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The Gray Pride Parade

Photo by Dan Koestler

Remember the good old post-Sputnik days, when we were losing the space race and the world approached nuclear annihilation? If you spent those days earning your Ph.D., congratulations, you're probably a tenured professor.

The middle of the past century offered an abundance of tenure-track science jobs for eager, young up-and-comers. Not nearly as many tenure-track positions are available now. Why? Where did all the science jobs go?

"To China!" cry the people who blame China for everything. Or, "To India!" Or, "To robots!" Or sometimes, "To Chinese-Indian robots!" (Curse you, Mahatma Chang 3000!)

But the fact is, the jobs haven't gone anywhere. They've stayed. They've stagnated as those who hold the jobs have squatted in spacious offices surrounded by yellowing stacks of journals, dusty lab equipment, and grad students they never see. If you want to blame somebody for the dearth of science employment, blame the very people who are responsible for making American science great. Because the scientists who took faculty jobs during the Sputnik era still have them -- and they're not giving them up.

These days, science departments often resemble convents, minus the architecture and the abundance of women. A 2009 study revealed that there are more nuns in the United States over age 90 than under age 60. Sound familiar?

(The comparison breaks down, of course, because, unlike professors, nuns typically do not need to compete for spots in their workplace. Granted, a few nuns are rejected from the sisterhood because of too much dancing on Austrian hilltops. But since the number of nun-related jobs is nearly limitless, there's no real nun tenure review.i)

Walk through the corridors of many scientific institutions in 2011 and you'll see the results of decisions made by the hiring committee of 1962, a veritable nation of elderly professors. A tenure-topia, if you will. The Emeritus Emirates. The Gray Pride Parade.

A 2009 study revealed that there are more nuns in the United States over age 90 than under age 60. Sound familiar?

Like vacancies on the Supreme Court (which, like convents and science departments, also requires its employees to wear heavy black robes and pontificate near benches, often in Latin), tenure-track positions in academic departments crop up only when an existing professor finally decides to retire or dies or is caught doing something inappropriate, such as tweeting a lewd photo of his, uh, "assistant professor." And this is why, for newly minted Ph.D.'s whose souls haven't yet been crushed by a 6-year postdoctoral fellowship, vacancies are as scarce as tenured professors' real teeth.

I say it's time to chase the hangers-on into retirement. Not the hard workers who happen to be old, but the old people who don't work hard. These professors thrive in departments that, much like their excretory systems, are hopelessly clogged. Even if their publication records are limited to angry letters to the editors of alumni magazines, even if they complain about their heavy teaching loads of zero classes per semester, even if they take multidecade "sabbaticals," tenure ensures that they'll keep their jobs as long as they want them. So let's make them not want them.

Here's how to drive them out:

• Hold seminars at an ungodly late hour -- say, 4:00 or 5:00 p.m.

• Require the use of technology. Any technology. Calculators count as technology. Ballpoint pens count as technology.

• Turn the laboratory thermostat down to 27˚C.

• Place reagents on high shelves.

• Near the entrance to your building, post a sign reading, "YOUR PANTS MUST BE THIS LOW TO ENTER."

• When they tell you the same story for the 50th time, respond with a story they won't understand and will find sadly trivial:

Elderly professor: Did I ever tell you about the time I saved the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the Huns?

You: Yes. Did I ever tell you about the time I tweeted about The Bachelorette and called Bentley a n00b?

• Distract them from their research for days on end by saying, "Tell me again why your grandson isn't married."

• Cialis in the coffee = interesting faculty meetings. (But tell your doctor if your meeting lasts more than 4 hours.)

• Show them the quad outside the building, point at the undergrads, and say, "Look at all those kids playing Frisbee on your lawn."

• Serve hard candy.

* * *

There are two main hazards of writing a humor column. The first is that someone will read the column, not know it's meant as satire (despite the accompanying photo of me drinking foamy green stuff from a beaker through a Krazy Straw), and reply in the comments section of some blog with a quantity of vitriol inversely proportional to grammatical accuracy. "OMG, this guy's crazzy!!!!" they'll write, believing their comments have sufficiently warned the world of my crazziness.

Credit: Hal Mayforth

The second hazard is that as soon as one has selected a topic at which to poke fun, something distinctly unfunny happens. While preparing this modest proposal for ousting the Old Guard, I learned that one of my graduate school professors passed away. This was a man who still held his title in the department at age 90.

But he didn't just occupy an office and collect paychecks. He worked in the lab, hands-on, until the end. He served on thesis committees and attended every department seminar (driving fear into the hearts of young visiting speakers when he'd announce, "I have three questions and two comments").

When I'm 90, I want to be him. I want science to fascinate me at that advanced age as much as it does now. I want to come to the lab, put on gloves, and get to work figuring things out. I want to be the scientist about whom people say, "Oh, that guy? He's been here forever. Still comes in to work every day. Oh yeah, and he's won seven Nobel Prizes. Also helped avert the Chinese-Indian Robot Apocalypse of 2061."

True, I'll be holding on to a job that could otherwise go to some 30-year-old upstart whippersnapper, but nuts to him. His time will come. Until it does, I'll be in the lab every day, running the centrifuge at very low speeds, always with the left blinker on.


i If there were, it would look like this:

Tenured nun: Describe to me the Copernican theory of heliocentrism.

Assistant nun: It's false

Tenured nun: Congratulations.