Tenure track, research track and other “tracks” – what is this all about?

Tenure Track Transition - figureWhen you start your Post-Doctoral training after graduating you have no idea what expects you in the scientific world. That is what happened to me, after my graduation I was expecting to do a fast training in the US and then get a “real” job. However, things are not that simple in science. If nobody tells you exactly how the hierarchy works, especially in the academia, it is difficult to understand. Even if a Professor or a person that is a researcher for years try to explain how it works, it is not easy to understand. That was what happened to me – I was naive and thought that I would get a job fast after a Post-Doctoral training I did in Harvard. But I was wrong! I was invited to come to work in Chicago and was told that I would become a Faculty – in that case an Assistant Professor. The important thing I was not told at that time is that depending on the institution, they have two different “tracks”: one is the “Tenure track” and the other a “Research track”. After coming to Chicago, I started asking people around me what is the difference between these two tracks but nobody could explain me exactly how the system works, not even my boss. I realized that entering in the “Research Track” was not a good choice since I did a search myself and interestingly if you go to trough the “Research Track” position you can’t go back to the other track. And why is that? I still really do not know, but I try to understand. It is clear now that it is dependent on the academic institution you are working in. Most universities have just tenure tracks and research institutes and hospitals, etc have both or just the research track. Tenure track means you will need a strong commitment with your employee and you will need to write grants and get research money to the institution; the research track is less stressful since you do not need to bring research money to the institution; some institutions can give you the money you need to do the research and/or you need to be under the “umbrella” of some Professor or Principal investigator with grant money to pay your research and salary. I am learning in the last years during my training that the tenure track is a very difficult path, especially now with the American economic crisis. New Tenure track investigators have to bring research money to the institution they get a job in 3 years – for this they need to write grants like crazy and get the money somehow. Together with grant proposal writing, the new investigator in this track needs to manage the laboratory, get students, manage the finances of the laboratory (most places give the new investigator a start-up money that is good for 3 years). If you are not able to get any grant money (and for tenure track the NIH grants are a obligation to get based on how this system was built), the institution can fire you or deny the tenure (tenure meaning that you will move up in the hierarchy and become an Associate Professor; most tenure track positions you start as an Assistant Professor). On the other side, the research track is more flexible and varies a lot between institutions. This track means you have to depend on the money from the institution and/or the Principal Investigator you are working with. In addition, it means you are not independent and needs to do whatever your boss tells you – you can’t work in your own ideas. The research track position does not have any stability at all since if the money that covers your salary ends your boss can fire you if he has no grant money to pay your salary. Research track can be good or bad depending on the institution; tenure track is more stressful and you are by yourself with a big pressure to get research money to move up in the hierarchical scale. There are also other “tracks” that are very difficult to understand and these are mostly in research institutes; you can do your research and have appointments or chair as a Professor in Universities that are connected to this research center. All of these “tacks” are named Faculty since you have some link to the institution you work with. So now my question is: which track should we take? Well, it depends on what are your ambitions and where you want to go when staying in academia… One thing is for sure, to get a tenure track you need to be like a “genius” these days with a strong record of publication and/or publications in journals with a very high impact. However, be careful if a non-tenure track (research track) is offered to you since if you get this position, I really do not know why, this title is bad for your CV and in the long-term you will not be able to get tenure. My personal opinion is that all this “tracking” system is completely wrong and badly designed destroying the career of very good researchers with great potential to develop and discover important things in science. I am using this blog to say that NIH and all the scientific community needs to re-evaluate this whole system. Personally, I still don’t know which track I will decide to go, but I can tell that this decision does not depend just on you as a scientist – the scientific community somehow decides who stays and who doesn’t. But, isn’t that the same way in everything in life?; such as the way evolution works – the more adapted and fit stay and the weakest ones have to give up or “die”. Ecologically speaking the system works but we are human beings and need to be treated with more respect, especially when we study for several years to become a scientist.

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