Graves’ inversion

Escher day and night.jpg
M. C. Escher, “Day and Night”

A thought experiment: what if career security in academia was inverted, and the positions of junior and senior faculty were reversed?

In nature, it’s the young and the old that get culled by disease and predation; individuals in their prime are secure. In science, the young (undergraduates) are safe and so generally are the old (tenured), but paradoxically it’s the people in their prime who are the most vulnerable and the most likely to be culled. 

In war too it’s the flower of a generation that gets sacrificed for the benefit of the demographics either side of them. The bitterness that results from being in such a predicament was best captured by the poet and World War 1 infantryman Robert Graves in his autobiography, “Good-bye to all that”. There, while battling the symptoms of PTSD and often seeing the faces of dead friends appearing before him, he is scathing in his contempt for the older men in England who tell him how lucky he is to be soldiering. Disgusted at this wistful notion of warfare, he fantasises about inverting the situation: what if those same old men were sent to fight in the trenches and be blown to pieces, while he and his now-deceased comrades could relax at home?

While the comparison is a bit tasteless, those same inane platitudes will be very familiar to many young scientists. In today’s hyper-attritional career environment, most postdocs or junior faculty will have heard an older professor sympathise with their predicament and confide that they themselves would never have gotten tenure in the current climate. Given the general antipathy towards retirement or downsizing that’s displayed by many senior faculty, this insight is no comfort at all.

But what if Graves’ inversion was actually put into practice? What if we were to actually swap the career positions of junior and senior faculty?

What if junior faculty were actually given semi-permanent positions from the moment they were hired (10 or even 15 years salary, say, with an assessment every five years)? And what if, over time, that salary support was gradually withdrawn? Then we would have something approximating Graves’ fantasy, and it’s an interesting thought experiment to pursue.

Young faculty are almost always in more need of career stability than their older colleagues. They are more likely to have young families, with all the attendant responsibilities, and more likely to be looking for a period of calm instead of packing and unpacking their suitcases every few years as they traipse around the globe. Older faculty will of course still have domestic responsibilities (gotta get the kids through college!), but is it so unfair to ask them to shoulder a greater degree of self-sufficiency than their younger associates?

In fact, such a setup would better exploit the bias that exists in terms of publications, research profile, and all the other manifestations of the Matthew Effect than the present situation. Older established groups – who benefit most from the Matthew Effect anyway – ought to be fine if they’re productive, while younger groups that are still evolving will be more free to follow their interests and work things out for themselves.

Superficially, this inversion might not sound so different – at least for young faculty – to the 5+3 year contracts that are commonly handed out at research institutes. But such offers are never as generous as they sound, because the chance of a permanent position is close to zero, and consequently the pressure ramps up with the awareness of a certain departure. The 5+3 isn’t about getting something in the water and then slowly removing the supporting floats; it’s more like throwing someone the keys to a speedboat without any instructions on how to use it, and then giving them no option of refilling the tank.

The aim with all junior faculty hires should be providing them with an environment in which they can complete their transition to group leader, and ideally, provide them with an opportunity for at least a longish stay. Every hire should be a tenure candidate, and guaranteeing a salary for a longer period for junior faculty might also force departments to think about what they need in terms of their strategic vision. These considerations, or rather their absence, are the dark side of 5+3 offers and their ilk – they constitute no long-term investment at all and, when applied most cynically, can be seen as a means of obtaining overheads (of all the grants you write, the one that is most likely to be funded is your first). 

Greater security at the outset would be a boon for younger hires and as salary support was withdrawn and they gradually became less dependent, by that time their worth would be clear. Tenure is supposed to be about providing freedom of enquiry, but that security might be more usefully allocated to the young – who are trying to figures things out – than to the old, who have already figured out their own way of doing things. Who actually needs that security more?

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the US academia already approximates this setup in some respects, at least for junior faculty. For the lucky few who do land an assistant professor position, the outlook for the next 8-10 years is reasonably secure. The downside of the US system is that from there on, it never gets any easier. While it ensures turnover by letting people wither away because they’re reliant on research grants for raising a substantial chunk of their salary, the relentlessness of the US system is what makes it unappealing. 

Tenure doesn’t mean much if you’re still having to raise a substantial – and maybe even up to 90% – of your own salary through grants. The winnowing effect is always present in US academia, and it is perhaps too extreme. 

