Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In default by default

Today, I had a great conversation with a friend concerning postdocs. During the call he used a term that I really like. Without any pretense of a "drum roll" moment, I'll just tell you- the term is "default postdoc."   As you can imagine, it's simply the temporary employment a PhD researcher takes without giving much thought to how it impacts his or her career. Motivations can be bad luck, laziness, desperation, lack of aspiration or alternatives, the need to be in a specific area--anything.

It's easy to see how this can be bad for an individual's career, but they're also bad for the research enterprise.  The availability of too many of these positions helps clog career pathways, obscure real opportunities and bring down wages.  Some feel that limiting the availability of these positions will help fix many of the ills of the biomedical researcher workforce....

But to that I say, "good luck."

It's kind of like illegal immigration, a phenomenon that so many people detest for so many reasons it's amazing that it persists and thrives.  But, when it comes down to it, why do the jobs exist? It's because there is work that needs to be done.  Why do people take the positions even though the work is unappealing, has no security and limited prospects? Because it represents, for that individual, a better alternative.

Ending or severely limiting the number of these positions seems unlikely, so we need to find more alternatives.

Again, I'll tout the program at UCSF that is doing so much to address these issues for its doctoral students and postdocs. AND I'll even give Bruce Alberts (maybe I was grumpier yesterday) a pat on the back for literally putting the issue front and center in Science magazine.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Help Wanted! But where to begin?

In the latest issue of Science Bruce Alberts (the magazine's current editor-in-chief and a previous president of the National Academy of Science) sounds a clarion call for science adaptors. Alberts says, "[m]any different parts of society urgently need such scientifically trained people to connect them to the rich resources of the scientific community."

While Alberts tries to convey a sense of urgency, I must take issue with his forewarning of an impending "crisis" in the biomedical sciences. While he claims that, "in this very exciting time to be a biological scientist, there is an ominous sense of a major crisis brewing;" I would claim that it is "brewing" only for those granted the luxury of denial. As biomedical science marches forward, the concept of diminishing returns is all too real and the indicators of a crisis are numerous and personal for a growing cohort of young biomedical scientists.

Not that I don't believe that opportunities exist--it's just that I think we need to be more innovative in how thy are identified. We must think more about where, how and why change needs to happen. Academia is good at churning out pristinely educated and supremely skilled research PhDs. And yes, programs like the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships have better enabled them to spread their mojo outside of the hallowed halls and to make the world better aware of the "rich resources of the scientific community." Further expanding and adapting this model is valid, but perhaps limiting.

It would be fabulous to devise ways to actively and conscientiously bring change to academia and the disciplines it fosters. How can STEM PhDs and academic postdocs more effectively consider their science in contexts that are not solely lab-based nor purely "scientific"? Is it relevant to ask these questions in a significant way within academia?

So just as Alberts embraces prestigious fellowships for STEM PhDs wishing to shape K-12 education, I would support one for PhDs and postdocs who wish to explore the nuances of their current high-level research in non-scientific, but still scholarly, contexts.

Some projects, like infectious disease research, naturally lend themselves to international and industry collaborations and considerations. Can we somehow probe these and other boundaries for topics that haven't explored the possibilities? This exploration can possibly include the social sciences, economics, history, public policy, education, media etc. as the scientist simultaneously conducts their laboratory experiments. Could this foster the adaptation we want and need?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

For those interested in "Fairer Science"

I've spent some time lately revisiting a friend's blog about girls in science and I thought I'd share the link. Fighting the stereotypes the plague the fairer sex and inhibit their full participation in the sciences is an endless and too often thankless task.  Thank goodness for Pat!

The social value of an education

Here is an article INDIA: Degrees replace dowries for educated classes that I came across today in University World News.  In every society, an education holds social value. For women, however, this value is not universally positive. For example, high achievement has made finding a partner tricky for black women women who wish to marry. In India, holding an esteemed degree can significantly decrease the dowry an Indian woman's family must pay. However, all this value is fully held in the women's potential since "[a]lthough Indian men seek educated partners, 94% of them prefer a partner who earns less than them."  Thus, these well-educated women will not enter the workforce--at least not with the expectation of realizing their potential and building a career. Also, wealthier families, it seems, are willing to bet that educating their daughter will lower future dowry payments. Poorer families prefer to play it safe--keeping their daughters at home while families save for the traditional dowry.

Friday, November 25, 2011

If it's good for law and order, can't it be good for STEM?

