Sunday, September 30, 2007

Realistic Mentors Say 'I'm Telling You This For Your Own Good' (3)

Or: And this has what to do with mentoring?

Part 1: Funding
Part 2: Publishing and Grant Writing
Part 3: Realism

A few further cheering statistics: Of the 30% of sci/eng PhDs who are in academia, only about 50% of them get tenure. (This reminds me of the 5% tenure rate among humanities profs here; they all think they'll get tenure, but 95% of them are wrong.)

And, if you factor in, say, gender?
  • After accounting for controls, women are less likely than men to be tenured. Gender differences in tenure rates decline if we exclude from our samples doctorate recipients employed in nontenure-track positions.
  • Our analysis suggests that women's chances for earning tenure are influenced by family characteristics, both directly and indirectly through the relation of family characteristics to the likelihood of being employed in tenure-track positions.
  • Having young children later in their careers is positively related to women's chances for earning tenure.
  • Estimates of gender differences in tenure rates are relatively insensitive to the characteristics of the employer or to the primary work activity.
Oh, and female PhDs in the same academic positions as men earn, on average, $8-20,000 less than the men.

So what does this have to do with mentoring? These are all things your advisor should tell you, and judging from the sample around here, likely hasn't.

I'm not saying: Nobody should go into academia. If you love science and want to be an academic researcher, great! Good for you! Hip hip hurrah. And all that. I'm saying: Nobody should go into academia blind.

A good mentor is realistic. He or she will do their best to help you write a good grant application, or help come up with productive ideas, or just supply decent letters of reference. But your advisor should be straight with you: You have a 16% chance of being funded.

It's the difference between, oh, going somewhere new when you know how far it is, and driving along lost with a burnt-out headlight in the middle of nowhere. In the first case, you can check your speedometer; you know how much gas you need, when you need a tune-up, etc. In the second case you have no idea what you're going to need. It's easier to do hard work when you know how hard it's going to be. If you know it's going to hurt, it hurts less. (Plus, apparently you're less anxious. Hmmm.)

I think part of what happens is the best scientists leave. Anyone who is too frustrated with the Byzantine grant system, the old-boys' club,the long postdocs and the cult-like work culture, leaves. Only thosewhose determination to play the game is greatest become NIH-funded
researchers (or HHMI, or NSF, or whatever). This does not necessarily overlap with the most innovative minds, though sometimes it does. But it surely does not SELECT for it.

What can a mentor do? Teach you how to play the game. Tell you the tricks. Encourage you through the difficult bits, because funding is tough. Tell you straight up you'll have a 1 in 2 chance of getting tenure, and that only 15% of science PhDs end up with tenure. Give you a realistic picture of what your path will be like, and give you enough data to make an informed decision.

Good mentoring is honest. But also: not deluded.

If you want to be faculty and your mentor hasn't talked to you about money, here's what I think you should do: go talk to three junior professors at your school, and at the kind of place you want to work. Ask them how their funding really works. Ask what they wish they'd known X years ago. Ask them how arbitrary they've found the tenure process, and what helps. Then go ask your advisor, armed with a slightly expanded perspective. Get advice on negotiating your salary. Start writing your grant as soon as possible.

Now you'll have some idea of where the bumps will be in your road. At least you'll be warned.