Skip to main content

Heading East, Harvard here we come!

My long journey started around this time last year, and it ended this morning, at least officially. After many department visits, phone conversations and family meetings, the Johnsons will be heading East to Cambridge, MA this summer. I'm joining the Harvard faculty as a full professor!

There were myriad reasons for this change in my career path. At Caltech, over the 3.5 years that I've been there I've come to recognize a fundamental mismatch between what I value (i.e. what I blog about most frequently) and what the institute values. This is not a statement about which side is right, per se. It's just a statement of fact about the nature of different people's values.

There a scene from the TV miniseries The Wire that has been playing on loop for about the past year, which nicely sums up what I've been experiencing:

I've wanted it to be one way in the department I'm a part of. But it had been made abundantly clear to me that it isn't one way. It's the other way. Whether that is absolutely good or absolutely bad, or a mix of both, is a separate discussion. But the fact of the matter is that Caltech is structured to be a lean, mean research machine. To be sure, I have benefited greatly from that structure on the research side of things. The downside is that their small size and elite status constricts their ability to prioritize diversity and makes it difficult to put a meaningful focus on education, especially on teaching innovation. The key is that while this structure works for most people here, it is simply not a good match for me.

Fortunately, I have a choice. If I don't like it the other way, I can go out and find the one way elsewhere. This decision to choose didn't come easily or quickly. For a long time I felt stuck in place, unable to move because of things like the dependence of my research on the Keck telescopes. However, it isn't a machine that has made my career. I did my dissertation on a 0.6m telescope that no one else cared much about. At Hawaii I used the smallest telescope on the mountain. My career has been built on my own creativity and hard work, along with the creativity and hard work of the group I've gathered around me. That's portable, and so am I.

Don't get me wrong, making the decision to leave Pasadena was an option available to me, but the decision was far from easy. At this time last year, the notion of moving was largely a non-starter with Erin, and understandably so. Moving isn't trivial, especially when it involves an entire family. We came to Caltech anticipating it being our last stop and the decision to move had to fold in considerations about my family, not just my research.

However, my job and my family are coupled. If I'm stressed out and unhappy at work, that comes home with me. I started out happy, but gradually my mood faded. This was pointed out to me last year by a very astute graduate student: "When you came here, you smiled all the time. You smile less now." Erin and I realized that change was necessary not just for my happiness at work, but also for my family's wellbeing.

But, wait, isn't this just a case of seeing greener grass on the other side of the fence? Aren't there problems in every department? Isn't it unreasonable to ask that a department meet my specific needs?

Well, if my time at Caltech has taught me one thing, it has taught me what questions to ask and what to look out for. During my many visits to other universities and departments I brought with me a list of very specific, blunt questions to ask those in power. At Harvard, I had the unusual privilege of posing these blunt questions to the president of the university, Drew Faust. Her answers and those of others certainly weighed heavily in my decision.

When it comes to the things I value, I don't need an entire department on my side. I just need a forum to air my opinion, a faculty that respects and listens to my point of view, and a group of colleagues that can work together to identify and address problems---and successes---within the department. I need a team. The rest comes down to leadership and hard work. Fortunately  I will be brought into the Harvard Astronomy Department in a position of leadership. Tenure ain't cheap, and not everyone gets it, especially at Harvard. I'm beyond honored by their decision to award me tenure, three years ahead of schedule at that!

I'll write more about some of the details of the process later, but for now I'll just say that I am thrilled and I'm looking forward to an array of new opportunities in my new astronomy department. Chief among the things I look forward to is the opportunity to be a university professor in the fullest sense. Some people around me have raised concerns about how outspoken I am about teaching innovation, and especially my writing on mental health on this blog and elsewhere. I'm happy and proud to report that I was not hired despite what I've been advocating in the past few years. I was awarded tenure at Harvard in part because of being so outspoken on these things. I'm proud to be a part of a progressive community where something like this can happen, and it buoys my spirits for addressing the problems that remain.

Thus, I feel like I'm going to Harvard with a mandate to continue what I've started here at Caltech. I look forward to joining an academic community that over the past few years has really put its money where its mouth is when it comes to education and diversity/inclusion. Is it perfect? Nope. But the conversation has been started and the gears are in motion. I look forward to joining the effort and leading parts of it in the near future.

On the home front, Erin and the boys are excited, too. We're looking forward to a cross-country road trip this Summer, and we are currently planning on arriving in Cambridge, MA sometime in August. This is going to be another great chapter in the grand adventure of the Johnson family. Stay tuned!


Steinn said…
Hannah said…
Wow, big move! As I Harvard alum, I'm pleased that my alma mater will be gaining you on their faculty. Congratulations!
Unknown said…
Oh my Gosh, how SAD for us, JohN! You were such an inspiration for the rest of us! We'll miss you a lot!
Closer to State College! Yea!
Are you visiting us in the middle of your road trip then?
CyndiF said…
We've never met, John, but I wanted to thank you for the honesty of your blog. I think many of our junior colleagues benefit from hearing about how those in "exalted" positions also struggle with stress, imposter syndrome, and mismatches in goals vs. position. Congrats on your move.
Michael Busch said…
Congratulations, and good luck out east!
Rita Walters said…
Congratulations...I'm a great friend of Claude who in turn is a big fan of yours and he has been keeping "us" (the relative and the conscious) aware of your successes. So all the best, my friend.

Rita W
John, we are so thrilled for your success and cannot wait to have you on EST! Chris and I would love for you to stop here on this road trip or in the future (MA to VA is a piece of cake). I have family in New England so look out - a Hawaii reunion is in the works. All our best to you, Erin, Owen, and Marcus.
Schetema Nealy said…
Congratulations! Good luck at Harvard! I truly hope that it is a great fit for you because I am happy to know you are there as a top scientist advocating for teaching innovation and inclusion. I hope for a great future for you and your family in MA!
This is fully fantastic and wonderful news. Go John!

Popular posts from this blog

On the Height of J.J. Barea

Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea standing between two very tall people (from: Picassa user photoasisphoto).

Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Miami Heat tonight in game six to win the NBA championship.

Okay, with that out of the way, just how tall is the busy-footed Maverick point guard J.J. Barea? He's listed as 6-foot on, but no one, not even the sports casters, believes that he can possibly be that tall. He looks like a super-fast Hobbit out there. But could that just be relative scaling, with him standing next to a bunch of extremely tall people? People on Yahoo! Answers think so---I know because I've been Google searching "J.J. Barea Height" for the past 15 minutes.

So I decided to find a photo and settle the issue once and for all.

I started by downloading a stock photo of J.J. from, which I then loaded into OpenOffice Draw:

I then used the basketball as my metric. Wikipedia states that an NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumfe…

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

The GRE: A test that fails

Every Fall seniors in the US take the Graduate Records Examination (GRE), and their scores are submitted along with their applications to grad school. Many professors, particularly those in physics departments, believe that the GRE is an important predictor of future success in grad school, and as a result many admissions committees employ score cutoffs in the early stages of their selection process. However, past and recent studies have shown that there is little correlation between GRE scores and future graduate school success.
The most recent study of this type was recently published in Nature Jobs. The authors, Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun show there are strong correlations between GRE scores and race/gender, with minorities and (US) white women scoring lower than their white male (US) counterparts. They conclude, "In simple terms, the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin colour than of ability and ultimate success."
Here's the key figure from their article: