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.