Dreaming of success in an age of diminished possibility

It’s taken me me longer to get to this essay than I had intended. While I might offer valid excuses related to work and travel, that wouldn’t be the whole truth. The fundamental reason for this delay is I want to offer you hope, and I don’t know how. My first essay led to several people wishing out loud that part 2 would offer implementable solutions, and I just don’t have many (any?) to articulate. All I have is some really ugly truths and a personal hope that by laying bare our reality maybe wiser minds than mine can find an answer.

In part 1, I detailed the three front employment battle that post-Apollo astronomers (and those in many other fields) are facing as the baby boomer generation continues to not retire, as the production rate of PhDs increases, and as decreases in funding led to an overall decrease in positions. Put simply, as our field becomes overpopulated, more and more individuals are becoming underemployed or accepting positions other then “Tenured Professor.”

In this essay, I will go into the realities of what this means.

The need to redefine success
Once upon a time, in a decade before I received a PhD, success was defined as tenure and everything else was defined as failure. Today, as more and more of us just don’t have that “tenure” option, it is becoming necessary to redefine success. We need a change in attitude that acknowledges that if we’re going to reduce the number of tenured lines, the best non-tenured people today are going to be the same quality as (or better than!) the people who were granted tenure in more booming decades. These non-tenure people aren’t failures; they are people the system failed.

Let me step back a moment, and try and explain what this means and how we got here.

In academia there is a three-pronged career path. Most traditionally, a successful individual completed their PhD at a top tier research institute, completed one or two post-doctoral fellowships, and then journeyed down the tenure-track path at a prestigious institute. If successful, after 6 years of probation as a tenure-track assistant professor, these individuals were promoted into tenured associate professor positions they could keep for life. While less respected, folks in tenured positions at teaching colleges were still (mostly) seen as successful, and were also granted a career for life. Running parallel to the tenure track is the research track, where academics like me earn their own way by attaining contracts and grants that allow them to work for however long they can stay funded under the title of research scientist or research professor (with assistant, associate, and senior modifiers added in). Finally, there are adjunct faculty; the non-tenured instructors who work long hours for what can only be described as non-living wages. There is a caste system in this structure, where adjuncts – no matter how senior – remain the untouchables while tenured faculty (and those from top research institutes in particular) form a successful Brahmin caste that reigns over all of us and generally considers us failures as (or at least unsuccessful) academics.

This single, tenured track to success is reflected in pretty much every alumni and professional survey out there. When asked about my career, the options are limited to “post doc”, “tenured/tenure track”, and “other”. To my alma mater, there is no difference between me working as a voice actress and me working as a non-tenured researcher; in either case I failed and don’t count in their reports on success rates. This was made very clear to me this summer when I ran into one of my former professors who was shocked to see me at the International Astronomical Society meeting. This person stammered about how they thought I’d left the field, and how when they’d surveyed our cadre a few years ago and I wasn’t listed as still working as an astronomer. As I stood on the sidewalk outside a meeting of an association of which I am an officer, I found my confidence and self worth crumbling as I defensively explained that I’m a research professor, but not tenure track. They kept trying to find ways to explain me away with words like, “Oh, you’re a science communicator” and “You’re just here as press.” I found myself stammering out all my accomplishments and trying to prove my worth to this person who clearly saw me as worthless, … In the end I fled and met with a friend and proceeded to drink too much because that was the most adult response I could come up with.

Those of us who are research faculty have taken a lot of different paths, but at the end of the road, we can all be described as people who are doing research that funders consider interesting and worthwhile, but who lack stability. Our reasons for not having tenure are diverse. A lot of scientists doing planetary research are research faculty because there simply aren’t a reasonable number of tenured positions to be had. At the University of Texas we had no tenure track planetary scientists despite having a diverse cadre of internationally respected researchers in the department; planetary science was just not something the department had ever decided it was worth creating a position for. In general, tenure track positions are targeted at very specific disciplines, with openings being advertised for things as specific as computational high energy astrophysics! Folks like me, who do things that are hard to put in a box, and folks who do things that just aren’t popular (which oddly includes planetary science) are often relegated to making their own way, one grant at a time, on a personal non-tenured trajectory.

