Monday, May 4, 2009

Is Tenure a Problem in Science Departments?

Somewhat belatedly, I wanted to comment on the New York Times Op-Ed by Mark Taylor that addresses some of the flaws of the current academic system and proposes some solutions. The central problems that Taylor highlights in his article are that academic departments are too isolated from one another and from the world, and that there aren't enough academic positions for all of the people who are getting doctoral degrees these days. Taylor makes some very good points, but his article is strongly influenced by his experiences in a humanities department, and I am not sure how relevant his suggestions are for a science department.

Astronomy suffers from many of the same problems Taylor describes. There are far more graduate students and post-doctoral researchers than there are tenured professorial positions, and yet students are trained as if they were all to be professors. However, science students are often not paying their own tuition (it is paid by the grant of a supporting professor) and there are more options for science students outside of tenure-track positions because of the many sources of external funding that support scientific research. Unlike the humanities, there are a variety of scientific programming and research positions for graduates who are not seeking professorial positions. These positions are aligned with the education students receive through their doctoral research.

This isn't to say that there is not a major problem in scientific disciplines concerning the ratio of student positions to professional positions. Rather, it is that the problem may not be as closely tied to tenure and the longevity of tenured professors as in the humanities. The problem may be that professional positions available to graduating students are being occupied by the students themselves. Scientific research in the United States relies on a large pool of skilled labor. Currently, this labor is being bought at well under market price in the form of cheap graduate student researchers. If more of these positions were filled by full-time research professionals, we might have a healthier employment system for scientific academia.

The problem is that this raises the price of research in the United States and may result in a reduction in the total number of projects (and therefore, researchers) that can be supported. From the perspective of researchers, this may be a healthier state of affairs--to not be misled into spending 5-7 years underpaid as a graduate student only to find that the only way to continue to do what you've been trained to do is to continue to be underpaid. But unlike in the humanities, science graduate students usually have not accumulated debt beyond their undergraduate education and they have been supported (however cheaply) through this process. The solution, then, may simply be to ensure that prospective graduate students in science are well-informed about what employment prospects they should expect after they file their dissertation.


  1. Nice post. A few comments:
    1. There is a fundamental dishonesty in the system of academic astronomy. People at age 22, when deciding to go into astronomy, do not know the risks they face. It's true that the risks are less significant than in humanities b/c scientists can usually get decent paying industry jobs, but nonetheless if people knew the actually probability of landing a postdoc position upon graduating, or of landing a professorship upon finishing a postdoc, they might not go to grad school in the first place. I.e., I agree with you that better information should be available, but the dishonesty serves the academic system.
    2. I don't think tenure is a huge problem, but I'm inclined to think that, on balance, it's a slight negative. But I'm willing to change my mind on this.
    3. Taylor poses the problem that there are more grad students than faculty positions available. He then proposes cutting faculty positions by, e.g., eliminating the German Dept at some universities. While this might be a good idea, it exacerbates the problem he originally identified.
    4. Regarding my point 1., many people say, "That's the system, don't complain." But it doesn't have to be the system. It wasn't always the system. 50 years ago, the ratio of faculty to undergraduates was much higher, a much higher fraction of classes was taught by faculty, and grad students stood a very good chance of getting faculty jobs after 0 or 1 postdoc. It's true that science is more expensive when you pay the full value, but I think people should be paid adequately, and the "weeding out" should happen before grad school instead of at age 35 when people finally realize they'll never land the faculty position they hoped for.

  2. To comment on your #4, I've had a discussion with Sarah several times about whether it's the job of schools to do the "weeding out". I feel somewhat inclined toward "no", so long as students are well informed. This is based on my experience as a relatively late bloomer as an academic. Having only really come into my own as a graduate student, I harbor a fear that under a stricter "weeding out" program, I might not have been given the opportunity to reach this important stage of my development as a scientist. I therefore wonder if schools are enlightened enough to necessarily know when to take a chance on someone who hasn't yet proven themselves.

  3. Just noticed your comment.

    I thought about that while writing my post. I also had no experience as an astronomer upon entering graduate school, and probably benefited from schools' desire to have a large pool of cheap labor.

    You can think of two classes of errors, like Type I (false positive) and Type II (false negative) errors in statistics. A Type I error is someone allowed into graduate school who never gets the job she ultimately wants -- who, in some sense, doesn't "pan out." A Type II error is someone who does not get into graduate school who actually would have done very well.

    Our current system has many many Type I errors -- something like 60% of astro PhDs are out of astronomy within 5 years. In an alternate system in which fewer candidates are accepted to grad school, you might be a Type II error. I understand how you might look at that and say it's an unappealing system, but maybe in that system there would be so many fewer Type I errors (i.e., people who realize at age 30 or 35, while in debt or at least with no savings, that they'll never get the career they were hoping for) that the world would be better overall.

    I recognize that the I and II cases are not identical, and I could see an argument that so long as everyone has good information there's nothing wrong with Type I errors. And maybe that's true. But this view places an awful lot of responsibility on optimistic 21 year olds.