Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Would You Leave a Tenured Job?

As reported by Lance, Madhu Sudan is "leaving" MIT for Microsoft Research New England.

Of course, he's not really leaving his tenured position, but just going on leave. But it raises the question -- what would it take for someone (you?) to leave a tenured position? It does happen -- Micah Adler recently left U Mass to enjoy life as a serial entrepreneur -- but tenured positions are quite comfortable, and because of the apparent security tenure offers, it can be hard to leave a tenured position for anything except another one. Tenure is, in that sense, a double-edged sword; you have a position for life, but only if you stay where you are.

Mind you, there are other appealing aspects of academic life. And of course some less appealing ones. Perhaps part of the reason so few people ever give up tenure is that professor positions tend to attract people who enjoy being professors, who find the positives outweigh the negatives, and so they're not attracted to other possible positions or pursuits.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would leave a tenured job to resolve a two-body situation.

Anonymous said...

I am considering leaving a tenured job (and leaving research altogether), partly due to salary reasons and partly because I'm unhappy working in a low ranked department. Of course, I'll probably wait until the current economic situation improves.

Daniel Lemire said...

Sure, I'd leave. I once considered very seriously a job with Google. I also left a permanent research position at the National Research Council of Canada for a mere tenure-track position (at a lower salary) in a non-prestigious school.

However, tenure (even in a little known canadian school) allows me to run long-term projects. Maybe nobody but me cares about my projects, but I still want to see them completed. Quitting these projects is not something I want to do.

But if I grew bored of my current research projects? I'd leave. It is not like the salary I get right now is going to hold me back.

Of course, I have been an entrepreneur before, so I have some experience to back me up.

Mihai said...

In CS, an assistant professor position leads to tenure with overwhelming probability. So you might reformulate the question as "would you turn down a tenure(-track) job". I have, and I'm still happy with the decision.

Matt Welsh said...

NEVER!!!!

Anonymous said...

It's really not clear that tenure is a good thing in CS (or indeed any field where people don't need to be protected from political controversy). If you ask any young researcher what tenure will bring them, they can tell you lots of wonderful benefits. It will enable them to work on risky, long-term projects to reinvent the foundations of the field. It will help them transition between areas or start doing interdisciplinary work. It will give them the freedom to work on currently unfashionable topics. It will let them follow the truth wherever it leads, no matter how controversial, and always speak truth to power.

Unfortunately, only a tiny fraction of them ever take advantage of these blessings. In practice, tenure means no longer having to work nearly as hard. The few real benefits are outweighed by corresponding disadvantages. For example, tenure means not having to worry as much about meddlesome administrators. Although this genuinely helps some professors, it is more often abused by those who feel no sense of responsibility to their students or colleagues. Another benefit of tenure is that senior researchers needn't feel threatened by junior researchers and can mentor them without the specter of competition. On the other hand, the existence of tenured deadwood lowers the number of permanent jobs available for those same junior researchers, so it's not clear there's a net benefit.

Madhu doesn't need tenure. He should be praised for putting himself on a track that will (if he doesn't change course) lead to giving it up. A few professors actually do need tenure due to outside forces beyond their control, but aside from those rare exceptions, people who need tenure to protect their jobs generally don't deserve it.

I'm not surprised that few people would give it up voluntarily. Laziness is one of the greatest forces in the world, and unjustified fear can also be a powerful motivation.

Anonymous said...

"Madhu doesn't need tenure."

But maybe he is getting tenure, or at least security. Because if his salary is anything like the preceding MSR bigshots (Lovasz, Feige), which was rumored to be in the millions, then a couple years working at microsoft and you have as much as you would have working the rest of your life at MIT. So I don't see why you laud someone like him for giving up tenure, when you do not know if he is giving up security.

Anonymous said...

Because if his salary is anything like the preceding MSR bigshots...which was rumored to be in the millions

Can you offer anything to substantiate this claim? It just doesn't make sense to me. How is Microsoft getting anything out of these appointments beyond impressing 500 people in the TCS community (which is not worth "millions"").

Anonymous said...

On the comment "In CS, an assistant professor position leads to tenure with overwhelming probability."

My best guess is that the probability of an assistant professor getting tenure is about .75, which I would call less than overwhelming. It is a bit complicated because many assistant professors leave for a wide variety of reasons before coming up for tenure, e.g. they don't like academia, it looks like they won't get tenure, etc. I don't know of anyone that keeps track of this (e.g. like the Taulbee study does for enrollment).

