Saturday, February 27, 2010


I apologise, my dear blog reader for the months of silence. Been busy :) Here's a snap of lil'bro and I in Vancouver a few weeks ago. I visited the busy city just before the Olympics started.

You know I love 'da sport' and I would love to chat at length about the great white games but I'll save that for another day. The Vancouver visit was a welcome side trip squeezed between a job interview and a conference in the North Western States.

The interview was for a faculty position in the Chemistry Department of the University of Idaho - 'Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry'. Few people know much about the mysterious world of 'academia' so I thought I would write about it today. Many of us think of university professors as essentially 'advanced level teachers' but that is not really true. There is teaching of course, but considerably less than a high school teacher would have. And most of the job is research and supervision of grad students.

I'll start from the beginning - an entry level faculty position at a University in North America is usually called 'Assistant Professor' but this title is misleading - Assistant Professors do not actually assist anyone with anything. In most cases an academic faculty member, from day one, is hired both as a teacher and as CEO of his or her own little research corporation. In both roles, there is instant independence and tremendous freedom. This is not the case in Europe where Assistant Professors usually work for (and answer to) a senior 'Full Professor'.

The job in Idaho consists of teaching undergraduate classes for a few hours a week and managing the 'research corporation' for the rest of the time. Generally speaking, the goal of 'science' is straightforward - to improve our understanding of the world and, where possible, to solve problems and make 'things' better. Sounds noble doesn't it? :) More specifically, the task of the 'reserach corp.' under the direction of a typical faculty member is to produce short little publications describing original research that are accepted by peer-reviewed journals. That's it. That's how the game is played - that's how we contribute to 'bettering' the world. Most faculty members crank out anywhere from 2 or 3 right up to into the 20's of these publications per year depending on amount of funding, research lab space, and size the 'workforce' under one's supervision.

Sadly, the publications are 'readable' by other experts and pretty much meaningless to the average person. Carl Sagan once wrote: 'We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.". But that's for another blog post.

Another major responsibility is obtaining research funding. In my field, a supervisor easily spends fifty to several hundred thousand dollars yearly on student and post-doc salaries and other research expenses. In some fields of biology and health research, this can run well into the millions. The question of where that money comes from is a tricky one. First, academic journals do not pay researchers for their published work so any analogy to the real 'corporations' world must stop here. Also, the university does not pay for research but rather asks that researchers obtain 'external' funding. This means applications to funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the States, or NSERC in Canada, or ARC or NHMRC in Australia. We propose projects and hope that these agencies want to pay for them. These are taxpayer dollars and governments do this because investment in research has a pretty good historical track record of being 'worthwhile'. Often private industries also offer grants and donations, as do charities (often for disease specific medical research). That's pretty much the whole ballgame.

An Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry in Idaho begins a career with a pretty modest salary and lab and office space for a 'group' of graduate students which must be recruited, assembled, and trained like a varsity sports team. In fact, because of the five-year nature of graduate programs, there are countless similarities between a productive research group and a winning varsity volleyball team. But that's for another day too. The university also offers 'start-up funds' which is a hefty chunk of one-time-only-must-spend-quickly cash for lab equipment. Career advancement is fairly standardized and simple in academia: successfull 'Assistant Professors' become promoted to 'Associate Professors' and granted tenure usually after five or six years and eventually, in the long term, obtain the title of 'Full Professors', start wearing elbow patches, smoking a pipe, and walking with a cane. The 'tenure' process is pretty cool and probably deserves its own post another day too.

That concludes your 'academia' education for today. I'll stick with this theme for a few posts I think... I'm happy to say I was offered the job and we are headed for Idaho in August :) Maybe next week I'll write a bit about U of I and this guy.

The Brizzy Days will be winding down this year. As I've said many times to many people - Brisbane is all pros and no cons. This city, the QLD, Sssssssstralia, and the friends we have made here have all been very good to Kate and I. I have loved every minute of it and we have made more than just good memories here. I'm sure we'll see this place again many times as visitors - but a very different adventure is in store for us now. I'm thinking about calling it 'The Huckleberry Days'...