Thursday, May 03, 2007

To stay or go, Part 2: Institution and department

In my last post in this series, I set out a series of three questions that I've identified as central to deciding whether I should stick things out until tenure or go look for greener pastures. I actually started writing this post thinking I'd address the first question, but I seem to be stuck. Mainly, I think, because a lot of "good day" vs. "bad day" is tied to the second question, which is "how much of the good/bad is tied to the institution/department, and how much is tied to the whole idea of what makes an "assistant professor?". So I'm going to skip to the second question, and mainly deal with the first part of that.

In other words, what are the good and bad things about my institution and my department?

I'll start with my institution, because this is where I find many things to like. My institution treats its faculty well---there is a lot of support for various forms of development, travel, special projects, etc. It has good resources. Smart people. Some good people in the administration, even. :) The service requirements are there, but not stifling. I've made lots of great friends here, and there's a cohort of strong junior faculty women (which I think scares some of the senior faculty a bit, to be honest). The students are by and large one of the better parts of this job, too---for the most part, smart and engaged and neat people. I've been incredibly lucky to only have a few "problem students" so far (of course, those problem students were *real* problems...but on balance, I think it's been fine).

What I don't especially like about the institution: the pace of change (but I suspect this is true most places); the gender balance, especially in positions of power (see previous note); the "strong department" structure, which can be dangerous; the amount of "homerism"---"this place is so great, why would we ever want to change a thing?". I'm not sure how prevalent that last one is in other places, but I feel like it's especially pronounced here, and in weird ways.

OK, now on to the department side. I'll start with the good stuff. As much as I complain about them, I personally really like my colleagues. We do lunch and chat in the hallways and share resources and some of us are friends outside of work. Again, good resources and pretty decent support if there's something you really want to do or try. The senior faculty do a pretty decent job protecting junior faculty from overcommitment---my chair, for example, really went to bat for me to protect my time during sabbatical. There's a lot of faculty interest and energy put into improving the community among our undergrad majors, and I can see that starting to pay off. On good days, it's a great place to work.

Now for the bad stuff. Well, there's the whole I-don't-trust-the-senior-faculty that's a direct result of my third year review. I still don't trust that they will give me the feedback or support that I will need as I try to earn tenure here. (I still don't trust them, because I still don't see them doing those things, even after lengthy conversations with them and with much prodding on my part.) This is a biggie, unfortunately, especially given the "strong department" structure we have here. I feel like my department prizes getting along over all else, and as a result disagreements are seen as Bad and there's a bit too much "groupthink" that occurs as a result, at the expense of honest discussion. Alternate opinions are viewed as suspect---not always, but often---which is not good, because I'm often the one with the alternate opinion. Conflict is avoided at all costs, even when doing so is detrimental to one of us or the department as a whole. And I often feel like I'm not listened to or supported by my department in general, like my ideas are not taken seriously (unless suggested by someone else) or are immediately discounted. I'd say that about 70% of my bad days are a direct result of an encounter with one or more members of my department.

So that's kind of the landscape in which I'm working right now. I've had a pretty good sense for most of my time here about what the good and bad things are (and the fact that the good things seem to be more skewed towards institutional things and the bad towards department things), but as I mentioned in my first post, figuring out the balance of good and bad is tricky. That will be the subject of a future post...probably the one after next, since in the next post I think I'll address the whole role-of-junior-faculty aspect of this thought process.


scientiae-carnival

11 comments:

Female Science Professor said...

I've spent a lot of time thinking about similar issues, even now as a senior professor. I wonder sometimes if senior faculty in my department will always see me as junior faculty because I am younger than they are (and female). If I go somewhere else, then I will have been hired as senior faculty, and I think that comes with a higher level of respect. In my more cynical moments, I wonder whether it would be worth it to trade the jerks I know for new jerks. In my more positive moments, I think about how my career has prospered here and it hasn't been such a bad place to be. How's that for indecision? One thing I know for sure is that you get more respect when you get offers from other places. Also, I've decided that if I do leave my current university, it won't be because of the jerks -- it will be because of interesting new research opportunities.

doc-in-training said...

Jane - my lab has many, many jerks and have a very "strong lab" structure too, so no one likes it whenever I propose alternate options. Unfortunately, I didn't realize it until I feel the bullying in the office. Yeah, not smart enough. But I feel for you, Jane.

However, I like what female science professor said: "if I do leave my current university, it won't be because of the jerks -- it will be because of interesting new research opportunities." So true.

So sorry to know that I'm not the only one in the world who is dealing with a similar issue, but so glad to know that there are someone wiser who is handling it better than I do.

Btw, I'm not encouraging you to do it or otherwise, but I'll change lab soon.

C said...

What's the problem with the pace of change - too slow or too fast?

In my institution, there seems to be drastic changes happening way too soon on the heels of other drastic changes. Let's change the structure of the teaching year. Let's teach 11 weeks. No, 8. No, 11. No, it's 12 but we'll stick to 11. Our courses are too small, let's make them all 33% bigger. Quick, quick! Before the new head gets appointed and wants to make her own stamp on the system.

I'm like "Would you just SLOW DOWN ALREADY!"

Professoress said...

Recently, I've been trying to remind myself that it is so often not maliciousness, but rather laziness or ineptitude that motivates people. I think this was particularly true in my previous situation, which was similar to yours with respect to the department but I suspect more extreme. Though I moved, I know others, largely from smaller schools, who have been successful in identifying mentors from other institutions who were able to give them the feedback they needed to continue in their current positions. Of course, mentors from other places are unlikely to help you gain more power in your department.

