The Price of Tenure

To achieve promotion and tenure in science and engineering, you need 16-20 articles published in reputable journals.  You need to accomplish this in five years, so you need 3-4 articles per year.  You need to publish a significant portion of these articles with your PhD students.  I will assume 10 with PhD students and 10 by you alone or with other faculty members.

A PhD requires roughly 4 years, and I will assume each PhD student publishes 1 article in year 3 and 1 in year 4.  Since you only have five years, you need to recruit 5 PhD students during years 1 and 2.  Each PhD students costs $100,000 per year, $24,000 for their stipend and $76,000 for tuition and overhead.  Over four years, a PhD student costs $400,000.  Five cost $2,000,000.

Summer salaries and modest release time for you amount to $150,000 per year, including benefits and overhead.  Over four years, this totals $600,000.  So, you need $2,600,000 to make this all work.  If you are submitting proposals to NIH or NSF, the success rate is about 10%, so you need to propose $26,000,000 of research.  This requires on the order of 10-15 proposals submitted over two years.

Let’s say this works.  The five PhD students receive $480,000 in stipends.  The university receives $1,920,000 in tuition payments and reimbursed overhead costs.  You get $200,000 in summer salaries.  You also get promoted and perhaps a 10-20% raise.

The mystery is gone. Tenure costs $2,600,000.  The faculty member gets a bit under 8% of the revenue, despite having been responsible for generating all of the revenue.  The economic benefits to the university are enormous, easily funding numerous other university capabilities and activities.

But wait, I left out a very important assumption.  All five of your PhD students have to be talented and productive.  If they do not yield the two papers you need from each of them, then you need more PhD students and the price goes up.  So, more correctly, tenure costs at least $2,600,000.

Let’s see if this estimate passes a sanity test.  $2,600,000 over five years is $520,000 per year.  MIT’s 1,000 faculty members, most in science and engineering, average $950,000 per year.  So, my estimate might be low, although MIT has many research staff members beyond faculty members.  Nevertheless, I am in the ballpark.

This all sounds very profitable, but it isn’t.  Faculty members have to be given release time from teaching to write all the proposals needed.  The 10-15 proposals noted above probably require 50% of a faculty member’s time over two years.  This cost is not recouped, not allowed, in overhead reimbursements.  Nine out of ten proposals are not funded, so most of this 50% is poorly spent.

But wait, you are saying.  Why focus on opportunities with only a 10% chance of success?  Other agencies, industry, and philanthropy have funds available.  However, such funds do not count when seeking tenure.  They are not peer reviewed.  Someone may have just handed you a check.  That is not competitive, although it sounds great to me.

Universities have outsourced the evaluation of their faculty members to peer groups at NIH and NSF.  They continue to outsource when they seek recommendation letters from external sources.  Their internal evaluations of candidates matter little.  The internal committee is significantly challenged due the understandable inability to include members from every imaginable subdiscipline.

No one on this committee knows anything about intermittent vibrations of flat aluminum plates inclined at 18 degrees in turbulent flows of saline water.  So, they ask the chap who studied this phenomenon at 15 degrees, who received tenure based on a recommendation from the person who studied 12 degrees.  There are dissertations in waiting for 13, 14, 16, and 17 degrees.

You get to play this game for $2,600,000.   Let’s say some philanthropist – Michael Anthony for those of you old enough to remember the late 1950s – just handed you a check for several million dollars.  With this money, you focused in research rather than proposal writing.  You published 20 articles in Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Are you home free?

I think you would be at any university, but I am also sure that the committee evaluating you would say you benefitted from “easy money.”  You were able to devote much more time to research because you were not forced to write all the losing proposals.  One or more committee members would not be confident of your future.  They would still vote to promote you, but they would continue to be wary.

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