La Profesora Abstraída

Weblog of Michelle Dion, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at McMaster University. My blog has moved to Visit my other website.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

On tenure

Munger has an interesting post about academic life and tenure. On how others don't understand academic life, he says when family asks if he's 'finished' with his work, he replies:

Well, no, I'll never finish. When I finish this, I have to do something else. The advantage of being an academic is that you can schedule the 70 hours you work anytime you want during the week. But that doesn't change the time commitment, and that is what so few people see.

This is true. Often my family doesn't understand (read: parents don't) why I'm always working and never finished (and never really take a vacation when I visit them). I'll never be finished. In part, that's what drew me to academia. I knew I would work 70 hours a week at any job (that's my personality), but at least with this one, I define the what and when. When I have students heading off to Ph.D. programs, I tell them to enjoy their summer; it will be the last where they don't have something to do hanging over their heads.

Munger also suggests that tenure expectations are not any higher now than when he got tenure. (And, he claims that tenure for him was a non-event....and that tells you a lot about the confidence that Mike has.) Young faculty are just slackers.

Well, maybe. I certainly am the only one in my department at Tech that regularly spends all Saturday in the office, but I assumed that was just because our offices are on the shady (i.e., bad) side of campus and everyone lives in the 'burbs.

Publishing in journals may not have gotten harder; there are certainly more journals to publish in now. However, it is very difficult to publish in the big three (as a comparativist), and many departments only want those publications. Whether it's more difficult, I couldn't say.

It has become more difficult to publish books in the last five years. This, I do know. Publishers have told me that they regularly pass up books that 5 years ago would have been published easily. A lot of this has to do with the downturn in the economy, and libraries aren't buying as many books. Also, digital media are making it easier for professors to assign articles online rather than order books for class.

For comparativists, this is a problem because many of us write dissertations that look like books. And we plan to publish them as books. (Take, for example, my treatise on 70 years of social security--i.e., pensions and health care--politics in Mexico. Yes, please take it. I'm tired of living with it.) And students are still encouraged to produce these types of dissertations. Americanists, however, often write dissertations that are easy to chop into 3-4 journal articles.

I think it has also become more difficult to get grants to support research. Funding is scarce, and I believe the NSF political science program is dominated by a clique that views formal models as the only valid type of theory. I recently resubmitted a proposal that had been rejected on the first round. (I should add that no faculty in my department have NSF political science funding, so I developed my proposal in the to speak.) The panel comments highlighted three concerns of the reviewers, but in general said my proposal showed scientific promise, could make an important contribution, yadda yadda. I revised the proposal to address the three concerns of the panel, and the other concerns of the reviewers.

One reviewer wanted me to present a theory like X and Y in their papers. So, I went and read those papers, and the papers they cite in economics. Their type of formal model is a minority approach in my subject area, but I duly included a discussion of how my data would allow better tests of their formal models. I did not develop a formal model myself because that is not what I do. Nor is it what 90% of the researchers in this area do. Well, this reviewer, on the second round, was very disappointed that I had not taken his advice and incorporated his suggestions. I really tried to, and I thought I had. No, I did not develop a formal model, but I discussed that literature. I now realize there's no way I could make that reviewer happy without developing a formal model.

Another reviewer, on the second time around said only "this is a better proposal, but I still think it won't have broad interest" and will only be of interest to a narrow group that studies Latin America. I will never be able to please this person either, unless I tried to do a cross-regional study, which is highly infeasible for reasons I explain in the proposal (incomparability of data, language requirements, lack of data). Not to mention, it leaves me wondering about all of the funding for Americanist projects. Those certainly are only of interest to Americanists, but they get funded.

One reviewer asserted the project could be done without funding. Nevermind that I explain that travel to research libraries to get the data would be necessary. Nevermind that Tech salaries require summer school teaching to survive, so I will never have time to do the research. It reflects a lack of understanding of how hard it is for professors at non-top 30 departments to do research.

(Yes, I am a little bitter. I didn't expect to get funded, but I did expect a serious review. I didn't realize that reviewers would not be willing to consider my arguments and instead insist on their own methodological preference. I don't think I will ever waste my time, or the reviewers time, in the Political Science division again.)

This really isn't meant to be a rant. Two weeks ago, I would have ranted. Now, I just have too much work to do. And I'm a little disappointed in the narrow-mindedness of my chosen discipline. And I need to go interview a couple of big-wig Mexican politicians.

posted by Michelle @ 9:17 AM,


At 5/17/2005 12:04 PM, Blogger mungowits said...


Books are harder now. I'd say 50% harder. No, I don't know what the units are. But it is MUCH harder to publish a book with an academic press than it was 10 years ago.

And many reviewers are narrow-minded in the extreme. NSF, top journals: savage, foolish.

Kind of you to call it "confidence." That is the most charitable interpretation.

Here is the reason I say junior people are working: it is NOT true that they have 12 or 15 papers that are published at bad places. They have three papers that got turned down at AJPS, then Electoral Studies, and then it just sits.

At 5/17/2005 7:51 PM, Blogger PRB said...

Killer Grease: Did you mean "not working?"

At 5/19/2005 10:59 AM, Blogger mungowits said...




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