Whether or not that’s the message that is intended to be sent, that is the message that is sent.
Here’s my deal. Vanderbilt has made it 100% clear that without funding at the level of an NSF grant, I will not get tenure, regardless of anything else. Indeed, my chair has told me that funding is the only issue he sees as being a serious question with my tenure case. (And, by the way, to the two new astronomers who are coming: I know that some dean told you it’s a “myth” that tenure is dependent on funding. Unless I have been lied to, you were lied to during your interview.)
For what I do, there aren’t a lot of funding sources. The NSF is pretty much it. Yes, I also put in proposals to the HST and Chandra space telescopes. The HST proposal got turned down, and I’m still waiting to hear on Chandra. Money would come with that telescope time, but not at the level that Vanderbilt wants to see to be convinced that I’m a worthy member of the faculty.
I’ve got one more year, one more shot at the NSF, before the tenure decision comes up. If I get funded, then tenure is maybe. I have to get more papers out– I’ve got a bunch in the pipeline, although frankly the continual hits I get on funding kill my motivation and ability to get anything done. If I don’t get funding, the message has been delivered to me very clearly: I will not get tenure.
I have been submitting proposals for years. I’ve changed my research area when it was clear that somebody in my position couldn’t get funding to be part of the Supernova Cosmology Project. I’ve adapted my proposals based on comments. All if it is just like beating my head against the wall. Denied. Denied. Denied. Denied. Denied. Denied. Denied. Denied.
The hit against the ego is bad enough. The fact that I can’t pay may grad student an RA is worse. The fact that this means that Vanderbilt is going to fire me just takes the cake.
I have to take some time to calm down, but right now I really want to throw my hands up, scream out loud, and quit my job. Fuck it, I feel. Vanderbilt has made it clear that I’m not good enough if I can’t get funding, and the NSF has made it clear that I’m not making it into the 16-20% of proposals that get funding. (Realistically, talking to the program officer, it’s worse than that. Proposals from institution like mine are at an a priori disadvantage when compared to Caltech, Hawaii, Harvard, etc., where astronomers have guaranteed institution-supported access to 4m and 8m class telescopes.)
The simple fact is that there are too many research astronomers out there in comparison to the number our society is willing to support. There is a lot of evidence to this. How competitive it is to get a faculty job in the first place. But, the simple fact that if you’re going to play in this game, you need money: money to travel to conferences, money to travel to telescopes, money to pay grad students over the summer and (ideally) during the year. And, money to convince your University that you’re a worthy researcher. If the NSF is only funding 16-20% of the astronomy proposals it gets, even considering resubmissions, there are too many people.
And I’m one of the ones below the cut. Never mind that I’m one of the most popular AAS Shapley lecturers this year, never mind how much I contribute to Vanderbilt, never mind any skills I may have in teaching, never mind how many undergraduate research projects I’ve mentored. I’m trying to play in a game where there are more people doing it than there is support for it. Vanderbilt can only afford to keep the best, where the criteria for “best” includes “ability to get funding.” That’s a rare quality that evidently I don’t have.
I probably should go quietly, instead of bitching and whining about how the system is unfair. I should admit that I tried and didn’t measure up, and go on with my life. But there is a part of me that knows that I’m good at a lot of this, that teaching college astronomy is where I belong. And part of me knows that I make contributions that are not being made by the better researchers who are getting the funding. So how do I stay? How can I make this a job where my best talents can contribute? I don’t see a way. Vanderbilt isn’t interested in trying to see if somebody outside of the usual mold is making a good enough contribution to keep them on the faculty; you need the funding to convince them that you’re the A1 researcher.
My proposals keep getting ranked in the middle of the list. That’s not good enough. You have to be one of the top fifth or sixth of researchers to stay in. I don’t know how we sustain a community where everybody is in the top fifth or sixth, but that’s what Vanderbilt’s demanding of me.
So hell with it.
It’s so frustrating. I don’t know if I’ll even write a proposal next year. It’s like beating your head against the wall; the only thing good about it is when you stop.
Added afterward: here’s an interesting juxtaposition. Right after I saved this, my phone rang. I was talking to somebody from the Teaching Company, who have invited me to give a sample “audition” lecture for their highly acclaimed series of DVD and CD lectures. My understanding is that I first came to their attention on the strength of the expanding Unvierse podcasts I did for Dyer Observatory (part 1, part2, and part 3).
I know there are things I’m good at. I know that I’m good at a lot of what I do. And I have external confirmation of this, not just my own “feeling.” And, yet, by the definition given down to us by the standards of a research University (including Vanderbilt), I am a failure, worthy of being fired.
Update 2: There’s an article about this at Cosmic Variance; I’ve been posting in the comment thread there, too.