Wednesday, October 3, 2007

No Quarter

(Persevering with the Led Zeppelin theme)

Can you succeed in academia only if you are a shark?

This is something I started to think about when I came to the USA. In India, in my experience, academic scientists are idealistic, workaholic, fatalistic and gossipy. Money is always tight and you rarely get to publish in the good journals (and I'm not talking only about the big three or five) because of where you're from. The salaries for PI-level scientists are nowhere as high as they are here, and respect from the public and one's peers in other countries can be in short supply. The keen-edged aggression that one sees among scientists (specifically, biologists) here is not at all common. But, and this is crucial, once you enter the system of government science labs, you will have a career. Every X years you will be promoted, every Y years you will get a salary. You have tons of holidays, your kids have opportunities. Many post-postdoctoral scientists I know in India have jobs and some measure of security.

Many things are common between the scientific world in India and the United States, the most glaring absence in the latter is the absence of any prospects of security in academia until you have tenure. So the situation is then that you have really bright people who work and work and work, with limited pay and even more limited prospects. To make things more interesting, these people are often enormously motivated and justly ambitious: So where does all the energy go?

We all know there aren't enough PI positions. There aren't very many non-PI permanent researcher positions either. So the only thing to do then is to fight for the positions there are, right? To give no quarter, to your peers, to the possibility of failure, to your life, or to yourself. To be aggressive and up-to-date, to work harder, better and more successfully than everyone else. To know things and have connections that others don't have. Not that there is anything wrong with any of these things, I get a buzz out of the hunt just as much as anyone. My point is that it is not really sustainable.

Or not sustainable for the majority anyway. what happens to the people who cannot, do not want to or will not be sharks? The laws of luck and averages dictate that some such will succeed in academia, but in the balance I think the sharks don't succeed. Then you have a situation in which the system "selects" for the most aggressive people, and often does not encourage other more nurturing or considerate professional behaviour. The lack of consideration and sensitivity, coupled with a reluctance to show "mommy qualities" because that would invite professional ridicule, leads to bosses who demand and do not teach, who hector not mentor, and whose personal advancement is their primary goal.

Shark eat shark then. Which doesn't seem like much fun to me, and maybe to more people. Why is it that the system is ok with people who are excellent scientists but dreadful people? Why is that acceptable? I don't know. However I do see some incremental changes (not where I work at, but), and I think the key to any improvements in the system can only occur with recognition of these issues. I hope so, because the joy of research is being subsumed by the nastiness of its execution.


Mad Hatter said...

Very interesting post, Veo. Here are my thoughts on a few points.

I don't think it's true that only sharks succeed. I do know successful PIs who are good mentors and nice people. The presence of successful people who are also, as you say, dreadful people, is not unique to science. Competitive sports, corporate America, politics...pretty much any highly competitive arena will breed sharks. And sharks will train more sharks.

The proportion of sharks to non-sharks varies between institutions and between departments. Typically, higher-tier places have more sharks, so if one is willing to be a PI at a lower-tier institution, one has a greater chance of getting a more laidback atmosphere. But there's often a price to be paid for that.

The kind of position you describe at Indian government labs also exists here. Talk to anyone from academia who has tried working at, say, the CDC. And at least at my institution, non-PI permanent researcher positions definitely exist, and there are several different variants. I know this because I have one.

To answer your question of "what happens to the people who cannot, do not want to or will not be sharks", they find alternatives. The hard part is figuring out what the options are. There is so much emphasis on the traditional tenure-track path that it often seems like it's tenure-track or nothing. But alternate career paths do exist.

Veo Claramente said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful response.

Your point is taken, but I do think that such positions as you describe (and you have, congratulations!) are very far from the norm, and are often very rare. I would really like to see some statistics on how common such positions, and indeed alternative careers are, since all we see these days are doomsday warnings about academic tenure-track careers.

ChrisC said...

To riff on some of hatter's points. We often complain about the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of research, without realizing that we are looking disproportionately at the top of our profession. Look across to the pinnacles of other fields and you'll see the same thing - lawyers, people in commerce, classical pianists, plumbers, etc. What do journeymen do? Work for others, but there is no more security in their fields than in ours.

The fact is that you will always have to compete for limited resources, whether they are research dollars, advertising accounts or condo association contracts. Unfortunately, creativity and performance appear linked to incentive, and negative incentives (the possibility of losing your funding and position) are some of the most powerful. It would therefore seem that a competitive atmosphere can be one of the most productive ways of doing science. Can it be taken too far? Yes. Should there be limits? Of course. But competition is a good thing, imho.

Veo Claramente said...

I completely agree that this way of thinking is a particular feature of the top-tier of our profession and as such, would be the same at the top tier of any profession. There is one major differences though: the profession of research has the least quantifiable measures of ability and success compared to most professions. Also, doesn't competition get in the way of the free sharing of knowledge, which after all is the foundation of the whole profession?
I too think that competition can be healthy, but I think it has got out of hand the majority of research environments. And the limits don't seem to be forthcoming.

Mad Hatter said...

You're welcome! I couldn't find any statistics on non-PI permanent researcher positions in general, but did find a study on non-tenure track faculty conducted by the Association of American Universities in 2001.

According to their data, 31% of total faculty at participating institutions are non-tenure track. In the biological/life science departments, it's 19%. If you're interested, the report is at".

Non-PI permanent researcher positions certainly aren't the norm at my institution, but they aren't that rare either. It could be that other institutions are different, but part of the reason these positions seem so rare, I think, is because they are almost never advertised or publicized.

For what it's worth, I didn't know my career track existed until someone asked me if I would be interested in it. And I didn't know how many other people in my department held "alternative" positions until I went looking through the department directory.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

Very thoughtful post Veo. And I've been very interested in the comments. I have to agree with you that the alternative tracks seem to be hard to find - I'm sure they're there but the only option I ever hear discussed is the tenure track which to me seems to be another let-down in the mentoring arena. Shouldn't someone be sharing what the other options are? Thanks for this.

Veo Claramente said...

Hatter, Wayfarer, I think that the general lack of awareness is the problem. The only way one finds out about non-tenure track academic positions is by serendipity or by knowing someone who has one such. I really think the issue needs to be discussed more openly. But the other side is that how many people want to admit that after 6 years of PhD and 2 years of postdoc, they do not want to use their training for what it was "meant" to be used? And do you really need a Ph.D for that? I feel a post coming on...thank you so much for the comments!