The Astronomy Community to Rob Knop : "Get out. You aren't good enough"

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.

So frustrating.

Update 2: There's an article about this at Cosmic Variance; I've been posting in the comment thread there, too.

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I hope that things get better for you. I sympathize with you because I can see what 7 years of having your idealism battered can do. This current system, while more competitive, has stifled creativity and vitality in all academic fields. The vast "successful" majority who get tenure these days overspecialize in trivial matters (of course, not trivial to them). In grad school, students are encouraged to write things that will land them a comfortable job by being non-offensive and a little intellectually sophisticated to stand out from the rest of the non-offensive, non-cutting edge work. What ever happened to the great minds? The scientists are all too busy securing funding. There is no time/funding/motivation for satisfying curiosity and sharing the knowledge with others.

By grad student (not verified) on 03 Jun 2007 #permalink

You're not alone, and it isn't just astronomy. You need to get on the job market right away...there are many, many institutions that need people to teach astronomy but do not require NSF-level funding for tenure.

there are many, many institutions that need people to teach astronomy but do not require NSF-level funding for tenure.

Tried that, been there.

Last year, I had a job offer at one place, and I really wish I could have taken the job. There were a lot of things about it that really appealed to me, but there were also two things that made it impossible for me to take the job. (One was the size of the pay cut; we wouldn't have been able to afford our after-taxes health care costs on the pay. The other one I can't talk about.)

I interviewed several other places, including at two where I would have taken the job in a heartbeat. No luck.

This year, I applied, and got no interviews.

Next year, I will start looking at community colleges. The thing is, I love teaching upper division courses as much as (if not more than) the intro courses, and I don't know that that would be possible at a community college. Would I ever get to teach General Relativity again, for example? I don't know. But it's better than not having a job.


Sad to hear that Rob, its unfortunately a situation common to the majority of research scientists these days. There are simply far too few research jobs available compared to the number of researchers. Its hard to know how to deal with this as a scientific educator. You want to foster a love of scientific discovery in children growing up but wonder is it really ethical to encourage them to begin a scientific career that is so insecure.

Ouch! As one who dropped out of the professional astronomer track a bit earlier in my career than you I can sympathize. It seems that most of the professors I studied under ultimately ended doing other work -mostly for industry or government labs. Reading science-daily and your blog, just makes me wonder what I've been missing.

I feel your pain Rob, and I have two thoughts. One, don't give up on your attempts at finding a teaching position at a four year school with less emphasis on research. Two, what about focusing on community colleges that are situated near an institution where you might teach upper division courses as a part time lecturer?

Well, no, if NSF only funds a fraction of the researchers out there, the problem is not necessarily one of "too many people". Another equally parsimonious explanation is that our government does not provide enough money for basic research.

A few decades ago, we used to have something like a national will to fund science. Lots of it. Where has that gone?

This is exactly the state of affairs for basic science biomedical researchers, and has been for a while. No NIH nor NIH-equivalent funding, no tenure. It's that simple. When the paylines fall to where they are now (for the NCI, around the 12th percentile, although if you count the two resubmissions that are allowed, ultimately around 18%-20% of grant applications are funded), good people start getting booted. When funding gets this tight, the reality is that, while reviewers can recognize and often agree on the superstar applicants (those who get ranked in the top 5%) it's very difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate between, say, a 10th percentile grant (which will get funded) and a 14th percentile grant, which will not. The criteria start becoming very arbitrary.

Being a surgeon, if I fail to renew my NIH grant in 3 years, I'll probably be able to get enough bridge funding to give it one more try, but if that fails, I'll be in your position--with one difference. I can always go back to just seeing patients and operating for a living if I have to, and I could probably continue to do it in academia if I wanted to. I could also leave academia and surgery and go to work for a pharmaceutical company. Heck, worse case scenario, I could cover ER shifts or do insurance physicals. Believe me, even though I have just over two years before I have to resubmit for renewal, I'm already seriously, seriously sweating it.


