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September 1998

Scientists I and II: The road to tenure

Regina Cannon.

This is the third in a series of features written by ASP postdocs about career paths within UCAR/NCAR/UOP. In this installment, Regina Cannon talks with six staff at the Scientist I and II level about up-or-out pressure and other aspects of their careers.

How do young scientists deal with the pressure of attaining tenure while balancing the other demands of life? What requirements do they view as most critical for promotion?

At the time of my interviews, there are 31 junior scientists (8 Scientist I's and 23 Scientist II's) at NCAR. As in part one of this series, which examined the lives of several NCAR postdocs (see the February 1998 Staff Notes Monthly,), the process of selecting scientists to interview for this article was quasirandom. I attempted to choose scientists from different divisions, strike a balance between males and females, and select people who hadn't appeared recently in Staff Notes Monthly. Within these constraints, I picked nine names out of a hat and got six replies. Compare this 67% response rate with the 88% response from the postdocs, and an interesting statistic (albeit not highly statistically significant) emerges. Furthermore, most of the refusals came from women. Whether these female scientists were simply too busy or whether this represents a larger social trend, I'll never know. Unless, of course, they let me interview them for my next article, "Female Scientists Overcommitted: Fact or Fiction?"

The six who responded are equally divided between Scientist I and II levels. One is female, five are male. Their time at NCAR ranges from eight months to over nine years. All were asked:

  1. Why did you choose to come to NCAR, as opposed to working at a university or other professional career?

  2. (If Scientist II) Did you come to NCAR as a Scientist I or II?

  3. What are your personal goals in this job?

  4. How do you balance outside interests with the demands of the job here at NCAR?

  5. Does your division have specific requirements that you must fulfill before being made a Scientist III (or II)?

  6. How does the system of tenure here affect the quality of your work?

  7. How do you cope with up-or-out pressure? Do you feel any funding pressure?

  8. If you could choose three adjectives to describe your experience here thus far, what would those be?

  9. (If Scientist II) How does it feel different being a Scientist II vs. a Scientist I?

Equipped with these questions and a tape recorder, I traveled to the offices of each of the six junior scientists.

Why NCAR?

As might be expected, the top reason for coming to NCAR was because it was their best career choice. Unlike many of the postdocs I interviewed, who came here because this was their only job offer, most of the scientists had several choices. But NCAR came out on top because of its reputation, the access to advanced numerical models, established relationships between Ph.D. advisors and NCAR scientists, and/or the diversity of potential collaborations.

Jim Hurrell, a Scientist II in the Climate Analysis Section of CGD, came to NCAR as a visiting scientist in 1990. He had many postdoc offers after completing his Ph.D. at Purdue University but chose NCAR "due to a personal phone call from Warren Washington. I applied to [ASP], but never found out the results from that. I think Warren got ahold of my application folder when it was being passed around, and that's why he called me." Jim rests back in his chair and smiles. "His phone call and that personal interaction was what piqued my interest."

A second theme was personal reasons. In two cases, a spouse had also landed a job in Boulder. In a third, the scientist's parents lived nearby. Many of the scientists mentioned their fondness for living in Boulder with the mountains close at hand.

Why do you do it?

Fei Chen.
Scientist II Jim Hurrell (left) with his CGD supervisor, senior scientist Kevin Trenberth.
The personal-goals question stumped many of the interviewees. Rephrasing, I then asked, "What motivates you to be a scientist?" Answers ranged from "it pays the bills" to the opportunity to contribute to the world in some way. Fei Chen, a recently hired Scientist I with RAP, explains that "In China, you must list five professional choices after high school. Your primary professional advisors are your parents. Because of the unsettled political situation in China, my father wanted me to be a medical doctor. But when I scored poorly on the chemistry section of China's equivalent of the [Scholastic Aptitude Test], I was denied entrance to med school. In the end, this gave me the opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream to become a physicist."

Fei laughs and adds, "I came to meteorology somewhat arbitrarily. I listed it third after med school and something else, not knowing what to put down. Now here I am very happy as an atmospheric physicist. I think many choices in life are made arbitrarily, don't you?"

Frank Flocke.
Chris Snyder.
Frank Flocke, a Scientist I in ACD, describes his motivation: "When I'm sitting in my rocking chair at 75 years old, I want to look back on my life and think, 'Ahhh, I've contributed to the world in these ways and have made it just a little bit better.' "

Jim answers, "I'm not one of these guys who can spout off all these well-defined goals for my life. I'm more of a take-each-day, happy-go-lucky kind of person. I'd like to be recognized as a good, productive scientist and someone who contributes not only to NCAR programs but also to national and international programs in the advancement of science."

