten advice on your scientific career, go respond to the poll. Then, come back and we’ll chat.

Now, if one’s goal is to become a grown-up scientist in an academic setting, there is certainly something that could be useful about gaining firsthand experience of a number of different academic institutions — if for no other reason that the cultures of various colleges and universities can vary quite widely (as can how secure or precarious their funding situations are, what this does to the state of facilities and administrative support, not to mention teaching loads, etc.). From this point of view, it can make a lot of sense to do graduate training someplace other than one’s undergraduate institution, and to do a postdoctoral stint someplace other than one’s graduate institution.

Institution-hopping ought also to connect the scientist-in-training to different mentors (potentially with distinct mentoring styles) and to help him or her establish a broader set of contacts (and collaborators, and advocates) in his or her chosen field.

As well, especially at the postdoc career stage, the ability to get new research started reasonably efficiently in a new institutional context might serve as something of a dry-run for the anticipated start-up in one’s own lab as a newly appointed faculty member. You’re walking the high-wire with less of a net if you’re doing it in an institution that’s new to you, or so the thinking goes.

However, in the career advice about changing institutions and cultivating “geographic flexibility”, it seems like there is sometimes another issue lurking in the background.

Sometimes, willingness to change not just institutions but geographical regions — and drastically so — at each career stage seems to be taken as an indication of greater “commitment” to science and to the scientific life. And the only interpretation of this fact that makes much sense to me is that commitment to science is, in these cases, being judged on the basis of one’s willingness to throw all non-career-centered considerations to the wind:


“See how much s/he loves science? No partner who wasn’t willing to act as a scientist’s helpmeet would follow that pathway, shifting hundreds or thousands of miles every few years. The only roots this candidate has put down are roots to this scientific field. Clearly, with what grad stipends and postdocs pay, it’s not like s/he could have purchased a home anyway, even if s/he wasn’t ready to pack up and follow the siren song of science to the ends of the earth. We don’t have to worry that this candidate will ever leave us because of a partner’s career, or family responsibilities, or to surf — see how much already has been sacrificed to the dream of being a scientist!”

This is not to say that most search committees would come right out and make rootlessness an official criterion for the successful job applicant, but that does not mean than it’s not part of what some search committee members are really looking for. (I’m surely not the only one privy to reports, from people in a position to know, that a candidate’s lack of traces of “a life” beyond the career gave that candidate an edge over others with similar educational pedigrees, publication records, and so forth who did have visible traces of “a life”.)

I’m not going to argue that combining an academic career and “a life” is not a challenge (especially as I’ve discussed some dimensions of what can make it challenging). And indeed, I’ve recently noted that having a partner who does not live just to further your interests, but who may have interests of his or her own (which you might work to further as part of your commitment to that partner), may complicate your decision-making landscape when it comes to your won career. Assuredly, these three-dimensional partners can make some prime candidates for scientific jobs harder to hire or to retain.

But it’s not clear to me that preferring the rootless candidate who is married first and foremost to science is always the best hiring move. Why, for example, would you not view such a scientist as a flight risk — the kind of person who might, at the drop of a hat, run off and do more exciting science with some other institution far away?

Comments

  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    May 6, 2010

    the kind of person who might, at the drop of a hat, run off and do more exciting science with some other institution far away?

    or do so because s/he has developed to that point in life where other things ARE more important. And has found that special person at some other institution far away…and they need to find a co-employed solution.

  2. #2 Jim Thomerson
    May 6, 2010

    I know a couple of people who became tenured faculty at the university where they received their PhD, but that is very unusual. If you want a job at institution X, you better get your PhD at institution Y.

  3. #3 qaz
    May 6, 2010

    There are several considerations that need to be differentiated here.

    1. There are not a lot of faculty jobs available in the world. This means that being tied down to a particular geographic location can greatly limit your future potential (possibly even limit it out of existence). This means that willingness to move is a valid and important issue at the entering graduate school and entering postdoc level. An admissions committee may be wary of a graduate student with limited potential.

    2. I don’t know any faculty search committees that care about willingness to move geographic locations. I DO know many faculty search committees that care greatly about willingness to move between institutions. This is because science depends on cross-fertilization. A school whose faculty was trained at the same school produces inbreeding, and group-think, neither of which are good things for science.