Are there private foundations that fund this sort of thing? Maybe they would have funding (whether that would be acceptable to Vandy, I don't know).

There aren't a lot of private foundations that I know of. I can't go ad hoc, because Vanderbilt doesn't let you do that-- all that sort of stuff goes through the development office, and I can guarantee you that "regular research funding for an assistant professor on the fast track to tenure denial" is not going to rise very high on their priority of things to seek funding for.

There's Research Corporation, but they have a small number of well-defined grant programs. I should look again to see if I meet any of their criteria; last time I looked, I didn't. (I missed their 3rd-year grant program, alas.)

Orac: the situation at NIH is, if anything worse, because the NIH had been in an inflationary epoch -- thereby inflating the expectation of every University admin, expectations that will continue for several years even though the inflationary epoch has ended. The level of funding you guys need to survive is way higher than the leve I'd need.

In astronomy, it's just dwindling, while expectations stay constant or slowly rise, and pressure rises. Alas, at the Federal level, they think they fund astronomy a lot, because not only do they count the national observatory facilities, I think the count an awful lot of the space program, much of which is not astronomy at all.

Well, no, if NSF only funds a fraction of the researchers out there, the problem is not necessarily one of "too many people". Another equally parsimonious explanation is that our government does not provide enough money for basic research.

I would agree, personally.... But, I think the argument can be made that the level of Federal funds available is an expression of the will of our society. There are more good people ready, willing, and eager to do astronomy than there is demand from our society for astronomy to be done.


Same situation at University of Nebraska. Even though we're not near the level of Vanderbilt, it's highly unlikely you'd get tenure in our department without a major NSF or NIH grant.

Funding of new investigators by NIH in particular is so problematic at the moment, I honestly couldn't advise someone in their twenties to enter the field. Why spend 6 years working 80 hour weeks just to earn a 50% chance you might get to keep your job? And that's after what if often now a five or six year stint as a postdoc., working starvation wages. Go work for a drug company, or write C for a living.

Anyway, Rob, I've seen a heck of a lot of people get funded in their tenure year. Part of it is just more practice writing proposals; part of it is your reviewers, most of them, can read a biosketch, and will know your situation. They shouldn't take it into account, but they do.

We had a candidate last year who had a faxed award letter in his file, dated the day of the file completion deadline. Now that's cutting it too close!

part of it is your reviewers, most of them, can read a biosketch, and will know your situation. They shouldn't take it into account, but they do.

If that effect was going to help me, it would have helped me this year.... At the time I submitted the proposal, this was my last chance for tenure. After that, I got a year delay on the tenure clock for family medical reasons.


The criteria start becoming very arbitrary.

That's the part that chafes my scrote. For the bulk of applicants, you might as well put the names in a hat and draw 'em out at random. The results would be equally fair -- in fact, I'd prefer random choice over "who you know and where you went to school".

This is one of the reasons I am so fervently in favor of Open Access -- it will enable rich metrics with which researchers can be fairly and accurately compared with their peers, at least in terms of research uptake/impact. (Teaching, service etc. are a different matter -- but for funding decisions, only the research matters.)

Why spend 6 years working 80 hour weeks just to earn a 50% chance you might get to keep your job?

I faced a similar dilemma after getting a Ph. D. in chemistry. The postdoc I took immediately afterward went downhill really fast; before long, it became very clear that I would not have any publishable research within a reasonable time. At the time I got my degree, I was still at least considering academia as a career path, but a couple months' time in this postdoc removed any remaining interest.

In the end, I jumped ship entirely, and it's still unclear if I'll get back into chemistry as a career. At least chemistry has significant options for work in the private, non-academic sector. I can only imagine what young astronomy Ph. D.s must be going through.

