The antiK3rn approach to surviving to tenure

July 22, 2013

You no doubt remember the advice of Scott Kern and that of Mu-ming Poo with respect to what it takes to survive and thrive in an academic career.

It boils down to “work harder, no I don’t care how much you are already working, you need to work more. and baby’s are dying of cancer and something, something growth cones. so there”

One Radhika Nagpal has written a counter argument from her current position as Full Professor at Harvard.

Go read

The-Awesomest-7-Year-Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-track-faculty-life

So with some humor to balance my fear, here’s goes my confession:

Seven things I did during my first seven years at Harvard. Or, how I loved being a tenure-track faculty member, by deliberately trying not to be one.

  • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  • I stopped taking advice.
  • I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  • I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  • I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  • I found real friends.
  • I have fun “now”.

right now. I can wait.

Here’s what I think about

Work Life balance

The paradox of the poles of the work-life balance discussion in Nature News is this.

Nobody who succeeds at work and then claims balance really knows if they just got very, very lucky in their career.

Nobody who works around the clock and drives their lab to similar performance knows that this was *required*.

The hidden side is that both balanced and St Kern/Poo’d types also fail in their careers.

UPDATE 09/06/11: Plus also, StKern/Poo’d types can also succeed in their careers really, really well….and still fail to cure cancer.

And about Protecting Your Time

Yes, I for damn sure wish for more hours in the day. Yes. Of course. And at each and every major stage there were things being neglected so that I could pursue some other thing. Either in the proximal, days to weeks, or in the long-haul, years to decades(!), perspective. But I have never been an obsessive and any fair read would fail to find any major imbalance.

How did I do it?

I think the most useful and general approach is that you have to be willing to fail.

Let me say it again: YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO FAIL!!!!!

And one of my accidental mentors taught me this:

There were several areas in which I picked up either positive (“gee, that seems useful”) or negative (“not gonna go there”) PI patterns from this person. One of the former was this guy’s role as father and scientist. Whenever one had to find this PI, if he wasn’t around because of father duties his whole lab knew about it. “Oh, he’s at Opening Day.” or “He had a sick kid today, he’ll be back later”. or “He’s taking his kid to [SportingActivityX]”. This guy has a perfectly viable career with nice pubs, great NIH grant support, always seems to have at least 4-5 postdocs and a similar number of techs, serves study sections, organizes symposia, etc. In short, he’s well respected and does not appear to have paid any obvious sort of career price to date. This had a great impact on YHN as I was transitioning both as PI and father.
The power of this example for me was basically “Screw it, if he doesn’t worry about being known at work as a guy who takes his role as father seriously then I’m not going to worry about it either”.

The interesting thing, which is emerging on the Twitters, is that Professor Nagpal’s advice is really no different from a host of women who write “You can’t have it all” screeds and lament the fact “You have to be twice as good as a man to succeed”. The ones that describe not being their enough for their kids or the ones describing being their too much and failing. The men too, although their career advice is thinner. See Kern and Poo links at the top–they describe how “it has to be” because this is how it was for them.

And you know what? It is ALL true. All of it. Because these are personal anecdotes tied to the career history and success of the person giving the advice or reciting their life-story in academics (or other professional life).

My advice, scattered throughout this blog, is no different.

And just as the winners of global social politics write the histories of what happened and for what reason, likewise those who have succeeded in academic science tend to write the prescriptions for our careers.

I don’t think Professor Nagpal has written some amazing revelation here. It is not hugely different than arguments that I make myself on this very blog.

It is true that she has been very, very successful by appearance.

But there are also, I would wager, tons of people who made the choices she made and were denied tenure. Many who washed out of academic professordom entirely. And that is the point about this advice which runs from Nagpal’s 50 hrs max to the Kern/Poo maxim of “always more”.

It is no guarantee.


42 Responses to “The antiK3rn approach to surviving to tenure”

  1. whimple Says:

    Let me say it again: YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO FAIL!!!!!

    This may be so, but if this is your philosophy YOU HAVE TO HAVE A BACKUP PLAN FOR AFTER YOU FAIL!!!!!


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    Or exist in a state of denial. That works too.


  3. Susan Says:

    Some failed, some succeeded. Sure. But at the end of the day, I know who I’d rather be, or whose seven years I’d rather look back on. “Success” or “failure” – whatever. Life is short. Don’t Kern it.


  4. zb Says:

    “This may be so, but if this is your philosophy YOU HAVE TO HAVE A BACKUP PLAN FOR AFTER YOU FAIL!!!!!”

    But this is also true when you take any approach at all.

