Ask the Grumpies: The Ideal University

SP asks

Thoughts how an ideal university would function, use of adjuncts, what is the purpose of a university? Is it to educate students and conduct research, and what is the weight of these functions.

I read occasional news media about these topics, and they hit similar themes that sometimes don’t ring true. Most recent example article (posted in my FB news feed by a former adjunct English professor at a university): http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/higher-education-college-adjunct-professor-salary/404461/

^ ok, a note on the above paragraph.  I must have written it [#2 does not have and has never had FB] but I have no memory at all of doing it.  I just read the article and don’t remember ever seeing it before.  Apparently I have lost all my memorial faculties, but I’ll comment on it now.

I have no memory of it whatsoever.But here’s a thought: Tuition is high not because there are too many administrators. It’s because states have disinvested and the feds have made unfunded mandates [#2 says, yes, this is what the research says as well]. Also, the cost of health insurance has skyrocketed, which is one of the biggest expenses for a university, aside from salary [#2 isn’t as sure about this, but maybe?].

It’s true that adjuncts are treated poorly, yes!But there are whole *systems* that need to be fixed because people voted for legislators that didn’t fund education and because health insurance companies are for-profit (among other reasons).  But yes, adjuncts don’t get paid enough. I agree there.  Adjuncts should also not be required to mentor students nor write rec letters, unless they are full-time actual faculty (even if not TT).

(I see that this doesn’t answer your question, SP, but please forgive my wool-gathering.)

There are many purposes to a university and many ways to have an ideal university.

On the subject of adjunct pay and working conditions, #2 is kind of like… that’s where supply and demand hit.  Getting a humanities PhD needs to be less attractive so it isn’t so easy to find a phd willing to work a crap job at minimum wage.  (Note:  we pay our adjuncts 10K/class and many of our lecturers make ~100K/year on top of their day jobs.)

This paper discusses compensation of faculty members.  It seems to be optimal for some definitions of optimal, but I only really read the abstract.

I don’t know what the purpose of a university is or what the ideal balance between teaching and research is.  We need research because it provides positive spillovers to society and is unlikely to be privately funded.  We need to teach students so they will become productive members of society.  I don’t know if we should move to SLACS and think-tanks or if we should keep on with our continuum of community colleges/SLACS/R3/R2/R1/think tanks.  I mean, I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Though I do think we need more government funding to decrease the cost of education, particularly for those who are credit constrained because it is the only way we know of to productively reduce income inequality in an increasingly automated society.

So that’s not much of an answer either.  Maybe Grumpy Nation has better opinions.

Opine for us, Grumpy Nation!  What is the ideal university?

Ask the grumpies: How to decide to leave/stay in a tenured position?

Should I stay or should I go #? asks:

I’m considering leaving a tenured academic position for a soft money position at a private foundation. I’m very excited about the vision of the new program and the resources and time it potentially affords. I’m worried about the pressure of needing to get grants and walking away from tenure. What would you consider (or negotiate for) if you were making a move like this? What would make you decide to stay put? Financially, what would you consider necessary to be prepared for a move of this nature?

#1, as always, starts:

Save a lot, in case your funding runs out. If I were on soft money I’d be stressed; hard money is one of the good things about my current job.

I was lucky that I couldn’t stay put in my tenured position because it was so bad. (Although lots more money would have kept me there for a while; but if they had lots of money for me I wouldn’t have been considering leaving in the first place.)

I mean, you gotta do a mental balance sheet. Leaving is bad: loss of tenure, possible loss of ability to do your own research, loss of stability, have to move. OTOH, never teach again; no more grading; possibly more money; could be a better work situation.

Academia is an extremely flexible and independent schedule; are you willing to potentially give up some or most of that flexibility?

If you pass on this opportunity now, will you be able to find employment later if you should need to leave your current tenured position? Balance that with, if you go for this opportunity and it doesn’t work out, will you be able to find employment later?

What would it take to definitely make you leave? What would it take to definitely make you stay? Which one is more likely?

If things stay exactly as they are for 5 more years, would you be ok with that? 10 years?

#2 chimes in:

One of the things that made it easier for my DH to leave academia was that we had savings and I had a stable position. That meant we weren’t dependent on his income and he was better able to deal with the loss of job security that an academic position affords.

If you haven’t yet, read Your Money or Your Life. Here’s our post with more info on the book.

Finally, what $ amount in the new place would make this decision obvious?  What would your current location need to do to make it obvious in the other direction?  Don’t forget to include the value of benefits (health insurance, retirement matches, etc.) in your decision as well.

Update:  Shannon in the comments adds:

Many institutions have a leave of absence policy for tenured faculty so rather than resigning right off the bat, you can take a 1 (or more) year leave of absence and have the right to come back if things don’t work out. This might give you some reassurances if you make that leap – if you really don’t like it, you can go back to what you have now. It’s definitely worth exploring, and even if there’s not an official policy, it’s worth asking. Given that you have tenure, they can’t let you go for being disloyal or anything, and the worst they can say is no.