By ColoRambler (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

Sorry to hear about the job frustrations. FYI, community college doesn't pay very well at all, based on my wife's experience. I'm sure it's better for full time faculty rather than adjuncts, but I think even tenured CC profs make no more than what I make as a postdoc...

From the sound of what you've written and what Chad has written in the past, one of those small liberal arts colleges would seem like a nice fit for you. Were those the "would have taken the job in a heartbeat" jobs you mentioned?

On a meta-blog level, it would be sort of interesting if you got the Bad Astronomer's old job. That one was interesting to see in the latest Job Register (or was it last month's?). :-) Regardless, best of luck in the next job season!

This is one of the reasons I am so fervently in favor of Open Access -- it will enable rich metrics with which researchers can be fairly and accurately compared with their peers, at least in terms of research uptake/impact.

It will enable them -- but will they happen? At least in Physics and Astronomy, we already have the information to do better than we do, but we rely on citation counts and such.

From the sound of what you've written and what Chad has written in the past, one of those small liberal arts colleges would seem like a nice fit for you. Were those the "would have taken the job in a heartbeat" jobs you mentioned?

Last year, the jobs I applied to were only at SLAs; likewise this year (except for Sonoma State).

Gettysburg and Pomona both interviewed me, but offered the job to somebody else.

St. Johns/St. Benedicts offered me the job, and I really wish I could have taken it, but for a few reasons I just couldn't have.

This year I applied, got one or two phone calls, but no interviews whatsoever. It probably didn't help that one of my letter writers never sent out his letter, but there's more to it than that.

I would love to be at a small liberal arts college, and that is where I would serve the world best, but those jobs are just as competitive as the research college jobs. What's more, I'm too old. At this age, I'm competing against the propogated expectations of the young people applying, and I'm more expensive to hire. To get a job once you're near associate professor level, you have to be a superstar... which I'm not, I fear.


One thing that I found helped was to be a proposal reviewer. More work is probably the last thing you want, but slogging through 60-80 proposals gives a good idea of what you need to say and how you need to say it. Of course, review panels are chosen by invitation, so it may require pulling a few strings, but I think serving on a couple of NSF/NASA review panels has helped my proposal writing a lot.

I have to say, after reading this, I'm afraid to apply to research/teaching jobs anywhere but at large universities. As a grad student in astrophysics, my research area demands large telescopes and expendable time - neither of which I'm likely to get at a smaller school, much less the funding to do my research.

Adria -- it's a zoo out there. The jobs at the "best" places are even more competitive, and even there there is huge funding pressure.

People can succeed at smaller places. At Vanderbilt, we have the amazingly well-funded Keivan Stassun. I don't even know how many grants he has in addition to his NSF CAREER awardq, but he's funding several students.

If you're a research hotshot of the right sort, you thrive. I fear that that is not my main forte-- at the very least, the proposals are not my main forte.


A basic issue with the sciences as a career is that it is structured to have the majority drop out at each stage. A typical lab will have quite a lot of graduate students since there is quite a lot of work for them to do; a lot fewer but still several postdocs, again since they are needed for the work, and one or perhaps two PI:s running everything. But with that structure, and considering that people will tend to have longer funding periods the higher up they get, means that you will inevitably have multiple eligible people for a position. You'll have several newly minted PhD:s for each postdoc opening; you'll have tens (or more) postdocs vying for a PI position.

Which means at each stage most can't make it, competent or not. As another one of those that won't make it (I'm unlikely to ever go on from the postdoc level) I've come to realize that an important part of your work - from graduate studies onwards - is to always have an eye towards building competence for the alternative career you're all but certain to need at one point.

Do go into the sciences but make sure you're not completely focused only on that work. If you're good enough (and lucky enough) to make this career you won't miss diverting just a little resources towards other things. And if not - and you most likely are not - you'll be thankful you did. at the PhD level it can mean taking some courses that can help you make practical use of your skills in a company setting. Later, gearing your projects - or part of them - towards things that may be applied, or doing part of your work in cooperation with a company can really help. You're doing basic, inapplicable science? Fine, but are you not using some pretty advanced instrumentation? Or writing some advanced analysis software? Honing your skills in instrument design and building, or advanced pattern analysis software development may be a good idea.