Chris Snyder, a Scientist II in MMM (since promoted to Scientist III), concurs. "I don't really have a scientific goal I'm working toward. I have a sense that what I should be doing should be of some use to society, but it's a small epsilon of my motivation. It seems to me that things get discovered not because a person thought 'I'm going to go out and discover something important,' but because the person pursued an interesting problem. My motivation is really just curiosity. I find my work fascinating. Very appealing."

Tinkering and curiosity were mentioned throughout the interviews as motivating factors for choosing and staying with science.

Balancing outside interests

The juggling act--managing career, family, and hobbies--seemed to unfold in various ways and with various levels of stress for the scientists. In three cases, the spouse either didn't work or worked part time, which alleviated the need to find day care for the children and reduced the squeeze of errand running on precious free time. Other scientists managed with the help of supportive partners and by working more efficiently.

David Erickson.
Mary Barth, flanked by Tom Wigley (left) and Jeff Kiehl.
Mary Barth, a Scientist I who splits her time between ACD and MMM, says, "I balance by getting a lot of help from my husband. I work very efficiently when I'm at [NCAR]. It's hard to do work at home because of the children."

Dave Erickson, a Scientist II with ACD, explains, "I live in the mountains with children and horses. I get up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. and work in my home office. Before dawn, I accomplish half my day. I'm fresher, I'm awake, and there are no interruptions. Come to work and there's a student waiting outside the door, the phone's ringing, there's a fax to sign, and I'm leaving in two days for a meeting and the photocopier isn't working. Balancing work and outside interests requires being very organized and staying prepared."

Which way up?

The resounding answer to my fifth question was that, while my interviewees are aware of the requirements listed in the UCAR Policies and Procedures Manual (see sidebar), the real basis of evaluation is the somewhat murkier "demonstrated excellence in research" criterion. For the promotion from Scientist II to III, Chris explains, "You need to write papers. Those papers need to be referenced by the community at some reasonable rate. Letters of recommendation should put you in the top end of your field. And there are some other things about service." He pauses a moment and continues, "But it also varies depending on who you are. Some experimentalists may build an instrument, which could be a significant accomplishment taken into consideration in the promotion."

As well as hurdling the publications, citations, and service requirements, scientists must align their work with division priorities. Creating a good mentoring relationship with one's supervisor was mentioned frequently as helpful in keeping on track. "There's no question that there are people who come to NCAR who are good enough that it doesn't matter who they're working with," Chris acknowledges, "but there are also the people on the margin where the supervisor relationship can make all the difference. I guess I'm somewhere in between."

Several of the scientists mentioned the necessity of getting along with the people that make the hiring decisions. They had seen some junior scientists not dealt with fairly in the promotion process. "Politics can enter into it," Jim says. "Politics enter into everything. I strive to have good relationships with the people I work with . . . so they will want me to be a part of the team of the future. I think it's important to talk with the people you work with on a daily basis. All this is taken into consideration along with the number of papers and citations."

Fei, the new guy on the block, acknowledges, "I'm a recent hire but I discuss my job frequently with my supervisor. We're progressing and publishing. As long as you do good research, you don't have to worry about promotion too much."

NCAR's junior scientists describe their experience here as:

  • exciting (top adjective cited)
  • satisfying
  • busy
  • enjoyable
  • disillusioning
  • political
  • stimulating
  • capricious
  • encouraging
  • stressful
  • challenging
  • Thoughts on tenure

    Despite the subjectivity of the tenure process at NCAR, there was agreement that the system here is better than some others. "In Germany," Frank points out, "after five years with the government, you are tenured automatically.

    This gives you peace of mind and can be a good thing for productivity since you don't have to worry about your job all the time. On the other hand, there are cases where personal differences or other problems between some scientists and their supervisors or institute directors have caused them to internally 'resign' and simply not produce anything any more."

    My interviewees see the tenure process at NCAR as quite rigorous but perhaps not as ruthless as within a premier university department. In the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's applied math department, where Chris received his doctorate, "all the tadpoles are put in the pond and only a few of them are made frogs. In the last 15 years, one guy in the department has stayed while 20 to 25 top-notch scientists have been denied [tenure]."

    Mary believes that while the tenure system at NCAR is fair, the nature of many science projects today differs from even ten years ago, and this should be accounted for in the promotion decision. "Satellite projects, instrument development, and model development can take three years to come to fruition. I hope that those making the hiring decisions realize that."

    Most agree that the tenure process makes one work harder but does not necessarily influence the quality or direction of one's research. "The biggest influence other than curiosity is funding," says Chris. "That will determine what I'm working on in the next four to five years."