She is absolutely correct.  In fact, my DH took a one-year unpaid leave pre-tenure to work on a start-up.

Here’s some related posts:
What would make you quit mid-semester?
What to do after tenure denial?
Bad Work Situation
Here’s one from Inside Higher Ed about Stepping off the tenure track. It also references a website that SIS may find useful.
When #1 quit
When #2’s husband resigned

Ask the Grumpies: How to save for retirement with no earned income?

Steph asks:

Assuming I get my dream post-doc next year, I will be making 2x my grad salary…and none of it will be eligible for retirement savings because it will be a stipend instead of wages. That will be my life for at least 3 years, though hopefully not much more than that. I want to start saving for retirement in earnest – how would you do that in my situation?

This won’t matter too much until 2018, because in 2017 I’ll have earned income as a grad student that will let me max out my Roth, at least.

Grad student finances, by evolvingpf is really the appropriate person for this question.  Here’s her answer from 2012 on her original website.  Her answers are what I first thought as well–

  1. Get married to someone with earned income
  2. Get some earned income (addendum to her recommendations:  if you do any consulting or freelance you can save that in a self-employed plan such as a SIMPLE IRA)
  3. Don’t save for retirement (do other saving money things instead).  Then start saving more than you would otherwise for retirement once you get earned income and a savings vehicle to use.

In graduate school I was married so if at least one of us had earned income for half the year we were ok for IRA/Roth IRA, especially since the contribution limit was much lower at the time ($3K).

In case evolvingpf’s post disappears, good recommendations for non-retirement savings include:

  1.  If you’re in the 15% income bracket (or lower) now is a good time to use taxable stocks, especially dividend heavy ones because of the preferential treatment of capital gains.  Put that money to work for you.  (Note though, it is unclear what will happen to taxes over the next few years.)
  2. Pay off all debt starting with high interest (I bet you’ve already done this)
  3. Bulk up your emergency fund
  4. Save for your next car or a house so you can pay in cash for the car and get beneficial interest rates (and no PMI) for a house

Grumpy Nation– what suggestions do you have for someone without earned income who wants to save?

Action in the face of hate

As this post from delagar shows, my university is not the only university that is seeing an upsurge in hate incidents since the election.

The responses to these incidents by university leadership and by the community is extremely important.  My university, as it has been for all the years that I have been here and all of the bigoted racist things that one student or another has done (because this state school has never been a liberal paradise), has had a quick and strong response.  Now, as in the past, the university president comes down hard and reminds all of us that hate is not one of our school’s values.  Hate goes against our honor code.  Our school is inclusive of all.  (When, in the past, it’s been a student doing something horrific, usually said student ends up voluntarily leaving the school prior to an expulsion hearing, something that would never happen at say, Yale.)

This time around the president was echoed by student leaders, by the faculty staff, by our deans and so on.  Protests and education activities have been planned and all are invited.  A stronger response than anything I’ve seen previously, perhaps because everybody realizes that we must nip these kinds of things in the bud before they become normalized.  Because they are not normal.  Our mostly white male leadership is sending a strong signal that this behavior will not be tolerated, not on our campus.  I feel supported.

My university is also not the only university where a few “I’m not racist but… this is not a big deal/free speech means freedom from criticism but only for bigots/etc.” blowhards have piped up after the incident has been condemned.  The official response to these nay-sayers is also important.  In this most recent case, our dean came down hard (but politely) on one of our lecturers (a practitioner, which means he’s making about the same as faculty and has full benes) who condescendingly replied-all with one of these “I’m not racist but…”s to the official student response from student leaders in our major.  The dean’s firm response sends a signal to the students that they should keep fighting and to nay-sayers that they need to stop being oblivious jerks.

If your university hasn’t been making these kinds of responses there are still things that you can do.  Your voice alone may not do much (though it will still help), but you can ask your university president, your faculty senate, your chair, your dean, and so on to give an official response.   Especially if you are tenured.  Especially if they are white guys.  Nobody should officially accommodate hate, and silence can be seen as consent.  And maybe some of these folks just need a nudge to do the right thing.   When they important administrators do speak up, thank them for doing the right thing and making the environment safer and more inclusive.  Because their official actions do mean a lot.

If you’re at a university, have you seen an increase in hate incidents?  What has been the response at your school to these incidents?  Have you done anything in response?

Ask the grumpies: Should I get a phd? And if so, should I do it in CS or linguistics?

To PhD or not to PhD?

I’m currently between programming jobs, having been laid off from my last job with a good severance package, healthy savings, and a spouse with a high paying job.  I haven’t yet started job hunting and instead have been focusing on getting a masters degree part-time in a program related to artificial intelligence and I’ve been working as a TA for the program.  I have enjoyed the TAing.

I have been thinking off and on throughout my career about switching from industry to a PhD program.  What things should I consider to help me make this decision?