    I think empirically, the question is how much more likely you are to succeed if you take the “Poo” approach v the “Nagpal” approach, at your particular institution and field. And the math is going to be different based on those (and other variables). For example, I’m guessing that NIH funding is not a requirement for tenure in CS at Harvard. If you are at flagship state med school, and NIH funding is required, not doing the extra work of submitting grants in every cycle might have a predictable outcome of failure.

    Is the choice like which lottery number you pick? or like chess? (or, more realistically, where in between?).


  5. zb Says:

    PS: succeeding (i.e. getting tenure and being able to keep your job) isn’t really succeeding in the world that Kern is painting. If one’s goal is to make a significant contribution to humanity (curing cancer or whatever), more might always be better.


  6. Dave Says:

    Anybody who follows stock advice on how to make it in life is fucken ‘tard, regardless of the specifics. Do it your own way. Be prepared to fuck it up. Do what makes YOU and YOUR FAMILY happy.


  7. DJMH Says:

    That was an awesome article, thanks for the link. I like how she made the point that having a crummy month at work AND at home forced her to realize that if she always saw herself as “compromising” between work and home, she would always be miserable; but if she saw it more holistically, as being the best she could at being the person she was (ie both a prof and a parent), it no longer felt like perpetual failure.


  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    I’m still working on that one DJMH but it has been my goal for….oh since maybe Y3-4 of grad school.


  9. Neuro-conservative Says:

    I think you are overlooking the obvious key to her success – It’s right there on her CV. She had help — a lot of it:

    Borg Early Career Award


  10. DJMH Says:

    Ha, and here I was just embracing the perpetual failure feeling on the grounds that if I stayed home with the kid, I would fail even more frequently than I do now, because let’s be honest.


  11. commentariette Says:

    I like a lot of what Prof Nagpal says, especially about the freedom of a 7-year postdoc and having fun. But I also find some of it rather problematic, because her main time saving seems to come from strictly limiting activities that contribute to the research community.

    For example, she says that she does at most 10 reviews (or similar activities) a year. But, if she (and her group) are receiving more than 10 paper reviews, external thesis examiners, grant reviews etc – it’s unsustainable free-loading.

    Some people will have to do (much) more than 10 reviews per year or it’s going to become impossible to get timely reviews or the quantity/quality of reviews will have to go down. (For 3-4 paper submissions/year, 1 PhD thesis, 1-2 grant applications…that’s >10 reviews…so I don’t think there’s a big pool of active researchers who receive <<10 reviews of some sort each year…)

    Similarly, she says that she travels at most 5 times/year, including at most 1 NSF/DARPA event, so it seems as if her co-PI's have to be picking up some slack.

    To me it seems like a lot of the point of being an academic (vs industry) researcher is being part of the research community…that has a cost…everyone can't just focus on their own awesome research, even if some people can succeed this way.


  12. lylebot Says:

    I’m confused by Neuro-conservative’s comment. Is it meant to be sarcastic? Or a snide comment on how women have avenues not open to men?

    I don’t know a whole lot about the BECA, but given that it’s awarded by the CRA-W based on a two-page nomination letter, I doubt it comes with a lot of money. $50,000 max (not per year) is my guess based on awards I’ve seen with similar requirements. That might *just* barely cover a grad student for a year (with benefits and overhead and possibly tuition). CRA-W also has a Borg award for female grad students that’s not even equal to a half-TA stipend, another reason to doubt the BECA comes with much money.

    @zb it is true that NIH funding is not a requirement for tenure, but NSF/DARPA funding probably is, and NSF has similar paylines right now. I’m not sure DARPA has anything one could compare to NSF/NIH paylines, but DARPA funding is hard to get for other reasons.


  13. lylebot Says:

    @commentariette: I’m sure her students do a lot of paper reviewing too. It is very common in CS for grad students to review for journals and top-tier conferences (which are basically CS’s version of journals). She can also send her students to conferences to present her lab’s work.


  14. DrWorms Says:

    I remember reading an article as a postdoc, I think it might have been in the Chronicle of Higher Education, if anyone remembers it and has a link please share.

    Basically they had surveyed a bunch of people near the end of their careers and found that people who had held prestigious positions (HHMI, named professorships, etc.) had in general a more negative view of their contributions to science than the average prof.

    The interpretation was that they had such high expectations, cure cancer or Alzheimer’s, that, by comparison, just training scores of talented scientists, publishing in top-flight journals and enjoying great name recognition was not enough.

    I think that has really shaped my thinking about what it means to be successful, both in life and as a scientist.

    Also, I’d choose Dad stuff over lab stuff almost any day of the week. I feel a tremendous amount of sadness for trainees who feel they have to trade one for the other because of their PIs attitudes.


  15. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Calm down, lylebot. It was a Star Trek joke. Resistance is futile.


