Loved the teaching. Loved the science. Couldn’t take the politics. Couldn’t take the tenure stress. That about sums it up.
I am sending off today a signed offer letter for employment with Linden Lab, the folks who create and run Second Life. I will be an engineer or ops/developer or something… wait, hang on. Here we go, “Productions Operations Engineer” is the title listed in the offer letter. I will write more about this in the near future, and probably a lot more in the ongoing future. Let me say, though, that I’m very excited to be going to work for Linden. A lot of the rest of this post is going to sound negative, because this post is all about academia. However, I don’t want it to sound like Linden is “just my escape valve.” It was the only job I applied for this summer– so I wasn’t entirely looking to flee, but saw some things very positive about this job in particular. If you had asked me what I wanted to be back in 9th or 10th grade, I probably would have said “computer programmer.” So, in a sense, I’m finally getting back on track where I was in 1984 or thereabouts.
As for academia… it is not without a lot of regret that I decide to leave. I will be giving things up, and I’m fully aware of that. I will mourn leaving academia. My mother said to me a couple of weeks ago when I was out in the SF Bay Area interviewing at Linden that she thought I have a real gift for teaching. I said, perhaps (having read some really nasty student evaluations, it’s difficult for me to fully admit that), but it’s OK if we all have gifts and talents that we don’t use in our primary vocation. She strongly agreed with this. I will really miss the teaching. I will miss playing around with the advanced physics and astronomy, and helping others to learn it and see what’s so beautiful and powerful about it. I will miss surfing at the front of astronomy research.
There are a lot of things I will not miss, however. I will not miss the brutal competition that plagues all of academia— made only the worse by the fact that we sometimes try to pretend that it doesn’t exist, that we too often give lip service to the only-partially-true notion that the business of science as instantiated in our world today is what the business of science is supposed to be: that is, the pursuit of deeper understanding, all of us working together to try and know more about what makes this world we live in work. Yes, that is there… but in many fields, including mine, there are far more excellent people qualified to do the job than there are positions, and there are more positions than there are research dollars to adequately support. As a result, the pressures lead us to becoming tremendously competitive, to having to market ourselves and (often) oversell the crucial value of our own research, to dismissing what others are doing as uninteresting, to trying to get our piece of the pie not only by showing that we deserve it, but also often by trying to sew fear, doubt, and uncertainty that others deserve it. I’ve written an awful lot about things like this before.
I know I’m not alone in worrying about this. Bill Hooker describes the competitive nature of scientific research, the personal toll it takes on post-docs, and questions whether it is destructive to science as a field. Janet Stemwedel questions the ethics of papers that oversell their results, something which is driven by the fact that we are all competing for prestige. I’ve spoken privately with others about how a lot of (at least) the astronomy community is dysfunctional in how it distributes its resources. Many people have noted that it’s getting harder to get null results published, and that it’s very difficult to get “credit’ for having done good science if you produce a null result… even though such things really should be the bread and butter of what scientists do, if we really believe all the things we say all the time about how science works, and about how the process of science is an honest, open, and objective process.
On the most personal level, though, I will absolutely not miss the ridiculous and overbearing pressure that is placed upon pre-tenure faculty. A friend (who may identify him or herself in the comments) told me recently that he/she hadn’t known anybody who went through tenure without having the process seriously fuck them up in one way or another. I (more) recently asked a member of my department his/her persepctive on this, and he/she said that the tenure process wasn’t a problem, as he/she had been very strategic in checking off the boxes… but that afterwards, he/she felt completely adrift, for the drive for tenure was what he/she had focused his/her efforts on for years, and he/she had lost track of the real reason for doing science. I got in an unfortunate discussion at Cosmic Variance where I expressed frustration with the fact that some of them are staunch defenders of tenure (and, at least at the time seemingly to me) defenders of the process of the tenure system– even though two of the most outspoken ones claimed to have gone through a year of personal hell because of the whole tenure thing.
I’ve received a lot of positive feedback at Vanderbilt. A few years ago, I won the Chancellor’s Award for Research (of which a handful are given out each year). After one faculty meeting when I spoke out in a manner few junior faculty would supporting a new curriculum we were trying to put forward, the Dean pulled me aside and said “you are going to go far.” Elsewhere, when I’ve gone to give talks, people have said that I would have “no problem” whatsoever with tenure.
And, yet, despite all of this, the primary message I have received, and I suspect that the vast majority of pre-tenure faculty receive, is “You Are Not Good Enough.” Even when the administrators are trying to be positive, talking about how great things are and how wonderful their standards are and so forth, I come away feeling more pressured to live up to the rosy vision that they are pushing on all of us. At a meeting of pre-tenure faculty, the Dean told us the statistics that since his arrival a few years previously at Vanderbilt, 29 out of the 30 tenure cases he’d seen had been been succesful; he said this was evidence that Vanderbilt was doing a good job hiring the right people. I suspected that it might be evidence that they are doing a very good job doing what they’ve done with me: showing the handwriting on the walls to the people who aren’t going to get tenure so that they leave before precious “high tenure rate” statistics are messed up. At the same meeting, we were told that Vanderbilt doesn’t care about funding, they care about excellent researchers… but that to be such in the physical sciences requires “continuous funding.” They went on to make it clear that that was more than just a grant, for if a grant runs out, you’d better have another one going to tide you over as you try to renew it or replace it.
