Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Defining expectations in academia: pushing a square peg in a round hole

Lately I have spent a lot of time thinking about expectations and "fit" in academia. We are interviewing faculty candidates and a huge amount of scrutiny is put in figuring out how their research and their personalities will fit with ours. I assume the same goes on on the other side: "How do I like this department?" "What would it be like to work in this department/university?""Will I be successful here?" "Will I be happy?"

When you start a faculty job at an R1 institution you have some basic expectations: 1) that you will be given sufficient money and space to start you lab and do your job; 2) that you will have administrative support to hire people; 3) that you will get help submitting and managing grants; 4) that you may be protected from teaching at the beginning or that you may be able to buy out some classes; 5) that if things break down someone will fix them relatively quickly or at least that you will have water and electricity (especially emergency power); 6) that your department chair has your best interest at heart. Then, not necessary, but relatively important, you may hope 7) that your department chair will be doing their very best to support you financially and politically when needed; 8) that your colleagues will be collegial and collaborative; 9) that the students at your new school will be smart and engaged; 10) that the dean will not abruptly change and deny you tenure because "psych, new rules!".

Then you start you job, maybe at your dream school. As you start renovating, hiring, applying for grants, managing money, mentoring and teaching you find out that some of your expectations are not met. Maybe a lot of your expectations are not met. And you wonder, how is this possible? How can this school actually function? You are ashamed you have been duped, and then you talk to friends and pretty much EVERYONE is going through the same thing or worse. Because the Russians always know how to best describe gloom, I'll misquote Tolstoy "All happy universities are alike; each unhappy university is unhappy in its own way". Every university has a unique set of problems and you have to decide what you are willing to put up with. Is complete administrative breakdown acceptable? Partial administrative breakdown? Is a confrontational chair who laughs at you when you get an R01 and ask for space acceptable? Is no respite from teaching when you're supposed to get grants acceptable? And if your situation is not acceptable, do you put your head down and keep going? Or should you just pack your bags and leave? The answer is not that simple. What you consider a horrible situation may be a perfectly good fit for someone else. You talk to your friends and their tales of woe are so terrible that you rethink your puny problems.

The existential conundrum is the same in any type of job. How much are you willing to settle? In general, as a group, scientists are not people who settle... But at some point you have to figure out what is negotiable and what is not. What you can live with and what chews up your soul from the inside. If you could jump around different companies every 1-3 years like people in other industries do, you'd have a chance to identify specific things you need. However, since our hiring process itself is 1 year long and only happens when you are "ready", you may end up feeling trapped and getting even more frustrated. It is such a tricky process. Does the dream job exist? Or does the grass just appear greener somewhere else and you should be happy with the grass you have?

I personally think that if you are not in a supportive environment, you should rethink where you are, but "support" can mean many things to many people. It can mean a good boss, it can mean no teaching ever, it can mean good admin help, it can mean water and power, it can mean access to students, it can mean someone actually paying a good portion of your salary. And until you start doing this job, you don't necessarily know what you need...

I'm interested in finding out what people think about this.


  1. One thing that can help is thinking about the positives. There are some serious problems with my institution/department. However, there are some really great things as well. We have a department machinist (really he is a jack of all trades who can build/fix pretty much anything), without whom our lab would not function at anywhere near the capacity/efficiency. We have a lot of lab space. We get a pretty good deal on overhead cost return through the department. I can start listing the problems: apathetic colleagues, minimal financial (or logistical) support from upper administration, relatively weak support staff (I suppose that's how support staff work - some are amazing, some are terrible), mediocre students, etc, etc. When I'm feeling frustrated, I try to think about the positives and realize that in the end, they probably balance out the negatives in a lot of ways. It's probably a lot to expect that you will receive all the "support" you want in all the different ways you might want it all at the same time. I think as long as you are not in a truly toxic environment, which is definitely a possibility (serious personal issues with colleagues/chair, serious lack of support in multiple ways, etc.), then it's probably worth trying to work with your situation.

    1. I agree. I think it's an interesting balance. You realize that there is no place that is perfect and that you have to figure out how to function. As long as you can do your research and have the support you need to move things forward, leaving is a huge risk and it can only be done if a better opportunity comes along. I do have friends in very toxic places and I think they should leave, yet the same toxic place is not bad for other people, so there is also a huge influence of how you deal with political situations in academia.