American Universities

(23 Posts)
WhattodoSue Mon 29-Aug-16 00:18:59

I'm considering leaving academia in the UK for the US (I have uk/us passports). I have never lived in the US and I'm a bit concerned that the work/life balance would be worse. Anyone works/has worked in an American Uni? Are tenure-track positions impossible? I am not an Oxbridge graduate, so won't have that badge of honour.

OP’s posts: |
haybott Mon 29-Aug-16 07:37:08

What kind of American university? Do you have an offer? Because the answers will depend heavily on what kind of university it is.

WhattodoSue Mon 29-Aug-16 08:17:00

Thanks for replying. No offer yet because I haven't applied. I am trying to do some research on where I might think about applying, if it turns out to be a realistic prospect.

OP’s posts: |
YawningKasm Mon 29-Aug-16 09:58:06

Field? Discipline?

Google "College Misery" - an hilarious blog about working in the US system.

You'll need to read the Chronicle, and find the other online sources for job listings in the US. In my field, there are two huge broad disciplinary conferences where initial interviews are often done. One in January, the other May/June.

I get the impression that hiring is often a much more various procedure in the US than the UK - positions are not so uniformly advertised as we have to in the UK in relation to EEO/DDA legislation. A lot more is done by networks, contacts, and patronage.

MedSchoolRat Mon 29-Aug-16 10:34:12

I despair at how negative MN academics are ... alas, I'm about to be negative about the US system. Until about 10 yrs ago a relative was a lecturer at a respected US uni (in top 50 for political science).

It was her 2nd lecturer position. After 5 yrs, she didn't get tenure so they terminated her contract. This triggered a 5 year ban from her working for the same university in any capacity. I don't know how hard she looked, but she gave up, hasn't worked since.

There is also some big new story about associate professors being on food stamps, that's how badly they are paid. I imagine that problem only applies to the lesser ranked unis: obviously, that's where most people work. Or read Anita Hill's autobiography about how she was treated by her Uni after being caught in the Clarence Thomas hearings. She moved university, eventually.

Or read about the mess in Texas where students are now allowed to open-carry at public universities, sigh. There's a lot of politics associated with university management.

At higher ranked universities, PhD students do most of the tutorials with undergrads. The more senior the faculty, the less direct interaction with undergrads.

I guess I could consider it myself, but I'd still go in with low expectations.

haybott Mon 29-Aug-16 10:44:12

The US university system is very hierarchical.

The top research intensive universities will be looking for world leading research superstars and will pay accordingly. Life there is pretty pressured but the teaching load is not the big issue - the pressure is to pump out world leading research and to pull in grant income.

At the lower tier universities teaching loads can be very heavy and pay not very good. There is more and more tendency to hire fixed term "lecturers" to teach courses rather than to appoint tenure track/tenured staff. Many jobs are not widely advertised and are indeed obtained by contacts. Even when the jobs do not really involve research, you usually need a strong research background to get a tenure track job in the first place. Note that some such universities/colleges don't grant PhD degrees themselves so you can't have PhD students.

Even given all of the problems in the UK system, I wouldn't go to the US to a lower tier university because I think the conditions for doing research are poor. I would go to a top US university (I hold a partial appointment) but jobs at such places are at least as hard to get as jobs at Oxbridge.

(And the UK government would clearly like the UK system to evolve in the same way, with research concentrated in the top third or so of institutions.)

MedSchoolRat Mon 29-Aug-16 10:47:03

I'm not sure it's fair to say the UK govt currently wants that.

However, it is pretty much what the Russell Group have been campaigning for, since 1998 or so. Tony Blair's govt strongly rejected it, but RG has set about making their brand strong so that they hope things evolve that way, after all.

haybott Mon 29-Aug-16 10:55:37

The government is setting up a multi-tier system of fees.