Most significantly, though, I’ve been told directly by my Chair that my tenure case, which would have been submitted in Fall 2008 (after just one more year), had less than a 1% chance of succeeding if I didn’t have funding at the level of an NSF grant. Funding at that level in astronomy nowadays is very difficult to find anywhere other than the NSF, and they have calls for proposals once a year. 1/5 or 1/6 of the grants that get submitted are getting funded nowadays, and as I’ve written about before (in multiple places), it’s very stochastic and difficult to predict.
I’ve had this Sword of Damocles about funding hanging over my head for years. In the last few years, it’s been weighing more and more heavily on me, as I contemplate how compitetive NSF funding is, as I hear stories of “good proposals from big shots” even being turned down, as I hear about established and successful full professors finding it difficult to figure out how to keep funding their graduate students… and as I realize the Vanderbilt has a veto criterion for tenure that requires me to compete successfully in this funding rat race. For the last two years, as anybody who’s been reading my blog since its inception will now, I’ve been feeling increasingly miserable and increasingly desperate because of the funding and (thus) tenure situation. My research productivity has plummeted in the last two years because of the feeling of futility it all had— it’s difficult to get things done when I have the near-sure knowledge that my University is just waiting to kick me out for not being good enough. The serious depression that set in because of the constant message of “you don’t measure up” and “you aren’t going to get the resources you need to do what you were hired to do” that I got not only from Vanderbilt, but from the repeated failures to get funding or telescope time, set up a positive feedback loop where things got worse. It was too difficult to really get anything done because everything seemed so hopeless and overwhelming, and as a result I didn’t get the papers done that might have been a tipping point in the future grant. I know a lot of people think the “utter pressure, sink or swim in the whirlpool” method is a great way to motivate pre-tenure people to extreme productivity, but in my case the primary result was an extreme crushing of my soul, the suppression of my ability to really function well as a scientist, and ultimately my decision that there are other exciting things in the world that I could be doing, and that what I liked about teaching and science wasn’t enough to keep me from finding something else challenging to occupy my time with.
As an interesting afterward, a year or so ago another junior faculty member in my department was being courted by another University. He told his mentor about this, just looking for advice, saying he hadn’t made any decisions. The metnor told the chair, who talked to the administration, and things started rolling. The final result was a large ($1.5M) internal research budget to help this faculty member build programs he wanted to build, and to convince him not to leave Vanderbilt. Although I’m not proud of this, it would be dishonest of me not to say that I’m jealous that he got that kind of response. I do want to say, though, that this is a huge benefit to all of astronomy, for the post-docs hired and the programs enabled enrichen the intellectual environment, and this faculty member is using the money in a way that really benefits all of the astronomers at Vanderbilt. So, Kudos to him, and it’s really a boon for all of astronomy.
When the Dean found out that I was planning to leave, his response to my department chair was, “Make sure that Astro 102 gets taught!” (This, I think, is obnoxious of him to require, for astronomy will be, as a result of my leaving, understaffed next fall, and it will be troublesome to figure out how to cover that class.) Now, I know full well that I’m not as “good” as this other faculty member— not only is his research more on fire than mine is right now, not only does he advise more students and have a higher profile in the astronomy community, but he also has created programs that are the sorts of things that Universities love. I have no doubt that he’s more valuable to the University than me. However, he is not so much better that the difference should be this great! That he gets the $1.5M research budget, and I get the message that I’m going to be fired after another year. It’s really a case of feast or famine.
Indeed, this response from the Dean made me more comfortable that I am making the right decision. While I know beyond any doubt that at least some people in my department really value me, and I know beyond a doubt that at least some of the students here really value and respect me, I also suspected/knew that my value to Vanderbilt the institution was borderline at best. While the “not good enough” message that goes out to faculty in general is probably supposed to motivate them to be better, and not always a direct expression of the real opinion, I knew in my case from direct and unambiguous feedback that the institution as a whole had in fact judged me that way. (Consider the direct statement that with my record of funding continuing, I’d have a less than 1% chance of getting tenure. If that’s not a hard and fast datum to indicate that Vanderbilt considers me not good enough, I don’t know what is.)
And, so, I mourn academia, but I move on. I will be bitter, it would be dishonest to say otherwise. But I’m also excited. I’ve found in the last few days that I feel hope about the future of my career in a way that I haven’t really for a couple of years. I know from interviewing that I’m going to be working with extremely intelligent and stimulating people, and I’m going to be working on an exciting and challenging project. I’m looking forward to it.