Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How River Tam ended up where she is

Candid Engineer asked me a while back to expand on how a nice R1 girl like myself ended up at a confused R2 like this. I've been struggling with exactly how to answer that question for a couple of weeks now. Like most things in life, it is rarely simple how one got to where one is - but I will do my best to sidestep the philosophical issues on this one and stick to the facts.

The ultimate reality in academia is that you take a job where you can get a job. I remember clearly my first realization of this as a grad student. I had just discovered the Science Jobs website, which gives you all those neat options like narrowing your search to type of job and state. So I put in assistant professor, ecology, and my favorite state. When that big fat 0 results came up, I very quickly learned that this was not a search algorithim that was likely to end with me in a tenure track position. When I got my Ph.D., I applied to every R1 position that I was remotely qualified for. The job market for ecologists has exploded the past couple of years, but when I was on the market the number of positions had just begun to increase from the grim 90s and I was putting in around 10 apps/year (last year, if I had been on the market, I could have put in almost 30). When my post-doc funding ran out, this was the only job offer I had in hand. That's the simple version of the story.

Simple, except that if you were reading carefully, I said I applied for every position at an R1 university, yet here I am at an R2. Well, my friends, this is the more complex version of the story....

So, here's the story for any of my young readers who are currently on the market. I studiously avoided R2s when I was on the market because I knew that they tended to have higher teaching loads and lower research emphasis.  That was just not the gig I was looking for and a good friend (and also a variety of anti-role models) had warned me that once you get into those positions, the high teaching loads can make it hard to get out. What I was unaware of when I was on the market was that the Carnegie Foundation, which developed the tier system for research universities, has been in the process of refining its system. The R1/R2 terminology we all use (which referred to the classifications for doctoral granting institutions: R1, R2, D1, D2) became defunct in 2000. At that time, Carnegie started overhauling its classification system and put up an interim system. At that time, they basically divided the doctoral institutions into research and less-research universities (in effect Rs in one group and Ds in another). Apparently, nobody really liked this, so everyone kept using the old R1/R2 designations. In 2005, a new system - based on more extensive criteria - was released and doctoral institutions were once again broken down more finely. The new categories are: Research University - Very High Research Activity, Research University - High research activity, and Doctoral Research University. The names are less catchy, but the tune is generally the same. There is a top tier of research universities, a second tier of research universities, and then a bottom tier with limited research activity. The job ad for the university I am currently at said it was R1 (a classification which did not exist at that time, but then everyone was doing the same thing). If I had been paying attention on my interview, I might have realized that there was something suspect about the R1 classification, but I didn't understand what I was seeing. It is only after I got here - and was confused about some of the big differences between this university and the R1s I had been at in the past - that I realized that we had been...reclassified. Before anyone gets all up on me about how the rankings are no longer exactly analogous to the old R1/R2 system, I would like to say that my first response was that there had to be some mistake. But when I look at my university objectively and then look at who else is in the High Research category, I honestly think Carnegie got it right. Those are our peer institutions.

I share, perhaps an overabundance of information on the topic of Carnegie rankings, because I think it is important for young people to realize that the information is out there for them to check on themselves (as is information about average salaries for assistant professors, cost of living, and a variety of other tools that can help with everything from negotiations to decision making if you are lucky enough to have more than one offer). You can look up any institution at the Carnegie Foundation website. And, just in case you think checking up on that information isn't important: I have seen job ads from my university go out claiming that we are still an R1.

So that's it, kids. That's the story of how a R1 girl takes a wrong turn and ends up in a part of the academic town she didn't expect to be in. I won't lie to you, there are some nice things about being in this part of town, but there are some real frustrations too. It's all about the tradeoffs and whether they are acceptable given where you want to go in life. Still figuring that out for myself, but I'll keep you posted as I work it through!


PhysioProf said...

If I had been paying attention on my interview, I might have realized that there was something suspect about the R1 classification, but I didn't understand what I was seeing.

How did you not realize that the faculty you were meeting with were not research-active? How did you not notice the absence of post-docs? How did you not notice that no one was talking about their travails with grant-writing and manuscript submitting?

I'm not trying to be obnoxious. I really am curious how your interview transpired such that those things were not patently obvious.

Drugmonkey said...

psssshaw, PP. shaddap.

