Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Who wants tenure anyway?

Tenure. You either hate it or you love it.


Recently, I had a discussion whether physics is more in need of postdoc or faculty positions. Weird enough, the postdocs present suggested we need more postdocs. As far as I am concerned, the trend to run scientific research increasingly on postdoc positions, non-faculty short-term contracts that are in many cases supervised, is disastrous. I argued many times before short-term contracts favor short-term projects. As a result, ambitious, work-, and time-intensive projects suffer. Besides this, who wants to remain a postdoc forever? Thus, clearly more faculty positions are needed. But tenure?

Some faculty positions are nontenured. The Santa Fe Institute is a prominent example for fixed-term faculty. As you can read in Howard Burton's book, Perimeter Institute initially also didn't have tenure. Meanwhile we do have. The prime reason, I think, is that the sample of top-scientists who will be attracted by a non-tenured position is very limited. While that is a pragmatic reason to offer tenure, it is not an argument in principle.

So lets look at the arguments in principle. Science needs room to breathe. Tenure offers the necessary safety for researchers to work on controversial, risky, or unpopular topics. It gives them the time to run into a dead-end and start over again, without being immediately discarded as failure. It gives them the peace of mind to not worry about their peer's opinion. Safety is, without doubt, essential.


On the downside, safety invites idleness. The impossibility of getting fired doesn't improve neither responsibility nor quality of management or teaching. It is however in my experience the non-research duties that suffer. Peer pressure is sufficient to guarantee profs don't start twiddling thumbs once they are tenured. While tenure would give them the possibility to ignore their peer's ridicule, most take it very seriously. That's no surprise. In expert communities colleagues' approval is important.


In addition, as one of my fellow postdocs put it, a problem with tenure is you'll get stuck with the old guys after they've reached their expiration date. Considering the increasing number of grey hairs on my head, I find this argument borderline to inhuman. Yes, we age. We all do. Yes, with that we lose some abilities, though we might gain others. Throwing out people when they age to improve the output of a workplace creates, frankly, a system I don't want to be part of. The young and the old, they are part of our lives. Ruling out prescribed execution at 42, every one of us goes through these stages. The way to deal with it efficiently is to integrate people according to the stage of their lives.

What remains then is the question how much security is necessary and what time-scales are appropriate to judge on a research program. It is somewhat a mystery to me why academia fails to establish a functioning yet human job system. Let's take Stefan as an example. He decided not to take a postdoc position after his PhD and now works for a scientific publisher. After 2 years with that employer, his contract became permanent. Needless to say, that's not a contract of the do-what-you-want-we-can't-fire-you-anyway sort. It's just a job that can be continued as long as one does it well.

In a recent blogpost at TheScientist Is tenure worth saving?, a commenter summarized his/her problem
As a young researcher, I spend more and more of my time thinking on why I got into academia in the first place, and sometimes wishes there was a real alternative so I could get out. The problem is that I am now over 30, I haven't had the means (or the 'geographic security') to invest in a house or any of the other things that people I went to school with did 10-15 years ago. As a consequence I am highly educated, but have a very low financial status. This is a cause for stress. At the same time, I will be working on short time contracts for a long while yet, longer even if the administrators get their way. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, all the smart people will disappear from academia and the universities will end up being schools. This is extremely worrying.

Letting people go after a couple of years without any particular reason as to their performance might increase the flux of ideas but it destroys continuity (and, for what it's worth, loyalty). In addition it favors people who are willing to postpone their life possibly until their late thirties or early forties. Which, needless to say, favors men.

In summary, the security tenure offers is an essential ingredient for scientific research. It is not necessarily the only option though. More long- but fixed-term positions, and renewable contracts have similar benefits and would help make academic research a more human career path.


  1. Who wants such science anyway? (Apart from scientists, but even these ones have apparently big doubts...)

    A really needed and interesting activity would have quite other dynamics, public/authority attention and ensuing practical solutions. Attention to science is often demonstrated and “confirmed” by wasted luxury investments into “fashionable” titles (mere titles!), but who actually asks for any reasonable efficiency (real progress, problem solution)? Nobody because there is no real progress, for decades, while expensive bubbles of vain promises continue to grow exponentially.

