No deadwood here

No deadwood here

On Tuesday, I posed a question on my own blog: what would happen if academia required PIs to fund their own salary and not get tenure?

To clarify, I don’t think this would necessarily be a good thing…but I also don’t think it would be a bad thing, either.  I can see the pros and cons of such a move, and it’s very hard to say if one side would win out.  I also think there are several possible outcomes, and I think that it would change from school to school.  However, I anticipate a few potential changes to the system that would probably constitute some general trends.

1 – I see groups becoming more bimodal in their distribution: they’ll either be really big so that PIs can keep writing grants like crazy  (something that already seems to occur a lot in bio and medical fields) to try to cover their own funding or smaller because the PIs will feel like they need to spend more time in the lab in order to ensure they’re getting the results they need to continue their funding.  I also think that PIs who opt for the smaller route are going to be considerably more particular about their students.

2 – I definitely think this would decrease the number of people interested in academia as a career route.  Industry certainly isn’t the most stable in terms of employment longevity, but most companies don’t make you advocate why you should keep getting a salary several times per year.  Also, I think this could lead to longer post-docs because at least when you’re a post doc, you are only partially responsible for bringing in your own salary…and being a PI means you’re responsible for yourself as well as several others.  PIs will also be very reluctant to let competent post-docs go.

3 – I think there would be a lot more burnout on the part of faculty.  They would need to follow the money trail even more than they already do, and it would be both stressful and likely unfulfilling if they can’t engage in research, at least a little bit, just for the sake of curiosity.  I am mixed on this one.  On one hand, you’d get new people in there on a more frequent basis that will have new ideas but also limited experience in getting funding.  However, if funding models don’t change, few of them will actually be able to engage in any sort of real transformative research and are more likely to wash out because of lack of familiarity with the process.  It’s sort of like the inexperienced engineer who comes in, believing everything is easy because they really have never had to do something that wasn’t theoretical – and such a system will be less forgiving of those who make mistakes.

4 – I actually think this would cut down on the amount of lousy research being published.  Tenure is usually assessed by publications.  Funding takes that into account, but it isn’t the only reason awards are distributed.  If there is no incentive to write tons to get tenure, I think people will be more careful about what they publish and try to spend more time writing grants instead.

5 – Less collaboration: you’re not going to work with someone when it means you’ll have to cut your income in half to help fund theirs.

6 – This is the one thing I would *like* to see: pretty soon, people would get fed up and work to get things changed…and along with changing their own situation, they might be more willing to stand up for others who are in the same situation.  I think a big part of the problem with the broken system is that, as much as some PIs may not like that their grad students and post-docs are funded under contracts, they feel like they can’t do much about it or that it’s really not that big a problem.  However, if they were in the same situation, I think that once they decided to try to change things for themselves, they might be more willing to stand up for those who are equally vulnerable.  I don’t know that they would go so far as unionizing (unless that’s the only way to achieve their objectives), but I can’t help but wonder if they’d be more open to it on behalf of others.

I talked about not wanting to be tainted by comments on my own post, but I have to mention one comment discussed some peer literature showing that some scientists never recover from shocks that occur pre-tenure, forcing many people out of the system who are probably very good researchers.  I think that’s a worthwhile point to consider, but that it ought not to be applied solely to pre-tenure TT positions.

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