Obama’s speech to the National Acaemy, my failure at my calling, and bad timing

Posted on April 28th, 2009 — permalink

It is a source of continual angst to me that I’m not teaching college physics at a small college.  It’s my calling, it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.  I sort of made a mistake by going to a research University (that really wanted to be even more of a research University, and was transitioning away from a balance in valuing teaching), but at the time it was the only job offer I had.  If you want to be faculty in physics and astronomy, you’re lucky to get in in the first place….  I would have been happy if I could have kept that job.  Alas, I failed, repeatedly, to get NFS (National Science Foundation) funding.  I tried reinventing my research program in an attempt to make something that would better match the preconception of the funding agencies.  Ironically, this was away from Dark Energy.  However, I was the only professor at my institution who was part of a large collaboration, and funding agencies aren’t interested in that.  Indeed, astronomy panels (at least 7 or so years ago) were suspicious of large collaborations in general.  But, still, no luck.  And, in my last few years, the knowledge (confirmed repeatedly by my department chair) that no NFS funding meant zero chance for tenure begin to weigh more and more heavily on me, and I became more and more dispirited, which made it increasingly difficult to produce any papers and to get good proposals written.  I was in a death spiral.

A year before I left Vanderbilt, I applied for jobs at small colleges, and got several interviews.  I did get one offer, but sadly, for family reasons, I wasn’t able to take the job.  The next year, I applied again, but only got a couple of phone calls, no actual interviews.  Now that I’m out, barring some particularly interesting angle, there’s very little chance of my being able to get back in.  There are just too many young hotshots out there with solid research records, no gap, and who aren’t already over 40.  This isn’t to say it’s inconceivable, but I’ve been on search committees, and I know what happens when they see somebody who’s more than 6 years in and not a superstar.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if things might have been different if the economy had crashed several years earlier, and if we didn’t have a president openly hostile to actual science in the white house.  In a speech to the National Academies, Obama announced that there’s going to be a huge increase in the budget for the NSF.  Mind you, only 1 in 6 grants were being funded, so even if it goes to 1 in 3 (which I doubt will really happen, because assuredly some of that NFS doubling will go to various big projects and other “rich get richer” sorts of things), it’s still difficult, you still spend a lot of your creative effort banging your head against thew all.  So, I might have had exactly the same outcome.  However, when grants were turned down, sometimes NFS program officers could only say they didn’t know what to say, because money was so tight; in previous years, they might have tried to help people applying figure out how to better tune their grants.  At 1 in 6, it was a complete crap shoot.

I can’t help but wonder if it might have been different.  If I was, in part, the victim of bad timing.

“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” –John Barrymore

The fact that I’m 40 doesn’t so much make me feel old.  The fact that I’m 40 and not spending my primary full-time-job creative effort on physics and astronomy, together with a realistic assessment that I’ll be able to get back into the sort of faculty job that I want, makes me realize that many (not all) of my primary dreams have in fact been replaced by regrets.

6 Responses to “Obama’s speech to the National Acaemy, my failure at my calling, and bad timing”

  1. Tish Shute Says:

    Hi Rob – I agree teaching physics and astronomy is your calling. I do hope you do not give up on your search for a post. I am sure there is a spot for you somewhere in the academy. No regrets – you must look forward to new opportunities. 40 is young!
    best wishes for the future, Tish

  2. Some weird hillbilly somewhere Says:

    Rob, don’t get to feeling too down about this stuff! *headbonks* The whole whirlpool of regret is just self-reinforcing and just keeps leading downward, and doesn’t go anywhere where you want to be.

    If you want to teach, then teach, even if it isn’t your day job. Start an astronomy club or something. Opportunities open up in weird places. Not the places you expect.

    I shall provide an annoying and long winded story to illustrate the point, as is my tendency. Lol.

    My goal in life was to teach computer science, and maybe do research in a VR lab somewhere, exploring fun stuff related to machine-generated interactive narrative.

    So far, I’ve had to quit school three times from lack of money over the past 10 years, and I still don’t have even a bachelor’s degree… According to prospective tech employers, I’m overqualified for the all the silly jobs, and nobody wants to hire someone without a degree for a real job. So it was a blue-collar job for me, whilst trying to finish the aforementioned degree with night classes, money permitting.

    Well, the economy got bad, and I lost my blue collar job. What to do? Unable to find another blue-collar job in the midst of economic baddness, not even pizza delivery, I started to script in Second Life for money as well as doing some webapp stuff, figuring that even the pittance of money I could get for it was better than no money, until I could find a crappy dead-end “real job” to pay the bills and finish school.