    Modern fundamental, official science is thus a gigantic and wasteful imitation machine (cf. even its dominating methods of “simulation” and “modelling”!), a grotesque “dream factory” using quite Hollywoodian, totally fiction-based promotion methods, without any need to have final confirmation by the attained real progress. The latter is always postponed to future, ever deeper future, with its ever more fantastic possibilities excitingly looming ahead and ever higher investment needed to realise them... A drug-driven, ecstatic activity, actually, this post-modern science after the end of science... And it does seem to play actually an important socio-political, current-regime-supporting mission by providing a kind of “social LSD” of mass consumption in a post-religion epoch for otherwise disenchanted society. That would explain such surprisingly low standards of efficiency in societies otherwise almost crazy about rising efficiency everywhere by all possible means. But in science they suddenly let it fall down to zero demands (many decades of super-expensive promises giving nothing, in the epoch of almost infinitely accelerated real progress in closely related but independent technology!). Afraid to lose your last illusion? Don't be afraid, baby, it's already lost.

    The rest is only a consequence, a subject of never-ending and inevitably vain discussion about what would be better to organise in this or that way. It would be better to become honest and truth- and genuine-novelty-oriented and respectively ask for efficiency measured by explicit problem solution of maximum provable consistency, irrespective of personalities, especially on the background of a critical general state of civilisation. What else? Nespresso, of course, to maintain senseless fantasies and unfair profits they generate... Empty spaces, minority games, tenure tracks... And having fun of your life wasted for nothing, with any kind of contract within explicitly fruitless dogma, even for its highest priests and best positions (whose happy few holders tend to cry for change increasingly often - strange, isn't it?). How do you say you call that intelligence mass-destruction industry, “science”?!

    There is another, intrinsically creative way, in science and elsewhere, but it needs respective motivation, inevitably...

  2. The grant-funding process is insane. There are no business plans, spreadsheets, or PERT charts for discovery. Discovery is made by the young and unlovable. Academia is corrupt. It is vicious theft of capable students' futures and vigorous subsidy of diversity dregs' appetites - on all sides of the lectern.

    There is a terrible price to be paid for Easter Island social hallucinations. It historically includes large numbers of fresh and not so fresh corpses.

  3. Perhaps it also could help to create transferable long-term (say, five years) grants for which the nontenured researchers can apply and which can be transferred from one institution to another whenever the grantee so desires. The question is how one could convince the grant agencies that spending money this way makes sense. As far as I understand something like this exists in Germany (the research group leader positions) but these things over there are attached to a single institution and not transferable. Bee, would you please care to comment on this? Thanks, S.R.

  4. I have a full professorship, and I enjoy every moment of it. But I think it is more useful to my school than to myself.

    Tenure has a monetary value. Professors accept relatively low salaries, in part, because they have tenure. If my job was insecure, I would spend much more time looking for a new job, and I would pay closer attention to salaries.

    Thus, granting tenure is effectively a way to save money. Without the perk of tenure I would almost certainly have left my current job.

    Even if you do not consider financial issues, tenure insures that professors stay put. It builds inertia into the system. So, if you have Physics department, you can be confident that you won't lose half the department because of an unpopular decision. Tenure professors tend to stick around. This makes it much easier to manage universities.

    Me? I'd almost certainly be better off if we abolished tenure. I'd move around and I would be generally happier just by the extra freedom. Instead, no matter how good my current job is, I have little choice but to stick with it because tenure is such a valuable commodity.

  5. At least in nuclear physics, I have seen the European 'research group leader' model work in the USA but NSF tolerates it more than DOE. DOE would rather pay a postdoc twice the salary for working at a national lab than under a university grant doing the same work.

