Friday, August 15, 2008

When is it time to leave your university?

You know the school year is about to start when all the retreats begin. There are the college retreats, the departmental retreats, the retreats for those apparently too criminally insane (or masochistic) to not have made up a reason to be out of the state.... I have spent the most craptastic week going to retreats. I don't have balls, but I feel right now like I've always imagined it feels like to have been kicked in them. These were not only awful soul-sucking experiences, they were down-right demoralizing and demotivating.

When I came to my job at Wonderland University, I was told that were were an R1 institution. But you see, with the new Carnegie rankings we dropped to the second tier of institutions (now called 'high research'. This differs from the top tier of research institutions which is now called 'very high research' or the bottom tier which has no special designation but must be equivalent to 'no research pulse detectable'). It has become clear to me that the focus has been drifting while I have been here from a research emphasis and that everything from paper publications to research dollars has been declining over the past decade. While my department has also experienced this general research decline, it has been less pronounced and is still highly supportive of research. In other departments, things have been more grim. If their research programs were patients at hospitals the doctors would have called time of death a long time ago because there really is no sign of life. In fact, some of them should have had their Ph.D programs buried a while ago because they're beginning to reek. We have watched at least one other highly productive department implode. There has been no discussion at the university-level about whether or how to change this trajectory.

There is nothing wrong with being at an R2 institution if it fits with your career aspirations. What I have been weighing for a while is what career do I want and can this place support it? There are huge benefits here on the personal side - a family friendly, collegial atmosphere where my natural research productivity makes me a rock star. The down-sides are: many of students I am trying to recruit have competing offers from bigger universities that I cannot compete with, even if they come I'm almost embarrassed by the training and financial opportunities available to them, institutional regulations make having post-docs an almost impossible task, and general research infrastructure is frayed.

So this brings me back to this week's retreats. What I desperately wanted was a feeling about where the university was going. Did we have a plan? What were our priorities? The answer is that Wonderland University has no plan. In fact, the responses to pointed questions made it clear that many people would prefer to pretend that the university was still an R1 than deal with the reality that it wasn't. Some even made up ridiculous arguments involving ranking categories that do not exist and clearly we wouldn't be in anyway. Just because I say I'm as rich as Bill Gates doesn't make it true (though I desperately wish it did!) Even more awfully, it was clear that as an assistant professor I knew more about how the research and graduate programs actually worked at this university than any of the higher administration and definitely more about how they should work at an R1. Honestly, I wasn't asking about detailed trivial things either. It was the equivalent of your car mechanic not knowing where the brakes were. I may be young and naive but that seems a little fucked up. The sad thing is that my department is desperately trying to fix things but I am unconvinced that a single department can create an island in a university that doesn't seem to care.

The problem is that while I have been at other universities, this is the only university I have ever been a faculty member. What if everyplace is like this and I leave and the only thing that changes is that I have crappier colleagues?

So, my question to my wise readers is this: how do you know if it is time to leave?


PhysioProf said...

It seems that you are putting the cart before the horse. First, see what kind of opportunities are available to you elsewhere. Only once you get a sense for what kind of job offers would be forthcoming from other universities will you be in a position to assess your current situation.

Anonymous said...

It's always good to make the most of wherever you find yourself even if it doesn't seem to be the "logical" place for your career path.

River Tam said...

pp - that I totally agree with. I've already dusted my packet off so I am planning on hitting the market and seeing what else might be out there. However, hitting the market carries some risks as powerbrokers here have told me that if they find out that I have hit the market there may be...consequences.

academic- while it's always good to try and make the most out of your current situation, I have found that forcing something to become what you want it to be is often a long, hard, and often pointless task.

PhysioProf said...

However, hitting the market carries some risks as powerbrokers here have told me that if they find out that I have hit the market there may be...consequences.

Yeah. The consequences are that they might have to pony up some shit in order to induce you to stay. They are trying to intimidate you into not getting offers so they don't have to do anything.

River Tam said...

Ah, PP, I don't care what those other people say. I think you're marvelous! Your comment completely pulled me out of my funk. You're right, of course. But then you are always fucking right!

Anonymous said...

Here's a piece of advice that my PhD advisor gave me years ago... you are ALWAYS on the market as a scientist. Apply for jobs that "apply to you" ALWAYS. Especially as a woman, it will give you perspective as to how others (uh, predominantly men) see you and evaluate your worth (uh, outside the kitchen) and if you get an offer, you have leverage to 1) head to greener pastures or 2) stay to negotiate better pastures.

There are a TON of disillusioned asst profs who took their current jobs completely unknowing how little time/facilities/support they would have for research at "R2ish" schools and now they are teaching teaching teaching and wanting to crawl in a hole because their grants didn't get funded and they can't attract top notch students and postdocs and their startup (poof!) got spent. It's a vicious cycle!

Do what's best for you. And yes, be sneaky about applying. and then play dumb when someone confronts you with it as in "gee, I NEVVVVERR thought I would get called for the interview or get the offer... a friend suggested I apply for it, golly gee, what luck". You gotta have leverage, so outsmart 'em and you'll be just fine.

BikeMonkey said...

stop worrying! Tag!

River Tam said...

@anon -
I have heard the tenure advice of just focusing on activities that "transfer" universities (i.e. if your CV is good enough to get you a job at another university of equal or better quality, then it'll be good enough to get you tenure), but had not heard about remaining on the market throughout one's career. It makes a good deal of sense though as it seems that universities only seem to be able to judge the worth of the their faculty when another university has done it for them!