  4. #4 ambivalent academic
    May 6, 2010

    It was actually rather common at my former institution for members of a particular department to groom their trainees towards moving up within the same department. As qaz mentions, this did result in some inbreeding and group-think. It also resulted in a department that was a powerhouse in their particular (chosen and stocked for) sub-ology. It also meant that some more junior faculty continued to be treated as somewhat less independent than they might have been had they moved institutions. Strange hierarchy in that department. Both good and bad for the junior members, but definitely good for the health (measured in grant $$$) of the department. It seemed to me that this practice was more prevalent in clinical departments or those in which MD/PhD PIs were over-represented, though I have no hard data to back up this observation.

  5. #5 Fia
    May 6, 2010

    Hm. Interesting post. One thing I’d like to add is that a drastic change of the geographical location helps one to get a broader mind, enhances ones ability to look at things from other perspectives, and to deal with people with a different mind set.

    I’ve learned so much from living in different countries, how different approaches to the same problems may get people to reach the same goals (be it in science, administration, health care or what have you). It broadens one’s mind. When I speak now with friends who’ve never moved away from where they went to school, I am often shocked by their inability to change perspective.

  6. #6 DrugMonkey
    May 6, 2010

    A school whose faculty was trained at the same school produces inbreeding, and group-think, neither of which are good things for science.

    got any evidence for this qaz? any evidence that other types of grouping (say, GlamourMag obsession, major funding IC, topical focus, model focus, third gen of scientific family) magically avoids the group-think?

    A hiring department could easily find a candidate who brings very little diversity from half-way across the country, or even abroad. Likewise they could source someone from the department which occupies the lower half of the building and get totally new and synergistic skills. I don’t see how training at the same MRU is a good criterion.

  7. #7 Anonymous
    May 6, 2010

    I am a footloose and fancy free type without obvious ‘life’ issues. I have a life outside the lab, so I am not married to science; but I have no spouse, do not own a home, have no family where my institution is, and have no other personal ties to this location. My institution most definitely sees me as a flight risk. I’m forever being asked whether I’ve thought about buying a home, and bringing a date to a department function is a bad idea, because I’ll be asked for months afterward how things are going with said person…

  8. #8 D. C. Sessions
    May 6, 2010

    Why should this be surprising? Every gang has similar requirements for serious membership. Fraternity hazing, for instance, acts both to screen out those who aren’t willing to go through it and cements the commitment of those who have — they’re invested. Likewise, gangs all have ritual requirements for new members to break with their pasts by doing something (murder, for instance) which makes as complete a break with their past (and alternative futures) as possible.

    A PhD all by itself is partly that way, since in many fields it results in the individual being “overqualified” for potential alternative careers. However, given the generally low regard for education in the USA the mere possession of an advanced degree isn’t a complete bar to other plans so additional tests may be necessary.

  9. #9 LadyDay
    May 6, 2010

    Among my MD or MD/PhD colleagues, at every institution I’ve worked at (medical colleges), it is not unusual for them to stay at the same institution at which they were Fellows. This had to do with their clinical skills more than anything else. It was far easier for them to get promoted to Instructor and then to Assistant Professor, etc. than it was for the PhD’s who were doing postdocs at those institutions.

    I know a few PhD’s who stuck around at the same institutions after grad school and postdocs because of significant others. Surprisingly, they were quite successful, and were hired on by different departments at the same institutions because of the collaborations they could set up between departments.

    I, too, do not understand why moving around should imply commitment, either. The long hours for low pay/benefits for so many years already show more than enough commitment.

  10. #10 FUG
    May 6, 2010

    Ya’know… I have had no one tell me this is so. And I answered as such on the poll. But I always assumed that it would show diversity and that I had passed the candidate test on more than one occasion, showing that I was a worthwhile hire-on. Truthfully, I have no idea where I got this idea from, as I clearly wouldn’t be in a position to know what those who accept/decline applicants looks for.

  11. #11 TheBrummell
    May 6, 2010

    I’m pursuing my third degree (PhD) at my fourth institution, having quit a previous attempt at a PhD at a different institution. Undergrad, M.Sc., PhD attempt #1, PhD attempt #2, each has a unique institution and geographical location associated with it. I have essentially no life (which makes conversations with my supervisor about “work-life balance” amusing in an ironic fashion), no spouse, no romantic relationship of any kind, and no family in the same time zone. I don’t even have a pet, and my hobbies (such as they are) can be practiced pretty much anywhere – I know of no research institutions that lack interesting nearby locations for amateur photography.