  6. Hi Researcher,

    In almost all of the applications, also those for the research group leaders, the choice of location plays a major role. And that's understandable if you think the physical location has an influence of the success of the project, and even more so if you consider that improving the infrastructure might be a relevant point for funding agencies. I think though that in many cases proposals are primarily bound to the PI, and that, unless there is a specific local requirement (say, a lab or so) the grant can go with the PI. Ie, if you go elsewhere you can take your postdocs. I don't know though how that looks overseas. In any case, the flexibility of national funding agencies definitely ends when it comes to crossing borders which can easily clash with the global character of today's research. Best,


  7. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for your comment, which provides an interesting point of view. Don't you think the inflexibility is partly due to job shortage generally and not so much to tenure? Best,


  8. My problem with tenure is not that it promotes idleness and allows the preservation of dead wood after the fact. My problem with tenure is very personal-- the whole tenure process killed my soul and pushed me out of my calling.

    I've talked to a friend who said that she doesn't know anybody who wasn't seriously fucked up by going through the tenure process. I have to admit myself that I know people who seemed to have gotten through OK, but I also know of vast numbers of people who suffered unreasonable stress as a result of this inhumane process.

    Tenure itself is fine. The way the judging of tenure candidates is implemented is really awful.

  9. Bee, you surely must know how the postdoc & tenure systems work before you plunged into PhD work. Are you having some regrets because you seem not to fully accept the 'defective' system you find yourself.

    My view is the tenure system is a distortion of life granted to the privileged. Sort of like a mandarin in the Soviet Union. Tenure guarantees job safety. But in real life there is no guarantee for *any* job. Tenured people can give you endless rationalization, but all are self-serving excuses. I have never seen so many educated people talking so dumb when it comes to their privileged club.

    Removing the tenure system will benefit education and research. Performing staff will enjoy permanent employment under renewable long term contract (5-10 years). That's long enough to allow unhindered risky research even in academia. Fail to perform and your contract will not be renewed.

    The problem is not how to gain tenure. The problem is how to remove it from academia.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Hi Bee,

    From my own perspective where tenure is concerned there are two principle aspects to it. That is one being security and the other reward. In the everyday world most of what people do to guarantee security through the course of the day has little to do with the reward(s) they covet; which are for the most part afforded them by the money they make in the course of employment.

    Then simply as an observation I would say that the job of science in itself forms to be the greatest reward sought by many of its participants, including those who end up actually contributing to it significantly. Perhaps there then should be more layers of financial rewards for results which recognizes the value of just one significant contribution is far greater than many may think.

    I also believe there should be a re-examination of the teaching aspect along with the research one, for I’ve found that teaching forms also its own reward for many who are actually suited and the best at it. In that case the teachers should be better rewarded who produce the moist successful students, just as the researcher should more rewarded for their own success. In either case science should never be allowed to be considered as a refuge, yet always the challenge and joy that it is.



  12. Tkk: I had no clue what either the word postdoc nor tenure means before I started my PhD. I wanted to be a physicist. I didn't spend much time thinking about career paths.

  13. Pope Maledict XVI8:19 AM, June 24, 2009

    Tkk said: "But in real life there is no guarantee for *any* job. "

    Actually the opposite is true. Civil servants usually have something equivalent to tenure, or better. Most people working for large companies effectively have tenure. There's nothing whatever unusual about tenure.

    When people talk about firing academics for underperforming, I assume that they mean for not publishing papers. Now any real academic knows that getting good ideas and bringing them to the point where they can be published is incredibly difficult. Anyone, of any age, who guarantees that he/she will still be capable of doing that 10 years hence is either a liar or a lunatic. Ending tenure in that sense would stop any sane person from embarking on an academic career.

    In that connection, I always feel sad when young people start talking about dead wood and "old people". It's sad that so many young people are determined to die young --- unless they have some other way of avoiding getting old?

  14. Bee: “I wanted to be a physicist.”

    And as a result you're a blogger, how life is unpredictable! :) Indeed, it would be a nightmare for a physicist to deal with pure abstractions that cannot explain anything new in increasingly “dark” and puzzling real world structure and dynamics for decades and show no perspective for it... By the way, what are you working upon now, as a physicist, if it's not a secret (but especially if it is!)?

  15. @Tkk

    Aren't we exaggerating a little bit?

    I have tenure:

    *) Compared to other people my age, my net worth is far lower. In real-life, this means that my house, my car, and my TV are smaller, than many people who didn't even get a college education. I do not deny that I am privileged, but that is only because I am free to pursue my research interests. I'm neither privileged by my salary or working conditions. Far from it.

