Thursday, November 15, 2012

The (academic) beaten path

Picture this scenario:

A young scientist (post PhD) meets up with some older colleagues at a conference. They laugh and joke and perhaps share a drink in the hotel bar; in the course of the conversation, one of the more senior colleagues asks: "so where are you (employed) these days?"
Our protagonist responds, "at Weasel Creek State Community Technical College."
Imagine the response - an immediate hush, an awkward silence, eyes turned toward the table - finally, someone asks, delicately, "so what prompted that decision?"

But why?

In academia, we never ask why people follow the beaten path. We only ask why they leave it. And if they cannot or will not answer, we assume answers for them: they had to do it to follow a spouse, or to be closer to elderly family members who need long-term care, or because they were fired or lost their grant.... In other words, because they are a bad scientist. There is only one way, and it's our way.

Even those who wish to study the so-called "leaky pipeline" fall prey to this mindset. They assume that the drop in the number of female students in physics (for example) is due to the same mechanism as the drop in the number of tenured or tenure-track female faculty in physics (that one is simply an extension in time of the other), and that our end goal should be to increase the number of women students and faculty. Because that is what everyone really wants, right? To be "successful" in science. Which has become synonymous with "to get a tenured professorship at a highly-acclaimed university."
Let's go back to our hypothetical situation. Our protagonist has reasons for choosing to work at Weasel Creek State Community Technical College which are just as valid as the reasons to work at Ivy League University. Perhaps this young scientist wants to make a difference in the lives of non-traditional students. Perhaps the overhead on research grants at WCSCTC is practically nil. Perhaps the "publish or perish" mentality doesn't taint every project, allowing our scientist to include students in research without fear of delaying scientific results. Perhaps the teaching load is light and the work flexible. Perhaps the college made a very generous offer, including salary, benefits, and ample lab space.
Our more senior researchers, however, work at Ivy League U. They had to choose this - something prompted that decision. Maybe they got lucky and the department cleared out some laboratory space in the basement. Maybe they get their choice of dozens of graduate students, many of whom will never be so "successful." Maybe they only have to teach the higher level courses. Maybe they only pay 50% in overhead on their research grants. Maybe there's even faculty parking that doesn't cost too much. And maybe, once they finally get tenure, they won't have to try and publish so often. But they get to write ILU next to their names when they go to conferences, and surely that's enough.

The point is, we should not scrutinize one decision over another simply because it does not conform with what we expect (socially, that is) - we should scrutinize all equally. If anything, it is those who choose to leave the beaten path who have the most valid reasons for doing so; "I took this job as a science educator because I wanted to get kids excited about physics" is a much better answer than "I took this job at Super Duper National Laboratory because I wanted to write Research Scientist under my name in my email signature" (..."I took this job at Ivy League because I wanted to have to compete for funding for the rest of my life!").

Part of me does want to "buck the odds" and get that tenured professorship at a highly-acclaimed university, but the larger part of me can see the futility of that struggle. It's time I started asking myself, "so... what prompted that decision?"

1 comment:

  1. I don't have a very insightful comment, just that I liked this post. You make a lot of good points.


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