A farewell to academia

Loved the teaching. Loved the science. Couldn't take the politics. Couldn't take the tenure stress. That about sums it up.

I am sending off today a signed offer letter for employment with Linden Lab, the folks who create and run Second Life. I will be an engineer or ops/developer or something... wait, hang on. Here we go, "Productions Operations Engineer" is the title listed in the offer letter. I will write more about this in the near future, and probably a lot more in the ongoing future. Let me say, though, that I'm very excited to be going to work for Linden. A lot of the rest of this post is going to sound negative, because this post is all about academia. However, I don't want it to sound like Linden is "just my escape valve." It was the only job I applied for this summer-- so I wasn't entirely looking to flee, but saw some things very positive about this job in particular. If you had asked me what I wanted to be back in 9th or 10th grade, I probably would have said "computer programmer." So, in a sense, I'm finally getting back on track where I was in 1984 or thereabouts.

As for academia... it is not without a lot of regret that I decide to leave. I will be giving things up, and I'm fully aware of that. I will mourn leaving academia. My mother said to me a couple of weeks ago when I was out in the SF Bay Area interviewing at Linden that she thought I have a real gift for teaching. I said, perhaps (having read some really nasty student evaluations, it's difficult for me to fully admit that), but it's OK if we all have gifts and talents that we don't use in our primary vocation. She strongly agreed with this. I will really miss the teaching. I will miss playing around with the advanced physics and astronomy, and helping others to learn it and see what's so beautiful and powerful about it. I will miss surfing at the front of astronomy research.

There are a lot of things I will not miss, however. I will not miss the brutal competition that plagues all of academia— made only the worse by the fact that we sometimes try to pretend that it doesn't exist, that we too often give lip service to the only-partially-true notion that the business of science as instantiated in our world today is what the business of science is supposed to be: that is, the pursuit of deeper understanding, all of us working together to try and know more about what makes this world we live in work. Yes, that is there... but in many fields, including mine, there are far more excellent people qualified to do the job than there are positions, and there are more positions than there are research dollars to adequately support. As a result, the pressures lead us to becoming tremendously competitive, to having to market ourselves and (often) oversell the crucial value of our own research, to dismissing what others are doing as uninteresting, to trying to get our piece of the pie not only by showing that we deserve it, but also often by trying to sew fear, doubt, and uncertainty that others deserve it. I've written an awful lot about things like this before.

I know I'm not alone in worrying about this. Bill Hooker describes the competitive nature of scientific research, the personal toll it takes on post-docs, and questions whether it is destructive to science as a field. Janet Stemwedel questions the ethics of papers that oversell their results, something which is driven by the fact that we are all competing for prestige. I've spoken privately with others about how a lot of (at least) the astronomy community is dysfunctional in how it distributes its resources. Many people have noted that it's getting harder to get null results published, and that it's very difficult to get "credit' for having done good science if you produce a null result... even though such things really should be the bread and butter of what scientists do, if we really believe all the things we say all the time about how science works, and about how the process of science is an honest, open, and objective process.

On the most personal level, though, I will absolutely not miss the ridiculous and overbearing pressure that is placed upon pre-tenure faculty. A friend (who may identify him or herself in the comments) told me recently that he/she hadn't known anybody who went through tenure without having the process seriously fuck them up in one way or another. I (more) recently asked a member of my department his/her persepctive on this, and he/she said that the tenure process wasn't a problem, as he/she had been very strategic in checking off the boxes... but that afterwards, he/she felt completely adrift, for the drive for tenure was what he/she had focused his/her efforts on for years, and he/she had lost track of the real reason for doing science. I got in an unfortunate discussion at Cosmic Variance where I expressed frustration with the fact that some of them are staunch defenders of tenure (and, at least at the time seemingly to me) defenders of the process of the tenure system-- even though two of the most outspoken ones claimed to have gone through a year of personal hell because of the whole tenure thing.

I've received a lot of positive feedback at Vanderbilt. A few years ago, I won the Chancellor's Award for Research (of which a handful are given out each year). After one faculty meeting when I spoke out in a manner few junior faculty would supporting a new curriculum we were trying to put forward, the Dean pulled me aside and said "you are going to go far." Elsewhere, when I've gone to give talks, people have said that I would have "no problem" whatsoever with tenure.

