Archive for the ‘academia’ Category
When people look at PhD programs, they usually base their judgment on the fame of its scholars or the placement of graduates. Fair enough, but any seasoned social scientist will tell you that is a very imperfect way to judge an institution. Why? Performance is often related to resources. In other words, you should expect the wealthiest universities to hire away the best scholars and provide the best environment for training.
Thus, we have a null model for judging PhD program (nothing correlates with success) and a reasonable baseline model (success correlates with money). According to the baseline, PhD program ranks should roughly follow measures of financial resources, like endowments. Thus, the top Ivy League schools should all have elite (top 5) programs in any field in which they choose to compete, anything less is severe under performance. Similarly, for a research school with a modest endowment to have a top program (say Rutgers in philosophy) is wild over performance.
According to this wiki on university endowments, the top ten wealthiest institutions are Harvard, Texas (whole system), Yale, Stanford, MIT, Texas A&M (whole system), Northwestern, Michigan, and Penn. This matches roughly with what you’d expect, except that Texas and Texas A&M are top flight engineering and medicine but much weaker in arts and sciences (compared to their endowment rank). This is why I remain impressed with my colleagues at Indiana sociology. Our system wide endowment is ranked #46 but our soc programs hovers in that 10-15 range. We’re pulling our weight.
Grants, grants, grants. Every academic likes getting them. And every administrator wants more of them. In some fields, you can’t be an active researcher without them. In all fields, the search for grants grows ever more competitive.
PLOS recently published the results of a survey of the grant-writing process in the U.S. Drawing on a nonrandom sample of astronomers and social & personality psychologists, and asking about their applications to NASA (astronomers), NIH (psychologists), and NSF (both), they reported their researchers having applied for four grants in the past four years, on average, and received one. Proposals took an average of 116 hours to write.
While respondents did note some non-pecuniary benefits to grant-writing, comments suggested that many researchers simply gave up after repeated failures, judging it a poor use of their time. In the words of one respondent:
I applied for grants from the NSF in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007….Most of the reasons given for not funding were that funds were too tight that particular year and that I should reapply the next year since the proposal had merit…I finally just gave up.
The authors, who start with the certainly-debatable-but-not-totally-baseless assumption that funding is fairly random (see these cites), make some rough calculations to come to the conclusion that when the funding rate is at 20%, half of grant applicants will be forced to abandon their efforts after three failed attempts, with a rate of more like 2/3 for previously unfunded researchers.
Now, this is a limited study and there is plenty of room to argue about the data it uses and the assumptions it makes. But few would disagree with its conclusion: “20% funding rates impose a substantial opportunity cost on researchers by wasting a large fraction of the available research time for at least half of our scientists, reducing national scientific output.”
And 20% is the good scenario these days. The National Institute on Aging, one of NIH’s major funders of sociology research, recently announced paylines at the 7th (for under-$500k grants) and 4th (for over-$500k grants) percentiles. That’s incredibly competitive.
Yet at the same time, universities, desperate for revenues, are pushing harder and harder for researchers to bring in grants, with those sweet, sweet indirect costs. I know mine is. When I arrived at SUNY Albany seven years ago, I was happy that the university seemed to treat grants as a bonus—something nice to have, not something required by them. This was a contrast with at least one other place I interviewed.
But that’s less the case now. I won’t go into details here. But suffice it to say that the pressure on the department to bring in grants is steady and increasing. And while this may not be happening everywhere, it’s certainly common, particularly at cash-strapped public universities. It’s even worse, of course, in the soft-money parts of higher ed, like med schools.
The thing is, it’s simply not a viable strategy. Unless the pool of grant funding is massively increased at the federal level—a remote possibility—this is a zero-sum game. And so we’re left with what is basically a variation on the tragedy of the commons problem. Rational individuals (or individuals responding to their employers’ rational demands) will write more grant applications, since doing so still probably increases one’s chances of being funded. And if everyone else is working harder and harder to secure grant funding, maintaining constant effort will likely result in a decreasing payoff.
But what a collective waste of resources. The PLOS article cites research suggesting that university faculty spend an average of 10.7 (public universities) to 14.5 (private universities) hours per week on research during the semester. Even assuming grant-writers are finding somewhat more time for research, grant-writing still takes half a semester’s research time or so. Yes, there’s some intellectual benefit to the grant-writing process. But probably not so much to writing multiple unfunded grants.
My modest proposal is to cap the number of applications—either at the individual level, or the institutional level. Or perhaps establish a lottery for the right to submit in a given round. I can think of disadvantages to that—why should the best (or at least most fundable) researchers not be able to apply as often as they want? But the goal here isn’t to share the wealth—it’s to waste less of our collective time.
In the meanwhile, the ever-growing pressure for external funding in an environment of flat-at-best resources is itself throwing money out the window. At a time of intense pressure to do more with less, this is the biggest irony of all.