  16. Ola Says:

    I don’t think Professor Nagpal has written some amazing revelation here. It is not hugely different than arguments that I make myself on this very blog. Agree. That’s why this was a guest blog on SciAm blogs, and not an editorial in a glamor mag.

    Regarding her particular anecdote, it’s worth noting she has 5 post-doc’s in the lab’ and a single grad’ student. 4/5 of them are white males with no presumed language barriers. Let’s also assume (yeah yeah shoot me) that Harvard post-doc’s are among the most motivated of the bunch.

    TL/DR – staff your lab with white male highly motivated post-doc’s and you get more time to do the fluffy stuff outside. As others have noted, shirk your responsibilities for reviewing and other societal duties, and it only gets sweeter.

    Try doing this it a small town college where you’re lucky if you can get one post-doc to even move there, they often have language barriers, and the bulk of the labor force is grad’ students and tech’s who require more supervision.


  17. Neuropop Says:

    I am guessing she did not have to run a lab, Harvard likely has enough postdocs on fellowships, there are always things like MRSEC (sort of like NIH P01’s) rattling around at Harvard which pick up a postdoc or student or two. Have these at your disposal and life becomes a little easier, no?

    Her advice is sound but doesn’t readily translate outside of CS.


  18. AlmostAProfessor Says:

    What’s up with the assumption that more hours at work = better science, or even just more science? I’ve heard productivity actually declines if you’re pushing past 40 hours on a regular basis. I don’t have a citation, but that sure feels true to me. I counted my actual hours one week, clocking out whenever I got coffee, or went to the bathroom or posted on a blog, and I was right at 35. Pushing it up to 40 of actual work I started to get nuts, just totally drained at the end of each day, could not face it the next morning. Are these 50, 60, 80 hour people actually working all that time, or are they just checking e-mail or writing blogs or cleaning their desks or something? That’s what I want to know. I’m coming from post-doc and about to start my first tenure-track job, and I tell you right now, if it requires more than 40 hours of actual work on the regular, I’m out. 50 seems cray, especially in a two-earner household with kids. I like having a life, and I’m pretty sure both my family and my science benefit when I’m happy.


  19. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Just. Wow. The millenial attitude in a nutshell. NEVER hire one of these precious snowflakes!


  20. DrugMonkey Says:

    I dunno N-c. 40 hr work week, not being enslaved to your job….these sound like things won by the Greatest Generation, maybe even their parents.


  21. Neuro-conservative Says:

    40 hour work week was for factory labor…and the alternative is not “enslavement.” How about passion? Data-crunches? End- or beginning-of-semester deadline?

    Believe me, I am no K3rn and value my family time — But this career has an ebb and flow that requires a bit of flexibility, agility, and intellectual athleticism. Flip side: some weeks/months get to have more focus on child or elder care, other life tasks, or just relaxation.

    But when somebody complains about getting burned out after 35 hrs/week, then that is their upper limit – balanced against weeks with <<35hours due to sick kid or whatnot? Not a recipe for success in this career or just about any other. And not a particularly admirable "stand on principle."


  22. Tim Says:

    The only reason 40 hours/week is not a “recipe for success” is because there are too many assholes on tenure and promotion committees that have unreasonable expectations about how much of one’s life one needs to devote to science in order to be worthy of the profession.


  23. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Tim — Are you a millenial?


  24. AcademicLurker Says:

    While I wouldn’t go with a hard and fast 40 hours/week rule, I’ve definitely noticed a point of diminishing returns with respect to hours in the lab (or these days, hours working on grants).

    Also, there’s a lot of bragging and trash talking in (academic) science. When I hear people boasting about the 90 hour weeks they work, I’m inclined to call B.S.


  25. Tim Says:

    I think I’m a gen-Xer. Born in 1979.


  26. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Yes Tim, definitely Gen-X; millenials start in 1982. That said, you are too old to be expressing such an immature attitude.


  27. Tim Says:

    Attitudes change, man. Immature today is mainstream tomorrow.


  28. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Unfortunately, that seems to be the way things are going in our society…


  29. Tim Says:

    Yep, and my kids are growing up with the impression that they actually have two parents because they see Dad’s face at breakfast and dinner every day. Truly this is a horrifying future.


  30. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Yep, and soon they’ll be able to see your face at home all day long!


  31. @Neuro-conservative: “40 hour work week was for factory labor”

    You’ve been cracking jokes all the way down this thread, but I can’t tell if this was one… if not, have you read any labor history? Did you know that the 40 hour work week is standard across a variety of industries? Did you know that passion doesn’t put dinner on the table even if your work is office work? Did you notice that grad students and post-docs can’t afford to hire extra childcare or eat out everytime they have to work extra?