My area of interest is Computational Linguistics. If I go for a PhD, should I apply to CS or Linguistics departments?  Should I apply broadly across the US or stick with the local program here (given I own a house and have a dual-body problem and the local program, though not a top 5 in my field, is decent)?

Should I take an industry job in this subfield prior to applying for a PhD or should I apply for a PhD first?  I love tech jobs, but I’m tired of being a generalist.

Our answer for the first, “should I get a phd” question is similar to our answer for the accountant who wrote in with the same question, with one important exception.  Salaries for accounting phds are higher than for those of accountants.  Salaries of CS PhDs are not that different than salaries of highly skilled programmers without a degree.  The main difference in our experience is in levels of specialization.  (Note:  this is based more on personal experience than on hard data, but there are also a lot of not so great and poorly paid programmers who would be unlikely to get a PhD.  I don’t think anything has been done looking at wages controlling for underlying ability.)  So yes, there’s still demand for CS professors, but there’s also demand for CS PhDs in industry and for programmers without degrees as well.  (My DH with the PhD makes a little less than #2’s DH who dropped out of college to become a programmer.  They both make very nice salaries.)

As with the accountant, we recommend that you work as a research assistant if you can.  This will probably be an enormous paycut from your last industry job, but it will give you a feel for the kind of work that PhDs do.

This paragraph is also still true, but replace “accounting” with “computer science”:

Even with an accounting degree, you get very little choice about where you move to after you’re done. We’re living in places we wouldn’t choose if it weren’t for the job. There’s a limited number of professor jobs in any discipline each year and you have to have a certain amount of flexibility. If you absolutely have to live in a specific city, it’s unlikely you’ll get a TT job there. It’s possible, but not likely. If you are location dependent, see what kind of jobs you can get with a PhD in accounting in industry and/or government (depending on the location).

which means lots of heart-to-heart talks with the other half of your two-body problem and you’ll have to consider selling/renting your house.

Also you will want to check how long it takes to get a CS PhD, especially given your masters work.  How many years are classes, how long do people generally take to finish the research portion?  And so on.

My general impression is that if you’re doing computational linguistics, you’re better off getting the CS degree (or one of the funky specific degrees you can get from places like MIT) than the linguistics degree for the same reason that people who do economic history are better off doing economics than history. The baseline of what you can do with the econ/CS is just so much higher than the baseline for history/linguistics that it’s better to go with the former even if you end up doing the same work with either label.  I could be totally wrong about this, so definitely talk with professors at these programs and look into job placement for people in the programs you’re considering.  But, I do have a friend who dropped out of a linguistics PhD program because she realized someone would have to die in order for her to find a job opening.

If you want to go the academic route, then you would most likely want to apply broadly and, if possible, to go to MIT or Stanford or another top school in your area because that will give you more options later. People at MIT are more likely to actually finish the PhD and go into academia (people at Stanford are more likely to drop out and do a startup and get really rich).  Stanford has better weather along with a higher cost of living.  The major problem with academia is that unless you are extremely good or extremely lucky it is very difficult to choose where you want to live with an academic job.  For industry, the local program is probably fine.

My husband prefers the work he does that requires a PhD to what the people in the same company/field without the advanced degree do.  Even in the tech industry the PhD does seem to be a gateway into less generalist work.  It sounds like you find that rewarding, which suggests that even if you do go into industry the PhD would not be wasted time.

Grumpy Nation, what advice do you have for To PhD or Not?

Null effects are fine, but you need to discuss power!

I like the way that a lot of social sciences are starting to push for publishing more studies that tried something plausible and then found nothing.  Null effects papers tend to be difficult to publish, which leads to publication bias, meaning you’re more likely to find something spurious than to not find something.

BUT.  One almost sure-fire way to find no effect is to have a sample size that is too small to pick up an effect.

If you find no effect, you need to discuss sample size.

If you find no effect from an experiment, then you really need to talk about the power analysis that you did *before* you ran the experiment that shows the sample size you would need to find an effect size.

And if you have a large magnitude that just isn’t significant, that isn’t as convincing as having an insignificant small magnitude or, even better, a small magnitude that flips sign depending on specification.

As the great Dierdre McCloskey says, statistical significance is not the same as oomph.  Or as I tell my students, meaningful significance is not the same as statistical significance.

A true null effect is something that has a small effect size, whether or not it is significant.  And if you find an insignificant null effect, then you have to discuss whether this is a true non-finding or if you just didn’t get enough observations.

Got that?  Null effect = fine, but it has to be a real null effect and not just a bad study.

Ask the grumpies: Favorite class outside your major?

Leah asks:

What was your favorite class outside of your major and why?

#1  German, choral conducting, maybe that one English class where we read mystery novels.

#2  History, probably the British monarchs class because the prof for that one was especially awesome. (I would have been a history major, except the prof that I had for the required freshman seminar was a total a@#$@# and he taught a bunch of required classes, so screw that, and thus I ended up on a more potentially lucrative path.)

How about the rest of Grumpy Nation?