    *) My job security is not exceptional and not "all powerful": if my unit ever goes away, I do lose my job. This is no different from the kind of job security I had as a government researcher. Again, there is no way people would stick with academic job without tenure unless you increase salaries: the best people would move off to government labs and industry. This is not a good deal for universities.

    My view is the tenure system is a distortion of life granted to the privileged. Sort of like a mandarin in the Soviet Union. Tenure guarantees job safety. But in real life there is no guarantee for *any* job. Tenured people can give you endless rationalization, but all are self-serving excuses. I have never seen so many educated people talking so dumb when it comes to their privileged club.

  16. Hi,

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  17. Hi Bee,

    Would you please explain to me the exact difference between "tenure" and "permanent position"?

    PS- As you know, I have a stable, "permanent position" in a government (military) institute in Brazil, but not in my area of interest. I think my situation is too much atypical to offer any valuable comment, but I do like your post.

  18. Dear Christine,

    Well, I suppose Germany is somewhat extreme in that regard, but if you're a tenured prof you can't be fired. That means literally you can't be fired. They can force to you relocate elsewhere if you're great pain for your department but you can't be fired. Not by the dean of the department, not by the president of the university, not by the pope and not by the king. Once you're one of the chosen ones, you have total freedom in research. (If somebody could add details about other countries that'd be great.) Permanent position I suppose different people assign different meanings to it, but I mean it's a permanent contract. You can however be fired if you don't fulfil the job requirements, or if your employer goes bankrupt etc. I believe it is to some extend cultural, but at least where I come from permanent positions are the norm (after a test-period that is somewhere between 6 months and 3 years). Unless you decide to take an academic career path that is. Best,


  19. What if you kill someone and you go to prison for the rest of your natural life? Then what? You'll retain your tenure position?

  20. @Bee: thanks for your comment!

    @Daniel Lemire: computer science is somewhat exceptional because with the PhD in CS you indeed can get a very decent industry job. However, this is less applicable to, say, theoretical physicists or mathematicians (in fact, Ph.D. in these fields apparently could make you overqualified for a number of jobs), so I wonder to which extent your statement about the professors accepting lower salaries would apply in this case.

  21. In practice tenure is on the decline, but not about to disappear. Universities have effectively adopted a two-tier system. The first tier is made up of tenured professors who are being hired because they either bring in more money than they cost, or because the university needs to protect or improve its academic ranking in order to compete for students. The second tier is non-tenured adjuncts/lecturers/teaching professors who carry an increasing fraction of the teaching load.

    This state of affairs is lamentable, but the situation is indeed not that different from manufacturing jobs being shipped to china.

    The fact that some fraction of the professoriate has the bargaining power to receive tenured jobs is still important. It allows these people to shift research direction without having to fear nefarious university administrators.

    The academic ``market'' system that determines who has access to tenure is
    far from perfect (to say the least), but we have seen many reminders lately that efficient markets are not easy to design.

  22. Daniel: "Aren't we exaggerating a little bit?"

    No. When tenure means *absolutely* one cannot be fired, not even by the king (quote Bee), then that represent an extremism. Absolutely no removal means absolutely no accountability. That may be the way it was back in the 17th century, when the tenure system was created by the most elite of society, but open societies of today consider such a system tantamount to academic dictatorship.

    And yes your explanation, and justification of the tenure system is an good example of self-justifying rationalization.

    I am not just talking from my armchair. I received tenure myself, but after a few years left the academic world and stepped out into reality of the rest of humanity. I took my ups and downs like everybody else, and proud of it. I figure if I am smart enough to gain a PhD than I should be smart enough to face life and not hide behind some fake rationalization.

  23. Pope Maledict XVI9:32 PM, June 24, 2009

    I think the situation in Germany is indeed extreme. In the US, you can certainly be fired from a tenured job if, for example, your entire department is dissolved. This does happen.

    In most places, tenured professors can be fired for sufficiently egregious misbehaviour. A full professor of dentistry was fired here for having sex with a student whose career was under his control. As everyone immediately said, he probed the wrong cavity.