    Yes people often have to go overtime meet their goals at work, but it’s clearly a case of going above and beyond, and most reasonable managers recognize that and compensate even their salaried employees for it even if the compensation is not tangible.


  32. DrugMonkey Says:

    “Oh but our industry is different and absolutely REQUIRES unusual sacrifices for the good of the workers and our Nation.”

    -the battle cry of every exploitational vocation/workplace/enterprise ever.


  33. This was really well put.


  34. Zuska Says:

    Amen, DM. I want to puke on a lot of people’s shoes for getting so many otherwise bright folks to think a 40- hr week is for uneducated laborers, the unwashed non-thinkers. Whereas we in the Knowledge Factory, we & our work is So Special we must toil at it long past the 40-hr limit that people organized and fought and died to win as a right, to enshrine as a norm.

    Bring me a mule and my pappap’s pick-axe! I’m off to go data mining! Oh, hand me a canary, too, so I can tell when I’m just about but not quite gonna die, so I know when to knock off for the day. That is, if this Knowledge Factory of Bullshit doesn’t cave in and kill me first.


  35. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Clock-punchers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your grants!


  36. Zuska Says:

    Same song the anti-union, every-man-for-himself factions always sing: The scabs will take your job! You’ll lose your company house! Your children will starve! Don’t listen to those people who say there’s power in a union, you’ll never get an 8-hr workday or healthcare or paid vacation. And if you do, your grandkids will fall all over themselves to piss it all away because they will imagine agreeing to oppressive working conditions is just dandy in exchange for a dim hope of climbing to the top of some local scientific heap.


  37. Tim Says:

    You’re on the wrong side of history, N-c. That’s okay though, because the millenials and we immature gen-Xers can wait your kind out.

    Every new TT faculty member who knows it’s okay to make family and personal time a non-negotiable part of their career is one more voice to drown out the fogies shouting about 80-hour work weeks and passion and dedication and OMG WHAT ABOUT CANCER DON’T YOU KNOW WE HAVEN’T CURED CANCER!!!!!

    shake your fist all you want, but your lawn is already ours.


  38. Neuro-conservative Says:

    See, the thing is, I do not view myself as oppressed Labor. I am a professional, and in the context of my lab, an entrepreneur. I set my own hours and follow my interests. Your approach seeks to strip the dignity from that position, in exchange for the badge of victimhood. No thanks.


  39. “See, the thing is, I do not view myself as oppressed Labor.”

    How does being a professional magically make you “not labor”? The whole purpose of a profession is to define standards of quality for a kind of labor and therefore make it more valuable.

    In the past people in steel mills would also get convinced that their interests aligned in this way with the interests of the employer. There’s video available of people killing themselves (figuratively, but given the work probably also in practice) to produce more steel than the other factory (all under the same owner). I’m sure they also looked down on the clock-punchers.

    “Your approach seeks to strip the dignity from that position, in exchange for the badge of victimhood.”

    Asking to opt out of the race to the bottom is hardly asking for a badge of victimhood. I might choose to ignore certain things like my food budget or my children’s schoolwork in order to shove in a few extra hours on my dissertation but it would be crazy to argue that this is a good standard to set for the profession.


  40. Neuro-conservative Says:

    I think you need to work on your reading comprehension. You sort of missed the whole point. But thanks for playing!


  41. AlmostAProfessor Says:

    Fortunately N-c, someone else has already hired me, so you won’t have to. Probably because I had a very productive post-doc, and got an NIH grant I’ll be bringing with me. I really doubt if you met me at at conference, or saw my CV you’d think “entitled millenial brat” (for one thing, I’m not a millenial). But yet you’re all ready to judge me on the basis of the hours I work, instead of the quality of my work. This kind of pressure getting handed out to anyone who dares to get the hell out of the office on time contributes to the leaky pipeline for women. Women are still more likely than men to have “second shift” work when they get home, so I think it actually is important to get real about the amount of time we work. So yes, I work roughly 35 hours a week (actual work, btw, not getting coffee or checking my email, so lets say 40-45 in the office, depending on amount of time spent on enraged blog comments), and yes, keeping those hours reasonable helps me be a happy productive person, and yes, so far I have a pretty promising career, thanks very much. And finally, yes, if it comes right down to it, I’m not willing to blow off all the other things in my life on a regular basis (as distinct from a periodic sprint to get a grant in, duh) for a tenure track job or “science” or whatever the f#ck. I’m guessing the real generational gap here is between those who have a “faculty wife” handling all the other sh#t for them and those who don’t. So you can take your generational sense of entitlement and shove it.


  42. Neuro-conservative Says:

    AaP — Look into my crystal ball


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