And, yet, despite all of this, the primary message I have received, and I suspect that the vast majority of pre-tenure faculty receive, is "You Are Not Good Enough." Even when the administrators are trying to be positive, talking about how great things are and how wonderful their standards are and so forth, I come away feeling more pressured to live up to the rosy vision that they are pushing on all of us. At a meeting of pre-tenure faculty, the Dean told us the statistics that since his arrival a few years previously at Vanderbilt, 29 out of the 30 tenure cases he'd seen had been been succesful; he said this was evidence that Vanderbilt was doing a good job hiring the right people. I suspected that it might be evidence that they are doing a very good job doing what they've done with me: showing the handwriting on the walls to the people who aren't going to get tenure so that they leave before precious "high tenure rate" statistics are messed up. At the same meeting, we were told that Vanderbilt doesn't care about funding, they care about excellent researchers... but that to be such in the physical sciences requires "continuous funding." They went on to make it clear that that was more than just a grant, for if a grant runs out, you'd better have another one going to tide you over as you try to renew it or replace it.

Most significantly, though, I've been told directly by my Chair that my tenure case, which would have been submitted in Fall 2008 (after just one more year), had less than a 1% chance of succeeding if I didn't have funding at the level of an NSF grant. Funding at that level in astronomy nowadays is very difficult to find anywhere other than the NSF, and they have calls for proposals once a year. 1/5 or 1/6 of the grants that get submitted are getting funded nowadays, and as I've written about before (in multiple places), it's very stochastic and difficult to predict.

I've had this Sword of Damocles about funding hanging over my head for years. In the last few years, it's been weighing more and more heavily on me, as I contemplate how compitetive NSF funding is, as I hear stories of "good proposals from big shots" even being turned down, as I hear about established and successful full professors finding it difficult to figure out how to keep funding their graduate students... and as I realize the Vanderbilt has a veto criterion for tenure that requires me to compete successfully in this funding rat race. For the last two years, as anybody who's been reading my blog since its inception will now, I've been feeling increasingly miserable and increasingly desperate because of the funding and (thus) tenure situation. My research productivity has plummeted in the last two years because of the feeling of futility it all had— it's difficult to get things done when I have the near-sure knowledge that my University is just waiting to kick me out for not being good enough. The serious depression that set in because of the constant message of "you don't measure up" and "you aren't going to get the resources you need to do what you were hired to do" that I got not only from Vanderbilt, but from the repeated failures to get funding or telescope time, set up a positive feedback loop where things got worse. It was too difficult to really get anything done because everything seemed so hopeless and overwhelming, and as a result I didn't get the papers done that might have been a tipping point in the future grant. I know a lot of people think the "utter pressure, sink or swim in the whirlpool" method is a great way to motivate pre-tenure people to extreme productivity, but in my case the primary result was an extreme crushing of my soul, the suppression of my ability to really function well as a scientist, and ultimately my decision that there are other exciting things in the world that I could be doing, and that what I liked about teaching and science wasn't enough to keep me from finding something else challenging to occupy my time with.

As an interesting afterward, a year or so ago another junior faculty member in my department was being courted by another University. He told his mentor about this, just looking for advice, saying he hadn't made any decisions. The metnor told the chair, who talked to the administration, and things started rolling. The final result was a large ($1.5M) internal research budget to help this faculty member build programs he wanted to build, and to convince him not to leave Vanderbilt. Although I'm not proud of this, it would be dishonest of me not to say that I'm jealous that he got that kind of response. I do want to say, though, that this is a huge benefit to all of astronomy, for the post-docs hired and the programs enabled enrichen the intellectual environment, and this faculty member is using the money in a way that really benefits all of the astronomers at Vanderbilt. So, Kudos to him, and it's really a boon for all of astronomy.


When the Dean found out that I was planning to leave, his response to my department chair was, "Make sure that Astro 102 gets taught!" (This, I think, is obnoxious of him to require, for astronomy will be, as a result of my leaving, understaffed next fall, and it will be troublesome to figure out how to cover that class.) Now, I know full well that I'm not as "good" as this other faculty member— not only is his research more on fire than mine is right now, not only does he advise more students and have a higher profile in the astronomy community, but he also has created programs that are the sorts of things that Universities love. I have no doubt that he's more valuable to the University than me. However, he is not so much better that the difference should be this great! That he gets the $1.5M research budget, and I get the message that I'm going to be fired after another year. It's really a case of feast or famine.

Indeed, this response from the Dean made me more comfortable that I am making the right decision. While I know beyond any doubt that at least some people in my department really value me, and I know beyond a doubt that at least some of the students here really value and respect me, I also suspected/knew that my value to Vanderbilt the institution was borderline at best. While the "not good enough" message that goes out to faculty in general is probably supposed to motivate them to be better, and not always a direct expression of the real opinion, I knew in my case from direct and unambiguous feedback that the institution as a whole had in fact judged me that way. (Consider the direct statement that with my record of funding continuing, I'd have a less than 1% chance of getting tenure. If that's not a hard and fast datum to indicate that Vanderbilt considers me not good enough, I don't know what is.)

