Thursday, July 3, 2008

A kind of risk analysis

Thanks Mad Hatter for starting this blog and inviting me to post.

I've been thinking a lot about taking risks, so I'll make that my first post. One reason why the tenure-track is considered good is that it leads to a tenured position and that provides a certain amount of job security. There's also some freedom to pursue longer term projects (to a point). It is a relatively stable low risk career choice (not thinking about the heart-burn caused by the shenanigans that go on in academia here - that's another post).

Industry positions in large companies are also quite stable. There is less job security and less freedom to follow pet projects, but the salary is larger. You get paid more to absorb the risk of a lay off and your willingness to contribute to the profits of the company.

Positions in smaller companies and start-ups are less stable (unless your start-up is Google). Not to say there aren't people making a good living happily working for small companies. Just that there is little job security, even if you do fantastic work. An SAP programmer hopping from start-up to start-up is considered routine. A Ph.D. somehow seems to have more baggage to lug along (sigh).

Science writing has been a topic of discussion frequently. Probably if the position is in a large company it will be more stable than smaller companies. Science writing positions in academia tend to depend heavily on grants. So one has to always look for the next position to be on the safe side.

Coming to alternative faculty posts, academia always had temporary assistant professors, instructors, and adjunct faculty. The primary tasks in these positions are still teaching/research/service in varying ratios, just as in the traditional tenure-track. The difference is that there is little job security in these temporary positions. I wish these positions are given the same respect and stability that regular faculty positions automatically get (more in another post).

There are also temporary faculty positions where the job expectations are different from the usual teaching/research/service. These can be highly individualistic. There isn't much stability though and too much depends on the whims of the PI. Having held one such position I can offer some general suggestions with the benefit of hindsight:
  • Get as many details about job expectations as possible. If you are told you have to do what it takes, be careful. You could end up doing some tedious and time-consuming work that won't add anything to your resume, or worse. It would make finding the next job difficult.

  • Ask how you will be evaluated and what kind of promotion you can earn.

  • Negotiate in advance how much research time you will get (unless you don't want it). If you are told you can do research on your own time, realistically evaluate if you will be able to do any research at all. Same goes for teaching.

  • Negotiate in advance when your position will be renewed. I know someone who had to ask her PI every month from January till July before finally getting the letter of renewal.

Perhaps we could use this blog as a forum to lobby for more stability in these alternative faculty positions.

11 comments:

okham said...

Perhaps we could use this blog as a forum to lobby for more stability in these alternative faculty positions.

I have felt this way myself for a long time, but have grown increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of changing anything by "lobbying". Unfortunately I have come to believe that the only way to make lousy jobs better is not to take them.
As long as there are people out there who are qualified, and willing to take low-paying positions without benefits, they will continue to exist. I am afraid that we live in a regime of brutal supply and demand.
Salary and benefits for postdocs in my field are much better now than they were ten years ago, and I am quite sure that that is only because it has gotten harder to hire postdocs, following a steep decline in enrollment in the mid 90s.

Another possibility is to do as much work as the institution is willing to pay for. Low pay and/or no benefits ? Sorry, I can't put more than 20 hours a week -- the rest of the time I need to work on my second job (whether it exists or not)...

maddox22 said...

But you still have to pay the rent (and the student loans, and the doctor bills). I'd rather have a lousy job than no job at all.

(Of course, I'd rather have a great job than a lousy job, too. But I think there's always going to be someone desperate enough to take the lousy job.)

okham said...

But you still have to pay the rent (and the student loans, and the doctor bills). I'd rather have a lousy job than no job at all.

Absolutely. That is why they can get away with making it lousier and lousier. Does it suck ? You bet. Can you or I change it ? Doubt it... (man I hate sounding like Don Rumsfeld)

maddox22 said...

Isn't capitalism wonderful?

okham said...

Isn't capitalism wonderful?

No. But I have come to the conclusion that it can only be fought with its own weapons. Salaries will go up only the day employers realize that, for a lousy pay and lousy benefits, they can only hire lousy workers. Until then, they have the upper hand.
You know the line "You get what you pay for ?" that free-marketeers are fond of feeding us (often patronizingly so) ? At some point it must start working like that for them too.
This is why salaries in northern Italy continue to be as low as they are. Employers know that they can hire for pennies qualified welders, electricians, highly trained factory workers who could make great money in Canada or elsewhere in Europe, but who cannot even think of living more than 5 km away from their moms... if the same employers had to resort to hiring unskilled, unqualified workers who destroy equipment and are not as productive, maybe things would change...

