Some final thoughts on grants, big-wig universities, and competition

A comment left by Gerty has helped clarify what was truly bothering me about the myth that nobody is getting tenure-track jobs at big med schools without money. The original impetus for last week’s posts was a series of comments from IRL and blogosphere faculty, stating it was incredibly rare for junior faculty to land tenure-track jobs at top-tier (top 20, even top 50) biomedical institutions without money. I myself have learned of a few specific scenarios in which search committees can’t even consider individuals without 2+ R01s (in an open rank search), all but eliminating any chance for a brand-spankin’ new assistant prof candidate. This is undoubtedly frustrating for someone trying to find a tenure-track position with *merely* a K grant to bring to the table, but I’ve still been able to get plenty of traction in other searches. Something bigger was getting stuck in my craw.

Gerty’s last comment reminded me of that something:

This is a culture issue. In some places, the dept. works hard to make sure that the junior faculty they hire will be successful. In other places, assistant professors are a dime a dozen. There are some places where more than 1 asst prof will be hired for one tenure line. In these places you are given a little bit of lab space and expected to find a way to win (of course, more lose than win). Just know what culture you are entering before you start. The only thing you can do is try to know what the expectations are.

This sounds eerily familiar to a close call I had while applying for postdoc positions (years ago). One of the big-wig PIs I considered was [evidently] notorious for putting several postdocs on the same project – the winning postdoc earned papers, approval from the PI, and tenure-track glory; the losers left academia or found a second/third postdoc to try and earn their stripes. Instead, I ended up postdocing with a PI who is well-known and respected as a mentor, and actually (*gasp*) cared about my future from the moment I walked in the door. He made the decision back then to invest in me, and has heartily supported my efforts to publish, secure grants, and land a TT position.

You see, there are two types of  pedigrees out there for the TT-aspiring scientist. One requires working your ass off with little to no support from your PI and in heavy competition with your labmates. The other is available by working [your ass off] with great mentors who are respected in their field and actually invest in their students and postdocs. I chose the latter of these scenarios, and wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m sure there are many out there who thrive on the competitive energy provided by the former environment, but there are some for whom the pressure produces a plethora of less than desirable results.*

The same can likely be said for junior faculty in these types of high-pressure environments. Some researchers undoubtedly do very well in this setting. At these institutions, the newly-minted assistant prof finds herself in competition for a single tenured position with 5 other competent scientists, all vying for the same pot of NIH monies in a tough, tough funding climate. They understand their career may ultimately be dependent on chance rather than skill, but also enjoy the intensity, fighting for grants and publications with every fiber in their being, ultimately winning the tenure race. Others don’t do as well. If lucky, they transfer their program to a less intense environment, or they leave academia all together. Some buckle under the pressure.*

While appreciating the intensity that is inherent in academic science, I myself prefer to find a place that’s personally invested in me, my research program, my future students/postdocs. It’s how I was *raised* as a scientist, and this model has served me well for many, many years. I’m guessing faculty in these environments work just as hard as those at high-intensity universities; the nature of our funding systems requires it. In many cases though, the majority of their paycheck is provided by the institution rather than their own grants, so they have a safety net when federal funding gets ugly, an important quality even after acquiring tenure. Tenure requirements are also much more clear-cut at many of these institutions – teach, do your service, make yourself known, publish, and secure funding**.

So, like Gerty said, it’s all about knowing what to expect; I just don’t understand the model where faculty (or grad students, postdocs) are subjected to insanely intense competition to succeed. I’ve always been expected to work hard and get my shit done, but I’ve found clearly-defined goals best kept me motivated to move forward. Nothing is ever for sure, but I need some sort of assurance that I’m not working my ass off for nothing.

Of course, I’m sure there are a few out there reading this who themselves work as faculty in an environment such as this and can provide much more insight into what the expectations and pressure are like. I (and probably others who frequent this blog) would be interested in hearing why you chose this environment, if you did your grad studies and postdoc in a similar environment, and whether you’d change your decision based on what you now know (after all, isn’t hindsight 20/20?). In case it’s not clear, I’m really, seriously not judging; I just believe understanding more about the environment and expectations of some of these institutions may help  others out there in their quest for tenure-track positions and, ultimately, tenured success.

*This can manifest itself in several ways, but most notably (but certainly not always), it can involve some level of scientific misconduct.

**Number 1 goal is ALWAYS securing funding, but everything else on that list (maybe aside from teaching, maybe) should help achieve this goal.


5 thoughts on “Some final thoughts on grants, big-wig universities, and competition

  1. I did my undergrad in a household-name science department known for granting tenure to only a select few (certainly sub-50% of the assistant professors), and was a tech in a place that was even worse. And there were advantages to it, but on the whole, I steered away from this kind of culture when picking my grad program.

    One thing I saw was that assistant professors were picked with an eye towards flashiness, trendiness and “vision”, with less regard to the practical get-it-togetherness that leads to grinding out results over the first few years. I enjoyed working with these people – but when you’re an undergrad, you can dive headfirst into crazy stuff, fail spectacularly, and it’s fine. I had enough latent self-preservation skills to look around at what was happening to their students, though, and it wasn’t pretty.

    Programs that intend to keep most of their hires tend not to traffic in the naive visionaries…which is just as well. I’ve got enough of that rattling around in my own head.

    And of course, besides the ones who didn’t seem to give a fart about tenure, there were others who most certainly did care. More than perhaps was good for them. The post-tenure pool was enriched with these people, and they didn’t all snap back to normal, either. (My favorite was the professor who, after my sorry female self got a B in her class, not only told me to quit the program but found my parents three years later at graduation and told them I shouldn’t have been let through. I wasn’t the only woman she did that to, either.)

    I’d much rather work for sane, reasonably sharp people who can model a balanced life and the strategic use of personnel and resources. If that means I’m no longer “the best of the best”, I made my peace with that a while ago. Science is a great job, but it doesn’t love you back, so you have to take care of yourself first.

    Still, I have never worked in, or even seen, a lab where people were thrown in direct competition with each other. Heard rumors, yes, but I think nowadays even an evil PI can’t afford to burn resources like that. It’s cheaper to simply yell at the students if they aren’t in the lab at all hours. I’ve worked in a big lab where benign neglect was the rule, and seen labs that have tipped over from that into Lord of the Flies territory, but even that is getting harder to sustain.

    If I did encounter nonsense like that, I’d vote with my feet and go somewhere else. I’m not going to put my brains and hard work behind it. Misbehaving PIs get away with it because students put up with it in hopes of getting a big paper…there was a PI in my old department who only took grad students, because postdocs were old enough to know better. Well, I’m old enough to know better too.

  2. Some researchers undoubtedly do very well in this setting. At these institutions, the newly-minted assistant prof finds herself in competition for a single tenured position with 5 other competent scientists, all vying for the same pot of NIH monies in a tough, tough funding climate.

    Why the fucke would you assume that this is the type of environment I am in?

  3. A guess with no real data to back it up, solely based on the tone of some of your writings/comments. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, and I apologize for trying to peg you. And actually, from going back and reading about your negotiation, it sounds like you’re in a pretty good place for taking care of junior faculty. But I do still get the idea you work in a pretty intense environment…

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