Academic Stress

March 2010 – By Professor William Reville, University College Cork

On Friday 12th February, Amy Bishop, assistant professor of biology at the University of Alabama, allegedly shot and killed three colleague professors and wounded three others. This terrible act was apparently in reaction to the news that she had not been granted a tenured position and, consequently, she would soon lose her job. While this specific incident no doubt involves complex personal issues, it nevertheless draws attention to certain pressures in academic life that rarely come to public attention   This pressure can become particularly intense in the American university. We must be careful not to import it here.

To become a university lecturer you must first serve a long and difficult apprenticeship. In addition to your primary degree you must also, in practice, have a PhD. It takes 4 years to complete the primary degree and a further 4 to complete the PhD (PhD annual stipend about 16,000 Euro). You must then spend 3/4 years accumulating post-doctoral experience (annual salary about 40,000 Euro) before you can apply for a junior lectureship (starting salary about 40,000 Euro) with any realistic hope of success. In our system, if your application is successful, you now enter a probationary/establishment period of 3 years after which, if you haven’t seriously ‘blotted your copybook’ in some way, you are appointed on a permanent basis, aged about 33.

In the American system your probationary period as a junior lecturer (called assistant professor there) is quite different. You enter a ‘tenure-track’ that lasts for 6 years. During this time you must meet or exceed certain performance criteria and, depending on your performance, you are either granted or refused tenure – tenure simply means a permanent position. If you fail to achieve tenure you lose your job and your future prospects for an academic career are dim indeed.

One big problem with the tenure-track system is that the performance criteria are very challenging, particularly in the more prestigious universities. So, in order to have any chance of succeeding, you must work intensely hard for 6 years, and even then you may not succeed. Success or failure is mainly judged on how many high quality scientific papers you publish and how much research grant money you win. And remember that your 6 tenure-track years are additional to 12 years of intense effort from the time you entered university as an undergraduate. So, after 18 years of intensely hard slog you could find yourself turfed out of your chosen field to face a dead-end career. This could easily break your spirit. And, in a rare case, where the mind is teetering on the edge, it could produce disastrous consequences.

But, even if you achieve tenure, the long years of arduous endeavour can take their toll. Many people marry and start families during their PhD or post-doctoral years, but it becomes very hard to devote meaningful time and attention to spouse and children if you are spending 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week, in the laboratory. For many couples the system is a conveyor belt towards divorce. The long hard hours, year in year out, can also desiccate the spirit and produce a lifelong habit of dull workaholism. It might be argued that this grinding system produces high levels of productivity but I doubt that it produces the highest levels of quality. Generally, intense competition and frenetic pace are the enemies of scientific creativity, not to mention the generators of much collateral damage in wider personal fulfilment and in family contentment.

Our system is gentler in that it is easier to achieve tenure. However, you will achieve no significant career advancement unless you work hard. The promotional system is competitive and you have little or no hope of advancement unless you publish a reasonable quantity of quality papers, win significant research grant monies and do an adequate job of teaching.

I have no problem with a competitive system of promotion. Effort should be rewarded. The public perception that university lecturers glide along a genteel and friction-less path, receiving regular promotions as they pass years-of-service milestones and burdened only by having to deliver a few lectures, is merely an illusion.

But, there is a notion in Ireland in some higher academic policy circles that the American model is the ideal – the road that will lead to the nirvana of ‘world class’ status for some of our universities. Some people would like to see the American tenure system introduced here. In my opinion, this would be a mistake. However, I feel that it will slip in gradually unless university academics guard warily against it. It is essential that everybody involved in university life keep a watchful eye in their efforts to develop and maintain a high quality and humane system.

(This article appeared in The Irish Times on 28th February, 2010).

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