RCUK is increasingly pumping large chunks of its money into the top universities at the expense of the lower tier universities. DTCs, strategic investments in new research institutes are all aimed at concentrating money in the top universities.This strategy is being driven directly by BIS (or whatever it is now called). And despite the rhetoric about the northern powerhouse, the money is strongly concentrated in the SE.

BTW top tier of universities is not the same as RG. Some of the RG are clearly not going to be in the inner circle.

I agree however that the top tier of universities is pushing for this, as the only way to be internationally competitive. It is hard to justify why we are paying the same salary scales to world leading academics as we do to academics who teach (and don't research much) at the lowest tier universities. Oxbridge and other universities would clearly like higher fees/a bigger share of the grant income so that they could offer salaries comparable to those abroad.

YawningKasm Mon 29-Aug-16 12:32:24

And despite the rhetoric about the northern powerhouse, the money is strongly concentrated in the SE

Tell me about it? Golden triangle, anyone? (OxbridgeUoL)

haybott Mon 29-Aug-16 12:54:15

BTW Osborne was criticised by a Commons select committee for making announcements of structural funding for research in Budget/Autumn Statement, without going through proper peer review beforehand. Once he had made these announcements, the money could not be withdrawn without political embarrassment even though several times the scientific/business cases turned out to be weaker than they should have been. In many such cases the money was targeted at Oxbridge or London...

Closetlibrarian Tue 06-Sep-16 14:05:00

To go back to the OP's question. It completely depends on what your discipline is, how good your work is, etc, as to whether a tenure-track post is possible. You may be at a disadvantage if you've only moved in UK academic circles. US letters of recommendation tend to have a certain tone and emphasis that your recommenders (if UK-based) are unfamiliar with.
What are your publications like? I know of one very senior ranking UK academic who got turned down for a highish ranking US job (just below Ivy League) because his main book was not published with a US press, so the appointment committee 'didn't know how to evaluate it'.
Do you go to conferences in your field in the US? Do have have contacts/ peers/ a network over there?

In terms of whether or not US academia is 'better' to work in than the UK - again, it's a bit swings and roundabouts. Better for some things, worse for others. E.g. US academics are far less burdened with 'admin' duties than UK ones. They tend to have healthier research and travel funding (although this is quite variable dependent on institution). They also don't have to scrabble around for shrinking pots of research money the way UK academics do. There are various disadvantages though - the tenure system is falling apart, a bit, and US universities are increasingly relying on underpaid labour (grad students, adjuncts). I've found that (in my discipline, and related ones, at least) that there is a certain way of 'thinking' and writing adopted by US academics that can be very stifling. I did my PhD in the US and while it was a brilliant experience, I've felt more intellectually liberated since being in the UK.

haybott Tue 06-Sep-16 15:26:31

They also don't have to scrabble around for shrinking pots of research money the way UK academics do.

The research money is shrinking in the US in my STEM subject. This leads to increasing and escalating pressure on academics based in the US.

Closetlibrarian Wed 07-Sep-16 10:39:06

Fair enough haybott. However, as far as I'm aware, from the dozens of academics I know in the humanities in the US, applying for external funding is neither expected nor required (e.g. for promotion or to make tenure) - it's all about your publications. I guess things are different in the sciences (about which I know zilch).

haybott Wed 07-Sep-16 11:00:30

Targets for external funding started in the US in science subjects and then got copied by other countries. It's virtually impossible to get tenure without hitting ambitious targets for funding income. The pressure is way worse than in Europe. Very little intellectual freedom either - you are expected to work on mainstream hot topics, rather than pursue less fashionable but solid/interesting research.

Closetlibrarian Wed 07-Sep-16 11:04:31

Interesting haybott - I had no idea. Where does the funding come from in the US?

(On a side note, isn't it also an issue here that we have to work on 'hot topics' to get funding? That's most definitely the case in the humanities.)

haybott Wed 07-Sep-16 13:30:51

Yes, we are copying the international trends of fixating on "hot topics" and "big themes" but there is still more intellectual freedom in the UK (in STEM at least).