    Tenure just means: keep your head down, make yourself useful in some way if you are no longer able to publish, and you won't be fired. And, most importantly, nobody can force you to work on the latest craze, no matter how much the administration would like you to. In exchange, we will pay you less than many of your graduating students. Sounds pretty reasonable to me. More macho types like tkk are welcome to go in for commodity trading, bullfighting etc.

  24. Pope: "More macho types like tkk are welcome to go in for commodity trading, bullfighting etc."

    I am not that macho. ;-)
    I went to work for IBM Research and helped develop the the protocols, algorithms and distributed network architecture that forms the basis of today's Internet and web services.

    I was only 2 hrs away from Wall Street but did resist successfully to go into being a 'quant' or trade commodities. I faced the real world fire everyday with my work - all papers I published had better work or else. There are other ways to make a positive contribution to the world beside the tenure system.

    As to bullfighting or bulls**ing I am clearly not qualified.

  25. I am sorry, but at least in Canada, tenure professors can and are fired all the time.

    Read up on the Rancourt case: not only was he fired, but he was also banned from campus.


    (And his "crime" was not that he was lazy. He was and still is one of the top researchers in his area, and he is a devoted teacher... he was fired for his socialist convictions and how he chose to pursue them...)

    Typical cases:

    1) If you are a Physics prof. and they close the Physics department, your position is gone and so are you.

    2) If you don't teach the classes you are told to teach, at a satisfactory level (hint: not showing up for class is not satisfactory), then you can be fired. Rancourt was fired for not teaching what the University wanted to be taught.

    3) If you hold a second job, or even start a venture that keeps you busy more than half the time, you can and will be fired. This happens all the time: professors go out and start a business or some kind of organization. If you can prove that it takes up most of their time, and this is not related to their job at the university, you can get them fired. Where I work, if I have regular external contracts or jobs, I must divulged them.

    This is a pretty good definition:

    Tenure just means: keep your head down, make yourself useful in some way if you are no longer able to publish, and you won't be fired. And, most importantly, nobody can force you to work on the latest craze, no matter how much the administration would like you to. In exchange, we will pay you less than many of your graduating students. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

    At the same time, Tkk is right. There are annoying side effects to tenure. But removing tenure, in all fields, would almost certainly leave universities worst off, at least in some disciplines.

    Whether you like it or not, Tkk, universities need to offer attractive compensation or else, they will lose people.

    Right now, tenure means that I can pursue my research interests for the rest of my life, without worrying too much about my future. I still need to worry a little bit about my teaching duties, and the survival of my unit... The truth is that I *can* be fired if I do something stupid, or if things go really badly for my program and unit. But I won't be fired because my research program fails to deliver.

    Yes. I can go 3 years without publishing and still keep my job. But it does not mean that I would not face serious consequences should I do so. I would lose all research support, for example. For some people, this may mean the end of their career.

    Can you have a fantastic career without tenure? Absolutely. Tenure is just a perk. Even within industry, you can find a way to pursue your own crazy interests. It is just harder.

  26. Hi Giotis,

    I don't know, I'm not a lawyer. There are ways to lose your position though, most notably 'Staatsverat', basically passing on secrets to foreign spies. It's kind of obvious if you consider that you're formally employed by the state, not by the university. I guess the Germans are vary of removing profs from their positions because the Nazis tried to keep universities clean from politically active people. Best,


  27. Hi Bee,

    Yes I understand, we have a similar situation in my country where Police is not allowed to enter in a University for any reason at all practically. It is an asylum. That's because during the students' revolution against the dictatorship back in the 1970s the army invaded the Athens polytechnic school with tanks. Check it out if you don't believe me.

    Daniel I didn't know that story. Thanks for bring it up.

    It is amazing that in these unethical and cynical times we live in, where all we care about is our little selves they are still inspired and uncorrupted men out there, willing to stand their ground and defend their principles against authoritarianism.

    People like Professor Rancourt gives us hope.