Me, I've been going on a string of temporary funding sources for some time. I may get another project this year or I may not; I don't know. In either case I know I can't go on like this forever, and most likely will need to find something within the next two years at the latest (and within three months if I'm unlucky). What will it be? I have no idea, but I try to hone my programming skills for computer vision and I'm working on my Japanese on the side (as a third or fourth language). Something will turn up. the very least, the proposals are not my main forte.

I think you've hit on it. Writing proposals is a somewhat orthoganol skill to producing good science. A good proposal has to be pitched at just the right level -- where it's understandable, but still reeks of expertise. It has to be compelling and seem novel, while at the same time being obviously feasible. It needs to have an "angle" which hooks it into broader science themes, without seeming gimmicky. It has to seem both exciting and practical, but must also rise above simply seeming "useful". It's a small sweet spot that's hard to hit, and aiming for it is not a skill for which one is consciously trained. It's nearly impossible to write a winning proposal if you're not a good scientist, but it's more than possible to be an excellent scientist who has not yet figured out the formula. The only way I learned was by getting examples of good proposals from others, by having my proposals visciously edited by others who were better at writing proposals than I was, and by serving on panels to learn the many ways in which good proposals wind up sinking. Once you get it down, the positive feedback loop gets started where you can afford students, so you write more papers, so you have more results, which makes your next proposal look more compelling, and so on. But, until that loop starts, you're shafted.

Regardless, it's a narrow metric by which to judge someone, and I'm sorry you're having to struggle with it.

It sounds like you really need to take a few marketing classes. Seriously! If writing grant proposals is the problem (and I'm aware of your impressive teaching ability...I love the publicly available materials!), then you simply need to learn a bit about how to sell yourself. That's definitely an orthogonal skill to science, and it's one that just feels unnatural to many scientists. (Ugh, does that mean Madison Avenue wins again?)

Frankly, one of my few regrets is that I didn't manage to get into research astronomy, 'cause I loved the research I did as an undergrad. That said, I'm wondering what my lot in life would be if I had gone that direction instead of into professional computer geekdom. This isn't nearly as rewarding, I suspect, but it's certainly rather lucrative. That's useful for handling real life details like mortgages, kids, etc. Still, I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if I had taken a different path.

Best of luck with the funding and job searches. You certainly deserve it!

By David Williamson (not verified) on 08 May 2007 #permalink

I feel sympathy for people being pushed out of their job, but as an amateur, I don't see it as such a bad place to be sent.

Let's see. As an amateur, you can spend your time however you like. When you choose your research, it will be according to what you love, not what you have to do in order to keep food on the table. You may not get to point the scopes, but you can certainly analyze the data that shows up.

The "real world" is not nearly so harsh a place as I imagined it when I was still a grad student. When I entered the job force, I discovered that there were enormous numbers of opportunities to work on things intensely interesting.

Perhaps I would have understood the true situation better if I'd had someone explain it to me like this: Half the population earns $45 per year or more. How smart do you think you have to be to be smarter than them?

From years of doing engineering, one of the things I discovered about financial motivations is that they tend to kill the joyful and intellectual pleasure from doing whatever it is that one gets paid to do. As an amateur, you can follow your heart. If you were paid to have sex it would become work. This is human nature.

My recent interest is in making a modification to the Painleve coordinates so as to get the MOND accelerations in the far field. I doubt that a profesional would get an NSF grant for that, but I'm having a blast and am intensely enjoying myself.

Wow, I feel for you. It's one reason I left astronomy/physics for mathematics: less funding pressure.