For US funding it would be Department of Education, National Science Foundation mostly plus industrial/business money plus MacArthur Fellowships, Sloan Foundation, etc etc. It is the effective decrease in DoE and NSF money that affects my subject most.

WhattodoSue Fri 09-Sep-16 09:59:05

Thank you all for your really helpful (and eye opening) comments and thoughts. I must admit, I had thought (hoped) that the funding system in the US was slightly less dire than it is in the UK. I knew that the system in the US was hierarchical, but it is the degree of that hierarchy that I will need to be aware of. Fundamentally, one of the reasons why I thought that this move might be useful from a career perspective was exactly because I was hoping that the streams of funding might be more diverse and consequently it might be easier to get on the funding ladder than it is in my discipline in the UK. However, that may be naive. .

In terms of achieving Tenure (Professor), I'm guessing that the necessity of achieving funding is the same in the UK and the US. However, clearly in the UK you are not going to get fired if you do not achieve Professor. What I don't want in the US is for my time to get eaten by teaching, so that there is no time to research and consequently tenure is impossible to achieve. I would be interested to know the ratio between teaching/admin/student time and research time.

The intellectual freedom in the UK is an interesting one. It is fine having intellectual freedom, but my impression is that it isn't funded. Consequently, the only way funding can be achieved is by hitting the hot topics.

So, I guess my main question here is which universities could get funding, and what happens in universities which aren't eligible for PhD studies? Does a university have to be able to take PhD students to make it a research focused (and therefore fund-able) institution? Thanks!

OP’s posts: |
haybott Fri 09-Sep-16 12:36:21

You are usually tenured at Associate Professor level in the US (although MIT, Harvard have non-tenured Associate Professors).

Your question about the ratio between teaching/admin and research is difficult to answer because again it depends on type of university and on research field. At the very top universities you would typically have a decent amount of time for research and far less trivial admin of the type we do in the UK. In the UK we are also obsessed with monitoring and measuring everything - committees here, there and everywhere, and a ridiculous level of scrutiny of exams. We are pretty much unique in this nonsense.

In principle you are funded, not the university, but you are right that the money is strongly focussed on higher tier universities. Again I think you would have to ask in your own field to know where the cutoff is. In my field you wouldn't get research grants at institutions which don't take PhD students, but then again you wouldn't need to get research grants to get tenure and you would only be expected to carry on your own research at a relatively low level/rate. Most of the money for my field is concentrated in Ivy League level universities. You would struggle to get research funding for even summer salaries at typical state universities (which do take PhD students).

murmuration Tue 13-Sep-16 13:01:11

I'm getting the feeling from reading this thread that Arts and Sciences are very different in the US. I can only answer for Sciences - I came from the US and have friends/colleagues there.

The research funding situation is absolutely dire. For example, funding rates at BBSRC in the UK currently hovers between 22-25%, and in the US while NSF funding rates are close at 19%, NIH funding rates are 9% (these are the two major science funders in the US).

It really is going to matter at what type of institution you end up at. An "R1" (Research 1) institution is going to expect you to hold 2-4 major grants simultaneously, and most will expect you to obtain 100% of your salary from the grants. (It might be 'written' as something like 75%, but if you want tenure, it had better be 100%). If your research area isn't funded by the NIH, it's slightly better in that you only need to obtain 'summer salary' (e.g., 25%) from your grants. You'll be quoted a salary based on 1 year, but they only pay you for 9 months of the year, so you only get 75% of that unless you can make up the rest from grants. On the other end of the scale, small teaching institutions will pay you to mostly teach (and for over the summer if you do summer school) and will be thrilled if you pull in a small charity grant that pays for consumables. Then there is a range in-between. You'll be unlikely to get an NIH grant at an undergraduate-only institution, but that is not unheard of for NSF grants. Charities fund lots of places, and many places with have Master's programmes that last 2-3 years, so this also can provide research labour.