Anonymous said...

Because if his salary is anything like the preceding MSR bigshots (Lovasz, Feige), which was rumored to be in the millions, then a couple years working at microsoft and you have as much as you would have working the rest of your life at MIT.

The problem is that having a salary that's only rumored to be in the millions does not give you quite as much security as actually having these millions....

But in any case, there's nothing laudable or "un-laudable" in giving up tenure. It's a personal choice and Madhu will do great research wherever he goes. But if this moves helps cement MSR New England as another great place for theoreticians for job, visit and postdoc opportunities then it can be a good thing for the community.

Anonymous said...

In practice, tenure means no longer having to work nearly as hard. ... Although this genuinely helps some professors, it is more often abused by those who feel no sense of responsibility to their students or colleagues.

I've seen this claim many times, but never encountered such cases. In my experience, most tenured professors who are unproductive or irresponsible were the same way before getting tenure. Moreover, if people do "slow down" it comes many years after tenure, when people reach 50 or so (though many researchers continue to be very productive even way past 60).

Anonymous said...

In my experience, most tenured professors who are unproductive or irresponsible were the same way before getting tenure.

It's true that the basic personality traits were usually visible before, but the fear of not getting tenure tempers them. For example, irresponsible people grudgingly do an acceptable job before tenure; after tenure, they feel free to get out of work by making it clear that they won't do a good job anyway.

Anonymous said...

In practice, tenure means no longer having to work nearly as hard. ...

Keep in mind that what you view as "unproductive" might just be someone choosing to be more selective about what they publish after tenure. To me, this is a good thing about tenure.

Anonymous said...

For example, irresponsible people grudgingly do an acceptable job before tenure; after tenure, they feel free to get out of work by making it clear that they won't do a good job anyway.

I have a feeling that you are not talking at all about academic researchers. One has very little need to "get out of work" as a professor, tenured or untenured. 90% of your time is spent on work you assign yourself (i.e., research) or teaching that you'll do anyway and can't really "get out of".

The only thing you may get out of by causing the impression you won't do a good job is committee work. But since that counts for so little in the tenure case, I doubt that people who are irresponsible or hate such work so bad, will make a huge effort to do it better pre-tenure.

Anonymous said...

The only thing you may get out of by causing the impression you won't do a good job is committee work.

First, there's a lot of important committee work (grad student admissions, hiring, curricula, etc.). It's small potatoes compared to research and teaching, but it's still galling when someone deliberately tries to avoid doing their share.

Irresponsibility can play a role in teaching too. I know of several cases in which a tenured professor has made it perfectly clear that if they are assigned to teach core undergraduate courses, they'll do a poor job and the department won't end up with nearly as many majors (and will have a harder time getting resources from the administration). This really puts pressure on other people to take up the slack.

I agree that this sort of irresponsibility isn't the biggest problem with tenure, but it's still worth noting.

Anonymous said...

As the repulsive cousin of the tenured professor, the status eligible federal employee, I will say this. There are those who leave government for industry, earn a higher salary, and return at higher pay in a more senior position. Did they "give up" anything? Is no return possible within academics? If opportunities to return to academic positions and be reoffered tenure eventually exist then there is no complete sacrifice and this is a kind of "would you give up the indoors to be outside?" "Yes, because the weather is nice now and I have the key so I can go back in when I feel like it."

Anonymous said...

I am sick of publishing like mad, visa problems, bad postdoc bosses, and lack of a label creating havoc with my career, subjective evaluation of what could be considered impactful. What would I not do for a tenure. I wanted to be a professor since the age of 10 and I will want to be one till I die. Research freedom at a reasonable salary is worth gold and more. Being a professor in the western world in a school of a decent repute is close to heaven.

Anonymous said...

msr pays millions to theorists?? really? any verifiable sources?

Herve B. said...

I am someone who left tenure recently, first for a sabbatical in industry: I felt I needed to share my students life and learn a bit about what they do, as well as sharpen my skills and learn about their constraints; then stayed there by choice: the salary is better, the working hours more predictable and regular, and not necessarily much longer, but mostly, less stressful than all grants/conferences/paper submissions, and feels like less nonsense.

I'm sure to come back to academia, and do hope I'll be that much more attractive to a university with the experience I'm getting now.

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