Update on Maria who is neither singing nor a nun but a problem

I wrote a while back about a Problem Called Maria, who is a difficult junior faculty person. While R01 funded, she had not published (I had said 6 papers, it was only 4, but with two more since she turned her tenure documents in). She was, in fact, turned down for tenure. She was very upset and spent a lot of time raging (to others, and eventually me) on how unfair this was, how hard her snowflake discipline is, that she was working as hard as she could. Actually, I don’t doubt that she was working hard, just not productively, as far as I could tell (see her story about throwing out 1.5 years of data because the postdoc was a disaster).

Anyway, she came to me. She wanted to talk to me about what do. I was only a little tempted to say why weren’t you here earlier, but realized that would be neither helpful nor politic at this point in time. I listened for about 10 minutes to how horrible the world is. Then she interrupted herself and said: what do you think I should do now?

What do you say to someone in this position? In my view, she didn’t deserve tenure. I don’t give a damn about your snowflake discipline. I really don’t. But, I thought she deserved some support. I am not sure why. While writing this I tried to come up with some rules (for myself) on when to help and not help people. It’s easy to identify the ends of the spectrum. I wouldn’t help someone who cheated, who lied, or who insulted others. I know that there are lots of others who would say that I should protect my time, and not waste it on people who can’t make the cut. Maria is/was her own worst enemy. She owns her failures. She was not treated unfairly. Showing her kindness and help now may make a difference how she treats people in the future, whether she stays in academics or not. We are not only what we do in our careers.

So we discussed an appeal. I did try and indicate what I thought would make a strong appeal, and what would irritate the readers. I did not say that she either deserved or didn’t deserve tenure. She wrote an appeal and I edited it. I told her to take out the snowflake stuff, and she listened. This represented less than an hour of my life and, in the end, it was A Good Thing To Do.

But if her appeal is successful (and I have absolutely no idea about the probability distribution on the outcome), I do not believe it will be good for the department.


9 thoughts on “Update on Maria who is neither singing nor a nun but a problem

  1. I’m in a (somewhat) similar situation here – a clinical fellow who’s pretty much had everything handed to them on a plate thus far, including support from our (clinical) department to pursue research. Now this person has to stand on their own two feet and write a grant from scratch. Pants-shitting deer in the headlights doesn’t begin to describe the situation. FFS if you can’t make up 2 liters of a 12 mM solution of salts and then pH it properly you shouldn’t even think about being in research (“but no fair – the solutions in the OR come prepackaged”). My plan is to allow this person to quietly fail and fade away into the woodwork, but having a department blinded by the allure of shiny-clinician-researcher-magic-unicorn-sparkle-dustTM is not helping matters.

    In any job situation there will always be people who manage to claw their way up through the system with minimal effort, using the right buzz-words, and leaving us mere mortals thinking “how in the f*** did you ever get this far? (oh, that’s right you’re a smooth operator)”. The trick to dealing with these people is to avoid facilitating their sense of belonging. If they’re made to struggle and feel like outsiders, maybe they’ll get the message. If they feel like they belong, they’ll just stroll on through to the next crisis when they need your urgent help. Nip it in the bud; you’re not doing this person any favors by massaging their ego and agreeing with them that they’ve been wronged.

    • “If they’re made to struggle and feel like outsiders, maybe they’ll get the message.”

      Not only is this morally wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was illegal.

  2. If this person gets tenure, you will have to have her in your department for the next 30+ years. Do you want that? If not, then don’t help her get tenure, no matter how sorry you feel for her. Don’t help her with an appeal. Help her get a different career at a different place.

  3. She’s not a clinician, nor is she entirely scientifically clueless. In fact the work she has done is solid, there’s just not a lot of it. What she is, however, is socially and politically problematic (read my first post about dinner with her). Beyond my own ethical/moral concerns about when to help people, there is the opportunity to provide her with some education. Whether her appeal is successful or not, if I can show her how colleagues interact then perhaps this will help her and change her in the future.

    People were tolerant of me when I was an obnoxious, untenured, irritating twit. They helped me and I learned. Maybe Maria will or won’t. This is something you pay forward.

  4. Pingback: Advice to Young Faculty Appealing Tenure Decisions (or even just putting the papers in) | Mistress of the Animals

  5. Pingback: What’s productive enough for tenure? | reaction norm

  6. Pingback: Maria’s Outcome and Success as a Junior Faculty | Mistress of the Animals

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