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I am a PhD student in a biomedical field in the United States. After seeing professors' Google calendars and figures like this (link) about how limited the time tenure-track faculty get to spend on their research is and how many other demands on them there are, I am reconsidering whether or not that is something that I want to do.

The idea of being a "research professor" who is free from those other demands and has research as a primary focus appeals to me - but I am not sure whether this is a realistic option as a career choice. I have heard some people say soft money can be relatively stable as long as you are collaborative and don't put all your eggs in one basket, but I have also seen a lot of other people who think these positions are unstable and highly stressful and something you should only do for a few years while trying to get a tenure-track position.

So my questions are:

  1. Is it realistic to hope to spend my career as a research professor, or is this usually something people only do short-term?
  2. Can I have reasonable job stability doing this by working collaboratively?
  3. Do research professors tend to be more or less stressed than tenure-track professors?
  4. If you have experience with this career path (or know people who are in this career path) is it something that you would recommend to others? Why or why not?
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    @DanRomik good points, but possibly there's an element of sample bias? (Or dare I say it, survival bias)
    – Yemon Choi
    Oct 15, 2017 at 23:42
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    @YemonChoi of course. Professors who don't know me are, naturally, a lot more unhappy and stressed out than those who do. :-)
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 15, 2017 at 23:57
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    @DanRomik, here is the article that graph came from: insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/09/… . The graph shows how working hours were allocated, not all hours of the day. Participants averaged 61 working hours per week.
    – Tapeworm
    Oct 16, 2017 at 2:28
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    Thanks, that's helpful. It confirms my suspicion that the data in the chart has zero relevance to me or to anyone I know.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 16, 2017 at 3:09
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    I’m in math. I don’t keep accurate track of how I distribute my time, so don’t feel comfortable making public estimates of such things that could end up being wildly incorrect. Besides, sorry if this will come across as condescending but in my opinion it would be just as inadvisable for you to rely on anecdotal data from me and other strangers on the internet as it would be to rely on the article you linked. If you want anecdotal data, ask me if I’m happy with my career choice; I can report that I am (but this could also be selection bias at work as @YemonChoi pointed out).
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 16, 2017 at 14:10

1 Answer 1

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Background: Answering this as a biomedical researcher currently in a tenure-track position who definitely looked at some non-tenure, 100% soft money positions. One thing to note, there are also effectively 100% soft money tenure-track positions out there in the world. What a tenured, all-soft money position actually means is left as an exercise to the reader.

Is it realistic to hope to spend my career as a research professor, or is this usually something people only do short-term?

There are people I know who spend their careers like this, and some of them are happy. But there are also a lot of people who either leave for tenure-track positions, or switch over to tenure-track in time. But it is a career path - indeed, one of my former departments has an entire structured program for these people to make a career out of it, including wrestling with how do you evaluate them for promotion, etc. Of the people who have left, there were two major complaints in my experience:

  1. Instability, in terms of having yearly contracts, no salary support, etc.
  2. Many departments restrict non-tenure track faculty in some ways - most commonly, deciding on tenure, but also potentially on hiring committees, advising, etc. Some people resented feeling like 2nd class faculty.

Can I have reasonable job stability doing this by working collaboratively?

Ironically, the most stable people I know in these positions are essentially "super-postdocs", and not actually on lots of grants, but well supported by a single, large center-type grant.

I will say that, as someone who works very collaboratively, and is also in a position where one of the most common tracks forward is building up a somewhat piecemeal funding portfolio instead of a single "one-and-done R01", I don't find it particularly stable, or at all less stressful.

Do research professors tend to be more or less stressed than tenure-track professors?

Depends on the position. The ones I knew who were funded as part of a center, core, etc. where whether or not the application failed wasn't particularly on their shoulders? Less stressed.

The ones trying to scramble to keep 10x 10% effort projects alive and going at the same time, while worrying if they'd get their contract renewed? Very stressed, because you can never get off the treadmill.

If you have experience with this career path (or know people who are in this career path) is it something that you would recommend to others? Why or why not?

I ended up taking a tenure-track job, and choosing one with a fairly generous amount of hard money, and don't regret this at all.

If you can find someone who is willing to put you on a large, stable grant that can support a substantial % of your salary, even if it is technically hard money, that's a decent path I've seen some people enjoy immensely. But if you're expected to find and bring in all your own money? You're going to spend as much time, if not more, scrambling for funding, without the carrot of tenure at the end.

It also depends on why the position is not tenure-track. In some places, that's just the way things are - for example, in one institution, PhDs basically couldn't get tenure, so their positions were non-tenure track, but their contracts were for long periods. In that case? Not a red flag in my mind. In another, it felt very much like those faculty members were very-low commitment bets on the university's behalf, and if they didn't work out, they were disposable. That's not a position I'd want to be in.

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    "What a tenured, all-soft money position actually means is left as an exercise to the reader." Perhaps I'm not being imaginative enough, but I'm having trouble picturing this. A person whose employment is all but guaranteed coupled with a salary that is just the opposite? Oct 15, 2017 at 21:46
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    @HermitianCrustacean "We can't fire you, but we don't have to pay you." Only really useful for the political protection of tenure. It's often used in medical schools and the like, because clinicians can make up their salary via service in a way PhD-types can't.
    – Fomite
    Oct 15, 2017 at 21:48
  • Thank you! Do you have any other suggestions for what might be a good career path for someone who wants to be "mostly research" and not teach?
    – Tapeworm
    Oct 15, 2017 at 21:50
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    If you don't want to teach, and you don't want the stress of raising your own salary, the best option can sometimes be industrial/governmental lab research. This obviously depends on your field, but there are intellectually satisfying, valuable things being done out there, and I wouldn't rule it out just because it isn't academia.
    – AJK
    Oct 15, 2017 at 22:20
  • @Tapeworm As mentioned, industry or the government may be good paths forward. You can also try to find a position as a staff scientist, although these are rare, and a pretty steep ask for the labs involved. It should also be noted that my current position is tenure track, has a decent amount of hard money, and no teaching obligation. That's...rare...but not so rare as to be non-existent.
    – Fomite
    Oct 15, 2017 at 22:26

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