Actually RT, I think you give slightly bad advice here in intimating that the focus should be on the Carnegie ratings (or similar). Because what is most important is the department(s) in which you will be appointed. R1s can have deadwood of varying proportion in a given department. The departments can be in various stages of rejuvenation or decline.

It is probably better for applicants to focus on department particulars- who is in THIS particular department and what are they doing rather than the overall Uni reputation/production level.

River Tam said...

sigh. I think you're both really right and really wrong.

DM first, on the one hand I totally agree. An R1 university status does not necessarily say anything about the quality of the dept. However, the crux of the issue is whether you can have an R1 dept at an R2 university. A dept does NOT operate in a vacuum. After poking around here and other institutions, I think the answer is that it is ridiculously hard to maintain an R1 dept at an r2 university (unless that dept has large financial coffers). Turns out those muckety-mucks at the dean, grad school, and VPR levels do actually set important policies (like the no post-docs on startup policies and tuition and stipends for grad students). Some of which can be overcome at the dept level (if they have the money to do it) and some of which cannot. So while I agree it may be less informative if a dept is at a R1, I think it is a seriously important information if that dept is in an R2.

PP- I know, I know, I know. I actually thought about following this post up with a top 10 signs the dept you are interviewing in may not be as research focused as you wish. I noticed all the things you list while I was on my interview (except the lack of post-docs since in my field at least you rarely meet with post-docs while on interviews and this dept had a bad web presence so I couldn't assess for myself). I just didn't understand what it meant that the people I was meeting with wanted to chat about things outside of academia. And neither, frankly, did the people at my R1 home institution. If you haven't had exposure to something before, it's hard to interpret the signals you're getting. I do think, when we're anxious post-docs worried about being shuffled out of science because we won't get a job, we forget that not only are they interviewing us, but we should be interviewing them. Not a mistake I will make again.

Anne said...
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ScienceWoman said...

This all sounds eerily familiar. But your last comment line is what gets to me:

"I do think, when we're anxious post-docs worried about being shuffled out of science because we won't get a job, we forget that not only are they interviewing us, but we should be interviewing them."

Knowing what you know now, what would or could you have done differently? Did you have post-doc money left? Could you have found a soft-money position or another post-doc in time to sustain you for another round on the market? Or would you merely (as I did) end up at the R2 anyway because you needed the job? If the last is true, do you think you would have been better off to go in eyes wide open?

Anonymous said...

I am non-tt research faculty at a very large research school and my dept SUCKS. You would look around the place and go "these people do research here? really? where?" **psst, over here in my lab! I'm the one with funding! little ol me.

The deadwood argument definitely holds true. And when very-large-research-interviewing-postdocs come here, they are usually freaked out. Unfortunately, the deadwood still run the joint and until the newbies can overpower them in numbers, it will suck.

RT, I definitely hear your argument about interviews being total shit. People you will have nothing to do with will chat your ear off about some shit he did back in 1952 or about the treehouse he is putting up for his kid. My experience is that the desperation of being a postdoc-job-seeking-missile kinda clouds your ability to shake the crap out of people you are meeting to get the red meat out in the open. And departments do a great job sometimes of covering things up, like uh, the chair being on probation, the unfinished basement which would be your lab, the 15 credits/sem you would be teaching.

Be glad you have a job (yeah, I know, I'll slap myself for you). Craft it the best way you can. I know alot of people in the same brand of shoes who are struggling with the same crap you are.

River Tam said...


I don't know if I would have made any different decisions w/r/t accepting the position, but I would have made different decisions upon arrival - like hitting the job market quickly and not investing so much time in being a good departmental citizen.

The other thing that General Disarray thinks I should make clear is that we think the program here has slid from a (lower-level) R1 program to a R2 program right before our eyes. Things really have changed since we've been here that we (and the other young research active faculty) are just beginning to talk about(kinda like the frog in the pot syndrome).

Candid Engineer said...

Sorry to be late to the party on this one, but thanks a lot for the post. Interesting to know the background behind your situation and to know what to look for when the time comes.

I think the great thing about you is that you have no intention of giving up just because you wound up somewhere that you don't want to be. I admire the ways that you are setting yourself up for future success, and I can only imagine that you will be happy somewhere at an 'R1' in the future.