Tenure and Physics March 21, 2008Posted by gordonwatts in Tenure, university.
After reading your blog (and enjoying it of course) for over two years now, I feel you have discussed a lot of issues in programming, ROOT, C++ vs other languages, computers and other things that are tools to do science but which are not themselves science (or at least not physics). I ask because a physics colleague of mine has recently been warned that he is doing too much methods development (and publishing on these developments).
This is a scary situation. My own tenure decision occurred while the Tevatron was struggling to get itself up off the ground. As a result the physics topics I’d been talking about when I got hired at UW were nowhere near being finished. It was a close scrape (at least, that was how I felt). I had physics in my pocket, but much of it was not yet published. UW, which has had some ridiculously good table-top experimenters – holds everyone to a rather high standard. And even under the best of circumstances a HEP person is already at a disadvantages when those standards are applied.
That said, here is my advice. You have to have the physics results. Most big research universities think developing a new method is cool — especially if it will let you do a whole new set of physics results in the future — but the method itself or the sake of the method isn’t all that interesting. The physics results and potential to do physics results is. I have seen people in HEP, for example, get overly involved in the methods development and lose track of the physics side of things. It does hurt them – and this chestnut is true outside of HEP as well.
Now, it would appear that your colleague is not in particle physics but is in table top physics (or similar). One thing that goes into a tenure judgement is expected performance in their field. For example, a theorist is expected to have n-papers per year (I’m not kidding; I’ve heard this said), a table top experimenter isn’t expected to do much their first two years as they build up their lab, but then a good paper every 6 months or so (depending on the challenge they’re facing, of course). In that sense, the tenure decision depends on what subfield you are working in.
Finally, if only one colleague has made this criticism well, it may be that it can be ignored. The first thing to do is ask others in the same sub-field (who have tenure, preferably) if enough work is being done. Often departments will have a formal review process – make sure to have frank discussions during that review process. Make sure to have tenured friends in the faculty that can report on discussions that happen in closed meetings. Finally, look one can look at other people at other institutions in the same field — especially the ones that are perceived as “hot shots.” What are they doing differently? Sometimes it is just a matter of a high wattage bulb burning brightly, other times you can see strategic decisions they made – copy them!! I guess most of this is common sense, but it never hurts to repeat it!
More tomorrow on Kevin’s comment.