TWINING: Unhealthy competition in Yale’s sciences

A number of plausible explanations have been given for why Yale undergraduates don’t flock to the natural sciences in the same numbers as their peers at other Ivy League institutions do, including a lack of interesting intro-level courses, a harsher grading scale in science departments and the sheer difficulty of natural sciences. However, I’d venture to guess that while our peer institutions may be doing a better job combating these issues than we are, none of these issues is unique to Yale.

But at least one uncomfortable issue does appear to be Yale-specific: the unhealthy and unnecessary amount of competition among faculty in natural sciences at Yale. I am all for healthy competition between researchers — after all, the race to make new discoveries is an essential part of what makes the scientific process so exciting — but it’s hard to make students feel welcome in a world where everyone seems to hate each other.

Yale’s unhealthily competitive atmosphere in the natural sciences exists both within and between departments. Within departments, I suspect that much of this competition stems from the tenure process at Yale. Unlike at other schools, where senior faculty assist their junior faculty in negotiating the tenure process, Yale’s faculty often do little to make their young faculty feel wanted and welcome.

Even the most successful junior faculty who get hired at Yale realize they’ll have to outcompete their peers for a permanent position because the chances they’ll all get tenure are extremely slim. Although things aren’t quite as bad as they were in the days when two junior faculty were brought in to compete for a single position that neither were likely to get, many young faculty I’ve spoken to still view a job at Yale as an insecure extended post-doctoral position.

Academic criticism for the sake of improvement is one thing, but the tenure system at Yale creates a catty network of cliquey lab groups in which it’s not uncommon for competing faculty members to bad-mouth others in their department. With some notable exceptions, those who eventually make it to the ranks of senior faculty generally do little to prevent this or to foster anything in the way of departmental collegiality and cohesion.

As bad as things are within departments, Yale’s unhealthy levels of competition are often even worse between departments. Take, for example, the schism between researchers in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Despite the fact that professors I’ve worked with in the two departments often work on similar or complementary research topics, they rarely even communicate, much less collaborate.

When they mention the other department at all, what they say usually isn’t positive. Even students who have tried to work across departments haven’t been able to break down this barrier and bring about more collegiality. Getting the people who advise me to sit in a room together for five minutes last year was a small miracle that isn’t likely to be repeated again any time soon.

As a Yale undergraduate, I assumed this was just way the way it was everywhere. On top of the challenging course load, Yale’s natural science majors enter a system in which their mentors have nothing but negative things to say about each other. Is it really any wonder that such a large portion of our science majors decide to opt out of this type of environment?

It wasn’t until I visited a number of other equally well-regarded research institutions as a prospective doctoral student — including several other Ivies — that I realized it didn’t have to be this way. Collegiality doesn’t have to come at the expense of top-notch research. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite.

Lily Twining is a student in the School of Forestry and Environment Studies and a 2011 graduate of Pierson College.

Comments

  • yalengineer

    From what I know about Yale MB&B, MCDB, and the Engineering departments, I will have to disagree.

    However, there is a common saying. “Yale is famous for training chairs of other schools”

  • chorleywood

    This is what passes for opinon in the YDN?

    • owen

      Lily raised an issue that I wasn’t aware of that materially impacts my understanding of inter- and intra-departmental politics. How is this article lacking?

      Owen

      • arscoh

        Perhaps you were unaware of this issue because it largely does not exist.

  • mjsolomon

    I have to disagree strongly with the sentiment expressed in this piece. I’ve come up through the ranks in my twenty years in the MB&B department. Competition between faculty members (junior or senior) is extremely rare. Rather than being the norm, it is so unusual that when an instance arises it becomes notorious and reflects poorly on at least one of the parties involved who likely stepped on the scientific toes of the other party. Competition for tenure has been eliminated by the creation of a true tenure track system in which every junior faculty member currently at Yale could, if warranted based on the individual merits, be tenured, without regard to the decisions made for other faculty. Finally, since this opinion piece focuses on the sciences, it needs to be noted that the tenure rate in the sciences has been MUCH higher than that in the humanities for many decades. The life of a junior faculty member certainly has more than its fair share of ups and down, with fully warranted concern about the future. But competition, for tenure or glory, is not high on the list.