Conversely, it’s worth asking if people ever earn or deserve the right to an easier ride later on in their careers. The luxuriousness of a salaried tenure has virtually no equivalent, and in the corporate sector there’s certainly no sentimentality towards older workers who are underperforming. Boxers don’t get to have it easy; they can retire, or they can be beaten and then retire. A similar archetype is a staple of gangster films – a mobster can age, but they can’t get old (think “Carlito’s Way”).

There’s a difference between challenging people and pressurising them. People with drive and enthusiasm don’t need pressure, and they probably perform better without it. A bit less security for senior faculty and a bit more security for junior faculty would be good, right?

Total career security in the absence of research productivity is as unfair as the absence of career security despite research productivity. They’re opposite sides of the same coin – and that’s what makes the inversion a relevant counterpoint.

 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Chris de Graffenried, Jim Shorter, Duncan Smith, Jeanne Stachowiak, Graham Warren for insights and discussions.

5 thoughts on “Graves’ inversion

  1. So, what would the ideal setup look like? Something like this, maybe?
    – Junior faculty have at least 10 years’ wage security, and ideally with the possibility of a permanent position afterwards.
    – Junior faculty are incentivised to raise research funds, but not beyond a certain point – you want them doing research, not solely writing grants.
    – Senior faculty have partial (and decreasing) wage security, in order to incentivise them not to go off the boil in research terms, and ultimately steer them towards retirement if productivity is low. But not too aggressively.

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  2. I don’t know about this. In our profession, the only way to offset job insecurity is the willingness and capacity to move around. I have lived in 6 houses and 3 cities in the last 12 years, from my early 30s to my early 40s. I would not wish that to my 50-60 year old self. Or anyone else.
    On the other hand, I think the dichotomy between young and old is a red herring. There are very young scientists that have quick careers to stardom and do not need any extra support. The real dichotomy, as always, is between the haves and the have nots. Those that hoard funds because are safe pair (or multiple pairs) of hands and those who cannot make themselves competitive for lack of proper funds. I am not sure that leveling the playing field would make things fairer, but perhaps simply better value for money, as the decline in productivity in large research teams is well documented.

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    1. Hi Joaquin, thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful reply; much appreciated.

      You’re absolutely right that there is a productivity dropoff with large groups, and there have been proposals for a funding cap that have real merit (this would also broaden the funding base).

      You’re also right that constantly moving around tends to become unpalatable once you’ve done it enough times or have reached a certain stage in life. This applies equally to junior and senior faculty, I suspect.

      One thing to ponder with the inversion (and it’s just a thought experiment, after all) is whether it would contribute to a more even distribution of funds and thereby address the haves/have-nots disparity you highlight. Not having to include salary on a grant creates a financially leaner proposal – so what would happen if the safe pairs of hands were having to add salary but the less well-funded were not?

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      1. I would agree that this ‘great inversion’ (dev bio pun) it is an interesting proposal – it would need to be experimented in order to see the results, and I suspect the incentives to do so, for the people who would make these sort of decisions, are small.
        An easier way to address the haves/have nots that would also spread out the distribution of “pressures” along the “degree of being established” axis, would be to evaluate what a ‘safe pair of hands’ is on the basis of actual productivity (productivity/resources) rather than raw production as it is done now.
        This would highlight which groups are good value for money and give them extra support, and make it harder as they become more supported. This would also break the vicious poverty cycle for groups who never got enough funding to be competitive or those that go through bad times and have to downsize. A tiered system with ring-fenced money for each category could ensure that there is always enough money for the safe pairs of hands that propose frontier research, etc. I suspect this would be much easier to experiment with, because it can be experimented with at scales lower than system-wide.
        Sorry, I’m not trying to establish which proposal is better. It’s just that this young/old funding divide makes me feel like a struggling gen-X-er in the middle of a boomer/millennial argument 😛

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      2. Absolutely! Determining real productivity is a far more practical approach than this piece of whimsy (and if I’m allowed to be self-referential, see here for a previous riff on exactly that theme: https://totalinternalreflectionblog.com/2018/10/18/beating-the-odds).

        I guess the key point here – and you’re absolutely right, it is a generation thing – is that conditions now are not the same as they were a few decades back. An inversion like this one is a way of sharpening that realisation.

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