The kind of self worth crushing, blind condemnation we face for our success outside of tenure is something I’ve seen repeated over and over. Senior faculty ask me to recommend people for committees, but with the caveat that the person must be tenured or tenure track because otherwise they are seen as too temporary; because people like me are only temporary. I’ve been told non-tenured / not tenure track professors aren’t qualified to mentor research students because (despite only being paid to do research and write research grants) people like me aren’t real researchers. In fact, outstanding research awards are sometimes only open to tenured faculty. Over and over I’m judged by my title and not what I do, and my title labels me as a loser.

I’m at least a research professor. While my salary has been stagnant for half a decade, and while promotion isn’t a possibility under my university’s current rules and regulations, I’m at least paid a middle class wage. I don’t teach any more because as an adjunct instructor I would be paid less than $3000 to teach and do all the grading for a 16 week class that meets 3 times a week. That would put my salary at less than what a graduate student would be paid to be a grader or lab assistant for a semester. Hell, that would put my salary at less than I earned 15 years ago to be a teaching assistant for intro astronomy as a grad student at the University of Texas! Given the choice of working part time, or filling my time sheet with an underpaid teaching position… I consistently choose to go part time and rely on magazine articles and speaking gigs to fill out my paycheck. I have options. I’m lucky. Not everyone has it so good.

The worst off are those who fill the adjunct positions that are slowly replacing so many previously tenured positions. The modern definition of success comes from a time when universities didn’t turn to adjunct faculty as a cost savings measure. There have always been some adjunct professors. Typically, these temporary people filled in for professors on sabbatical or took on some intro lectures when the number of needed sections outnumbered what the normal faculty could handle. Often, adjuncts were high school teachers with advanced degrees who wanted to earn some extra money, or they were young PhDs who needed to get a bit of teaching experience before they could land a tenure track gig. No matter their background, these adjuncts were seen as less than equal, and in university governance, they’ve historically been given no voice, and little or no job security. Like the research faculty (and actually to a much larger degree), career adjuncts are seen as failures.

This attitude that career adjuncts are failures comes from the historic nature of these position as just being something someone did as a fling. Today, however, these positions are becoming permanent as the rare retiring professor is replaced with lower paid adjunct faculty. For the university, this can mean a $120k/year senior person with full benefits is replaced by part time adjuncts who cost just $18k (to cover 3 classes per semester for 2 semesters) and receive no benefits. With state and federal funding for higher education shrinking as actual costs go up, this kind of cost savings is an ugly necessity.

If universities are going to replace tenured positions with adjunct positions, we need to see this career path as being a legitimate path that in its own way defines success as a PhD. If universities are going to be highly focused in their hires such that people working successfully in non-popular (often referred to as “non-sexy”) areas can only get work by getting their own funding, we need to celebrate that these people have found ways to keep research going that might otherwise not get done. It takes all kinds to teach our students and to advance our understanding of our universe. Instead of causing people like me to sometimes cry and sometimes drink too much because we don’t know how else to handle the label of failure, we need to admit this is the new normal and erase the caste system and simply say, “Are your students learning? Is your research moving forward? Yes? Well, good on you!”

We have got to allow there to be more than one path to success.

The problem of insecurity
A professor with tenure can afford to fail. The rest of us can’t. It’s just that simple. And even when we are (as rarely happens) amazingly successful in every way, we still have no security.

This lack of security can effect both adjunct teaching faculty and research faculty, but the timescales are a little different.

For the instructor, there is the problem of not knowing until the week before classes if you’ll actually have a full teaching load. Some instructors I know will drive between 3 or 4 campuses, teaching whatever classes they can get. If things go poorly, they might find out the Friday before that first Monday of classes that they aren’t teaching anything. If things go sideways, they’ll find out they’re teaching something entirely new that they somehow have to prep for. No matter how it goes, it ages you, and when the tenure faculty mock you for not having to worry about being required to do research or having to be on university committees, the desire to shout can become all but impossible to suppress. This kind of bullying and belittling is the norm, and many adjuncts will simply avoid departmental events because it’s easier than being mocked for having it “easy” by someone with 3 or 4 times your salary who works the same or fewer hours per week. This is especially true in December, when at holiday parties the adjuncts find themselves not sure if they’ll even have a job come Christmas.