And, so, I mourn academia, but I move on. I will be bitter, it would be dishonest to say otherwise. But I'm also excited. I've found in the last few days that I feel hope about the future of my career in a way that I haven't really for a couple of years. I know from interviewing that I'm going to be working with extremely intelligent and stimulating people, and I'm going to be working on an exciting and challenging project. I'm looking forward to it.

More like this

Good for you, man.
p.s. I have not met a Dean that was not a dick.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 16 Jul 2007 #permalink

I have -- my favorite Dean ever was Dean Bob Bell, who was associate Dean of Students at Harvey Mudd College at least during my last two years there (1998-1990). Dean Bell was great.



Good for you! Hardly a day goes by that I am not thankful for quitting a PhD program in my first year.

If there is a university in Second Life, I'm sure you'll easily be tenured there!


Congratulations on your new job!

As a person who spent many years fortunate enough to be teaching exactly where I wanted to be, in a two-year college, let me just point out that community colleges are incredibly important to education in this country and often cannot afford to hire full-time teachers of all the sciences they would like to include. At some point, please do consider on-the-side teaching at such a school that offers the first semester or two of astronomy. The kind of student who starts a four-year degree at a two-year school rarely has the opportunity to learn from someone as knowledgeable as yourself. Think of it, if you wish, as public service. It can be incredibly rewarding.

At some point, please do consider on-the-side teaching at such a school that offers the first semester or two of astronomy.

I've certainly not ruled it out. In the short term, I expect to be plenty busy with the new job!


Have fun.

I suspect that you'll be very succesful outside academia and from what you've written it'll be something you'll enjoy.
It'll have its own pressures I'm sure, but probably not the extreme stress that you've been subject to.

You will still be blogging about the Universe I hope?

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 16 Jul 2007 #permalink

How will your decision affect your advisees? I would imagine that their graduation would be delayed and/or their research somewhat handicapped, especially if there was not another professor pursuing the same or a closely related topic. I have only known on person in which his advisor died, and he claimed it set him back a couple years.

Rob, I'm thrilled you are moving into something that excites you. The pity is that it's been such a brutal process to get you there.

Here's to a satisfying future!

How will your decision affect your advisees?

I have one graduate student, and two undergraduates working with me who otherwise would have continued into the next year. I'm talking with all of them.

Mind you, the same thing would have happened in another year if I was denied tenure as it did this year as I decided to leave. So, yes, I do feel guilty, but on the other hand, it's not entirely my fault, nor would it be reasonable for me to sacrifice myself.

There is some possibility that the students can continue working on the projects they are working on, with me getting an adjunct position in the department so that I can do some advising of them in my "off" time. This will not be as good for them as having an extant professor being their advisor, but it may also be an advantage for them not to switch projects. I am in discussion with all of them.


A friend (who may identify him or herself in the comments) told me recently that he/she hadn't known anybody who went through tenure without having the process seriously fuck them up in one way or another.

That would be me. (Which is to say, I remember telling you that -- but it's quite possible that another friend on the tenure track told you that, too.)

In the past 10 years, I've never known someone to leave astronomy and not be significantly happier. ("My boss tells me I'm doing well! And then pays me more money! And I don't work on the weekends!") It's certainly selection biased to some degree, but empirically, the trend holds. I hope that it's the same for you, as you deserve more happiness than this past year has brought you.

It's a shame that so much talent is wasted by universities this way. Many who train as scientists ultimately end up elsewhere, left with a bad taste in their mouth about their experiences, if not worse. How that is good for science is a mystery to me. It

Best of luck to you in your new job. Hope you enjoy it.

The main message I take from this is: the U.S. is not spending enough on scientific research. Therefore there is not enough funding to support all the people who would otherwise be doing good scientific work. The magazine "Machine Design" used to have an editorial each year comparing the amounts spent on various things in the U.S. (don't know if they still do, I haven't read the magazine the last few years). IIRC, the last such editorial I read says we spend more on cosmetics than on all forms of scientific research.

I made the leap from Academia to Industry four years ago and I never looked back. I wish I hadn't spent all those anxious years in academia dealing with more politics etc. for a lot less money than in the business world. Industry is soooo much better, even with the possibility of job loss. As for job "security" as a professor, I was pretty much gone if I didn't get funding anyway. I'm much less stressed and much happier doing what I do now.

Rob -- this is interesting. I'm profoundly sorry your time at Vanderbilt ended up going the way it did, and I wish that the actual practice of science were more like the ideal. What is interesting is...you're going to Second Life. That's cool, there is so much being developed there, and, their tools and environment are being brought into teaching.

Our university is playing around with setting up a Second Life environment for distance and virtual learning environments. Personally, I think it would be very interesting and useful to have someone on the Second Life side with experience of students and teaching at a university level. Would you be at all interested in talking about that, even if it is not a formal part of your new job?