The expectations in mathematics and science are very skewed. Teaching, even at an R1 university, is for most of us at least 50% of what we spend our time on, and at least 50% of what we are paid for. Yet, it counts for effectively nothing in tenure decisions, except in rare cases where research is at the borderline. It's our "attendance" grade.

And smaller, more teaching-oriented institutions, which should be redressing the balance, seem instead to be moving closer to the R1 model each year.

And even within research, (as was mentioned above), the people allowed to continue research are not always the best researchers, but the best proposal writers - and the two categories are sometimes startlingly different.

By the way, thanks for posting this. So many of us are in this situation, but are (understandably) reluctant to talk about it, much less in such a public forum.

I'll echo what yagwara says: Thanks for posting this. Best of luck, and believe me, you are not alone.

Julianne makes some excellent points. The writing style of the proposal really can make a difference.

I had a friend who had become very frustrated at not getting her research proposals funded, and I talked her into letting me edit one for her. At first, she said no, pointing out that I'm "merely" a writer, not a scientist, and then apologizing for her insult. I told it that it was OK; I'm used to people in science undervaluing the role of writers. But when she was told in confidence that she had just lost out on some funding because her proposal had been judged not "sexy" enough, she reluctantly showed me her next proposal.

She continued to resist all the way through the process, as I re-worded and re-focused on applications and possible connections with issues that could make the news. She kept saying that she was doing extremely important basic research and that re-focusing toward what she called "an appeal to the popular" was beneath a real researcher. But I pointed out that those who make the funding decisions sometimes have a wider world to answer to and have to protect themselves against the possible loss (of either their position or the actual money sources) that could result from their being made to look ridiculous or irrelevant in the public media.

She got the funding.

By all means, submit a proposal next year. And get it edited by somebody who knows a little about astronomy and a lot about writing. Your writing style in general is rather diffuse, suggesting that you're thinking through an idea as you write: perfect for a blog, maybe not so good for proposal writing.

Rob, I am truly sorry to hear this. Vanderbilt is losing out on a truly great teacher if they let you slip away. It's so sad that people with a gift for teaching get shafted in the push for research dollars, and in the end the students suffer.

Rob, it seems to me that part of the problem is that you couldn't get funding as part of the Supernova Cosmology Project. The astronomy culture is not used to such big projects, and this means that you are screwed in an NSF review. The reviewers usually like more proposals than they can fund, so if they can find an excuse not to fund you, you're doomed. It might have been beter to try to get SCP funding through the DOE or even NSF particle physics, although that is probably a long shot.

You've also hit a pretty bad time for NSF funding. The current budgets are quite tight, but things were a bit better 5 years ago. A proposal to double the NSF budget in 5 years is working its way through Congress, so things will probably get better in the future. Also, it really does make getting funded much easier when 30% instead of 20% of proposals are getting funded, because the guys that made the cut last year don't propose for a few years.

It's a shame that Vanderbilt isn't a little more sensitive to these issues, as they are largely beyond your control. It's not Harvard or MIT, after all. I suspect that you'd have a much easier time getting tenure if the standard was just to be as good as the average professor that already has tenure.

Dave -- yeah, I was getting comments back from the NSF that they liked the science, but they wanted to know what I specifically was going to do, not what I was going to contribute to a group. It was serious culture clash. That's part of why, a few years in, I switched my research focus.

Re: funding from NSF particle physics or DOE, that was a nonstarter. I never figured out how to do that. I asked Saul and Tony at the SCP several times, but never got anything more than "oh, yeah, we should try to figure something out." Nothing concrete. NSF particle physics and DOE like to fund "block grants" to institutions, where the experimentalists all work on one thing.

The particle physicists at Vanderbilt are always telling us that they need a critical mass of 3 in order to make their funding officer happy. I believe them. I was certainly not a critical mass at one junior faculty....

If things get better at the NSF in the future, that won't help me any. Vanderbilt's tenure criteria don't take into account anything like funding cycles; the mandate is "get funded."

