Oct 2, 2011

Terence’s Stuff: Advancement

Who among you doesn’t want to advance in their career? You? Fine. The solution is entirely in your hands. For everyone else, your academic advancement is in the hands of your department chair and dean, together with the senior colleagues in your department who help with your case. They will decide the matter, with the assistance of others inside and outside your institution.

On the topic of advancement, there are three things I like to see in department chairs and those who advise them. That (a) they regard the development and advancement of the careers of all their junior colleagues as their most important job; (b) when it comes to advancement, they put the best possible case for their junior colleagues up to the dean, and (c) they happily tolerate diversity, and do not pressure junior colleagues to tailor their careers to fit departmental or institutional guidelines for advancement.

I have had many conversations with people about their advancement. I often get asked to help with promotion and tenure cases. I have to write cases and make advancement decisions on behalf of my own junior colleagues. And, I have to go up myself. That’s four perspectives, and I’ve been in the advancement business for nearly fifty years now. What do I think about it, and what have I learned?

I think it takes far too much of peoples’ time in some ways, and far too little in others. It can be an irrational and frustrating process, at times damaging for the major player, the one who would be advanced. Occasionally poor decisions are made, though my impression is that common sense generally prevails. However, there is one type of advancement case that challenges many chairs and deans, and that’s what I want to talk about.

Hardest of all cases are those for statisticians who spend most of their time in collaborative or interdisciplinary research. Many chairs have little sympathy for—or understanding of—collaborative research, perhaps because it does not usually lead to publications in the statistical journals with which they are familiar. How many chairs out there explicitly encourage their junior faculty to aim for publishing in the Annals, JASA or Biometrika, in direct conflict with (c) above? In my experience, quite a few. Are they unaware of the discouragement this entails for those engaged in collaborative or interdisciplinary statistical research? To be sure, some people manage to publish papers in these journals as well as carrying out their collaborative research, but that is rare, and needs to be recognised as such. Should it follow that a statistician who currently spends time collaborating productively (i.e. publishing) with scientists in his own non-statistical area but who has no papers in the top-tier statistical journals, who is Co-PI on many collaborative grants but PI on none, is unworthy of promotion in a statistics department? I certainly hope not.

What’s the problem? The most frequent concern I hear is the difficulty of evaluating such activities. This is a legitimate point. It can be difficult to discern the amount of effort that went into the statistical contribution to a collaborative paper, particularly for an outside reviewer. Senior colleagues of collaborative researchers are usually aware of the enormous time commitment that their work entails, and senior collaborators can be called upon to support a case for advancement. The extent of the originality or the importance of contribution to a collaboration can be hard to identify, and certainly can’t be figured out from the journal’s impact factor or the number of citations. There is the obvious point that frequently, there would be no paper at all if the statistician had not analysed the data, but this too can be belittled: someone else, typically less capable, might have done the analysis.

How do we compare people who do collaborative research with those who do disciplinary research, and how do we assess their standing in the profession? All difficult questions, but they should not be grounds for going against (a), (b) and (c) above.

A chair seeking to advance junior faculty who engage in collaborative research needs to work harder than she would otherwise. The research of such applicants must be carefully assessed; she cannot rely on summaries such as the number of publications and the status of the journals in which they appear. She needs qualified reviewers who will read some of the applicant’s papers very carefully, and they can be hard to find. All true, but she needs to do it. Institutional guidelines are just that, and the chair’s job is to work with and around them to achieve (b) above. Where would our subject be if no-one ever collaborated closely with people from outside statistics? Our profession needs collaborative research for its health and future existence. Let’s advance it together!

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