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 16 Jul 2007 #permalink

I hope this new job works out well for you. I left a career in the sciences that might (had things turned out differently) have had academia as a possibility. I still really miss some of the better aspects of being in academic research in the sciences, but at the same time I know I would have been very unhappy trying to make academia work for me.


In the past 10 years, I've never known someone to leave astronomy and not be significantly happier. ("My boss tells me I'm doing well! And then pays me more money! And I don't work on the weekends!")

I once had a girlfriend who got a degree in astrophysics (and wandered into other endeavors not long afterward) who said regularly: "Crime doesn't pay, and neither does astronomy!"

By ColoRambler (not verified) on 16 Jul 2007 #permalink
I have not met a Dean that was not a dick.

I have -- my favorite Dean ever was Dean Bob Bell, who was associate Dean of Students at Harvey Mudd College at least during my last two years there (1998-1990).

Is it a coincidence that Harvey Mudd is an engineering college as opposed to a large university? Other articles on Science Blogs have criticized the ways that universities are funded and the subsequent pressures on faculty.

Oh, hey, I missed seeing the Harvey Mudd comment! My nephew is at Harvey Mudd.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 16 Jul 2007 #permalink

Rob, you should consider re-editing this post andadd some more contextual stats for submission to a journal. The underfunding is an important issue, but so is the environment that drives so many promising academics out of academia. Yours is a riveting story and should be shared widely.

And good luck with Linden.

Congratulations, Rob! The new job sounds like a good one and I'm glad to hear that you're getting out of the lousy environment of your old one.

Good luck on your new endeavor!

And, just for the record, my Dean is not a dick, either.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 16 Jul 2007 #permalink

Oh, one other thing. I have no clue what "Second Life" is, but I hope you will continue to blog as you transition into your new career.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 16 Jul 2007 #permalink

Personally, I think it would be very interesting and useful to have someone on the Second Life side with experience of students and teaching at a university level. Would you be at all interested in talking about that, even if it is not a formal part of your new job?

It won't be, but.... One of the neat things about Linden Labs is that some fraction of my time will be working on whatever Linden project I choose. I'll be writing more on this later. The truth is, though, those projects are more likely to related to computer networking and developing of the kinds of things that makes it all work, as that will related closely to the rest of my job.

However! There are a lot of people thinking about education in Second Life, and a lot of people who have a lot more experience than I do in teaching classes that relate to it one way or another. Look for the "SLED" (Second Life Educators) mailing list. Pathfinder Linden is the in-world name of the Second Life person who is (if I am not mistake) most involved with educational efforts.


Is it a coincidence that Harvey Mudd is an engineering college as opposed to a large university?

Actually, nowadays it's classified, I think, as a small liberal arts college :) When I was there, us physicists and so forth used to grouse that it was classified as an "engineering college." True, about half of the students were engineering majors, but it was a science and engineering college.

The key thing is that, when I was there, there were about 560 students all told. I really got to know Dean Bell when I was a dorm president my senior year. However, my sister visited once before that year, and was surprised as I would walk across campus and various people would greet me by name; not just other students, but faculty, the Dean of Students, the College President... and I wasn't special. It was the small community that was special.


Congratulations! What a neat opportunity . . . As a grad student, I know jobs (and opportunities, and security) will be scarce when I graduate, and it's always nice to be reminded that I don't have to stay on this path for the next 50 years just because I've started. I really like the idea of leaving academia and doing something outside my field, but it's the sort of thing where role models are scarce (since by definition they're not hanging around the astro building any longer ;) ). I'm much more able to keep myself grounded and realistic about what I want knowing that other people have been able to make the leap.

I feel your pain.

That's why I wandered from academe to the internet industry, as a manager at EarthLink, then VP of R&D at Brave New Worlds, Inc, until it was acquired by LNUX and I cashed out.

And that junior faculty bull-puckey is a big part of why I am now, at least for the summer, and probably for the next school year, teaching inner city teenagers at a summer school and high school. No NSF grant needed to motivate kids whose parents (if they have them alive) have given up on them, whose school has given up on them, whose peers have given up altogether.

I can undo the tragic harm of their having had one bad teacher after another, and show them the dignity and respect that they deserve.

Pay cut, so what. We've got to follow our bliss, our hearts, and our beliefs in the nature of civilization.

Again, empathy, sympathy, and may the new position reinvigorate you.

Pay cut, so what.

Heh. At some level, it can really matter. Part of the reason I didn't take a SLA job a year ago was that the size of the pay cut would have made it very difficult for us to meet our (post-health insurance) medical expenses.... If I had been alone, and not in a family, I would have taken the pay cut and taken the job.