My personal analysis is that if I go to back to the US I am going (1) only apply only for tenured positions and (2) concentrate on small undergraduate institutions, maybe with Master's programmes.

Do be aware that tenure is not the same as Professorship. They have 3 grades: Assistant Professor (=Lecturer), Associate Professor (tenured, =SL or Reader), and Full Professor (=Professor). Depending on where you are, the barrier to tenure is usually a bit higher than that for SL on the research side, and a bit lower than for Reader. The main problem is there is a 'clock' - you have 5-7 years to meet the requirements, and if you don't, you're fired (unlike in the UK where you can stay a Lecturer forever if you want). If you're already a Lecturer with some years of experience, I'd highly recommend applying to tenured positions. Many people I knew in the US 'nudged' along their tenure applications by applying to tenured posts at other Universities.

Finally, work-life balance in the US is terrible overall, but in Universities there is a bit more flexibility (like in the UK) and at least it will be what you make of it. You'll probably officially get something like 9-15 days vacation, but as an academic you can really set your own schedule. But eyebrows will be raised if you take several two-week holidays throughout the year as that will clearly not fit; people often squeeze family holidays in alongside conference and field trips.

haybott Tue 13-Sep-16 13:08:19

An "R1" (Research 1) institution is going to expect you to hold 2-4 major grants simultaneously, and most will expect you to obtain 100% of your salary from the grants.

This is not true for my science area - bio/medical is different from other sciences. (And DoE funds science too.)

At top tier universities you would be expected to have major grants but you would not be expected to obtain your salary from grants. And a professorial salary at a top tier institution would be $150k-$250k plus summer salary from grant, more for the really top people, so much higher than in the UK.

BTW grant success rates for many other sciences in the UK are nowhere near as high as 20%.

murmuration Tue 13-Sep-16 13:19:05

Yeah, my knowledge is bio-tinged. Although most sciences do summer salary, don't they? Maybe not everyone quotes the 1 year rate, but places I applied to did so, and then it was only in discussions that it came out only got 75% of that money (although some of them would cover summer salary for your first 2-3 years to get you going).

And very good point that the salaries are much higher. As I do US taxes each year, which makes me translate my salary into US$, I've only just reached after 10 years in UK academics the level of starting salaries some of the R1's were offering me. And even the smaller institutions were offering starting salaries that were easily 30% up on what I got to start here. Also 'start up' funds are excellent - you can get what is basically 3 years worth of grant funding (enough to hire 1-2 people and buy a bunch of eqiupment) to get your group going (I recall some of them saying you could use some of that money for summer salary or to buy stuff for the lab - I wonder if anyone decides to put it in their own pocket instead of pumping up the lab?). And I think tax rates are lower, so you also 'see' more of that money, but then you have to pay for things health care, so I've found that all seems to balance out.

WhattodoSue Tue 13-Sep-16 16:09:24

murmuration" that is really helpful info. And *haybott I'm glad to know that there is variation in the sciences. Given that Psychology sits firmly within schools of social sciences in the US (at least that is the conclusion I have come to, based on my explorations up to now), I wonder if the situation may be slightly different. Having said that, many of the departments I have been looking at are very strongly neuroscience, even in the social science departments.

I've also found the mention of R1 classifications is really helpful. I've just looked for a list of R1, and found the R2 and R3 (thank you wikipedia!).

I don't know if anyone knows, but for psychology (and funding) is R1 an necessity? Or is it possible in R2 and maybe even R3? Haybott based on your post, in your discipline I'm guessing R1 only, and not even certain there. But I'm also gathering there are differences in Arts/Sciences.


OP’s posts: |
WhattodoSue Tue 13-Sep-16 23:46:06

One more question - does anyone have any knowledge/experience/thoughts on what life would be like in Salt Lake City? Thanks!

OP’s posts: |

Join the discussion

To comment on this thread you need to create a Mumsnet account.

Join Mumsnet

Already have a Mumsnet account? Log in