  28. Yes, unfortunately, Rancourt did lose his job.

    We may argue that he was doing his job poorly. This can be debated. But he was teaching with conviction and doing state-of-the-art research. He was always working at one of the largest Canadian University. He was a full professor with tenure.

    He lost his job. Hence, tenure hardly makes you unfirable. I certainly could be fired. I constantly stand to lose my research grants.

  29. In Sweden it is quite difficult to fire professors because of misconduct. I have heard of three cases where univerities have tried:

    1. One law professor whose lectures was allegedly spiced with nazi propaganda.

    2. One professor who didn't show up in the department for two years, because she turned out to have another job in France.

    3. One professor who gave female students better grades in exchange for sexual favors.

    Only case 3 held up in court.

    However, it is not that uncommon that professors are fired if they don't get enough grants to cover their own salaries plus overhead.

  30. I am a physics and math double major in univeristy right now about to enter my sophomore year. I have personally found that research is one of the most rewarding ways I could spend my time. However, in talking with various professors around my department, the universal tone is 'Don't go into academia.' or even 'Don't major in physics.' Which is extremely unfortunate. They said that instead of going into pure physics and having to fight for faculty jobs that pay poorly for your comparatively high intelligence and being 'denied tenure' after 10 or so years of work, effectively ending your career at that institution makes the job fairly unfavorable. They suggested that I may want to look into a job like Patent Law or Econophysics/metrics. They also pointed me to this article


    which is a bit old but worthy of a read.

    Overall though, they seem to bemoan the move away from the tenure model. They said that its just not worth working for 30k a year, trying to pay off student loans, well into your 30's until you can land a tenure track position where you'd most likely lose your job in 15 years when your tenure was denied. Even when talking with the post docs here at the university, they seem to hold the same sentiments; most of them even sleep in their offices. It's rather depressing because from a really young age, I wanted to become a professional scientist/professor and it appears that that is very hard to do financially.

  31. @Thomas

    I am not sure who bemoans the move away from the tenure model. I am not aware of any such move.

    As for how difficult it is, consider that each professor trains several, sometimes dozens, of Ph.D. students. All of them smart and interesting in their own way. Funding is also directed toward training more and more Ph.D. students. This ensures that the supply of new Ph.D.s is generous.

    Comparatively, there is little funding for alternative research jobs to academia. Governments open relatively few research labs. Industry does relatively little bona fide research.

    So, basic supply dictates that life is very difficult for anyone entering the field.

    However, dropping the tenure model would not solve this. As long as we train far more Ph.D.s than we have jobs, there will be a problem.

  32. Hi Daniel,

    “So, basic supply dictates that life is very difficult for anyone entering the field.”

    This argument only holds if graduates and the powers that be continue to limit themselves as to what constitutes being demand and those who produce them to where they might be most needed. If the whole world is considered as the potential market, then it is quickly realized a pent up demand goes ignored and unaddressed.

    So while the first world sends relieve funds and food whose impact is limited and often only temporary in sustaining merely only the bodies,. the starved minds of many are left to wither and die. However, initiatives such as those that Neil Turok and others suppors have some merit as being an alternative in more than one respect. That is it affords fresh graduates a beginning to prove their abilities, while giving to those that are the most in need and yet so unlikely to be helped.

    Like Bill Gates has often repeated the words of Confucius, “give someone a fish he eats for a day, yet teach him to fish and he will eat for a life time”.



  33. Hi Thomas,

    You as another commenter previously are confusing two different things. There is a lack of positions generally. That makes tenure especially appealing. But is tenure the cure? Is it the only cure? Certainly it would also ameliorate the problem you're mentioning if there where more positions generally.

    It is of course true that we're producing too many PhDs in physics relative to how few faculty jobs there are. I previously asked whether we have simply too many physicists. While this was tongue-in-cheek, we should really been thinking about that. I don't think you can produce progress simply by producing more PhDs.

    I have a couple of friends who do patent law. I hear it's quite interesting actually. In any case, if academic research is where your heart this, this is of course what you should be doing. To some extend your senior colleagues feel probably responsible for discouraging you given the bad future outlook. I can only recommend you look at the options. Academia isn't the only way to be a physicist.




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