Best of luck to you, Rob. Bitter is a waste of time and energy - be assured that some of the best scientists never worked in academia. There's a whole real world out here. Keep up with the "cannot do" crowd, but don't let 'em slow you down.

Maybe someday they'll provide a graduate overview for majors and grads that tells them exactly how useful academia views their specialties. It would at least be more honest, and those who demand the knowldge anyway (because they're real places to go with it) won't let the door hit their asses on the way out once they got what they were after.

Congratulations!! I know how nice the excitement and hope feels after too much time looking at a bleak academic future. I made the switch just a few months ago, and I'm very glad I did. Best wishes!

I have a couple of early high-school boys who will be jealous of you. Writing/designing multi-person interactive games seems to be their current ambition. P.S. where will you be located?

I hope you will be able to find some way to include education in your gaming career. I've long thought that computers ought to be able the greatly aid the learning experience, but most of the stuff I've seen falls very far short of what I have hoped to see. Perhaps you can be the one that makes the crucial breakthrough(s).

I also hope you will continue to post on astronomy. As a fellow frustrated wanna-be Astrophysicist, I know that part of you will miss being part of that adventure. I only keep up in a non-technical manner, you should be able to do at least as much.

Got here via the Chronicle...congrats on being able to see what you want and realizing that leaving academia is the right thing for you. Many people are not lucky enough to figure out their needs, and get themselves stuck in horrible places/jobs simply because of the lure of tenure. I'm in a different field altogether, but the entire system is in need of overhaul. Candidates are lured to high-value jobs like those at Vanderbilt, or Cornell, or the University of Michigan, eschewing work at smaller liberal arts programs or smaller state schools without graduate programs. The few who make it to these prestige schools get chewed up by the need to produce, publish, procure funding (and keep in mind, everyone who publishes does eventually perish, as we're all mortal). The publishing, depending on the field, is often meaningless - just using natural resources to create journal articles that few will read and fewer will comment on. We may work in soulless, crushing, petty vacuums, where we learn nothing more about ourselves, our work, our world, our students, our capabilities. I've finished the tenure process and now I wait for the decision (8 months!) but I remain ambivalent and not entirely persuaded by this whole endeavor. I wish you the very best in your career shift, location shift, and perspective shift.

I will be posting on astronomy for at least the forseeable future. I'm still, of course, very interested! I will be increasingly "out of it" as time goes by, however.

Re: where I'll be located, this is a telecommuting job, so I'll be staying in Nashville.


Congrats on the new job, and the move to the Bay Area.

A friend of mine, who works as a software engineer, said to me "I do not understand academics. All they worry about is funding and making an impact. I just want to to be happy, so I arranged my life around that."

That certainly got me thinking about my career.

By Brad Holden (not verified) on 16 Jul 2007 #permalink

I do not understand academics. All they worry about is funding and making an impact. I just want to to be happy, so I arranged my life around that.

Well, if astronomy is what makes one happy ...


I was going to make a snarky tongue-in-cheek joke about welcoming you to the "Real World", but given that you're working at Linden, I don't think that really qualifies...

Still, congrats :)

Well, if astronomy is what makes one happy ...


But when you subtract off the things that make you miserable, there had better be a net positive.

And, you'd better be able to check off all the boxes so they'll let you keep doing it.

Re: the Real World, there are lots of those.


Consider the direct statement that with my record of funding continuing, I'd have a less than 1% chance of getting tenure. If that's not a hard and fast datum to indicate that Vanderbilt considers me not good enough, I don't know what is.

I call it pretty fair evidence that the admin at Vanderbilt cares a lot more about money and (their perceived) prestige than about teaching or research.

Good luck in your new job.

I forgot to mention (in that other thread), Dr. Alan Hale (Astronomy PhD, discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp) who was outspoken about his personal difficulties in finding work (part of "abysmal" funding situation for science in general). He is also pro-active in public education & countering pseudo-science. He sounds like a carbon copy of your situation!

Excerpts of his 1997 open letter ("Recipe for Disaster") below:

I am Alan Hale, the co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp which, as I'm sure you're aware, is getting a tremendous amount of media attention at this time. Like I'm sure is true for many of you, I was inspired by the scientific discoveries and events taking place during my childhood to pursue a career in science only to find, after completing the rigors of undergraduate and graduate school, that the opportunities for us to have a career in science are limited at best and are which I usually describe as "abysmal." Based upon my own experiences, and those of you with whom I have discussed this issue, my personal feeling is that, unless there are some pretty drastic changes in the way that our society approaches science and treats those of us who have devoted our lives to making some of our own contributions, there is no way that I can, with a clear conscience, encourage present-day students to pursue a career in science. It really pains me a great deal to say something like that, but I feel so strongly about this that I have publicly made this statement at almost every opportunity I have been given.
But I intend to keep hammering away at this, and I'd like to believe that eventually some are going to sit up and take notice. I am also attempting to schedule meetings with some of our government leaders, to see if I can at least get some acknowledgement from Washington that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with.
My reason for writing to you is to ask your help. I know that I'm not alone in being frustrated about the current prospects for pursuing any kind of decent career within science, and I'm quite sure that many of you have "horror stories" about your searches for decent employment that are quite similar to my own. I'd like to hear them. I'd especially like to hear from those of you who are on your second or third or fourth post-doc, or who have left the field as a result of the employment situation, or who have experienced severe personal difficulties (e.g., break-up of a marriage, etc.). I realize that some of these might be painful to discuss, but I'd like to show that we are not a bunch of impersonal statistics, but that we're human beings trying to make an honest living and perhaps make a contribution or two to society while we're at it. Speaking of statistics, though, if you received any information about the numbers of applicants to some of the positions you applied to -- which was often a 3-digit number in my case -- I'd like to hear that, too.

The above is almost a mirror-image of your blog posts on Academia: 1) there is a significant problem 2) outreach for help 3) pro-active search for solution 4) left Academia.

What is it..2007, exactly 10 yrs later, & we have another Astronomy PhD going public with the "problem". You mean nothing has changed?? (well, it's worse).

Here is a followup by A. Hale, excerpts below:

For the record, today is Saturday, October 4, 1997. Forty years ago today
the then-Soviet Union launched a small metallic ball, named Sputnik, into
orbit around the earth. That event shocked a complacent America, as well
as the rest of the world. But not for long; the legacy of that event
stimulated what was clearly one of the most incredible golden ages in
scientific discovery that humanity has ever seen, and is what stimulated
many of us who grew up during that era to pursue scientific careers in
the first place
. Less than twelve years after Sputnik we witnessed what
humanity is capable of when human beings took their first steps upon the
lunar surface. Some time later, I had the personal privilege of playing a
small part in one of that era's successes, as I was part of the team in
the Deep Space Network that helped guide Voyager 2 past the planet Uranus.

Now, forty years after Sputnik -- well, I guess things aren't all bad. The
two cold war adversaries who were competing so strongly against each other
are now cooperating in projects like the Shuttle-Mir missions. And of course,
there's been the revolution in communications and computer technology which
is making it possible for me to share my thoughts with so many of you via
the Internet. But in many ways, though, it seems to me that Sputnik's legacy
is dying.
The personal circumstances which prompted me to write my open letter,
and those that were described within the hundreds upon hundreds of letters that
were written to me in response, illustrate just far we have fallen from the
promise that seemed to shine so brightly for so many of us during the post-
Sputnik years.
At the same time, we have witnessed a phenomenal growth in
pseudo-science flooding our society from all directions, and I don't see any
signs of a slowdown in that. It somehow seems fitting that, only one week
after I posted my open letter, I was facing media crews at a press conference
and delivering a statement in the aftermath of the Heaven's Gate tragedy.
[ mass suicide by a cult thinking Hale-Bopp comet was their rescue ship..pseudo-science at its worts ]

All along, I've been deeply concerned about the future direction of our
society, and about the message that we are sending to the aspiring scientists
of the next generation.

After reading the above "mirror of R. Knop", the obvious thing for Rob to do is to network with him (& others). There are some Caltech physics professors (David Goodstein, Feynman's "protege"), who have also expressed similar thoughs.

"A good PLAN..will beat a Good Idea anyday..10 to 1"
-- wise-sage, advice given to me on my own project

The idea is there ("Academia is in Decay..Recipe for Disaster"), you need a plan-of-action. That plan involves group-action (organized).."United we Stand, Divided we Fall". A. Hale did a heroic thing back in '97, he used his fame from Hale-Bopp as "leverage" to attempt to get a coaltion together. If he (former JPL'er) teams up with another Caltech alumni (RK) & profs, maybe you have some something going.

"the people at Caltech are really smart, they argue a lot..but they end up DOING THE RIGHT THING"
-- my classmate, Stanford Geophysics PhD

Critical Observation, Critical Thinking..& especially Critical Action.

I'll look for SLED and Pathfinder Linden. Thanks for the heads-up on those.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

Congratulations on you new job! I hope that in a couple of years you will see the problems that you had in academia as a blessing in disguise.

Speaking as a biology post-doc (and some-time programmer), I'm rather jealous of your future writing computer games.

Best of luck!

Congrats on the new job.
It's a shame Vandie couldn't spare some of Mrs. Gee's drug money to keep you on, but the real world does have its advantages.

Congratulations! Good to hear that you'll be keeping up the astronomy posts.

Well, you answered in the comments the one question I had, and so we over here are joyful for you (and a wee bit jealous)! Oddball wants to know if the job involves coding, and I want to know if you have a spare evening to celebrate with us. We /would/ have helped you celebrate Saturday, but I guess you were busy.