An article at the John William Pope Center discusses independent scholars:
Whenever administrators cut costs, they typically do so at the expense of faculty. Universities hire adjuncts instead of tenure-track instructors, because they rarely receive benefits, have no contract, and earn as little as $18,000 a year. More than 40 percent of teaching staff at universities are now adjuncts… How are some scholars coping with this destructive system? By leaving it altogether. Margaret Hiley did this. She was a lecturer in literature in England but didn’t like the paperwork, teaching restrictions, and arbitrary university procedures. As a bilingual native speaker of English and German, the few enjoyable parts of her academic life were freelance translation.
Then she had an epiphany—why not buck the university system and go completely freelance?
Margaret contacted all her old clients and university colleagues. She put up a website and joined a professional association for translators. She took a course on self-employment. After a year of building up a client list, she quit her job as a lecturer. Margaret now has a near-endless number of projects from academic publishers and private scholars. She is able to charge £90 per 1,000 words of translation from German to English and earns far more than she ever did at a university.
She is part of a growing number of scholars who are taking their academic knowledge to the open market and profiting in ways unthinkable at a traditional university.
Comments: Independent scholarship has always existed, but usually as a small slice compared to the academy. As bad as the academy is, and I agree it is nasty for many, it does provide a stable platform for people to sit around and write 45 page articles on Chaucer. This is very, very hard to sustain outside the system. Also, on an emotional level, many would find it hard to sustain the interest outside the system. But I do agree that adjuncts are no so poorly paid that part time work outside the system is preferable and would be an adequate “day job” for many.
Ryan Boundinat is a former MFA writing instructor. He has some blunt talk about MFA programs:
- If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.
- If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
- If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
I may disagree with some points (e.g., he over emphasizes the “you are born to do it”), but overall, I agree with the article. The defining feature of the professional is … professionalism. For writers, that means organizing your like around books, reading books, writing books, and thinking about books. This is also true about academia. If you find your classes boring, research boring, and can’t get out of bed to do it, well, this isn’t the job for you.
Congratulations to Rory McVeigh, Omar Lizardo, and Sarah Mustillo on being named the incoming editors of the American Sociological Review. I wish them all the best and I look forward to being rejected by them!
A few interesting notes: First, if you ever wondered whether blogging damages your career chances, this should put your fears to rest. Second, on Twitter, I asked Omar about the problem of endless R&R’s, rotating reviewers, and other problems that have plagued the current incarnation of the journal. Omar directed me to the proposal that he submitted with Rory and Sarah. A few choice quotes:
- “We aim to maintain that standard, while also seeking out new ways to improve on past performance. We will address the issue of efficiency by strategically using members of the editorial board during the review process and by making a judicious use of the initial R & R decision. Our aim is to use the R & R decision exclusively on papers for which there is strong consensus on the part of the entire editorial team (inclusive of the deputy editors and members of the editorial board assigned to each paper) with regards to potential for publication and the feasibility of the revisions required by the reviewers. We believe that an astute use of the R & R decision will do a lot to improve the efficiency of the review process at ASR.”
- “Our plan is to address this issue by limiting the number of R & R decisions to a maximum of two and by being exceedingly sparing with the practice of granting second R & R decisions. There may be cases where a second R & R decision will be needed, particularly in cases where authors may be somewhat inexperienced and need an additional opportunity to improve the paper or address a critical point. Early editorial intervention, however, should reduce the need for second R & R decisions. However, in no case will we issue a third R & R decision. The decision after a second R & R will be rejection, acceptance, or conditional acceptance. “
Thank flippin’ gawd. The only down side is that I will no longer be banned from the reviewer pool. C’est la vie.
The NY Times Opinion Pages has a forum on whether economists have too much influence. Personally, I actually think economists have a great deal to contribute. But when reading Diane Coyle’s contribution, she personified the extreme caricature of economists as disconnected. For example, Coyle wrote:
No government has a chief anthropologist or a corps of philosophers employed in its departments. The president has no Council of Sociological Advisers.
We actually do have a corps of sociologists in government who do an extremely important job – the US Census Bureau! And there actually is a high level committee where sociologists shape this extremely government agency. It’s called the Census Scientific Advisory Committee! And it actually has a bunch of sociologists on it such as NYU’s Guillermina Jasso, Michigan’s Barbara Anderson and Penn’s Irma Elo. Within the ranks of the US Census Bureau, there are actually lots of sociologists who work on policy reports and survey design, including some graduates of my own program. The Congressional Budget Office also employs a lot of social science graduates to do important work.
While Coyle may be right about philosophy, she is still wrong about anthropology. It is true that states do not have cabinet level anthropologists, many do actually employ anthropologists to study, manage, and interact with indigenous populations, which is an enormously important job. In Latin America, anthropologists are crucially important for Indian affairs. I don’t know where Coyle got her ideas when she implied that economics is the only social science discipline with a function in government , but I’m working with real data – not pie in the sky!