Monday, December 5, 2016

Young Genius Professors

A couple of times per year, I will attend some kind of event - maybe a conference, maybe a reception at my university - where I have occasion to converse with a senior professor. In this case, "senior" professor refers to someone of the 60+ variety, often older, and often (always?) white and male*.

We'll start chatting, and the conversation may turn towards some kind of recognition or award I've received, paper I've published, or topic related to my productivity. The senior professor will then deliver a remark along the following lines:

You young people are really something. I wouldn't get tenure if I went up for it today. 
Wow, our junior faculty are amazing these days! Where did we find all of you?
It seems most young faculty are geniuses; I wouldn't fit in with you guys!

Now, such remarks are meant as compliments, and I take them as such. But they also give me serious pause, as I look around at all of my fellow young faculty members - whether at CMU or elsewhere. Do I see intelligent people? Yes. People deserving of their careers and eventually of tenure? Yes.

But do I feel like I am a genius walking among other geniuses? Do I stand around wondering how on earth Carnegie Mellon ever amassed so many genius junior faculty in one place? No, never.

Quite simply, I work in the midst of other young people who are busting their asses, just like I am busting mine. I see smart people that work long hours, that sacrifice weekends, holidays, and evenings with their children, significant others, and former hobbies - all so that they can elevate their work and reputation beyond what used to be considered normal or acceptable. The world has not suddenly started producing more geniuses, and I believe that, on average, young faculty are working with the same average level of raw intelligence present in young professors 30 years ago.

 Figure 1. Not my business card.

I have never had a chance to sit down with a senior faculty member and ask them what it was like to work as a professor and get tenure in 1980. I don't know how much they worked, and I don't know what the "bar" was at that time in terms of productivity and ultimate academic impact. But I strongly suspect the modern world has not been kind to the lifestyle of the Professor.

Science has exploded on a global scale - for example, I receive on the order of 100 articles delivered to my inbox every week. I have to sort through these, trying to read enough to stay on top of my field(s) of research, worrying about the ever-expanding number of groups that may scoop my own work. And because of all of the added competition, I have to work harder and think more creatively about how to differentiate my work from that of others. Such considerations are ever present - in recruiting students, in writing proposals, and in "selling" my work to university or national media.

And then, of course, there is the obvious reason why young professors have to work harder than ever before - the state of funding. More people competing for a shrinking pot of money. Success rates used to be 30-50% at many agencies - now, we're looking at the 10-15% range (on average, which means even lower for very young faculty). Will these trends continue? If so, can someone please send me a memo, because I'm going to quit now and start flipping houses.

Add all of this to the fact that many young professors are no longer white men with stay-at-home wives. I love my husband, his professional aspirations, and the added dimensionality that comes with being a dual career couple. But I also know that I'd be more productive if I had a stay at home wife who could do my laundry, run the household errands, cook all of the meals, and take primary responsibility for caring for the children.

So, what is my message? My message is that if you're looking at many young faculty of today and thinking, "wow, what a bunch of geniuses" and "oh, I can't be like them because I'm not a genius" - stop yourself now. We are intelligent people who work hard. There are some geniuses, of course (I'm not one of them). The point is that you don't have to be stratospherically intelligent to do this job well. But you do have to be willing to put in the time (and even more difficult, the mental energy) to meet the demands of modern science, particularly if you want to be at the forefront of your field. It's the current reality - genius or not.

*I must make note that I have had many conversations with senior faculty, and the type of conversation mentioned here is atypical. Many senior faculty are very accomplished individuals (some even geniuses), and I am in no way trying to diminish the work ethic or accomplishments of any individual.