I gave up tenure and went to work for industry. Been doing that about six years. Recently, and semi-miraculously, I was offered a tenured slot and will return to academia in January.

I mention this because things can happen unexpectedly. I'd advise you keep your eyes open for positions at non-research universities. There the pressure is only to get good teaching evaluations.

I think it is fantastic to have believers (as, IIRC, you are) teaching in the sciences at secular universities. Obviously we cannot and should not proselytize, but students will, as students do, discover that you are a believer. It's a pretty powerful statement to have a believing astronomy or physics professor.

Feel free to write to me if you want to talk with someone who has been in and out of academia a couple of times. I can even alert you about a place that will likely have a slot opening up next year.

Well, you answered in the comments the one question I had, and so we over here are joyful for you (and a wee bit jealous)! Oddball wants to know if the job involves coding, and I want to know if you have a spare evening to celebrate with us. We /would/ have helped you celebrate Saturday, but I guess you were busy.

The job will almost certainly involve coding.

Re: Saturday, I'm sorry I didn't show up. I had intended to, after my wife and I got out of the Harry Potter movie, I was attacked by a serious case of nap-need, and that ended up eating away much of Saturday afternoon... :/

I should indeed have a spare evening at some point.


Pay cut could matter. My wife has medical insurance, through her Physics professorship. Medical insurance helped save her life, though we had to also borrow money from an outside source (Medical Emegency Fund of Science Fiction Writers of America).

"There are some Caltech physics professors (David Goodstein, Feynman's "protege"), who have also expressed similar though[t]s."

David Goodstein was my Freshman Advsior at Caltech. Imagine my luck, having him and Feynman pushing me in the right direction.

The Internet World (or Web 2.0 in your case) has its own loopy madness, but at least your job has Fun as a product, and not just moneygrubbing.

Hail Hale!

Do what you love; money and happiness follow, not necessarily in phase.

Congratulations on the new job.

"at non-research universities...the pressure is only to get good teaching evaluations"

I know of zero such institutions, save community colleges (=/= "universities"). Even the most teaching-intensive 4-yr colleges require scholarly research and publications of junior faculty, if not grant $$$.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

Sven DiMilo

I know of zero such institutions, save community colleges (=/= "universities"). Even the most teaching-intensive 4-yr colleges require scholarly research and publications of junior faculty, if not grant $$$.

Then you need to get out some. This is, in fact, obvious: PZ, for one, was tenured. Has he published much at UMM? Has he generated lots of $$$? I doubt it. In truth, all places will (as you suggest) ask for some professional development, but the demand at a teaching college is not even remotely close to what research universities demand.


I'll also vouch for Bob Bell...swell guy and a good Dean. From standing back and watching your journey through academia, I think I'm glad that I got a thumbed nose from that world up front. (Lesson one - if you want to get into academia, don't graduate during a recession.) I've ended up where you are, but with perhaps a lot less pain and suffering along the way.

On the other hand, I really miss the research opportunities, and I do sometimes wonder if there's something I could have done to get on that path. (There's no sense in dwelling on that, though.)

The only way I could ever get lured into academia again is to get an offer from a small research oriented school (Harvey Mudd comes to mind - I too thought the small community where *everyone* knows you was unique and fun), and not from a big university. Your experience strikes me as not atypical, and it's definitely not helpful to the universities involved, the people ground up by the machine, or the science. Meeting checkboxes is not the same as having real ability in research and teaching. Sadly, the former is more important in the current cash-starved environment.

I suspect you won't find coding to be quite as fulfilling as teaching, but I also suspect that you'll find the net balance to be far better. The pool of available and qualified people in careers like your new one is very limited. (Perhaps due to the aforementioned funding situation.) The competition is centered on employers trying to find ways to please (and thereby retain) employees. I think you'll find that refreshing!

As always, best of luck. I might have to have a look at this Second Life thing at some point!

By David Williamson (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

Imagine having to produce a new metaohysical system for the philosophy dept.

By Eric Peterson (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

Many congratulations on getting a position you seem happy with, doing something that will be such fun. I saw some wonderful demonstrations of Second Life at a meeting last year - it has great educational potential.

Congrats, and I wish you well.

Your comments about the difference in attitude of the Dean toward teaching a course well and running a research enterprise at a Wannabe Flagship institution in the middle of the R1 group should be read carefully by all students looking at a career in academia. Research universities do not value teaching. If teaching is your primary interest, you need to look elsewhere.

PS -
I am finally assembling a series of blogs on the job market in physics. I am posting the first ones as works in progress so I can deal with some formatting issues, but the second one (on "demand") should be wrapped up later today. When I get to the issues related to preparing for future jobs, your blogs on the topic will be linked as a resource.

