Saturday, September 27, 2008

Gen Xers and Academia, Revisited

Jeffrey Mervis, Deputy News Editor for Science magazine, recently interviewed 26 graduates of Yale's doctoral program in biophysics and biomolecular engineering. The 13 men and 13 women in the interviews entered Yale's program in 1991, the year I myself started graduate school. Today, only one member of this cohort has tenure, and of the other 25 members, only one is even on the tenure track. When I read the interviews, I thought back to an earlier post in which I reviewed Stefanie Sanford's book, Civic Life in the Information Age. Sanford's book describes the way Generation X has redefined the responsibilities of citizenship. At the time, I wrote:
"We" GenXers emerge ... as a prickly group with an intense work ethic, a mania for effectiveness and efficiency, a hatred of talk and meetings, a pragmatic wish to find out what works, a corresponding impatience with ideology, and a risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit. ...

...I have noticed that while many of my friends in Generation X have gone for advanced degrees, they have finally eschewed academia in favor of writing and consulting; and many have passed on advanced degrees altogether so that they could become entrepreneurs or start new organizations. In my own case, I chose a college without a tenure system so that I, and not a committee of my elders, could direct my scholarship and teaching. The days of climbing the ladder at work and paying one's dues seem to be over. Will my generation's risk-takers, who value effectiveness and efficiency, and who want to be rewarded for their performance, ever find a home in the seniority-based teachers' unions or the gasifying tenured faculties of the colleges? Or will my generation remake those institutions as soon as we get the chance?

Not all of the respondents in Mervis's interviews voiced Gen X sentiments, but a few did. Some quotes along these lines from the Science article:
Eager to apply her knowledge to helping treat and cure diseases, Nagi was chagrined to learn that her Ph.D. wasn't seen as sufficient training for a career in the field. "I was talking with someone from Merck who seemed very interested in my work," she recalls about one job fair she attended as a graduate student. "But then she realized I wasn't a postdoc, and she said, 'I don't see any reason to continue talking with you.' That's when I realized there is a prescribed path that people were supposed to follow, for no good reason."
"Even as an undergraduate in college, I never bought into the concept of being a professor," says Deborah Kinch, associate director for regulatory affairs at Biogen Idec in Cambridge. "Being a grad student is the last bastion of indentured servitude, and being a faculty member is pretty much the same thing, at least until you get tenure. Earning the same low salary and fighting for every grant--that was the last thing I wanted to do."
To Kinch, the idea of moving lockstep into an academic postdoc "started to look like a trap."
Committed to a career in academia, DeDecker has struggled to move up the academic ladder. But NIH's budget has been the least of his obstacles. "The way to get a job is to have a famous person say [about you] that 'this is the best person I've seen in the last 40 years.'
Kosa's days as an academic scientist were numbered once, as a postdoc at Harvard, he got a taste of the burgeoning biotech industry in and around Cambridge. "I wanted to understand the nonscientific side of the biotech industry, and my work was too basic to be applied," he says. So he left Harvard and enrolled in an MBA program at the MIT Sloan School of Management, turning a student project into a biotech start-up that performed liver toxicity testing with a technology billed as a "liver on a chip." Upon graduation, he counseled venture capitalists looking to invest in the biotech industry, and in 2006, he joined Bayer HealthCare before moving last month to XOMA.
That experience pushed her into the arms of industry. "If I'm going to work my butt off, I want to be in control," she recalls thinking. She posted her resume online, where it was picked up by a recruiter for a south Florida company that was setting up a molecular biology unit to develop military sensors that would detect biological contaminants in the environment. The resulting negotiations were a refreshing change from academia, she says. "I asked for double my salary [$66,000], and they gave it to me," she says.
He also prefers what he regards as the greater transparency of commercial research. "In academia, some of the papers are not reliable and the findings are not reproducible," he says. "In industry, if you don't make a very good antibody, there are tests that can prove it doesn't work. So you have to be honest."
In reading the article I registered a skepticism about academia and its ethics...a desire for competitive compensation for hard work and unwillingness to please one's elders and jump through hoops to advance one's career...and a dissatisfaction with a training program that only fits you for one career path.

That said of course, the one member of the cohort who does have tenure is obviously also from "Gen X." And while I have plenty of friends who've stepped off the path, I also have plenty of friends in tenured professorships. Unlike many of the people Mervis interviewed, they were all certain that tenure was something they'd want if they got it. I suspect my friends were also different in that they were highly confident they would be awarded tenure if they made the attempt. The people in Mervis's article don't emphasize this particular calculation, but it doubtless factored into their decisionmaking.


JenX67 said...

What a great post. I've mentioned it in a blog post I'm working on about Gen X news.

Rana said...

Interesting post - both your comments and the original articles.

I wonder how much the picture changes if you look at the non-science academics - I've found myself heading into that group of people who "have finally eschewed academia in favor of writing and consulting" - but it wasn't because I was opposed to the rigidity of the academic career path, but rather because (1) there were no/few jobs in my field (environmental history) and (2) academic credentials and skill sets translate poorly to non-academic employers.

Thus - self-employment (which does, in its way, play into the desire for independence - but, honestly, I never found my independence all that restricted when I was working in academia - though perhaps that was because I was never on the tenure track).

It's working in the business and corporate world as a regular employee that us humanities folk find stifling - academia is a comparative bastion of freedom in comparison.