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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 15, 2010

Chemistry Jobs Roundtable: What About Tenure?

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Posted by Derek

The latest post in the week-long blog roundtable on chemistry jobs is up over at Chembark, and it looks at the academic side: is tenure useful? If so, do its disadvantages outweigh the benefits? What would happen if we ditched it (and could we)?

Comments (14) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | Business and Markets


1. reader on December 15, 2010 10:31 AM writes...

The tenure system under the current funding conditions is useless. If the main benefit is to allow tenured faculty to question the conventional wisdom, then it is useless. If you attempt to do so by writing a grant, it will be rejected. In biomedical research, most labs work on the same things and try to proof the same old wisdom using different techniques and approaches. If someone tried to question the current knowledge taking advantage of his/her tenure, they wont have money to do so.

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2. reader on December 15, 2010 10:51 AM writes...

Of course, unless solid publishable preliminary data is provided.

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3. reader on December 15, 2010 10:52 AM writes...

Of course, unless strong preliminary data is provided.

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4. HelicalZz on December 15, 2010 11:20 AM writes...

I find that as I age, I get more sympathetic with issues like this. There is certainly something liberating about a degree of security, and that shouldn't be ignored or abandoned, even though instances of abuse will always be present in any system that provides any job/career/financial security. Starting from scratch (i.e. hypothetically) I'd keep tenure, but change it from a lifetime to a 15 year program. This way, one has to try to stay relevant into their mid 40's, which is practical and reasonable, but getting it twice provides that security through their 50's that is so very very very valuable.


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5. Anonymous on December 15, 2010 12:15 PM writes...

One argument for giving academics job security is that big universities are often in out-of-the-way places - a laid-off chemist whose spouse and kids don't want to move isn't likely to find another job in some college town 6 hours from anywhere.

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6. Curt F. on December 15, 2010 2:56 PM writes...

On one hand, many people propose getting rid of tenure because long lasting, stable career options for chemistry professors lead to complacency, lack of relevance, and low productivity.

On the other hand, many people propose limiting the number of Ph.D.s awarded in technical fields and eliminating visa programs for foreign chemists, because a getting Ph.D. is supposed to provide to a long-lasting, stable career options.


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7. Come on on December 15, 2010 5:00 PM writes...

"On the other hand, many people propose limiting the number of Ph.D.s awarded in technical fields and eliminating visa programs for foreign chemists, because a getting Ph.D. is supposed to provide to a long-lasting, stable career options."

This goes back to a previous posting, and is as stupid now as it was then.

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8. Curt F. on December 15, 2010 6:54 PM writes...

@7. Come on.
I either heartily agree with you or roundly reject the premise of your comment, but I don't know for sure because I don't know what it is exactly that you are calling stupid.

My personal view is that it would be a mistake to erect protectionist barriers around the American Ph.D. degree for chemists, whether the protectionism is exclusion of foreigners or imposing artificial enrollment quotas.

My personal view of tenure is mostly undecided, but I am somewhat sympathetic to the idea at least that the productivity of more than a few late-career professors would be improved by slightly less job security.

I think there is a disconnect between the idea that a Ph.D. should provide a long-lasting, stable career, and the idea that tenure breeds stasis and complacency, and I thought that disconnect was worth highlighting.

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9. Lu on December 15, 2010 8:41 PM writes...

HelicalZz on December 15, 2010 11:20 AM writes...
I'd keep tenure, but change it from a lifetime to a 15 year program

Great idea!
I would also impose mandatory retirement for tenure-track positions at the current retirement age (same way they do things in Europe).
If someone wants to keep their position after expiration of tenure they can totally do this by funding it from grants. They will fund themselves and do work by themselves putting a natural limit on a number of PhDs produced.
At the first stage of this "tenure expiration" program the competition for grants will definitely increase. But after a few years there will be a whole bunch of tenure-track openings. This would tremendously help to clear the backlog of unemployed PhDs on the market.

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10. Formerlawyer on December 15, 2010 10:26 PM writes...

I though tenure was a substitute for crappy pay?

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11. drug_hunter on December 15, 2010 10:54 PM writes...

I can't believe some of these comments. If tenure went away, there is NO QUESTION that the MANY professors would lose their jobs, replaced with temps who each would teach one course, for a few thousand dollars, with no benefits and no job security. Maybe at the big-name universities this wouldn't happen (at least not all the time).

As tough as we have it in pharma, I have just as much sympathy for the many, many academics who are hanging on by a thread. I have spoken to many profs from around the country and the vast majority of them are not optimistic about the odds of success for faculty just starting out. The trend is definitely towards hiring temp, short-term professors as much as possible to keep costs down.

My undergraduate training came in a small college where I was taught by dedicated educators with many years of experience. Without tenure, they wouldn't have been there.

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12. dearieme on December 16, 2010 6:57 AM writes...

"I would also impose mandatory retirement for tenure-track positions at the current retirement age (same way they do things in Europe)." Yes; Stephen Hawking had to retire from his chair at 67 because that is the Cambridge retirement age.

In fact, it's hard to see how a tenure system can be both sustainable and beneficial without a retirement age.

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13. Virgil on December 16, 2010 9:49 AM writes...

Well, I guess being relatively young, I have a different perspective than most here... one that was pretty well summed up by my former Dept. chair...

"If you don't have tenure, and I decide to fire you, you have a month to clean your desk. If you have tenure, it's 3 months!"

I have tenure, and my career is no more or less dependent on the bottom line (i.e. NIH grants) than it was before. If a University wants to get rid of you, they'll find a way to do it, for example by making your life a living hell with infinite teaching assignments. Tenure is bunk these days.

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14. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on December 16, 2010 4:12 PM writes...

F tenure.

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