I don't know if I would get tenure if the standard was to be "as good as" the average professor -- because how is "good" measured? If I believe the talk in the hallways, I'm the only unfunded person on the entire faculty. Of course, it may be I'm the only one who doesn't have the good sense to keep his mouth shut about it. Because, of course, we all assume that we're all successful, and being successful includes being funded, and we don't want to hurt Vanderbilt's reputation by suggesting that there might be somebody unfunded on the Physics faculty.....


Just from skimming the above, I would
a) find a professional writer to help polish your proposals, and
b) take that Teaching Company gig.

The the world needs more scientists who can present their work clearly. The TC gig is a sign that you're a great lecturer. Maybe this could turn into a TV gig, maybe your own TV show! While these may not seem "academic" enough, they will raise your profile and help you gain recognition. (Scientists really should be taught marketing before they go into research and teaching, IMHO.)

Sorry to hear about your situation.

I'm a big fan of The Teaching Company, so good luck with that. They occasionally send out 'demo' videos to their customers to evaluate prospective lecturers, so if I ever come across you in such a video I'll be sure to give you a thumbs up.

You know, everything is cyclical, and eventually science funding will swing back in the other direction. (In fact, I can pretty much tell you when that will happen -- in just about two years.) So hang in there, and keep sending out those job applications and funding requests, because you never know when something is going to click.

I have to agree with the posters who suggest a professional writer, more specifically, a professional grant-writer. I just recently attended a day-long grant-writing workshop geared towards NSF and NIH grants. Boring as hell, I tell you, but then again it did require me to shut up and sit still for about 8 hours, and that is definitely too much to ask of me. However, I did get their handbook on how to write, and that was well-worth the trouble of sitting still all day. The presenters own a company specializing in helping researchers write grant proposals, especially if they're just starting up, or having trouble getting funded. If you want the name of the company and the contact people, please e-mail me, and I'd be happy to provide that information to you. I don't really want to make public propaganda for one company as opposed to another, but it might be worth a call, at least. What have you go to lose?

I am sorry to hear about grant situation, but I am surprised you are angry at university. Which self-respected school (not a SLAC, but research school) will grant tenure to someone who cannot get funded for 7 years? If anything, they extended your deadline by a year.

I mean - you have to draw a line somewhere. If they start giving out tenure to people who don't have grants, what message does it send to next crop, or to already tenured faculty?

Basically they made a mistake by offering you a tenure-track job - apparently they thought you can be successful in getting research grants, so you can lead the group and pay your students and postdocs. So did you. Other people in department, and other people in the field get grants, so why do you seem to blame other people for what happened?

Finally, suggestions of extending 6 years to 10 years of pre-tenure decision is just silly. If you cannot get funded in 6 or 7 years, what will be different in 10? It's a zero sum game, with constant number of tenure slots, and do you really expect to come out ahead of someone 3 or 4 years from now, with no funds at the moment?

Sorry to be so blunt, but your anger is completely misplaced. Did Vanderbuilt really communicate a message of "well, it's been 3 years of your assistant-faculty, tenure decision is in another 3 years - you have no grants, but it's ok, we will make sure to support you and your students , you are on a good track, no need to worry!"?

JFN -- the travesty is that we are selected for our ability to understand and do science. We are given the mandate to do science and to teach well.

And then we are judged on our ability to raise money and hire people-- things that we weren't trained to do, things that we weren't selected for in the first place, and things that are orthogonal to the talents and contributions we not only make to the University, but are supposed to be making to the University.

If Universities and federal funding agencies weren't collectively suffering from the same sort of rectal defilade that assholes like you suffer from, they might realize that the whole system is broken. Experimental particle physics, with their block grants that get renewed based on track record, has a much better idea about how it works than astronomy. A University should be hiring the people who can do the research and teaching, and then it should be giving them the resources they need to succeed. Instead, it hires them, gives them some startup money for the first year or two, and casts them out into the cold. And, yeah, some people succeed at this -- but its the wrong set of criteria. It's not selecting people based on how good they are at science and teaching, it's selecting people based on how good they are at raising money. What the fuck?