You have no idea of the arguments I have with my wife, who is ready to take jobs for which she's overqualified, deriving extra income that we don't need, taking a job away from someone less qualified who needs it. I do not absolutely want to pass any judgment, I know we all do what we have to do, but from the market point of view, the worst thing someone with a PhD can do is take a job that only requires a Bachelor's degree.

Anonymous said...

"You have no idea of the arguments I have with my wife, who is ready to take jobs for which she's overqualified, deriving extra income that we don't need, taking a job away from someone less qualified who needs it."
By this logic, it is unethical for women with well-off working husbands to have jobs at all...
isn't that why many US states had laws against employment of married women in the 50's?

okham said...

By this logic, it is unethical for women with well-off working husbands to have jobs at all...

What ? Where did you get that from ?

My comment was about skilled workers of either sex who settle for less than they deserve, allowing shrewd employers to take advantage of favorable circumstances (such as a spouse looking for work, being bound to a particular place) to hire on the cheap overqualified professionals.
This practice has, in my view, two unfortunate consequences: 1) it lowers the average salary for qualified workers 2) it takes away jobs for less skilled workers.

In my wife's case, I would not have any problem if she were offered a job at a pay commensurate with her qualifications. But when I have the impression that she'd be taken advantage of, short-changed by someone thinking "eh, she's here anyway, she's probably bored... we can hire her on the cheap", it bothers me.

maddox22 said...

I'm surprised that she can even get offers for jobs that only need a bachelor's degree. I've applied for my share of those (both right after grad school and now) and I haven't gotten a nibble. Of course, it's possible that's because they genuinely don't like my resume/ cover letter/ etc. But I suspect much of it has to do with "She's too qualified; she can't possibly be a) serious about the job or b) willing to work for what we can pay." (I know this is a conversation that occurs, because I hear my group have the same conversation about candidates we review.)

I agree with you that it's not good to take a job away from a less-skilled person. But on the other hand, there aren't a whole lot of jobs out there for Ph.D.s who don't want to do research. (Witness this blog...) Most of the jobs I'm applying for now don't require a Ph.D. But that's mainly because the only jobs I've found that require a Ph.D. are research/professor jobs, which I'm not interested in.

Also, I think it's important to consider the difference between the job requirements listed on the job description and the characteristics the company/whatever is actually looking for. The job I have now does not require a Ph.D. (i.e., the job description does not say that an advanced degree is required). However, I don't think that I would be as useful to the company if I didn't have a Ph.D. Not that just having a doctorate makes one qualified for the position (we've had ample candidates demonstrate that)--but I think that sometimes companies lower the requirements (deliberately or not) so that they'll have a larger pool to draw from (and so that they don't automatically eliminate qualified folks that don't have advanced degrees), but they'd still probably be much happier with a Ph.D.

I don't think this is really making much sense. I guess all I'm trying to say is that I don't think a Ph.D. taking a job that technically requires only a BS or an MS is the main driving force behind the existence of low-paying, crappy jobs. It certainly isn't the reason alternative faculty positions have low pay, benefits, and job security. I think the main force here is supply and demand, pure and simple. (As, I think, we've all agreed.)

I don't know what the solution to that is. Other than forbidding companies to make more than a certain amount of profit--but then, that wouldn't touch most universities. Maybe forbid them from spending more than a certain amount on landscaping? :)

Truly, I don't think there really is a legislative solution...I don't think it's going to change until society as a whole changes significantly.

okham said...

Maddox22 -- you're quite right. The situation I am specifically thinking of consists of someone who, by virtue of education or on-the-job training, has qualifications superior to those of the average applicant. Having a PhD per se does not make an applicant better qualified in general, but it does for some specific jobs. Those are the ones I am talking about.

Factory workers in Northern Italy are better qualified than the average applicant. They should try and leverage their superior qualifications by moving to greener pastures. If they did, employers would either have to hire someone less skilled (who may not be able to find a job otherwise) or raise salaries. Right now they have no incentive to do either.

Say there is an opening for a temporary lecturership at the university. Jobs of this type can go to graduate students, to applicants with Master's degrees, or to applicants with a PhD degrees. I think it is fair to assume that in general (not always, of course) the added research experience and theoretical background of someone with a graduate degree will also impact their teaching. For this reason, pay scales should be different. The university should not be able to get away with paying graduate student salary for PhD level teaching.

Again, nobody is passing any judgment here, a job is a job, sometimes it is needed, and if it is needed it should be taken. However, there are unfortunate consequences to PhDs accepting to teach for the same money that a graduate student would be paid. This ends up skewing the pay scale, in the long run hurting both the PhDs themselves (as in, their category) and the graduate students.

Science Cog said...

okham - you've got a good point about supply and demand. These discussions will be useful to those searching for information on alternative careers.

CAE said...

Science writing positions in academia tend to depend heavily on grants.

And don't I know it...