How Not to Succeed in Science

February 9, 2011 at 9:52 am 7 comments

Barbara Boucher Owens shared this article on Facebook, and it’s really been haunting me ever since.  I discussed it with my Barb yesterday, and decided I should blog about it.

Kathy Weston was a tenured biology professor in the UK who decided to “jump” before she was “pushed” out of academia.  She had great opportunities in her career, including working closely with a (later) Nobel prize winner.  Yet, she decided she was unsuccessful, and left academia to become a science writer.  I think it haunts because I’m at a similar stage in my career: Almost 20 years in, wondering about what comes next.  I can say this for her science writing — I found it compelling and thought-provoking, but left me with questions.

  • How would she be “pushed”?  She’s tenured.  One way I could imagine her being pushed is not being fired but simply starved. I just had a meeting with my School Chair yesterday where he expressed disappointment in my funding record — I get 95% of my funding from NSF, which has a variety of limitations on it.  There have been discussions around the College about limiting graduate student acceptances for faculty who only have NSF funding.  Grad students take 5-7 years to finish, and NSF funding is uncertain and only for 2-3 years at a time.  I could find myself in the next 1-3 years with NSF money in hand, work promised to do, and no graduate students.  I wouldn’t be fired, but I wouldn’t be able to accomplish much, including keeping my grant promises.  That would be a form of “push.”  Maybe that’s the kind of thing Kathy foresaw — a lack of resources to keep making progress.
  • Kathy writes: “My obsession with my work declined as normal life seeped in: I got married, learned to ride horses and play the cello, looked after aging parents, and nixed all hope of redemption by having two children in my late 30s and realizing they were far more interesting than what I was doing at work. By the time I carted my boxes and fish out of the building, I was working a standard 37.5-hour week, which simply does not suffice if you want to stay competitive as a scientist. And I was bored, terribly bored.”  She talks about these distractions leading to her “descent into mediocrity.”

    What haunts me is that maybe she’s right and that’s the way that the world should work.  Maybe the truly great scientists, the Nobel prize-winners, do give up a lot of “normal life” in order to succeed so tremendously.  Maybe that’s a fair trade-off.  To be the top of the field in anything, you do have to give up other opportunities.  Maybe having a family and engaging in pursuits like cello and theater does mean that you have to lower your goals below the stellar.  I don’t believe that that means that you have to be bored. It does mean that you have to accept a change in goals and expectations.  A mediocre academic career is still a contribution, and does not mean a mediocre life.

  • I’m not seeing her story as being about female.  Finding a mentor (or several — I feel fortunate to have had several senior people that I turn to for advice and who help promote my career), dealing with “real life” (e.g., marriage and family), networking, and figuring out your goals are common issues for everyone.  Maybe it’s harder for women to find mentors and to schmooze.

Kathy describes her story as “not succeeding.”  Maybe.  Maybe it’s about choosing a different Second Act.  Kathy chose science writing as her second act.  Maybe she could have stayed in academia, but become a different kind of professor — maybe not one headed for a Nobel prize, but I’ll bet that she could still have avoided boredom.

One Friday evening in the winter of 2009, I ended a 20-year affiliation with a college of the University of London, lugging three boxes of personal possessions and a bucket containing 12 tropical fish from my emptied office. In the face of looming redundancy, brought on by my failure to contribute adequately to my department’s last Research Assessment Exercise submission, I jumped before I was pushed. I left with a compromise agreement and a lot of thoughts about how my career, initially as a reasonably successful scientist, had come to such a sticky end. My story has useful lessons in it, some of which are exclusive to scientific research but some of which reflect, I think, the experience of women in academia.

via In Person: Falling Off the Ladder: How Not to Succeed in Academia – Science Careers – Biotech, Pharmaceutical, Faculty, Postdoc jobs on Science Careers.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jesse M. Heines  |  February 9, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Wow, Mark, your School Chair expressed disappointment in your funding record because it was almost all from the NSF?!? Yikes. That’s a pretty tough standard to try to live up to. My Chair and Dean and Provost would be delighted if *all* my funding was from the NSF. I sometimes wonder why, in a variety of situations, not just academia, the bar is set so high that no one can achieve it, or that one has to give up his/her personal life to strive for some goal.

