Chasing the rabbit – how much is enough?

Treadmill_womanA question that frequently haunted me when I was a new professor was, “How much is enough?”  More specifically it was a series of questions,

“How much research money is enough?”

“How many graduate students are enough?”

How many evenings and weekends of work are enough?”

And the biggie…

“How many journal papers per year are enough?”

In most ‘normal’ jobs, I suspect, a person gets some guidance from the boss in terms of how much is ‘enough’.  If you’re doing a great job, they’ll tell you in your annual review; they might even give you a tidy little (or big) bonus to thank you for giving 200% all year.  However, if you’re a young academic who’s been wondering “how much is enough” – here’s a news flash for you; over my 24 years in academia, I have never, ever, been told that I was doing ‘enough’.

I’ve seen quite a few ‘bosses’ circulate through our Department Chair’s office over the past couple of decades and all (except one) have taken the same approach to the annual performance review.  They invariably open the interview by handing, or showing, me a sheet of paper that gives me the stats on what the best and brightest are achieving.  First, I get the details of how the ‘best’ Full Professors (i.e. those in my own category) are doing: with millions of dollars in funding, 10 to 20 graduate students (or more!), 10 or more journal papers a year, and major awards from some national academy or medals from wherever…  Then, just to rub it in, I’m told that the Associate Professors are doing equally well; in fact, there’s often a report that some rising star in the Assistant Professor universe is achieving these lofty stats, as well.  Then we move on to who has gotten prestigious research chairs, after which I’m told who is going to be getting one of these prestigious chairs in the coming year.  Finally, we open the binder to look at my annual report… 😦

When I was younger, and much more naïve, I would go into these  annual meetings with my 2 to 4 journal papers, my few hundred thousand in funding, my 6 to 8 graduate students, my 4.9 out of 5 teaching rating, and an award or two, expecting at least a “thank-you.”  Instead my boss would take out a sharp needle (in the form of that stupid stats sheet) and use it to burst my balloon.  I would leave feeling inadequate, useless, unsuccessful, depressed…  Then I served on a national grant selection committee and learned some far more interesting stats.  The vast majority of professors in my discipline had only 6 to 8 graduate students (many had 4 or less); few had more than a couple hundred thousand dollars per year in research funding (many had less), and most had very few journal papers – in fact, in my field, those that were getting 3 papers out every two years were considered to be pretty steady performers.  (Yes! 1.5 papers per year!)  Now that was a decade ago – I am sure the average stats are different (undoubtedly bigger and better) today.  But the lesson it taught me still applies – academia is basically the same as dog racing.

In dog racing, the poor little hounds are forced to run around a track chasing a fake rabbit.  None of them ever catches this rabbit – and even if they did – so what?  It’s a fake rabbit.  These poor dogs spend most of their time cooped up in small cages, they have no normal social interactions, no time to just play, have fun, or to enjoy a loving family.  They are slaves to their owners, forced to run pell-mell after that stupid fake rabbit.  If other dogs get out ahead of them in this pursuit, they’re treated like a failure – it doesn’t matter that the faster dogs never actually catch the rabbit either.  After all – what would be the profit in that?  The rabbit’s speed is set so that it always stays just out of reach of all of the dogs.  If the dogs get faster and better, the rabbit’s speed gets a boost as well – expectations invariably increase as accomplishments improve.  And eventually, when the dogs can no longer run competitively – they are cast aside, discarded as useless chattel.


We academics are just like those racing dogs, and the high expectations of us (funding, students, papers, awards, chairs, etc.) represent our rabbit – a moving target that will forever be out of reach.  No one is EVER going to tell us how much is enough, any more than they would let those poor dogs catch that rabbit, because then the horrible truth would be exposed – the whole thing is a sham, designed just to get us to compete (until we collapse with exhaustion).  That stupid little stats sheet we are shown at the beginning of every annual appraisal is analogous to the stats sheet for the dog races.  “See?  There are other dogs that can run faster than you!  You need to pick up the pace.”  No one ever mentions the fact that these faster dogs are not catching the rabbit either.  No one is ever going to tell you that you’re doing enough, or even how much is enough.  Infinity is enough, but we’ll all collapse long before that.  In the meantime, we spend the majority of our lives cooped up in small boxes, we have no normal social interactions, no time to just play, have fun, or enjoy a loving family – sound familiar?

Why am I telling you all of this?  It’s to let you know that only you can decide “how much is enough.”  To stay ‘under the radar’ in my world, I’ve found that I need at least 4 to 6 grad students, 2 to 3 journal papers a year (in good journals), a couple hundred thousand a year in research funding, and 4.6 out of 5 (preferably 4.8) for teaching ratings (and yes, you should care about this – undergraduates are important, too!)  Once you reach that level – then you have a decision to make – do you want a life or do you want to be a “star” in your profession?  If you choose the latter, go buy yourself a dog collar and start chasing the fake rabbit.  I wish you well; please give my condolences to your family.  Don’t get me wrong – I love my job… to the point that I’ve operated well above the radar myself at times – but it does take its toll on your loved ones and your health.  So make sure you are doing it because you want to – not because you feel it’s expected of you, or in the hopes that you’ll get thanked for it later.

(In the meantime, now that you have a small inkling of the cruelty they are forced to endure, consider adopting a poor discarded racing dog from a rescue organization and start boycotting the cruel exploitation of animals.)


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