17 July 2017

Nevertheless, she persisted

Sometimes, you get to watch a friend win one. And that win is practically as sweet as one of your own.

Friend of the blog Dr. Becca has been getting a rough ride at tenure time. Until today:


First things first: Congratulations, Becca! I am so happy for you! Wooo!

Other things: Becca’s win is important beyond just the obvious significance for her and her students and collaborators. It needs to be seen and discussed widely for two reasons.

First, her case needs to be talked about because the grief she was getting was all about one thing: money. Scratch that: it was because she didn’t get the right kind of money. Her job was being threatened because she hadn’t brought in a stand alone research grant from the National Institutes of Health (an NIH R01, to use the jargon).

Becca’s situation is the nightmare scenario that many early career scientists are staring down. The NIH budget is flat, applications are up, and most recognize that the success rate in applying for NIH grants is now so low that many perfectly good projects go unfunded.

In other words, getting a grant has a healthy dose of luck to it and no amount of granting savvy can ensure you will pull down any particular grant. Lack of a grant does not mean your colleagues don’t think you’re doing crummy science.

Becca’s situation shows how dire and destructive this habit of “outsourcing” tenure decisions to granting agencies has become. Professors and administrators need to talk about this and adjust their expectations to line up with reality, and not expect the stone to give blood if you “incentivize” the stone enough.

This is something that has been buzzing in the background for a long time, but the situation has worsened in the last 6-7 years. Academics are used to stability at much longer time scales and aren’t prepare to adjust to the ground shifting underfoot in the time it takes to hire a professor to her tenure review.

Second, Becca’s case matters more generally than her alone because, as Neil Gaiman (channeling G.K. Chesterton) says:

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

Becca shows that you can fight the dragons of university administration, and you can win. And a lot of early career academics need to know that. Because dragons are big and scary and it is easy to give up and concede the battle.

Becca was confronted with career dragons.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Related posts

The secret life of a banner
The secret life of a banner, part 2


Dani Andrews said...

I found her persistence inspiring, and as I mentioned on twitter it is something I wish I had learned earlier. This past year I applied for one of three positions. Eight people, including me, were interviewed. If it was a lottery I'd be happy with those odds. I was the first person scheduled for the interview.

My references included two people who had run the entire program for decades. Both said I was the best candidate they'd ever met in all their careers (!!!). One of them gave me mock interviews for practice.

Interview day: Did 30 minute presentation. 90 minute Q&A. 30 minute technical test (which I aced, it was quite easy). I felt good about the whole ordeal. Three weeks later I heard I didn't get any of the available jobs.

I should have pushed back. No false modesty here--I've not met anyone with my breadth of experience and abilities that matched the job description so well. I've even done that particular job at other places on short-term contracts. Those who know me and know the job can't believe I didn't get it.

Instead of pushing back, I was so discouraged I didn't even fill out my expense claim forms for travel, food, and lodging reimbursement. I didn't ask why I didn't get it. I didn't ask what I could have done better in the interview to improve my chances. I didn't even bother asking my contacts to find out who they had hired instead. I gave up. It was just one of a number of career disappointments I've had in the past 3-4 years. It's always something. Too much experience. Too theoretical, not enough practical. Too much practical, not enough theoretical (both within one year by the same organization).

I'm still discouraged (and not working outside of unrelated coding jobs a few hours here and there). I've put in applications for non-science work now. After many years of work, continuing education, upgrading skills, published papers, special speaker at conferences and local club meetings, teaching first/second year university students I'm thinking of giving it all up. This work is my passion. Passion doesn't pay the bills. Passion doesn't get you full-time work, just contract after contract and now I'm not even getting those because too much experience, wouldn't you be happier in a more senior position (which are far fewer than the jobs I used to get, plus they're all desk jobs, so NO, I FUCKING WON'T BE HAPPIER. IF I WAS I'D APPLY FOR DESK JOBS AND APPARENTLY WHEN I DO APPLY FOR THOSE F'N JOBS I DON'T EVEN GET AN INTERVIEW REQUEST (usually).

Anyway, still angry, discouraged, upset, which is why I found Dr. B's story heartening and an inspiration at a rather dark (long) time of my life. Never met her, but I found myself cheering for her and leaking a few tears of happiness for her. Coincidentally, shortly after I read her tweets I was approached by a book author/scientist who asked if I wanted to write a book with him (is right in my field of expertise)--he said I would be first author. That still won't pay the bills for at least 2 years (if successful), but it was another small ray of hope.

Well, sorry to rant on your blog. I wanted to get that out. Apologies if this is the wrong place for that.

Mike Taylor said...

This is excellent, Zen, thanks for posting.

Naughty Neil Gaiman, though: he seems to have been quoting G. K. Chesterton. See https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/341193-fairy-tales-do-not-tell-children-the-dragons-exist-children