    Suffice to say, the economy still sucks, and I never did manage to find that so-called “real job”. The self-employed programming money was awful at first, and I got evicted and had to move back to my hometown where the rent is cheaper. But as time has passed, I suddenly find myself making at least as much as I was with the blue-collar work (considering the savings from working from home, anyway lol), with slowly but steadily climbing net profits, and in a VR related field, no less.

    Is this what I expected to be doing? No. But I really like what I’m doing now, most of the time, even if I don’t get OT for working 60 or 70 hours per week. Did I expect things to turn out like they did? Hail no. Lol.

    So don’t fixate on your perceived failings or regrets! D: Just try to do things related to what you enjoy, don’t expect things to go according to plan, and I bet someday you’ll wake up and suddenly realize, “Wow, I didn’t expect this, but it’s cool!”

  3. rknop Says:

    Yeah, you are right. And, I do stay somewhat involved with Astronomy via mica (www.mica-vw.org). Among other things, I give talk every other Saturday morning in Second Life (the “Dr. Knop Talks Astronomy” series).

    I do have hope that in the perhaps not-too-distant future, there will be the opportunity to do very interesting things with science education and virtual worlds, and to be able to spend my primary vocational effort on them. I don’t know if anything like this will pan out, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. In the mean time, I *do* like my job, and it does give me more intellectual ability to spend on doing other things than a faculty job would. (E.g., were I in a faculty job, I wouldn’t have as much energy to spend on Second Life as I do have to spend on Astronomy right now. On the other hand, in the right faculty job, spending a lot of energy on science education in virtual worlds would be part of the job … :) .)

    It sounds like things *are* working out for you! Are you able to do anything with VR interactive storytelling in your spare time? (And, have you seen the Macbeth sim in Second Life?)

  4. Some weird hillbilly somewhere Says:

    I’ve done some lame stuff with computer guided narrative, like… Assigning various statistics to sections of prose as they are written, and having the computer help determine in a very general way what happens next (complications, plot twists, etc), to guide the whole sawtoothed rising tension thing that seems to be the generally accepted way to write pulp fiction. It’s really nothing more than increasing the entropy of the decision trees in a semi-controlled way as plot bits are added, nothing at all cutting-edge or anything. Lol.

    Ideally, I’d have some kind of AI or fuzzy system or something that figures out more specifically the sort of thing that the user likes, based on previous inputs, and adjusts the decision trees appropriately, and does something more complicated than saying: “Chapter 7: Complication happens in subplot 3, at locale 2, involving minor character 4.” I mean, it’s kind of boring that the machine can’t assess what has gone before and provide more ideas regarding what _sort_ of complication, ya know? I’ve tried picking various “idea words” to describe the complication (or whatever sort of plot element), but the onus of creation still lies with the user; that is, the machine can’t create any kind of cohesive plot on its own, given a set of locales and characters. :/

    It is so difficult (impossible, maybe?) to make machines display any kind of believable pseudo-intuitive behavior. I guess it borders on turing machine stuff, and I personally don’t think that’s ever going to happen, at least not for a long, long time, beyond our lifetimes. Lol.

    Meep! I seem to have blabbed incessantly again. :o No, I’ve not seen the Macbeth sim, but I’m so gonna! …. Once I get some work done, that is. >_>

  5. Uncle's lady Says:

    Rob, Please focus your energy on moving forward rather than looking back. Two reasons: my nephew is an astrophysicist in research and instrumentation and found funding before he ever had his doctorate. Perhaps he can encourage you … S. Eikenberry at Florida (in 2008 Guiness Book of Records for most luminous star). I date your uncle and, according to your family :-) , my nephew has nothing on you! The second reason: At 33, I went to college full time, working full time and raising three sons. In less than 5 years, I increased my income 10-fold. With hard work, miracles are possible! Best wishes to you as you seek your place in the universe!

  6. coolstar Says:

    Rob, your story reminds me of my own. Not quite the same, you were always on a faster track, but being screwed by people who think they know your work, that resonates. I’m sure it’s no consolation that Vanderbilt did very similar things to two good astronomers who are now working across town at Tennessee State. I’m also sure you’ve thought of this: but you might consider teaching at a local community college. You CAN get back in the game, in a sense, by doing that. You’ll work harder and make less money than you do now but you’ll also be teaching people who REALLY need (and sometimes even appreciate) good teaching. You probably still have the connections that would allow you to do *some* research even. You could well even end up being a “big fish” in a small pond thru both good teaching, public outreach, and some research (and actually getting funding is probably easier that at a “research” university). Another obvious alternative would be to occasionally teach as an adjunct at a CC. yeah, you’ll be the lowest of the low second class citizen, but you can still teach many of the same sorts of people you reach thru public outreach now. My apologies if I’m stating the obvious or even hinting that anyone can know how to live your life better than you.