Research Assistant Professors

May 27 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a brilliant marvelous wonderful postdoc (oh hai. I know you're reading this). This postdoc has life balancing /personal issues that are entirely appropriate. Issues that got me thinking. The best thing for the is PD is to get A Real Job. I am working on that. Meantime, I am going to try and get this postdoc an appointment as a "research asst prof" of which there are several in my department at almost-MRU. This title means independent (largely), means PI status for writing their own grants. It does not mean their own lab, unless they score R-level NIH or equivalent funding. It might, given funding, mean a small amount of department support for research, < $50K.

I have all sorts of various feelings about this. On one hand, it can be a Good Thing. If young person can't move, for whatever reasons, then this is a way to be more than the pawn/gofer for a "real" faculty. If jobs are scarce, its one way to stay in the business. Needless to say, this implies the right mentor, with the right attitudes.

But, I see a lot, even in my marvelous new department, where its a ploy to tie someone tighter to the faculty mentor. There aren't really any BSD's here, in part because its not a BSD-kinda place, but also because the department has hired carefully over the years (there are more R01s here, in the hands of Gen-Xers, thank you very much, than at my old MRU department). At almost-MRU its hard to attract trainees as we are not a BSD-MRU. So there is motivation for keeping someone good.

But my postdoc, as is true for others here, would undoubtedly be better served by getting their own position. I have said so to the postdoc. We have talked about it. We will keep talking (as is our habit, oh hai, I know you're still reading).

It is a sign of maturity to let go of people when it is best for them. It is a sign of maturity to know when it is best for them. When I bring this up to colleagues, I hear a lot of hmming, and hawing, and toing and froing. Fuck that. Figure out what's best for your people. You have to get up with you in the morning.

9 responses so far

  • M says:

    Agreed on pushing for what is best for your people (even though you want to keep them). It's the nature of the job.

    To play devil's advocate though, Research Professor can be a really sweet position in terms of job description. You get to do research ALL DAY LONG, not have the added pressure of teaching and service, and have the opportunity to gain more credibility/status than a post-doc (you can truly establish yourself as an independent researcher). If you work for (are tied to) another faculty member who allows you sufficient freedom/independence (to submit your own grants, write your own papers at least as corresponding author, and work on your own projects - presumably funded by you), then you gain the advantage of shared resources/mentorship, as well as the freedom to do research without the other responsibilities associated with being a regular professor.

    Disadvantages, assuming you have a good relationship with the faculty associate, is obviously the fact that it's a soft money position, and also potentially that you have a lower salary point (you can set this higher in principle -- it just gets hard to bring in the money -- I guess they do it in national labs all the time though).

    Anyway, this is currently my position, and aside from a complete lack of acknowledgment from some of the other faculty in my dept, I kind of really love my job. I never wanted to be a full professor (too much to do in too little time, especially for a perfectionist), and I increasingly find industry jobs to not be appealing - I love the freedom of academic life. We'll see if I'm singing the same tune when the funding tanks (so far hanging in...)

    • potnia theron says:

      Firstly, glad it is working for you. And secondly, indeed, the points you make are good ones.

      And, if it *is* working, great. My concern is that it can be as bad as adjuncting in terms of security. If the transient/non-tenured aspects don't worry, then you are in a good place.

      • M says:

        The security part is somewhat worrisome. I suppose I'm lucky in that I am in a decent position financially (partly due to living in one of the lowest COL areas in the US, and purposely not owning exceptionally expensive houses or cars or fancy stuff in general). Neither my husband nor I want to stay living in the same city or doing the same jobs forever, so we consider our jobs "transient" to some extent in the first place (transient on the scale of 7-10 years, say). We probably have enough of a financial cushion that if one or both of us were to lose our jobs, we would have time to figure out our next move and re-establish. I think the experience I'm gaining is valuable, and am not too worried about the next move at this point in time. I do realize it's quite risky, and people can get screwed pretty easily if what they are looking for is stability/security.

        • potnia theron says:

          I admire that your perspective is matched to where you are. The reasons for my concerns are for the folks who do not have your grace. (ie read the other comments).

  • newbie PI says:

    I have at least one friend where this type of position totally screwed her over in the long run. She was promoted. Then the adviser, who still paid her salary, decided to retire early, so she was basically fired. She then went back to being a postdoc for a different lab, but was now ineligible for K awards since she had been "faculty."

    The research track faculty in my department consistently have a harder time getting a good Investigator score on their NIH grants (because of their lack of a tenure track position), and they are also often not eligible for the fancy early career grants.

  • Ola says:

    At my institution, they're clamping down hard on numbers of RAPs, since they count toward the total # of "grant eligible faculty", and so they screw up the grants/faculty metric in the ranking tables (this is apparently something the admnideanlets care about).

    From the PI perspective, RAPs can be great - long term consistency in methods and other aspects of a research program. However, the salary becomes a problem over time. Assuming a low end of 60 plus benefits (which in-turn assumes the RAP came off the tail end of a consistent NRSA F32 recommended post-doc stipend annual raises), then you're looking at 80 and change, which is a huge chunk of a modular R01. As such, I only ever tend to see RAPs in the BSD labs - the lesser mortals simply can't afford it.

    The only issue I see with the "what's best for your people" line, is how that would play out in real life? How exactly is a 5-6th year postdoc' with no K or other grant, supposed to go get another job in academia? They can't get another post-doc' (NIH guidelines having set max' PDF at 5 years for some time now). They can't get an RAP job at another university (I've only ever seen RAPs hired from within, never fresh from outside). They can't compete for a TT faculty position (no funding). Unless they go outside of academia then they're pretty much S.O.L. and an RAP is about the only option they have, assuming they want to keep doing what they like doing (i.e. research in an academic setting).

    • potnia theron says:

      the other place they come from (outside) is spousal hires. I agree about the SOL

    • M says:

      I guess the answer to your second part is that - if somebody is going on a 5th-6th year post-doc, then what's "best" for them may not be a TT position since they haven't made the cut yet. It's pretty competitive, and some people are good, but just not good enough (or not lucky enough). At that point, they have to re-evaluate and look into other types of work (e.g., industry), and maybe the RAP IS the best option for them. RAP is also a good position for people who want to stay in a particular city for some reason (spouse, family, etc.) This is usually how I get some of my best people to stay (for a PhD, post-doc, etc - we are not a particularly high ranking institution, but try to do decent research) and not feel guilty about it...

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