Sunday, August 9, 2015

An idealist at 40, still a prof after 10 years. Why?


by Kai Chan

Is academia the best way to make the world a better place? Ten years ago, I thought it was best for me, and that’s why I chose my current job as a professor at UBC.
Ljuba and I en route to Vancouver, and my job at UBC, in 2005
After ten years, I’m 40 (today), and preparing my file to go up for promotion to full professor. A big step, and a good time to reflect on the big question, given what I know now. Although several senior colleagues have encouraged me, as I viewed CVs of potential reviewers (leaders in my field), my mind is a-flutter with noise. Tossing in bed last night, I pinned this ‘noise’ down to four points:
1.     I did things starkly differently over the past ten years than most of my senior colleagues (I meandered more, intentionally learning broadly across disciplines);
2.     The metrics by which I will be evaluated (e.g., h-index for publications) are not those that guided my choices, nor do they coincide very well with my objectives;
3.     Despite my own commitments to a different idea of success, I feel a constant unwelcome and often subconscious pull towards established metrics and my colleagues’ notions of success;
4.     I could have enjoyed much higher success by established metrics if I’d made different choices (e.g., invested less in teaching and supervision).
So why am I still at UBC, still contributing my best years to an institution that, at every turn, seems to be rewarding a somewhat different career trajectory? I look around at the leaders in conservation and sustainability science, and I see many leaders operating in research positions with limited or no teaching, and even outside of universities (e.g., in NGOs, so with minimal graduate supervision).
Students don't think we have balance. Hmph.
It’s fair to wonder these days whether the best route to achieve even academic stardom is to eschew a regular tenure-track position, with its exacting combination of research, teaching, and service. And since academic stardom isn’t even my primary objective in life (it might coincide with my objectives, but I’m more concerned with real-world impact), it’s worth deeply pondering why I’m here.
It’s clear that many of my students wonder the same, as they look at the intensity of a faculty job and declare that they don’t want to follow our footsteps.
So, why am I still here? Why are you, or would you be, in a university setting?

P.S. A theme I didn't explore explicitly here is the appropriateness of established metrics as measures of excellence and/or impact. They measure some things well but other things poorly. I promise to return to this issue soon, but in the meantime let it be known that I and a small but vocal set of other profs are certainly looking well beyond these metrics in various evaluation processes.

[This is part 1 of 2. Read part 2 for my answer. A part 3 was added later, re: balance.

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