I teach at Smith College, a liberal arts school. You can certainly get tenure here without funding as long as you can still get papers published. I suggest you apply to liberal arts colleges. The pay is just a little below that of research schools.


Thanks for stimulating this discussion. Given that the equilibrium population of astrophysicists will likely always be small relative to the number of people with interests in the subject, I think the best thing we can do as individuals is to challenge the emphasis on an academic career being the only definition of "success." I admit that this is a struggle, as I find it harder to throw myself wholeheartedly into science the more I think in realistic detail about having to do something else. But the more you identify your self with your work, the more power you give to the class that pays you.

The cultural equivalence of success with leading one's own research group is established and maintained by everyone's actions (not just senior faculty). I think we should encourage students to think broadly and deeply about what makes them happy about doing science, and how they can find these things in multiple lines of work, so that when (X > 50)% of them wind up doing something else, they have the psychological tools to cope. Besides being the ethical thing to do, it does help one's enthusiasm to know there are options, because this takes the biological warning "starvation ahead!!!" off the table.

Only the bigshots can address the funding-required-for-tenure issue, since they are the ones who create it -- every R1 university wants to be Harvard. The best thing those on the bottom can do is to spread the word, and for those who make it through the filter, remember what it was like when you're in a position to make a difference.

I worry that you might have sacrificed yourself to get this discussion going, by revealing so much of your personal situation. Here's hoping that in retrospect it will turn out to have been courageous rather than foolhardy.

- E.L.

By Electric Lungfish (not verified) on 11 May 2007 #permalink

An ex-classmate of mine (Stanford Geophysics PhD) told me"

"Caltech people are really smart, they argue a lot..but they DO THE RIGHT THING"

Rob mentioned his outspokenness as a junior-faculty member @VU, & a previous poster mentioned how Caltech fostered an environment for him to thrive (very liberating, open architecture).  Example: there was an episode of "Discovering Women", where a new interdicsiplinary program in Computatinal Neuro Sciences was started as the result of students approaching a faculty member ("complaining about a Need for a Solution").  A Caltech geophysics prof told me: something infrastructure-wise can get started if a group of professors approach higher-ups.  I call Caltech "agile/mobile/hostile", they're pro-active (rather than passive).

Rob's message echos that of Caltech physics prof (D. Goodstein, Feyman's protege)
[ "wait'll the guys [ fellow grad students ] hear about this", when he was interviewed for a faculty position by RPF at a strip-club. As per "Surely You Must be Joking.." ]

from The Big Crunch (more articles here)

To most of us who are professors, finding gems to polish is not our principal problem. Recently, Leon Lederman, one of the leaders of American science published a pamphlet called Science -- The End of the Frontier. The title is a play on Science -- The Endless Frontier, the title of the 1940's report by Vannevar Bush that led to the creation of the National Science Foundation and helped launch the Golden Age described above. Lederman's point is that American science is being stifled by the failure of the government to put enough money into it. I confess to being the anonymous Caltech professor quoted in one of Lederman's sidebars to the effect that my main responsibility is no longer to do science, but rather it is to feed my graduate students' children. Lederman's appeal was not well received in Congress, where it was pointed out that financial support for science is not an entitlement program, nor in the press, where the Washington Post had fun speculating about hungry children haunting the halls of Caltech. Nevertheless, the problem Lederman wrote about is very real and very painful to those of us who find that our time, attention and energy are now consumed by raising funds rather than teaching and doing research. However, although Lederman would certainly disagree with me, I firmly believe that this problem cannot be solved by more government money. If federal support for basic research were to be doubled (as many are calling for), the result would merely be to tack on a few more years of exponential expansion before we'd find ourselves in exactly the same situation again. Lederman has performed a valuable service in promoting public debate of an issue that has worried me for a long time (the remark he quoted is one I made in 1979), but the issue itself is really just a symptom of the larger fact that the era of exponential expansion has come to an end. The End of the Frontier could just as well have been called The Big Crunch.

