Dear Chairman

Sep 10 2009 Published by under Conduct of Science, Mentoring

An Open Letter


Dear Chairman,
I was intrigued by your recent comments to the effect that you are frustrated by the level of involvement and interaction that you observe from junior faculty. I agree that we might expect greater things to result when members of the department collaborate scientifically. I appreciate that a Department is not a Department if the professorial rank staff do not interact with each other on common goals. As the leader, I understand that it is your job to try to elicit more than the minimum effort on so-called service work from your Department members.
I have a suggestion, which I believe is basic Management 101 stuff although it is possible that it comes from my roots in behavioral psychology. Have you ever thought about the needs of your Assistant Professors (and Assistant Adjunct Research Project Science Instructor Professors-in-Residence of Department)? Have you thought clearly about the contingencies that are in place which either encourage or discourage particular types of activity? Have you identified the roles played by the senior faculty and the University in providing the reinforcers and punishers?
The ranks of the more-junior independent scientists are facing a career environment that is entirely different from the one you faced at a similar stage. You would do best to realize this and interpret their actions accordingly...instead of wondering out loud why your Assistant Professors are not acting as you wish.
If I can leave you with two generalities, they are these. First you must listen to what your Assistant Professors (all of them) are saying to you. Don't modify every comment by thinking the individual is "lazy" or "arrogant" or "selfish" or "narrowly focused" or "insufficiently committed to the career" or any such thing. Listen to what his or her specific needs are. Second, all of them need the support to get their research programs launched, productive and funded. In a way that makes their output look as independent as possible. They need research resources..equipment and supply money. They need real dollars to support trainees or they will never get off the ground. Try directing the slush funds their way, unasked for once. If you free up their time spent working on survival you may be surprised how enthusiastically they respond.
Sincerely,
DM

17 responses so far

  • I had two incredibly amazing chairs (and an interim chair) in my first faculty position, so awesome in fact that they spoiled me for every other job I've had since. Slush funds without asking. Six months salary for my fantastic tech when I was between grants - without asking. The interim chair said that the full professors needed to step up and take one of my committee assignments and 10 of my lectures so I could focus on getting my first grant.
    Your open letter makes me think I should write to those three role models today to thank them.

    The ranks of the more-junior independent scientists are facing a career environment that is entirely different from the one you faced at a similar stage

    Hear, hear. Must've been great to be junior faculty when paylines were 30-40%ile.

  • Dude, we're talking about academia here. The overwhelmingly vast majority of academics haven't the faintest clue that being "right"--which is all that matters in the scholarly domain--is completely useles when it comes to managing the efforts of other people. The idea that you influence other people's behavior not by telling them what to do, but by creating an environment of incentives that makes them *want* to do what you want them to, simply doesn't compute to people like that.

  • neurlover says:

    "The idea that you influence other people's behavior not by telling them what to do, but by creating an environment of incentives that makes them *want* to do what you want them to, simply doesn't compute to people like that."
    Wow, weird day when I keep agreeing with CPP.
    But, of course, this incentive argument applies to the chairmen, too. They* operate the way they do because the incentives for them are set up to favor it.
    *And, yes, Abel Pharmboy, you should definitely write to those people. Now, perhaps their incentives were just set up for them to throw money around, and your favorable impression results merely from the abundance of money, but, perhaps they really were people who were generous and kind outside of the incentives. THen, letters from people they help end up being one of the incentives for positive behavior. I'm a big believer in writing to teachers who helped you, scientists who did good work (especially when it didn't appear in a glamor mag), and people who stood up for something you think is important (in my case, "sanctimonious" feminists).

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    DM, are you suggesting something ludicrous such as "you are more likely to get behaviors that you don't punish?"

  • whimple says:

    I thought capricious punishment and irrational non-support were all just aspects of the character building program of junior faculty boot-camp. Isn't that what they teach in Department Chair School?

  • drdrA says:

    Reward works better than punishment. Esp. when jr. folks are stressed to the absolute maximum.
    Come to think of it- just simple recognition and acknowledgement of effort/situation- goes a long way.

  • drdrA says:

    'The overwhelmingly vast majority of academics haven't the faintest clue that being "right"--which is all that matters in the scholarly domain--is completely useless when it comes to managing the efforts of other people.'
    Uh huh. Right on. Totally true. Academia hasn't felt full of people who are great managers, good motivators, or who are very intuitive about others.

  • Alex says:

    Our senior administration has yet to figure out that when we find ways to save money and they immediately take all of the savings, that just destroys any incentive to, you know, find ways to save money.

  • Alex says:

    I might add that my chair laments when the senior administration does this to him, but when somebody found another internal pot of cash to spend on something originally slated to come from start-up, he tried to count it against start-up by arguing that it's still institutional support.
    Sure, I see the point, but if you want people to hustle to find sources of $ outside the department, then don't count it against start-up. Otherwise, our incentive is to spend start-up ASAP and hustle afterward. However, if you don't count it against start-up, then we spend start-up more slowly, and in a bad budget year, a purchase deferred is not a bad thing.