    Mark Solomon

    Professor and DGS

    MB&B

    • The Anti-Yale

      It is refreshing to have a poster sign his/her name.

      Paul Keane

      M. Div. ’80, etc.

      • mjsolomon

        The law school used to (still does?) have a Free Speech wall on which students could write absolutely whatever they wanted, so long as they signed their name. It seems to favor more rational discourse.

        Mark Solomon

        • ldffly

          Never a law student but I remember that. In fact, I remember one long discussion on that wall concerning Robert Bork’s antitrust law class. I know because I used to eat breakfast in the Law School. LOL

      • River_Tam

        I agree.

        Aleksey Vayner

        Yale ’06

        Harvard Business School ’09

        Johns Hopkins School of Medicine ’12

        • NewCampus

          Words cannot describe how much I want this to be true.

        • public__editor

          Haha, you wish, Leah.

          • NewCampus

            Are you referring to me? My name is not Leah. Have I stolen someone’s username by accident?

          • River_Tam

            Who is Leah? Definitely not me.

  • basho

    Anyone can just piss on the floor – be a hero and provide some evidence.

  • asinine

    I’m not sure what other schools you visited, but your claims seem to be endemic to the Forestry and EEB departments. Yale’s other departments don’t seem to have this issue because everyone there are no two labs which have the same research interests. Your opinion appears to be more of confirmation bias than anything.

  • YaleMom

    These science folks probably don’t get enough art in their lives. When Ashley is feeling blue, I make her stare at my Precious Moments figurines for an hour. Usually cheers her up!

  • talb

    May be true, may not be. This article gives no assistance in objectively determining the truth, given its entire disregard for evidence…

  • theantiantiyale

    To the best of my knowledge, this opinion is not held by any member of the engineering departments. If I were Ms. Twining, I would not be so foolish as to generalize the sniping within the Forestry School as common among all Yale Science and Engineering Departments.

  • arscoh

    As an undergraduate who has worked in a couple labs across multiple departments (Psychiatry, Psychology, and MCDB), I’m not sure this opinion is warranted. Of course, I cannot speak for all departments, but I have heard many faculty and post-docs complain about how competitive other schools are compared to Yale.

  • letsallbereasonablehere

    I don’t know enough to judge whether this is an over-over-generalization about natural science departments at Yale. Of course, it’s impossible to write an opinion piece without over-generalizing to some extent, so there will always be a few commentators who think you’re full of sh**. The problem that you identify here is surely present to differing extents in all departments at all universities. You may be over-over-generalizing, but that doesn’t mean that the point you raise isn’t worth discussing. I hope we can all acknowledge that.

    I think student advisees can offer a helpful perspective when it comes to critiquing the culture of academic departments– it’s hard to see what’s wrong when you’re a professor in the middle of the culture. But I’m not sure what we have is a cultural problem. I’ve witnessed the issue you’ve described between FES and EEB. It’s hard to tell whether this is an institutional problem or a personality problem involving a few important individuals. Maybe it is a case of stepping on toes that, as one commentator suggested, doesn’t tend to happen within/between other departments. In any case, it is a shame.

    Unwillingness to cooperate exists within FES, as well– I can’t speak to EEB on that. Researchers are dimissive of each other, even when their work is really parallel, complementary, or convergent. As a student it’s frustrating. But I don’t know if this can be avoided at a school that tries, unlike most other departments/schools everywhere, to merge disciplines. It’s an admirable thing FES is trying to do. If mb&b folks had to work with anthro folks, there would probably be tension, too. I’ve thought about why this problem might exist and how we might address it, and haven’t come up with much. At least students are here to try to bridge the gap.

    In any case, thanks for writing this. I am also glad to know that there are commentators out there who have had more positive experiences. We’re all trying our best, but obviously we can be better.