Continuing from last post, I aim to focus on some of the issues related to stress in academia. Today's post will be related to stress and the nature of academic employment.
The most stressful issues I can think of in academia relate to finding or keeping your job. Graduating and finding the first job, especially when the job market is tight, cannot help but lead to stress for most people. (Indeed, these days, the process seems to be getting worse -- as postdocs become normalized in Computer Science, many people have to find the their "first job" two or more times.) Similarly, when you come up for tenure, it's obviously very stressful. Even if you think you deserve tenure, there is uncertainty because the process it outside your control, and the 1-bit decision can have a tremendous impact. While changing jobs later can also be stressful, and I'll discuss that, these two times seem to be the worst.
As a starting point, however, compared to other professions, the issues related to getting a first job and tenure are not especially unique to academia. Doctors have residency and specialization after medical school, lawyers wait years to become partner. Business people have it different, perhaps; tech startups notwithstanding, there are people who still climb up the corporate ladder. The tenure situation is, arguably, a more severe end goal than in other professions, but with what seems to be a commensurate reward; you don't really have to worry about a job after, if you are willing to stay at your institution. The framework and corresponding stress seem comparable to many other career paths, although there are career paths that avoid such poignant milestones. In particular, in computer science, many students from top institutions can quickly and readily find work at major companies or startups, and their stress seems to come from having a wealth rather than dearth of choices.
Would there be changes to the system that would help? I don't think so, and this requires some explanation. The issue of job stress, to me, seems fundamentally an issue of supply and demand. In the top 20 computer science departments there are approximately 1000 professor jobs. Heck, maybe I'm off by a factor of 2, depending on how you count (tenured vs all, maybe top 30 instead of 20). Positions turn over very slowly. In short, academia is a niche market, with a small supply of jobs and, generally, heavy demand for them. This creates a lot of friction in the system.
In years past, we've seen a slowdown in the CS academic job market. Even small slowdowns create tough situations with the small job supply. The solution was to introduce more postdocs. It was a working solution for the time, but with risks and downsides -- a de facto postdoc requirement added into the employment picture? -- that leaves us with as many questions as answers.
Similarly, tenure seems like such a huge deal in large because one cannot readily move to another position easily. Yes, there is the issue of being rejected, and the corresponding loss of prestige that goes with it, but even ignoring that, the challenge of where to go (in academia) if tenure is not granted looms large. The problem extends past tenure. Even very good people can find it hard to move, as the small number of jobs available make for an inflexible, challenging job market. If I was at Google and wanted to work at Facebook or some other company, such a move should not, generally, be difficult; people make such switches pretty regularly. If I walked over to MIT and told them I would like to move there, there are huge barriers, perhaps the most obvious of which is MIT has a wealthy choice of wonderful people it could choose to hire instead, and is careful in choosing who it hires to one of those limited slots. Indeed, at most other schools, the obvious issue is whether there would even be a senior position available, but MIT computer science always seems to have a position if it wants one.* The upshot is if later in life a professor wants to switch jobs for any number of personal reasons (dissatisfaction with the current location, divorce or family issues, etc.), it's not always easy or possible to do and stay in academia. The problem is again related to scarcity in jobs, and solving that problem seems out of reach, involving changes to institutional or societal structures. (That is, we have to convince our universities we need to hire more CS faculty, and/or we need to convince society to spend more on research/professors/education.)
The job stress issue is the most prominent stress issue I see in academia, and I think it underlies a lot of other stresses. When people say academics are over-concerned with and spend too much time jockeying for being ranked highly -- a point I have issues with and I'll return to in a later post -- to the extent that's true, I think some of it is inescapable in such a job market. When you graduate, you'll be compared to other graduates and that will have an effect on what jobs you can get. When you are up for tenure, you'll be compared to peers, implicitly or explicitly. If you want to switch jobs post-tenure, how you compare to people at the institution you wish to move to and to others in your field is important. All of these comparison points become more important in a tight, friction-filled job market. As much as I'd like that not to be the case or deny it, I think it's better to face the reality of it.
What possibility is there for a solution? The easiest I can think of is to expand the job market, which I think comes from industry jobs. As part of this, we have to help make sure industry sees the value and importance of research, and of having its own researchers. Some people have said that academics look down on "non-academic" employment for students and especially PhDs. I don't think that's generally true in CS, but to the extent it is, that's setting unrealistic expectations for outcomes for many -- or most -- of our students. The virtues of jobs in industry are well documented, as are the virtues of academic jobs; maintaining a culture where both are seen as positive outcomes seems healthiest for stress levels of individuals and for the health of the CS academic community generally.
Other solutions welcome and more to come.
* Just kidding around with you, MIT. But seriously, is there any upper bound on you all?