  • becca says:

    How it looks from here (which may well be batshit crazy, seeing as I'm only a grad student)...
    What are the chairman's needs?
    Obviously, you get that he wants you to succeed. It might be hard to remember it on an emotional level (i.e. assume he's trying to help by default), and you probably wonder if he remembers it- but it's got to be important for him.
    In addition, he has to deal with many professors. As we all know, professors are all busy and most of them are convinced they are much busier than the next professor. As you may remember from your graduate student days, scheduling committee meetings with a mere handful (not an entire department) of professors can be a nightmare in which you are pulled in different directions by people who will hold you responsible for the other individuals being flaky (and if you don't remember this from grad school, bully for you, you lucky duck!). So the chair, who operates in a similar context but with more variables/professors, is obviously trying to get the maximal amount of stuff done with minimal fuss. The simple way to deal with it is to be less competent or more noisy.
    Every once in a while, it could be worthwhile to get some sort of consensus from the department about who actually *is* busier than the next professor. But I'd guess that path is fraught with peril.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I was chair for three years, before I retired. My only benefit was that I had vacation days which I could save and be paid for. At the time, my department was the worst funded biology department both in Illinois and in my university. So I focused my efforts on fixing that. My attitude was that, as chair, I did not do work, but rather made it easier for the department faculty, staff, and students to do their work. I assigned myself a light teaching load, so that when things went wrong, as they did, the department (namely me) had excess capacity available to meet the challenge. I mentored new faculty and met their needs as best I could. I kept my research program going so I wasn't frustrated there. Looking back on it, through a haze of nostalgia, it was pretty good fun. I think a happy chair makes for a happy department.

  • I have a fantastic dept chair who is very well aware of the expectations and pressures I'm facing but I've heard mutterings from some of my senior colleagues regarding my "easy" workload because they have apparently observed that I just sit around in my office or potter about in the lab instead of teaching a shit-ton of classes. Mind you, these are people who have never had any sort of significant funding and still got tenure a gazillion years ago or who have clinical-track appointments where the expectation is that they shoulder a heavy teaching load.
    Grrrr.
    I've chosen to take the high road instead of mouthing off about the 6 grants I've submitted so far in 2009 (the year's not finished yet), the million manuscripts I've reviewed, the 3 papers either myself or my students have submitted, the student I'm supervising in the lab that I've been building ... in addition to the teaching, committees, student advising, blah, blah, blah.
    That deserves another angry GRRRR.

  • msphd says:

    PiT, I'm not sure taking the high road will help you. I'm curious to hear how that goes. If there's one thing I learned in grad school, it's that most scientists are more impressed by mouthing off about how productive you are than they are by actual productivity.
    DrugMonkey- not to stir the pot too much, but I think there's another point worth mentioning here. The vast majority of postdocs I've seen become junior professors are completely unprepared for what they're facing.
    Part of the problem is that we don't train postdocs in the skills required to be effective at the next level.
    And part of the problem is that search committees consistently choose to hire certain kinds of people based on completely irrelevant criteria. So it's no surprise that they end up with a complete crapshoot of junior faculty, who may or may not actually have the skills or aptitude to excel at the job.
    Service is a great example. Star postdocs who get faculty positions do NOT do any kind of service, as a rule. They do not serve on committees, teach or do outreach. And yet, what does the Chair want the junior faculty to do that they are not doing? Three guesses.
    Jim Thomerson, you sound like you would have been a wonderful Chair. Would have loved to be junior faculty in a department like that.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The vast majority of postdocs I've seen become junior professors are completely unprepared for what they're facing.
    who are you and what have you done with Ms. PhD??

  • Pinus says:

    I guess I am lucky...my chair protects me from all of this committee nonsense, makes sure I have only the tiniest amount of teaching to do, and has generally been very good at making sure that my own research program is allowed to develop (as opposed to collaborations with other folks). This has really let me focus on the science and staffing....the two most important things.

  • Star postdocs who get faculty positions do NOT do any kind of service, as a rule. They do not serve on committees, teach or do outreach.
    Depends on the type of position you get, what you negotiate and how much money you bring with you. New faculty often get reduced or no teaching for the first x years, particularly if they already have grants, and are usually protected from too much committee stuff. Also depends on your definition of "service" - teaching is not considered service but reviewing manuscripts/grants, being on editorial boards, etc are.
    most scientists are more impressed by mouthing off about how productive you are than they are by actual productivity.
    Maybe, but it won't help me during my annual reviews, at my third year review or when I go up for tenure and promotion. My colleagues and I are from different eras and/or with completely different job descriptions. I'm dealing with a different set of benchmarks than they are/did so they're comparing apples to oranges. It's too much of a timesuck to get into it with them, particularly when I could be writing a grant or working in the lab instead.

  • My attitude was that, as chair, I did not do work, but rather made it easier for the department faculty, staff, and students to do their work.

    This is very wise. Good managers see themselves as working for the people they manage, rather than vice versa.

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