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 And what if, over time, that salary support was gradually withdrawn?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.