Friday, March 07, 2014

Spinning the wheel

Cosma Shalizi just got tenure at Carnegie Mellon. He writes

It's also hard for me to feel triumph because, by the time I get tenure, I will have been at CMU for nine years and change. Doing anything for that long marks you, or at least it marks me, and I'm not sure I like the marks. The point of tenure is security, and I hope to broaden my work, to follow some interests which are more speculative and risky and seem like they will take longer to pay off, if they ever do. But I have acquired habits and made commitments which will be very hard to shift. One of those habits is to think of my future in terms of what sort of scholarly work I'm going to be doing, and presuming that I will be working all the time, with only weak separation between work and the rest of life. I even have some fear that this has deformed my character, making some ordinary kinds of happiness insanely difficult. But maybe "deformed" is the wrong word; maybe I stuck with this job because I was already that kind of person. I can't bring myself to wish I wasn't so academic in my interests, or that I hadn't pursued the career I have, or that I had been less lucky in it. But I worry about what I have given up for it, and how those choices will look in another nine years, or twenty-nine.
Of course, from Eli's POV on the other side, this is exactly the point of the tenure track, to identify those gerbils, who, after the treats are delivered will continue spinning the wheel. Papers to write, experiments to do, thoughts to be thought.  The wheel spins and never stops.  It is an intelligence test.  We fail.


And Then Theres Physics said...

In the UK there is no such thing as tenure anymore. Also, because of the REF exercise some universities have been taking what I think a risks with their hiring in order to improve their REF scores. It wouldn't surprise me that some will be forced to shed academic in the coming years if they don't do as well as they hoped. In fact, there are already examples of some universities doing this already. I think it's quite a dangerous strategy as it makes it less likely that people will take risks with their research. Others, of course, may disagree.

Anonymous said...

The gerbil wheel is especially large--at any given time you have probably committed yourself to 2-3 years worth of projects, so don't expect any change to be fast.

Anonymous said...

Anon n+1 likes to point out that here in the USA first grade teachers get tenure. He's certain that thousands of those teachers are pushing the frontiers The Science.

David B. Benson said...

Anon n+1 --- They are pushing the future pushers.

Tom Dayton said...

There is a similar class system in NASA. Civil servants in effect have guaranteed lifetime employment. The vast majority that I know use that safety to do excellent work, especially work that is too risky for that work to have budget dollars explicitly allocated to it yet. Nonetheless, all civil servants do have to charge to specific charge codes that have dollars allocated in budgets, so there are serious limitations to their freedom--more serious, I believe than the limitations imposed on tenured faculty.

I hear tell of a golden age in NASA--annoyingly in the years ending in the year I joined--when usefully substantial money was budgeted to the discretion of NASA's center directors and from there down to lower level managers. People would use that money to do actual preliminary work in order to have some preliminary results on which to base proposals, thereby increasing the quality of the proposals, lower the risks of the proposed work, and more accurately estimate the time, money, and other resources needed for the proposed work. Nowadays most of that budget goes to particular projects, little of it to the discretion of seasoned people who can invest it wisely in preliminary work.

Meanwhile, most people who work at NASA are contractors. (Me included.) To an even much larger extent than civil servants, they are funded almost exclusively by projects, and their job security is, in effect, zero. They are not even on the tenure track.

EliRabett said...

Dan Golden has much to answer for and zero based budgeting is a biggie. The worst, of course, is that the system set the NASA civil servants into the NASA grant pool, so now if you review you have the internal vs. external issues. Do you neuter Goddard or the University of Maryland (and of course, they are often in cahoots trying to steal someone else's cheese).

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

Dan Golden has much to answer for

I can't tell if that's snark or sarcasm. You should really avoid this topic if you don't want me to out troll richard yielding another world record comment thread. lol.

I will comment here only on request.

Anonymous said...

In my quarter-century as a soft-money bunny, I have found advantages to being off the tenure track. I can take greater risks in my research and I can drop a line of research the instant I think it has stopped being interesting or productive and jump onto something else on which I think I can do more interesting, useful, and valuable work.

If I had needed to watch a seven-year up-or-out clock I would not have been able to take as many risks in my work.

Post-tenure, things would be different, but I was never willing to give up so much intellectual freedom for seven years in the hope that I might earn security to take bigger risks later on.

--Soft-Money Bunny

EliRabett said...

Bitter faster cheaper. Golden thought he could get all three.