The crises that face science are not limited to jobs and research funds. Those are bad enough, but they are just the beginning. Under stress from those problems, other parts of the scientific enterprise have started showing signs of distress. One of the most essential is the matter of honesty and ethical behavior among scientists
I think we have our work cut out for us.

Previous versions of this article have been published as "Scientific Ph.D Problems", American Scholar, vol. 62, no. 2, spring 1993

A Caltech prof told me:

"it's best to go in with a group of people [ to publish a paper on a new idea ]"

Rob seems to be following a Caltech tradition of "doing the right thing".  He has a like-minded ally at his alma-mater: DG is vice-provost @Caltech, & has power as well as name recognition.  The link to Feynman helps (who was an innovator).  By speaking up, Rob is using the social-networking power of Blogs  to get people fired up.  Looks like a "Solution" Team can be organized to address a "Need".

1 of my ex-profs (Harvard alum) was very pro-active in getting fellow profs to join a professors union.  If you don't unionize, you will get stomped on.

Have you considered looking for positions off shore where the tenure and funding is on a different model to what you have to deal with in the US?


You have probably considered this but let me say it anyway. How about applying for a job in a national research lab such as Fermilab? Being a scientist in a lab like this would probably get you to work on their already defined projects. Also, I believe submiting proposals in such an environment is always a group work, so you wouldn't feel all that pain in writing it and the chances of being approved would probably be higher. The downside is that you would probably not get to teach as frequently, which seems to be something you enjoy doing. Positions in these labs must be as competitive as in research universities, but at least they expand the horizon of possibilities.


National lab jobs are every bit as competitive as research University jobs-- if anything, more so nowadays, because they are only very rarely available.

It is true that the funding situation is more centralized there.

However, a big part of what I like about my current job is the teaching and working with students. If I'm giving that up, I am also going to consider moving on to something else besides research.


I am sorry to hear about your situation, Rob. This former colleague wishes you the best of luck in your future pursuits, which hopefully will be in astronomy, as we need more people as adept and passionate about teaching as you.

Many people try to help Rob by suggesting a type of research/teaching job to apply to. Very well-meaning, but I'm damn sure he's thought of every possibility.

Rob, you may get really pissed off at me, but the situation is exactly as tough and unfair as you describe, and it is not going to change. You do need to prepare to move on to something besides research. Maybe you should be mad at yourself for taking such a big risk for so many years, or for thinking, like almost everyone else, that you will be one of the ones that "beat the odds". I have a bit of sympathy for your situation, but not much. The reality is as it is, and now you have to decide what to do about it.

These issues have been around for decades, they are incrementally getting worse, and it will not change as long as so many people are willing to sacrifice their lives for a small chance at being a tenured professor.

These issues have been around for decades, they are incrementally getting worse, and it will not change as long as so many people are willing to sacrifice their lives for a small chance at being a tenured professor.

You're right -- but I would suggest you also go and deliver this message to, where everybody is saying that the by and large the tenure system basically works. Which, strictly speaking, may be true, but nothing's going to change as long as so many people's first instinct is to defend the current way things are done.

I have a bit of sympathy for your situation, but not much.

Have you been around this block? This is a pretty hardened attitude, given what else you've said.

Just because it's sucked for a long time and sucks for everybody, doesn't mean that it doesn't still suck....


"10th percentile grant (which will get funded)"

Not at NINDS. Their payline is 9.0 for 2007 fiscal year. I just participated in the review of an A2 second resubmission that was scored 10.0 as an A1. The main reaction of the panel was, "WTF!? Why are we seeing this grant again?"

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 26 May 2007 #permalink