    I sincerly hope, for my own selfish purposes, that faculty hiring committees do prefer candidates with highly mobile pasts. Having a life would make it easier for someone to write a letter of reference about me, but I’m not particularly interested in “settling down” or “establishing roots in the community” (whatever that might mean).

    I can see why an academic department would be interested in their new hires forming permanent associations with the institution and location. Wanderlust may be habit-forming, though I would think tenure-track on its own would be a pretty significant reason to invest in long-term plans in one place. Of course, the flip side of this is the handful of faculty I’ve talked to who were denied tenure more-or-less immediately started packing and looking for a new position far, far away. And a couple of faculty I’ve talked to have told me they had tenure at one institution, but moved to another for some reason (in one case, a spousal appointment) and had to re-earn it.

  12. #12 MattXIV
    May 6, 2010

    This touches on some issues similar to discussions of turnover in high pressure IT jobs which have long hours or lots of travel. The people who leave voluntarily tend to be either at the top or the bottom of the performance spectrum. The ones at the bottom are either not very ambitious, so they don’t see the job as worth the effort, or not very skilled so they struggle to keep up while having even a basic life outside of work. The ones at the top realize that since they’re sought after enough they can find positions where they can get enough of whatever they’re looking for out of their job, whether it be money, prestige or intellectual challenges. Bad working conditions with a good payoffs tends to select for those of great ambition but average skill, since persistence can make up for a lack of talent.

    FWIW, when I was considering graduate school, I was told it was strongly encouraged to switch institutions between grad and undergrad, and grad and post-doc, and not doing so was possible but considered a sign of lacking either ambition or skill.

  13. #13 qaz
    May 6, 2010

    DM #6: There are lots of ways to produce inbreeding and groupthink. (As your usual “bunny hopping” study section examples always come back to.) And just as there are people studying bunny-hopping in bunny-hopping study sections who are actually making major breakthroughs, there are certainly people who have stayed at institutions who have made major contributions and succeeded independently and brilliantly. And of course, it’s definitely possible to bring in a candidate with little diversity from across the country.

    We’re talking generalities here and the only real way to test this would be to do a scientific study of this, comparing departments who breed their own with departments who hire outside. I would point out, however, that (1) NRSA study sections hate staying at the same institution [As Pascale notes over at your place.], (2) Studies of scientific impact have shown that breakthroughs are communicated by postdoctoral cross-fertilization, and (3) there are examples of departments who have gotten themselves into trouble building internal empires of group-think. Unfortunately, I can’t identify the examples I’m thinking of because I’m not willing to get into slander fights. The point is that it is generally a lot harder to become independent and to get as much cross-fertilization and cross-training if you stay at the same institution between life stages.

    Nevertheless, I agree that it is possible to stay at an institution and become independent and it is possible to stay at an institution and make a sufficient change to get an NRSA and it is possible to stay at an institution and do very well. These are the exceptions that prove the rule. In general, I believe (and I tell my students) that moving institutions between UG & grad, grad & PD, PD & faculty, is generally good advice.

  14. #14 Comrade PhysioProf
    May 7, 2010

    (I’m surely not the only one privy to reports, from people in a position to know, that a candidate’s lack of traces of “a life” beyond the career gave that candidate an edge over others with similar educational pedigrees, publication records, and so forth who did have visible traces of “a life”.)

    I have never got the slightest whiff of this in any of my numerous stints on faculty search committees, nor have I ever got the slightest whiff when I was a trainee on my own part or that of my cohorts of the perception that faculty search committees would reason this way.

  15. #15 Jim Thomerson
    May 9, 2010

    Back when we were looking for a particular tenure track position, We had a person basically filling the position on yearly contract. When I discussed the position with the Vice President and Provost, he told me we could not hire anyone presently employed at the university. (I think this was a general reaction to a problem in another department.) I thought, yeah sure, we are going to do a nationwide search, and if the person in place is best qualified, I’ll see to it you publicly explain why working here makes one unqualified to work here. Anyway, we ran the search; our person was the only qualified applicant and was hired without any fuss.