HOWTO: Get tenure
I’ve published 45 papers. I picked up three DARPA projects, four NSF projects and two DoE projects aimed at everything from next-generation cybersecurity to cancer-fighting medical robotics to exascale scientific computing.
Fri Jun 24 06:27:43 2016 - permalink -
I got tenure.
Yes – all while having a disabled son (and clearly an amazing wife to make all of that possible).
My first year as a tenure-track professor cannot be described as anything other than an abject failure. I was so desperate to publish and raise funds that I began thin-slicing my research and submitting lots of poor quality papers and grant proposals.
I must have had a dozen rejections in a row that year. It sucked.
I got tenure over a year ago, yet every time I tried to sum up my views on tenure, I froze.
Every path to tenure is inherently unique and non-repeatable.
How could I possibly provide general advice?
Let me be clear – I’d trade away all my accomplishments, titles and degrees in a heartbeat and with no regret if it would cure my son:
I am not advocating that you run off to stick your testicles in a microwave in a desperate bid to repeat my feats in life.
I remember huddling on the porch at the end of that year with my wife, telling her, “Well, I’ll at least have a job for six more years.”
Then it hit me: Life is too precious and too fleeting to waste my time on bullshit like tenure. I didn’t become a professor to get tenure. I became a professor to make the world better through science. From this day forward, I will spend my time on problems and solutions that will matter. I will make a difference.
I stopped working on problems for the sole purpose of notching up a publication. I shifted gears to cybersecurity. I found a project on cancer in the med school. I joined a project in chemical engineering using super-computing to fight global warming.
Suddenly, my papers started getting accepted.
My grant proposals started getting funded.
I also started blogging a lot. Blogging, much like answering questions on Quora, doesn’t count for tenure at all, and in fact I was cautioned against doing it, since it was “a waste of time.”
But, blogging became a way to reach out to the world and to transmit technical knowledge, which is what academic publications are supposed to do – but don’t.
Before I knew it, my blog began attracting top-notch students to my lab.
In the end, I achieved a self-reinforcing sense of fulfillment in my work: because I was proud of what I was doing, I wanted to do more of it.
I am grateful to my “disabled child” for teaching me one of life’s most valuable lessons: the importance of using our hauntingly brief time on this planet to do the things that matter, the things that will make a difference – the things that are inspired by love and guided by knowledge.
She initiated a collaboration with Mark2Cure, a crowd-sourcing research initiative in the Su Lab at Scripps to let non-scientist volunteers on the internet (like you!) biocurate snippets of text from pubmed that are helping to understand and treat NGLY1.
Rejecting tenure before it could reject me was liberating.
Simpler advice would be: “Find a problem where your passions intersect society’s needs.” The rest will follow.
(My Ph.D. advisor, perhaps the greatest and most passionate educator I have ever known, received the excellence in teaching award and was then promptly denied tenure.)
Doing a good job with teaching is perversely seen as a cardinal sin in some departments.
Focusing on teaching gets interpreted as a lack of dedication to research.
It’s not even just the right thing to do: using teaching as the forcing function to turn pre-tenure professors into first-class technical communicators is in the self-interest of the department!
y doing good service is important: service gives you a chance to work with faculty outside your research area, and it gives you an opportunity to show your colleagues why they wouldn’t want to lose you.
Service puts the collegiality in a college.
Good interdisciplinary collaborators should not be hard to find: take any field and intersect it with your own; a failure to find something in the overlap is only a failure of imagination.
The best advice I can offer on finding good students is to turn to social media with a blog like this, to answer questions on Quora and to tweet regularly.
My hope is that tenure will provide me opportunities to steadily shift computer science and medicine toward high-quality, high-impact open access venues.
The reason I feel especially ashamed over my behavior is that in the course of my research for my son, I have used my privilege as an academic to punch through paywalls with impunity to reach medical papers.
In a damning irony, even this paper is behind a paywall.
I realize that few patients or parents have the ability to do what I did, and they never will, until all of academic medicine goes open access.
In computer science, academic paywalls stifle.
In medicine, academic paywalls kill.