    The answer to whether up-or-out pressure is an issue broke cleanly into two groups. The Scientist I's claimed to be too far away from the tenure decision to be markedly affected, while the Scientist II's were well aware of its presence. How do the II's cope with this pressure?

    "Swim a lot," Dave laughs. "You just do the best you can do. It's probably not for everyone."

    "I feel that I have a good deal," says Chris. "They pay me to do what I want. I have a fair amount of confidence that I could find another job. Mostly I cope knowing that I could survive elsewhere and knowing that [at least] it's not a 1-in-10 chance of making it."

    "I've tried to reach certain goals for myself, many of which were set through discussions with my supervisor, Kevin Trenberth," Jim explains. "I've done the best I can and have made as strong a case as I can for myself, and I give a lot of credit to Kevin for his insights and encouragement."

    The amount of pressure to find outside funding seems to depend on division resources and policy and whether the scientist was hired on core NSF money or not. Chris sums up: "MMM is in an odd transitional period, and I think all of NCAR is to some degree. It's clear to me that the direction we're moving is that every scientist will be partially supported by base funds and partially from outside funds."

    Does it feel different being a Scientist II? Both Jim and Dave say it doesn't. The only change for them has been the escalation in their work load brought on by more service on committees.

    Chris notices a few more gray hairs and adds, "In progressing from I to II to III you acquire another mark on the ladder. It's hard to know as a scientist that what you're doing is any good--'Is this interesting or is it just me?' It's nice to have this cumulative recognition."

    Rivalry and recharging

    We now have a portrait of the junior NCAR scientist as a person who pursues his or her scientific curiosity with the support of a mentoring supervisor while fine-tuning the balance of work and outside interests and moving toward the goal of demonstrating excellence in research by doing the best he or she can each day. Do the waters of scientific life always flow so smoothly?

    In general, the interviewees appeared to be satisfied and truly excited by their work. Only in pursuing a few tangents did I unearth a couple of deeper issues that reflect a darker side of the scientific community at large. The first is competition; the second, time for recharging.

    One scientist discussed his dislike for the competition between NCAR and NOAA. He emphasized that such competition wasn't the fault of either institution but was pervasive in science. He believes that better results would be achieved if he were permitted to share common problems in an open and honest way. But he felt certain that his position at NCAR would be jeopardized if he did so.

    Competition drives much in science in the United States, while cooperative activities like committee work, community service, and teaching are usually ignored in promotion or in grant decisions. It's also noteworthy that the Nobel Prize cites no more than three individuals per category--never large groups or teams.

    Competition can promote vigor, adaptation, and efficiency, but it can also provoke aggression, unproductive turf wars, burnout, fabrication of data, and a shift in motives from love of science and the joy of discovery to desire for power. There is a cultural assumption that competition is the way of nature, but there is also plenty of evidence for the value of symbiosis and cooperation. Moving towards a spirit of cooperation might revitalize many scientists.

    Perhaps related to the issue of competition is the second issue, busy-ness. One scientist admitted he hadn't taken a vacation in two years and hadn't been operating near peak capacity for some time. He reflected on a sabbatical he took in France, where excellent research thrives in an environment that values leisure time as well as work. Everyone was gone for the month of August and returned energized. Similarly, he missed the summers of the academic schedule that allowed him time to breathe, reflect, and recharge. "There's no reason we can't work this way," he said. Perhaps everyone needs a little breathing room. •Regina Cannon

    Is it truly tenure?

    Although the Scientist III and Senior Scientist job classes are traditionally thought of as tenured, even these plum positions do not offer absolute job security. The UCAR Policies and Procedures Manual outlines the basics of the scientific appointments ladder in policy 2-2-1.

    According to the policy, Scientist I and II appointments are made by division directors, while Scientist III and Senior Scientist appointments are made by the NCAR director after review by the NCAR Appointments Review Group. In addition, Senior Scientist nominees must be approved by the UCAR Board of Trustees.

    The up-or-out decision comes for a Scientist I after an initial term of no more than three years. A Scientist II's first appointment is for up to four years; it may be followed by a single extension of up to three years, for a maximum of seven years at the Scientist II level before an up-or-out decision is made. When circumstances intervene, such as childbirth or a temporary assignment elsewhere, a Scientist I or II may stop or slow the clock.

    Scientist III and Senior Scientist appointments have no set terms. Staff in both categories are reviewed every five years by an interdivisional committee, in addition to their annual performance reviews. In accordance with relevant UCAR policies, staff in either category may leave voluntarily or involuntarily; the latter decision (as in a reduction of staff, for instance) must be made by the NCAR director for Scientist III's and by the UCAR Board of Trustees for Senior Scientists. •BH

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