Sunday, July 19, 2020

Navigating Promotions, Reviews, and Tenure

Marilyn at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, 1981


As a Distinguished Dame of Science now, I receive frequent requests to write appraisals of candidates for tenure or promotion from Associate to Full Professor. I am impressed by the amount of effort that individuals put into preparing their “file” for review. Every talk or poster given by the professor or her student is listed along with every undergrad mentored. It’s an awful lot of “bean counting” when a decision like tenure is based not on numbers or lists, but the feeling that a scientist has succeeded in “Driving the Bus,” as my friend and colleague Seth Newsome likes to say.


At the Carnegie’s Geophysical Lab where I spent the majority of my career, there were only two titles pertaining to permanent scientific personnel—Staff Member or Director. There still is no internal ranking, no promotion, and no merit steps like in the government with its GS scale or at universities. We had something called the “Five Year Review” that was carried out randomly every 5-10 years. A successful review was not tied to a promotion or even a salary raise.  One year Margie Imlay, the Director’s assistant, sent out for review my resume that was 5 years old! Imagine that happening on a college campus.

Hat Yoder carried out my first informal review in 1984. He chose Preston Cloud, a Precambrian geologist at UC Santa Barbara, John Hayes then at Indiana, Bob Clayton, isotope geochemist at University of Chicago, and John Farrington, organic geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The reviews were a bit on the lukewarm side. Hayes offered faint praise, as did the others. None noted that I was innovative or a leader of science.

I don’t think my record convinced them I was “driving the bus.”

    Even worse, John Farrington wrote about an incident that he observed at a Gordon Conference on Organic Geochemistry in 1982. It’s a big deal to be invited to give a Talk (with a capital T) at the small, specialized Gordon Conferences. Penn State Professor Peter Given, who I’d worked with as an undergrad, was arranging the biogeochemistry session and had invited me to present my work. I spoke about my studies of organisms thriving in hot springs of Yellowstone National Park and the isotope patterns that they displayed. I was an expert in this subject, but also a young female, not yet 30 years old, speaking primarily to 150, mostly older men.

    At the end of the talk, I was asked a question about carbon isotope fractionation in photosynthesis—the topic of my PhD and other work. Before I could answer, John Hayes jumped up from the audience, mounted the stage, and answered the question as I stood numbly and dumbly aside, seething with anger. I didn’t know how to deal with this situation. According to Farrington, I looked weak and not in control. Something like this shouldn’t happen to anyone.

By 2000, I was sitting next to John Hayes, Jap Sinningje-Damste--Big Boys in Organic Geochemistry

               Keep in mind, I am trained as a biologist and botanist, not a geologist, chemist or geochemist. While Hayes and Farrington understood what I was up to, the other two reviewers were far removed. Yoder summarized the review positively; I sucked it up and moved forward. I had published my first paper in Science ( describing for the first time the use of hydrogen isotopes as tracers of diet. I’d published two papers on enzymatic fractionation of carbon isotopes by the CO2-fixing enzyme Rubisco, and I’d started work on compound specific amino acids, nitrogen isotopes, and life in extreme environments.

    In 1985, I was called into the office of Carnegie’s first and only Vice President, Margaret McVicar, for a “friendly” chat about my career. McVicar was President James D. Ebert’s henchwoman, who was hired to cull Carnegie Staff Members and shrink the Institution. I think she had some shred of guilt about doing this, but not much. Her advice to me was “get Tom Hoering off your grants and publications.” At that time, Tom was only a coauthor on two publications, which I had worked on as a postdoc in his lab. He was a Co-Investigator on two NSF grants—one to purchase a new mass spectrometer for the Lab and another to work on compound specific isotopes of amino acids in pigs.

    I was offended by the conversation. I had been led to believe that Carnegie was interested in getting to the bottom of scientific problems, not assigning credit. At that time (1985), President Ebert was looking to fire half the staff at the Geophysical Lab and its sister lab, DTM, then merge the two departments. After an external review, the Board of Trustees nixed that idea and Ebert retired. I went on to publish a few more papers with Tom, but we remained close colleagues and friends. We weren't going to let petty politics interfere.

    My second review in 1992 or so was somewhat better, but one reviewer’s comments stood out as being particularly derogatory. This reviewer, a noted geochemist with no experience in stable isotopes or biogeochemistry, thought I was essentially a 2nd-rate Staff Member who showed no evidence of leadership. He was under the impression that Tom Hoering was still calling the shots after 11 years of independence. Of the 22 papers I’d published between 1984 and 1992, Hoering was a coauthor on only four of them. Charlie Prewitt, Director at that time, knew that I wasn’t following Tom’s lead on anything. But I was on notice to amp up my outward persona.

Three Staff Members: Ed Hare, me, Tom in 1982

    To get promoted with tenure, people need to see that you are sitting at the front and “driving the bus.” In the few negative cases of tenure I’ve reviewed, there was usually an aspect of the standard formula missing—not enough grant funding, no student involvement in publications, unsuccessful grad students, or not enough publications period. Often, without an external person’s knowing anything, a person is denied tenure because the faculty finds that person difficult. That can happen even with decent external reviews—there’s always a way to spin things.

    For further promotion to Full Professor, even more is needed but what that something is exactly is a matter for interpretation. I can say this however—not only does a professor need to be driving the bus, they need to have built the School where the bus is heading. I’m seeing faculty who have brought in major funding (e.g., millions of dollars), created new majors, formed intergovernmental-university panels, won international awards, or created major instrumentation laboratories. Typically, I’m seeing a body of papers on three or more major subjects with continued first authorship or with their students as first authors. These are not folks who are marking time or driving the bus in a circle.

    It’s this step that decides the trajectory of the final stages of one’s career. Will you continue to push the boundaries of scientific innovation and discovery? Will you bank more on your personal intelligence and lead a department as Chair or eventually Dean? Will you become the University spokesperson in the news, on the radio, or by writing books? Or, will you continue to put one foot ahead of the other and keep things as they were?

    In my own case, I first chose the scientific discovery pathway, then wished I’d done more on the leadership side. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to do both—and then some. I’ll end with my own analogy of driving the bus. Head to the coast! Let folks out at a Dock not a School. Pile them on board a Ship and become its Captain. 

    Be the Captain of Your Ship! Wherever your journey takes you, with you at the helm, you’ll have an interesting ride.



Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...