For the research professor, you always know your expiration date. It is that day that you furtherest out grant or contract comes to an end. Until September 25, my expiration date was May 15, 2016. If I didn’t get a grant, that was when I gave up and started a new life doing something different. I did get a grant, and now my expiration date is December 31, 2020. The thing is, even though I know I have some funding to last that long, that doesn’t mean I’m completely funded. It doesn’t mean I can’t suddenly get unemployed by a congressional budget cut. It really doesn’t mean more than, “I’m probably, mostly ok for 5 years.”

“Mostly ok” is a long way from “ok”.

I got a phone call from one of my collaborators a couple weeks ago. This person was trying to sort health insurance and needed to know when our new grant might start so they could decide if they should get private insurance or go through insurance with their institution. I couldn’t answer them. Our grant start date is at the whim of multiple governmental offices, and may be dependent on when the senate passes a relevant appropriations bill (that part I don’t know). This person knows they’ll be funded… eventually… but until the not-so-proverbial check clears, their institution isn’t in a position to provide them funding to bridge a possible funding gap that could lead to a gap in health insurance. This can get particularly frustrating if we choose to think too hard about how much money our institutions get every time we get funding.

Lets put some numbers on that. If I want to pay someone $50,000 a year in salary, I have to come up with their salary money ($50,000), funding for their health insurance and other benefits ($18,750), and additional funding that goes to the institute as overhead ($30,594). In other words, my $50,000 a year employee costs a grant $99,344. While the university uses a lot of the money it takes for things like infrastructure, paying the awesome ladies who do my accounting, and other things that I benefit from, some of that money also goes to internal programs, such as grants that only tenure track faculty can apply for. I’m luckier than most – the part of my time that is used to write grants is paid out of some general funds. Not everyone is that lucky. If I found myself short 1 month of salary, I think some way would be found to bridge me until the check we knew was coming could actually be cashed. Again, I’m lucky. Most research faculty write grants in their unfunded moments and simply have gaps in their salary. Tenured professors… they just have jobs for life and grants mean extra money, extra staffing, travel, and equipment. For me, grants are survival.

It’s hard. A simple grant can take 3 weeks full-time effort to write. Most grants are a lot harder, but I’m going to keep things simple. Success rate are often around 8-12%. In general, grants restrict senior personnel to 2.4 months of effort, and if you’re lucky you can argue that up to 4 months effort (and I’m talking really lucky). Lets imagine that a research professor is trying to get full-time funding and has that average 10% success rate and gets that amazing 4 months salary out of each successful grant. This means they’d needs 3 successful grants, which would imply that they were on 30 submitted grants, that took a total of 90 weeks to write…. which isn’t even possible. Those of us who live on soft money are required to be significantly more successful at getting funding than your average professor who has their salary paid by their university. If we’re not, we’re out. And even though we are (by definition) successful, we are often paid only part time. I’ll admit, my salary was last at the level I’d like it to be at sometime before sequestration in 2012. It’s finally going back up, because I got 1 large grant, 1 medium grant, 1 contract, and 1 small grant all at the same time. I worked my carpal tunnels off to get here, and it paid off this time.

But I still lack stability, and I’m still called a failure, and I don’t see this ever changing, and I’m tired.

I’m just so very tired.

Moving forward… maybe?
I want to believe that we can redefine what it means to be a success. I want to believe that if we recognize that it isn’t possible for every capable person to get a tenured position that we will start to celebrate the successes of our outstanding educators who are called adjunct professors, and that we will start to celebrate the successes of grant earners even when they’re just called research professors. I want to believe that we can at least change what it means to succeed.

I want to believe, but belief and wanting don’t make something true. That part is up to you. Can you redefine success?

I don’t know how to solve the problem of stability, and this is the one that troubles me the most. I’m married, and because my husband makes a good salary I can afford to have an unsteady income. I’m not going to lie, there was at least once when our power got cut off because I just couldn’t pay our leaky old house’s heating bill and I didn’t have the courage to tell my husband (and I hoped that if I paid some of the bill they’d let us keep our lights on – but I was wrong). Today, my husband is the first line of defense on all our household bills. Again, I’m lucky. If I didn’t have that safety net… I’d already have left astronomy. I know professionals who are top of their subfield, but who can’t afford their own apartment. I know countless women (and a couple men) who, like me, rely on their spouse. I don’t know how to fix this. I just don’t. Without mandatory retirement (which I don’t actually think is a good thing), there is really no reason for an astronomer to ever retire. Without people retiring (or dying) at a rate equal to the rate that PhDs are being produced, this problem can’t be fixed.