Thanks JoAnne! (And everybody else!) I won't actually be moving to the Bay Area-- the job will be telecommuting. I'll come out regularly.

Of course, I used to live in the Bay Area; I was there from 1977-1986 (and then summers for the next four years, as I was in college), and then again during my post-doc with the SCP from 1996-2001. That is the area I really think of as "home," even though my home is now and for the forseeable future in Nashville.


"There are a lot of people thinking about education in Second Life, and a lot of people who have a lot more experience than I do in teaching classes that relate to it one way or another."

Maybe you could work on a Second Life planetarium, if one doesn't yet exist.


I wish you the best of luck with your new job. For what it's worth, I owe you a lot. I certainly would not be where I am where right now without you. Thanks again for all the time you put into our project. I had a tremendous amount of fun working with you, and I loved being in your classes. Thanks again.



You have a bright future indeed! Remember that nobody can take away your Ph.D. and the contributions that you have made to the field of astronomy. Keep your chin up and your head high. =)

Good luck in your upcoming endeavors.

All the best,

Richard M. Low, Ph.D. (a lowly adjunct)

By Richard Low (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink

I'm sorry academe (or at least Vanderbildt) has pushed Rob out.
There's a classic quote from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"
which I've often thought of in pondering career decisions. HAL
9000 is speaking to a BBC interviewer, and is asked (roughly)
if he's happy in his job helping to run the spaceship. He replies:
"I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.". I like that!

More generally, academia can be harsh, but it can also be an
incredibly fulfilling way to spend one's life (or part of it).

I finished my PhD (in astronomy) in 1993. In the years since
then, I've been academically-unemployed for 5 years (part-time contract
computer programming payed the bills while I kept on with
part-time research untill I got another postdoc). The rest
of my time I've been a postdoc; I just started my first
faculty position.

Somehow, over the years I seem to have wound up giving advice to a lot of
other academics wondering what to do. What I've usually said
is something like this:
1. If you're part-way through a PhD, finish it -- the world
at large will give you precisely zero credit for a half-done
thesis, whereas a finished one will increase your percieved
value to others whether you stay in academe or leave it.
2. Ask yourself, "is doing science something you really *love*?"
If so, then (try to find a way to) stay in academe.
If not, then you're going to be unhappy, so leaving
sounds good.

Of course, this doesn't address tenure-squeeze and other
want-to-stay-but-can't-find-a-way-to-get-paid issues.
These are harder. One thing my spouse (also an academic,
though in a quite different field) and I have used to
advantage is that we a bit of caution in our finances,
only one of us needs to have a paying job at any time.
For the past few years I've been the one with a paying job,
and my spouse has been "gainfully unemployed" busy with her
research. This year we both have too-good-to-turn-down
1-year temporary jobs (alas in different countries, so we're
in a long-distance marriage). From next year on she'll be the
one with a paying (tenured!) job and I'll
be the one on adjunct status. It's not ideal, but it does
remove some of the get-a-grant-or-perish pressures for both
of us....

For me, being an academic scientist is far and away the
main thing I want to do with my life, and I love doing it,
so I'm willing to give up other things
(high pay, lots of job security at early- and mid-career stages)
to keep doing this. But it's clearly not for everyone.

-- Jonathan Thornburg

By Jonathan Thornburg (not verified) on 22 Aug 2007 #permalink

Ask yourself, "is doing science something you really *love*?"
If so, then (try to find a way to) stay in academe.

I disagree with this one.

Doing and teaching science is indeed something that I really love. But I'm out, and I think it was the right decision.

The world isn't absolute. You can't just say "if you love this, then do that." Because it was killing me, as I've explained at great length above. You might say, "well, then you didn't really love doing science," but that would be wrong. I did. It's all the other bullshit that I didn't love, particularly the tenure stress, particularly the constant message that I was not going to be allowed to keep doing it.

I've known people who got a divorce despite the fact that they still loved the person they were divorcing. Why? Because despite the fact that they loved each other, they just couldn't live together.

The whole "do what you love" thing is vastly oversimplistic advice. In some circumstances it may work for some people. But it doesn't always.

Sometimes, in order to have a fulfilling and livable life, you have to sacrifice the ability to do some of the things you love. That's just how reality is. To deny that is to pretend that reality is like some sugarcoated Disney movie.


Agree wholeheartedly with Rob. That whole "I love one thing and I can only be happy with one thing" deal is a recipe for misery. Careers are seldom static anyway. It also works at the small level with bioscientists who want to only work on one particular problem or (worse) use one fairly specific model.

I've yet to meet someone who left a particular academic slot, let us say not entirely willingly, who didn't end up happier later with whatever choices were made...