    Even the pursuit of money seems to me to fall into this category. Of course we all need money to live, but when do we stop trying to build our net worth and realize that we have enough? All one hears is “more, more, more.” But even $13 million can’t buy happiness. Just ask Jonathan Sachs, the original programmer of Lotus 1-2-3. There is a wonderful article about his “success” that was published in 1985 that I’ve saved these past 26 years and have posted at The title gives a good idea of what it’s about: “Success: It came so early for Jonathan Sachs — and left such an empty feeling.”

    If Georgia Tech is foolish enough to let you go or discourage your research because 95% of your funding comes from the NSF, please give UMass Lowell Computer Science first refusal on your services! 🙂


  • 2. Alan Fekete  |  February 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Mark writes “How would she be “pushed”? She’s tenured”. I’d like to explain that in some non-US education systems, tenure does not mean that you can’t be fired! It may mean merely that you can only be fired through a transparent process that applies uniformly to all academics in a category.

    Here is Australia, most CS departments in the country have gone through at least one round of firing tenured staff. Here, if a department’s income is too low to support its staff numbers (and department budget is typically a direct function of student numbers, grant income, etc; it is not just the same as last year plus/minus an adjustment), then staff are made “redundant” to bring department expenses down to fit the income. Those staff without tenure are typically the first to go, but in many universities that was not enough. A common model is for the institution to indicate how many positions will be kept (perhaps in each of several subareas, probably with a desired age/salary distribution); then there is a call for volunteers to take redundancy [there is usually some assistance available such as training for other careers, perhaps up to a year of tax-advantaged salary as a farewell depending on length of service and age]. Volonteers may be those with alternative prospects (other countries, other careers they want to try). In my department, that turned out to be enough to get our budget into line, but sometimes there are not enough volunteers.

    If volontary redundancy does not reduce staff levels enough, then all existing staff will have to send in CVs and apply for the slots; the Dean etc decide on criteria (grant income, student evaluations, PhD completions, etc) and use those criteria to decide which of the existing staff will be used to fill the slots. Those that are not chosen to be kept, become involuntarily redundant (and get a similar package, perhaps not quite as generous). This is all standard industrial policy, and no different for a university than for a bank, retailer, or auto manufacturer.

    I should also add, that here is Australia, gaining tenure is not the stressful and competitive up-or-out process seen in many US universities. Here tenure and promotion are orthogonal. One can be a tenured junior staff (called “lecturer”, but like Assistant Prof in US), or be a full professor on a fixed-term appointment where the job only lasts say 5 years. Once someone is hired on a tenurable position (called “continuing appointment”), tenure is normally automatic after 3-5 years, as long as one has kept doing adequately, eg kept producing respected research outputs, and got teaching scores that are OK. In my department, I think there was only one case in 20 years where someone on a continuing appointment was not confirmed for tenure.

    In summary, academic employment structures vary across the world, just as much as curriculum and teaching methods.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  February 9, 2011 at 1:43 pm

      Thanks, Alan! Very useful and really interesting!

  • 4. Cynthia Lee  |  February 10, 2011 at 1:59 am

    Are ratios of female to male faculty any better in Australia vs US? Low numbers in the US are often attributed to the stressful pretenure years happening during childbearing years.

  • 5. Laura  |  February 10, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    And yes, it is harder for women to find mentors. And still, even today, women bear the brunt of the work for childcare and housework. Someone has to pick up the kids, make doctors appointments, stay home with sick kids, buy groceries, make meals, do laundry. Academic salaries usually mean little to no household help. And academics tend to marry one another, meaning that both have heavy work responsibilities. Often, something has to give, and often, it’s the woman who gives up a career. I hope that’s happening less for younger women (I’m middle-age myself), but I haven’t seen it yet.

    And I think academia needs to figure out a way to not hold everyone to exactly the same standard. Someone people love to do research, get grants, etc. And some people prefer a heavier teaching load to doing more research. At most institutions, there’s only the one path.

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  February 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm

      Laura, I strongly agree with your last point: That academia needs to be able to have different kind of professors (and maybe more titles for their faculty, to reflect different kinds). And I also agree that women bear the brunt of the work for childcare and housework. How should academia respond to that cultural reality — or should it? Is it discrimination if academia does not respond to it?

  • 7. Catherine  |  February 10, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    I have to agree with Bettina – what a fantastic life she has had to date. The UK is pretty bleak at the moment with changes to funding models under the new government (so I heard last year when I was there), however Kathy has had such a rich experience behind her, it is just a new chapter moving forward.


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