In my new position, I still feel like academia is a lonely place and like I don't get the level of feedback and support that I'd like. I've been thinking a lot about the role that my own level of confidence plays in all of this. If I were able, like many of my male colleagues, to have this attitude of "this is what I'm doing and I know I'm right", I think I'd be much happier. I think that a lot of my problem is that I too often ask for permission. I accomplish more when I have the courage to just jump in and do what I think needs to be done. If that ultimately hurts me when it comes to the tenure decision, then this isn't where I was meant to be.

Chris said...

With the fundamental lack of trust, and the current department group think/odd person out situation, I would try to move on if a suitable opportunity presented itself. Just my take, fwiw.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Do you actually work at my institution???

Seriously, I think there are a lot of similarities between my current location and what you describe. I think regional culture can play a big role; in my case, it's the sort of hierarchical southern politeness thing that doesn't (didn't) work for me, which may well be different for you. But we too have a huge amount of "homerism," a lot of which (to me) seems to spill over from the whole admissions race - that is, if we're spending all this time (and MONEY) convincing (the right kinds of) students to come here, then we must in fact actually BE the best around, right? right? right? Argh, it's frustrating, and one of the things it seems to do here is eliminate the possibility of honest conversations about what this institution needs to do to be the best that it can be - the administration mouths all the proper sentiments, but then does nothing to change anything about this place, and the faculty members complain about the administration's lack of action but can't/won't/don't do anything about it either. (Me included!)

Sorry, this is turning into a comment about me! Something I will say that might be relevant to you is that what's helped me has been having experience at another position (not as a grad student in my department, but in another t-t position). Because it does help me to realize that it's not about being an assistant professor (or at least, not entirely), but about being an assistant professor HERE. Because my last position had a completely and utterly different culture, and work-wise, I thrived there. Personally, it was a hard place to live and the pay was crap, but professionally, I really enjoyed the position. I don't really regret leaving - because the personal satisfaction has to be there! - but I do regret that my current position didn't have more of the qualities of the first one.

Point being, I do think that the institution/culture makes a really really really really REALLY big difference in one's level of satisfaction. So I guess this is my lengthy and rambling way of suggesting that you might want to try moving. And that moving would DEFINITELY answer that question for you, as long as you're willing to give up what you have now to find out the answer. If that makes any sense.

Kathi Fisler said...

Professoress raised the issue of confidence and the role it has in career satisfaction. I couldn't agree more -- developing confidence was a big part of my personal tenure process and it has made a noticeable difference in my performance and satisfaction in academia (which of course still have both good and bad days).

The same issue applies to departments. It takes collective confidence for a department to be honest about where it is and where it wants to be. Departments jockey for position with administration and with students/parents. We develop a "why we are great" pitch for each. We have to. But then that pitch gets comfortable and we need something to jolt us into looking hard at ourselves. In some ways, CS has a golden opportunity: our declining enrollments give us a motivator to look hard at ourselves as departments. But it still takes courage to start asking the questions, as most of us have experienced personally.

I've spent a lot of time in or interacting closely with a couple of top-ranked, edgy departments. By and large, the people in them live their whole lives at higher octane (and they have pretty full and varied lives, too). That shapes department culture. If your goal is to be in a higher octane department, it might be worth thinking whether you want to consistently operate at that same level yourself.

Light summer reading reco: check out "Straight Man" by Richard Russo for a hilarious portrait of faculty culture. You'll never think of the pipes above your office ceiling the same way again ...

Kathi

martin_blank said...

Hey there! First, thanks so much for posting about your experiences with your third year review. I went through a similarly painful one and it was nice to know that I wasn't the only one on earth.

Second, I don't think this is a binary decision (stay/go) -- junior faculty should always be on the market until you have a reason not to be. Sure, this makes life difficult with spouses (and in your case a baby to be) but this is how the game is played. Key questions for you: are you certain that you'll get tenure, and what if you don't (god forbid). If you don't like the answers to either of those questions, its time to update the CV.

It will get better. Really.

Anonymous said...

Female post-doc here:

I really don't know why you are putting yourselves thorough all this. I'm off to the private sector in a few months. I've had it.

Michael Flessas said...

Life is too short to compromise for people you don't like. If you can opt out of a bad working environment,i.e., what you experience with some of your colleagues, opt out. On the other hand, life does not hand out 'joy tablets'--although psychiatrists do--and so you need to be sure that you are not too sensitive to every comment someone makes for which you don't approve. I suspect it is a combination of both, i.e., you are too sensitive and they are too clueless at times. The human condition.

Perhaps a ideal situation is one in which you can write code from home and ship it in while having the option to telecommute and video conference online from home. Far more control this way. Less idiots in the hallways into which to run.

Anyway, traditional universities are 'old school'. The Web has demolished it soundly but, of course, don't tell those who want to dream that 'Mr.Chips','Sir', and 'Jean Brody' are still somewhere to be found amongst the 'charming' halls of the bricks-and-mortar academy. They may still be there but in time they'll all be online. Economic reality (including diminishing fossil fuels affecting insitutions of higher learning) will drive them online. It's simply a matter to time and resources-- the lack thereof--until this happens. It won't be a combination of things--classroom + online experiences--in the end. Online wins. The good news is that with omnipresent WiFi, at least we can all get a nice tan during warmer months while in a university class online. Cool! :>

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