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.