So here we are, two populations of the lost – the research faculty who bring in grants to pay their own salary and the adjunct faculty who teach for a non-living wage. Between us, we are an entire professor – between us we teach and do research and are whole… but because of cost saving measures we exist individually as often broken down individuals. I don’t know how much longer we can last. On October 1, 2015, many of my friends hit their “Fund by” date, and since they weren’t funded they were discarded like bad milk. Another group expires December 31. My field is thinning and my friends are moving off to do other things that pay better but aren’t what we dreamed of doing.

I don’t know how many of my generation will still be left when the Apollo generation finally leaves the field. Unlike me and so many of my friends, they are funded for life… and they are, as one might wish, living long and prospering. I wish them well, but …

But I wish I knew how to make things better for my generation before we all become too tired to dream.

11 Comments

  1. Kyler Kuehn November 12, 2015 at 4:03 am #

    For that matter, research and teaching aren’t the only uses for an astronomy-focused PhD. So leaving academia for a job in industry (or wherever) is only a failure to succeed under certain (common, but narrow) definitions of “success”. Granted, most astronomers *do* want a career in academia (broadly defined), but I at least wanted to expand your idea of “success beyond the tenure track” a bit further.

  2. John November 12, 2015 at 4:57 am #

    Hi Pamela, would you mind if I shared my own story? I completed my PhD in 2010 (in Materials science, so I don’t know how comparable my experiance is) and went straight into industry, as I’d got the impression further research would be too stressfull for me.. At the time I had a very naive idea that with a PhD I’d be able to jump a couple of rungs on the employment ladder at least… as I said, very naive. Industry has, at times, seemed to consist of solely people wanting to extract as much of my experiance and time as possible whilst keeping me on a bread line wage – and telling me how lucky I am to have a job at all (which makes me wonder how everyone without a freaking PhD gets by at all).

    That all said, I’ve not heard much better things from my friends who stayed in academia – stories of immense pressure to fudge results from funding sources, constant insecurity, and workloads massively higher than what was agreed upon, seem to come from everywhere. I can at least say that after I had a few years industry experiance under my belt I was able to find a stable job with a living wage. I fill any gaps by private tutoring maths and physics, and I have enough time to indulge some hobbies like blogging and painting.

    It’s not the career I wanted, and it’d be fair to say most would see my academic career as a failiure (it never really even started) but I wonder if the skill set I’ve missed has anything to do with being a ‘pro’ at science, and a lot more to do with being a ‘pro’ at making the right friends, and saying what people want to hear!

  3. Glen Kizer November 12, 2015 at 5:40 am #

    I love the fact that you are out there doing the work you do. I wish society appreciated you more but I appreciate you and the work you and others like you do. I have two young granddaughters and when they are old enough I will introduce them to your writing and your podcasts and maybe we will drive to hear you speak. I love you being in the world.

  4. Eric Lee November 12, 2015 at 2:19 pm #

    Your posts are always so important, and so crushing.

    I don’t know what the answer is either, but this problem isn’t limited to just academia or just science. It’s happening to a greater or lesser extent almost everywhere. There are too few jobs being chased by too many people. Our technological progress has largely stopped creating (good) jobs and has started eliminating them on a net basis. The old social contracts don’t really work any more, but the (typically older) people who built successful careers on the basis of those old social contracts don’t yet realize that anything’s wrong. We’re going to have to invent new systems but sadly it’ll probably take about three generations for things to stabilize into a new normal.

  5. Alexander Rinn November 12, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

    I unfortunately don’t see any solutions, in the absence of a fundamental collapse of the system, other than widespread, organized labor strikes. Which is hard enough to even get people to realize could work when the entire idea of unionization and labor unity has been vilified for decades. There’s simply far too much concentration of wealth and power in a small group of people and institutions for anything to really create change, other than an organized effort to break the entire system.

    Like with college athletes, the entire industry is dependant on their labor for extremely little remuneration, but unless there’s an organized effort to strike until changes in policy are made, individuals have almost no recourse possible.

