Pre-Tenure and Post-Hoc

I had a couple of conversations at DAMOP last week about career issues, and I just want to note that I will never get used to the idea that I'm a respected elder anything, whose advice would be valued. I basically feel like I lucked into my whole career, so I hesitate to advise others as to what they should do. But then, there's a huge element of luck in any tenure-track career, given the tiny ratio of jobs to candidates.

One thing that came up was, of course, the question of how it is I run a blog, which connects to the larger question of work-life balance. One of the people I spoke to phrased this as something like "How much of a life am I allowed to have outside of research?" I gave a slightly different answer to this than in the past, so I figured I'd post a version of it here.

Basically, what I said is that the whole work-life issue is ultimately a post-hoc explanation, not a clear requirement of anything. That is, what matters for success in academia is productivity. If you generate enough of whatever it is you're expected to generate, you'll pass the review.

In this light, work-life issues are less about an actual coherent expectation of time spent than they are a post-hoc explanation for an issue with productivity. That is, if you come up short of producing enough of whatever, time spent on outside interests is an easy thing to point to and offer as an explanation: "Well, he would've passed if he had spent more time in the lab, instead of blogging..." It's not a rational expectation, it's a post-hoc rationalization.

And, in a sense, it circles back to the question of luck that I mentioned at the start. Because, ultimately, a lot of career stuff comes down to luck. A chance conversation sparks a productive collaboration, a grant lands with a sympathetic reviewer, an experiment works out better than expected, and you've got tenure. Or a line of research could catch a bad break-- a flood in the lab, getting scooped by somebody else, or an unfortunate quirk of experimental parameters (a previously unmeasured property of some atom turns out to be in a range that precludes what seemed like a sure Science paper, say)-- and then you're screwed.

Psychologically, though, very few people like to admit that this is the case. So academics invent apparently causal explanations for things that really aren't-- the candidate spent too much time on teaching, or hobbies, or with family. In reality, though, most of those people are just unlucky-- had they spent the exact same amount of time on other interests, but had a few other breaks go their way, they'd sail through the tenure process, and people would come up to them six years later at conferences asking with a tinge of wonder how they managed to get tenure while having a life.

So my (slightly revised) advice to those on the tenure track is to focus on being productive, not appearing to be working hard. And you (hopefully) know what works to maximize your productivity, which may not be constant ostentatious labor in the lab. When I was a post-doc, I had a couple of arguments with my boss about hours, because he was very much of the opinion that there was no problem that couldn't be solved by just staying in the lab until it was solved, where I knew that after a certain point, I need a few hours of sleep to recharge. I can stay up all night taking data or doing other fairly routine tasks, but after 10-12 hours, my ability to find new solutions to problems is completely shot.

What settled the argument wasn't really a change of style on either of our parts, but a change in the lab. The stuff that was broken got fixed, and we started getting good results, that eventually became a Science paper. And productivity smooths over a lot of problems.

So, you do what you need to do to make things work. Which may include hobbies, and family time, and even occasional naps. Yeah, there might be some idiot who will hold non-research activities against even successful and productive faculty. But there's less of that than you might think, because at some point, that kind of behavior becomes an excellent way to lose a lawsuit.

Of course, that's easy advice to give from the far side of a tenure review. It's much harder to hear and follow that pre-tenure, when the criteria for what counts as "enough" are maddeningly vague. As junior faculty, you're often made to feel as if there's no real level that could ever count as "enough"-- a former administrator here had a real gift for making me feel stressed and confused.

This is, unfortunately, probably unavoidable. You'll never get a clear and unambiguous statement of what counts as "enough," because lawyers. Any system with clearly stated thresholds or the like is subject to gaming and thus fodder for lawsuits, so the standards will always be kind of nebulous, and Chairs and Deans will be impossible to pin down.

In the end, this kind of comes back to the Seven-Year Postdoc thing. At some level, you just need to give it your best shot: work as you work best, be as productive as you can be, and don't worry about appearances. (Obviously, if you're officially told to do something by people in power, you should do that. Especially if it's in writing. But odds are it won't be.) If that's not enough, well, that sucks, but on the other hand, if you need to make yourself utterly miserable to keep your job, at some point you need to ask whether that's a job you really ought to try to keep. (Also, it probably won't work...)

Of course, this also entails accepting the essential role of luck in the hiring and promotion process. Which also takes a certain toll, psychologically, at both ends of the process. But ultimately, it's healthier than a crazy system that views having a life outside of work as a character flaw.

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It would certainly be a huge mistake to do nothing else but research, when you are working for a tenure. Actually, many of the very best physicists have been very active persons with lots of hobbies and interests outside physics. I have read that Werner Heisenberg, for instance, was an almost professional-level pianist. When he made his major discoveries in quantum mechanics in his mid-twenties, he had very much outdoor activitiies: mountaneering, hiking, horse-riding and hunting. He was also an enthusiastic player of lawn tennis and table tennis.It has been claimed that one of the reasons for his great discoveries was his ability to relax completely from his efforts in physics by means of his hobbies.

By Jarmo Makela (not verified) on 10 Jun 2014 #permalink

Absolutely productivity over hours in the lab, or leaving the lights on so it seems like you are in the lab.

Your comment reminded me of a situation decades ago where there were two candidates with similar levels of productivity. When asked what else they did, one said he worked on physics 16 hours a day. They took the one that got that same work done in 10 hours, with time left to go hiking or whatever it was. They figured that the first one would burn out and become useless.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 11 Jun 2014 #permalink