Tuesday, April 20, 2004

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The weird psychology of the untenured

Henry Farrell was also at the Midwestern Political Science Association meetings, and picked up some interesting cocktail chatter about the life of untenured faculty at prestigious universities:

Several of the top universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc) are notorious for how rarely they give tenure to assistant professors in the social sciences and humanities. Smart young people come to the university as assistant profs, teach for several years, are refused tenure en bloc, and depart for other jobs, usually at less prestigious institutions.... This creates a very strange atmosphere among junior faculty - they all know that the odds are against them getting tenure, hope that they will be among the rare exceptions, and point with admiration to the few who have managed to buck the system.

Be sure to read the comments to the post as well.

I have no idea where Henry got this impression -- the fact that I may have met him in the cocktail bar is the smallest sliver of a coincidence.

For the record, the University of Chicago is not quite as sado-masochistic a mistress as the aforementioned Ivies when it comes to getting tenure -- but this place sure as hell ain't a walk on the beach either.

posted by Dan on 04.20.04 at 12:07 AM


Daniel, be a dear and boost my ego and talk about UPenn.



posted by: John Kneeland on 04.20.04 at 12:07 AM [permalink]

Heh; when I mentioned I applied for a post-doc at Harvard, everyone I told asked me if I meant a one-year or five-year one.

Of course, the problem is simplified for me since (a) no elite university is hiring Mississippi grads and (b) my field, American political behavior, isn't particularly strong at the Ivys anyway. And, of course, (c): I really don't want to spend the rest of my life dealing with New England winters. UCSD or bust!

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 04.20.04 at 12:07 AM [permalink]

Perhaps I'm a little on edge, what with the stress of moving and all, but I don't see that any of this merits a deep "psychological" reading. Fact: everybody knows that the Ivies use and lose untenured hires for a few years. Fact: this doesn't mean Harvard hires any old bozo; these are the masochistic creme de la creme--the ones who jumped through the most flaming hoops, bodies and egos intact.

Given the above, it stands to reason that the cache of someone being dumped by a Stanford or a Princeton remains extraordinarily high, and while the step to a Haverford or an Emory may be downwards a bit, it is still a damnsight higher than anyone who spent a year or two at a less esteemed institution in say Boise or the Upper Peninsula can hope to reach in this or the following lifetime.

The system is what it is (supremely Darwinian): Harvard really does do you a favor by giving you a taste of the good life, only to whisk it away and send you to the minors for a few years of seasoning, than bringing you back from exile in a coach and four, trumpets proclaiming your confirmed brilliance.

This does not require a Freud. The decision to stay in a profession in which this is the sine qua non of talent scouting and upward mobility--now that's a different matter altogether.

posted by: Kelli on 04.20.04 at 12:07 AM [permalink]

Most of my grad school peers have ended up doing pretty well for themselves, albeit often only after years of uncertainty. In hindsight, all of the attendant anxiety and despair turned out to be a waste of emotional energy. But this is, of course, hindsight -- and, furthermore, covering a period where career paths and prospects were far from predictable.

posted by: David Nishimura on 04.20.04 at 12:07 AM [permalink]

Odd, that's pretty much the exact opposite of the way the Ivies, esp. Harvard & Yale, worked in the law schools. Seeing how many of their automatically-granted-tenure professors are, well, somewhat underachieving given the overall school reuptation, that's apparently been changing recently. Still, the contrast within the same school is mildly interesting.

posted by: Tom on 04.20.04 at 12:07 AM [permalink]

I think Kelli's got the right read on this. It's not a deep mental thing, it's just market reality. My wife took a jr. faculty post at Yale knowing full well she'd never move up to a tenure slot there without leaving first. It was an easy choice over posts at less presitigious schools where getting tenure is a legitmate possibility because she knew that having Yale on her resume was, in the long run, more valuable than the option of getting tenure at Yale directly. Yale is #1 in her field and there were 400 applicants for her job.

Well before she would have been up for tenure review at Yale, she got a tenured offer from a large state school ranked #3 in her field. Great! And the senior folks at Yale quietly suggested that if she took it for a few years and continued to publish strong works in her field, a slot would more than likely be waiting for her down the road. Of course, those slots would also be waiting at Harvard, Columbia, etc.

As with any labor market these days, the point is to maximize one's value in the marketplace through one's work and one's associations, not to get into some kind of cycle of desire-and-revenge with a particular institution. I think 90% of acdemics understand this. The elite private schools know they don't need to offer a direct tenure track to get the talented grad students, the next tier of schools know they can poach the private school's junior faculty with an offer of tenure, and the elite private schools know they can get the strong tenured faculty back again. It's just a tight ecology, not some psychodrama.

As for why you'd stay in this profession, Kelli...are you kidding? Pay is good, benefits excellent, prestige high, job security eventually perfect, work is often interesting, and your time is incredibly flexible. If you're intelligent, have the discipline to publish, and the tact to manage the politics, it's about the best job I can think of.

posted by: CB on 04.20.04 at 12:07 AM [permalink]

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