Twenty years ago next month I set out to apply to graduate school in an attempt to have a career in academia as a professor. Last week I was informed, first by telephone calls from the department heads from each of my two departments, and then by a letter from my dean, that I am going to be promoted from Associate Professor to full Professor effective July 1. These events stimulated me to reflect on some of my successes and failures since then and to reflect on the state of academia in the United States today. Unlike almost everything else I've published, I'm not going to present hard statistics, but will keep things general.
I had been out of college ten years when I got the crazy idea to quit my well-paying job and pursue graduate school with the intent of a career in academia. I had been working as a scientific applications programmer for almost ten years, mostly for various government contractors, and wanted to do more in life than simulate wars between the US and what was then called the Soviet Union. (I'm not making this up -- I actually wrote such programs.)
I was fortunate enough to have been born a good test-taker, and so the Graduate Record Examination was a breeze. I'm not sure what anything on the exam had to do with anything I studied in graduate school, though. I moved to another city to attend school full time, fortunate enough to receive a full scholarship and promise of part time employment. With some hustling, I was able to complete my doctorate without student loans, and left in 1995 to a tenure track position in Big State University, teaching undergraduates and graduate students.
It was and is somewhat unusual to move directly from graduate school to a tenure track job in the sciences, but not so much in my particular field (biostatistics) because there is a shortage of us. But on reflection I could have used more time; I was unprepared for the demands of regular teaching and grading, and was shocked at how uninspired were the undergradate students. I learned that Big State U had a somewhat deserved reputation as a party school, and many students were there only because Parents Said To Go. But I do remember one undergrad very fondly who sought me out for an independent study, and still keep in touch with several outstanding graduate students who have gone on to successful careers. But this was not a good fit for me, so I moved on to the medical school associated with the same State U. That didn't work out either, so when my current employer made me an Offer I Couldn't Refuse, I moved to New York City in 2001.
God and my current institution have been very good to me, as I have risen from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. I've taught medical students, graduate students, residents and fellows, and have done some interesting research, mostly related to Cognitive Aging. I also got to serve on the committee that decides which Assistant Professors become Associate Professors, chairing it one year. I saw many faculty who were stalled for years in their careers because of inadequate leadership in their departments or divisions, or because they just didn't know what was expected of them.
And I think of those who could have done well as academic researchers who never got the chance. I had dinner a year ago with four recent PhDs from my institution, all bright, young, and motivated. One is unemployed. Two are teaching high school. And a fourth is in a postdoc position with no apparent end in sight, no foreseeable transition to a "real" position.
And I think of all who could have had potential to become academic researchers who have been scared off by stories like those of those four -- or, more commonly, enticed into easier and better paying fields. I remember one of my college classmates telling me that one of our favorite profs had cried when she told him that she was applying to business school rather than graduate school. And I know someone in my field whose dissertation advisor cried when he told him he was pursuing a career in industry rather than academia.
The fact is, the great scientific research infrastructure of the United States is not healthy. American universities can't attract the best American students to pursue research doctorates, and fill up their slots with international students. Meaningful tenure is gone in many institutions, or so rarely granted that it might as well be gone. Junior faculty face huge obstacles in getting their research projects funded thanks to the tight budgets of the past few years, along with the fact that more and more investigators are applying for more and more grant proposals. The decision by the National Institutes of Health to concentrate its funded research in a small number of institutions with Clinical and Translational Science Awards is freezing out the majority of academic instituions from ever becoming major research centers, while the Awards themselves do not themselves contain adequate funding for all the shared resources they hoped to promise. And the politicization of scientific research by the Bush administration added insult to injury.
Other countries are now in a position to skim the best and brightest if they are willing to make the investment. And that is particularly true for graduates of our programs here in the US, most of whom today are not US nationals. Why should a brilliant young European or Asian scientist stay in the US when the career path may be smoother and more promising in Europe or Asia?
I have survived, and to some extent thrived, in spite of these problems, in part because I was a bit ahead of the curve, getting in before the funding got really tight, and in part because my current institution put great leadership in charge of my primary department before I arrived there. But a lot of potentially great scientists are not going to make it unless something changes, and soon. Such changes will require significant increases in funding, and some infrastructure changes that don't make junior investigators compete for scarse resources against the folks who have been doing this for decades. Such programs for junior investigators do exist but again, funding is limited.
I remain an optimist; already the Bush politicization is history, and hopefully there will be some loosening of the pursestrings. The extra funding from the Stimulus Plan, unfortunately, are not particularly helpful because they are just a short term investment; unless the people funded under those mechanisms can continue research after the Stimulus is spent, it will have been no long term help whatsoever. I hope that there will be many other successful researchers able to post diaries like this one in the coming years.