  6. Eric Lee November 12, 2015 at 3:42 pm #

    @Alexander, labor strikes are one possible short-term solution. The instant results that the University of Missouri football team got were illuminating. But in the long term, the simple fact is that the overall demand for labor (meaning anything you get paid for doing, as opposed to return on capital) will probably continue to decline on a per-capita basis. We’re going to need to come up with a system that’s not exclusively dependent on people either getting paid for labor or starving.

    I know that’s a far broader scope than Dr. Gay’s post, but I don’t think we can meaningfully discuss the problems she describes without recognizing the context in which this is all occurring.

  7. iur November 12, 2015 at 7:43 pm #

    Thanks for putting all of this into words. This rings true for me, another UT grad on the research scientist track, too. Congrats on the latest round of approved proposals!

  8. Rick Schwarz November 12, 2015 at 8:08 pm #

    Pamela:

    You have provided a most thoughtful, well-thought-out analysis of a problem that seems to be pervasive in many professions where “basic research and knowledge generation” is the primary focus.

    I think the fundamental problem is that society does not value these efforts as much as it did a generation or two ago, and is unwilling to devote the resources (which essentially means more federal government funding) to support it. Applied research receives more support, primarily because society believes (not always correctly) that the practical benefits to citizens will be realized, and corporations can justify the long-term economic return.

    I also strongly believe that the academic tenure system has always been flawed. I understand the historical underpinning for why it was put in place, but I have seen way, WAY too many examples in my lifetime of how “job security for life” not only created all the caste system problems you cite, but in fact served as a disincentive for academic research productivity. The costs of “tenure for life” outweigh any benefits achieved in terms of preserving academic freedom, in my view. By the way, for decades, I have asked colleagues to define “academic freedom” in a tangible, real-world sense. Those who actually try to do it in a credible way end of struggling, big-time.

    In my R&D career (a combination of government research, academia and industrial biotech R&D, I have enjoyed a solid reputation for mentoring my organizations’ scientists and being a fierce advocate that the talented people get as many resources, intellectual/moral support, encouragement and recognition that I can possibly provide…..But never, ever, at any time, is anyone guaranteed a position forever. Maintaining the status quo and advancement up the ladder was always based on performance, teamwork, working for the greater good of the organization, and creating and maintaining an environment of integrity and respect for others. If the persons entrusted to me as their mentor/leader did these things, they advanced and did well (but were never given a “job for life”). If not, I found gentle and creative ways (most of the time, anyway!) for them to find work for which they were better suited.

    Again, I greatly enjoy the many contributions you make to astronomy/science outreach, education and research. You are a very gifted and insightful teacher and communicator. Please keep it up!

  9. Bruce Van Horn November 13, 2015 at 1:39 am #

    I love this essay! I’ve been an adjunct (I teach CS courses) for 20 years, but it’s a second job. I started doing it when I was young to build my resume, but now it’s a calling. I don’t have a PhD but I have something most PhD’s don’t have – a long list of published software titles including two highly successful military products, one of which won a rare award from the Navy. It amazes me that none of that matters. I am barred from teaching even introductory courses in certain departments because I didn’t get the degree, so I don’t count. I might understand if we were turning out research scientists, but we aren’t – we’re turning out professional programmers. But since people with tenures make the rules, only people with tenures can play in the clubhouse, and they say the course work and the degree trumps actual experience. I did get a kick out of the part where you know of people driving all over town to see which classes made or not. I thought that only happened here. I can check online and there are days when I just set the browser to autorefresh so I can sweat it out without ruining the F5 key. And I can’t count the times I’ve been asked to teach a subject I know nothing about (I guess that’s another tirade). I’ve enjoyed your work for years and I hope you get to continue doing it.

  10. craig November 14, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    Pam, nice piece. Yes, it’s a world gone crazy, at least compared to the historic past. The only way to win is to be so valuable that The Old Boys Club lets one in. This is tough. That said, I have an idea for a project which would be cheap and, if successful, BIG. It involves stellar spectroscopy, of which I know very little. I was an astro major at Berkeley long ago, but strayed into medicine for my career. Anyway, if you’re a good spectroscopist and willing to bring me up to speed – assuming my idea is sound – let me know. Hang tough… craig

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