Would love similar thoughts on graduate education. Please read the following  NYTimes article (Legal Education Reform). Rethinking the utility of the STEM PhD beyond a purely academic context would be grand. What skills and knowledge can be systematically paired with top notch research skills to help push the knowledge economy forward outside the immediate confines of the R01 and similar grant programs?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Aren't YOU the lucky one? Succeeding against the odds

I thought I'd share an Inside Higher Ed essay by Nate Kreuter called You aren't the exception. It's an essay on why graduate students are prone to ignore warnings about the job market and decide to pursue academic careers anyway.

Nate argues that as intelligent, driven and competent undergraduates we learned to ignore the warnings of our professors. We assumed wrongly that the words of caution didn't apply to us (because we were so damned good!). Of course, in reality, the statistical rules did apply--we were simply members of the statistical group that would not be adversely impacted. To put it delicately, we were arrogant little jerks.

So, this is the attitude that we took with us to graduate school. Perhaps, we can say that graduate school is an important point of divergence for the smart, ambitious and gifted.  The arrogant ones go on to get PhDs; and the well-grounded ones, realizing that the bell curve that applied as undergraduates is now moot and that the odds really do stink, do something else.

When the professors say that 40% will go on to complete their doctoral training (and far fewer will become professors), they mean 40% of a much smaller and more select group! The well-grounded will go to (and pay for) professional school, stop at (and pay for) a Master's, or take some other less esteemed path that they realize has better odds leading to career success.

So, who are the ones who actually make it to the professoriate? (I mean, professors are amongst the most self-important people on earth, right?) Are they truly the luckiest of the arrogant ones?? I doubt it.  My guess is, they realize the odds, decide they want to be a professor anyway, and are determined not to leave their careers up to chance.  It is only then, after clearing the final hurdle, that they dare display their well-earned pomposity.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cahokia Ho!

Taking a break from my dialogue about the STEM workforce to share some info from a recent trip.

While at ABRCMS in St. Louis, Alberto, Danielle and I took an afternoon to visit Cahokia mounds in nearby Collinsville, IL.  The mounds were awesome, and provided great views of St. Louis and a look back into ancient local history.  Just down the road is Woodhenge, an ancient site where a series of wood posts (originals built at varies times between between AD 900-1100) were erected and served as a calendar system for native Mississippians.  We went there on a perfectly sunny day and at a time when we were casting long shadows! In addition to a few shots from the museum, and of the mounds, there are pictures of posts erected in 1985 to reconstruct the third calendar system erected around 1000 AD. This site was excellent as it's a (science) park, archaeological site, museum, and historical site combined!

Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor

I just wanted to share.... Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor. We need to keep hope alive for all young PhDs--regardless of discipline!

"America at Dusk" views

Foreign Policy magazine in a survey they titled America at Dusk, surveyed an international panel of writers about how the US is going wrong... they claim to have gotten an earful, but they never asked me (ha ha!).

I seriously don't like the idea, though, that my country is at dusk. I'm not a unwavering believer in American exceptionalism, but would like maintain the belief that the years ahead (perhaps for purely selfish reasons) will remain bright. But, I guess, when posed with the question, here are my thoughts...

The United States is... at the mercy of its political class. So frustrating.

Barack Obama is... emblematic of America's promise--why are some so willing to tear him apart just 'cause...?

U.S. foreign policy is... complicated....confused... contradictory... and all tied up in knots,  just like our domestic policy...hmmmmm.

The United States is unpopular around the world because...  everyone thinks we're too big for our britches and are more willing (less afraid) to call us on it.

In another piece, Mishall Al Gergawi comments on what ails US education-wise.  He blames our creation of a knowledge economy where companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook are unable hire (taking numbers and skill sets into consideration) the people who are being laid of by GM, Ford and other manufacturers.  I wonder if any of them (Google. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, GM or Ford) are looking to hire a bunch of PhDs like me. Or will my best career options lead me "back to farming" too?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Postdocs as part of the current US jobs challenge

Please look at this link to an article in the McKinsey Quarterly. It highlights a report that discusses the problems of lingering unemployment in the US.  Although its often claimed that unemployment amongst PhDs is lower than for the general population, I think it's wise to take a serious look at how postdocs and PhDs (at all career stages) are faring these days.  As this blog post summarizes, unemployment is of concern for PhDs, but so are the career/workforce dynamics of those who are working involuntarily outside of their field of study.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Innovating with the Best of Intentions

Last week, the New York Times published an article on how some university professors are revamping their curricula to make them more appealing and to keep students from switching majors.

In a brief and non-exact summary, the article states that students defect because science is "too hard" and that they are lured by higher grades in other, presumably easier, disciplines. Others leave because they find their passion in other fields or realize that others will lead more directly to higher paying professions.

One university dean explains that an intensive stretch of theory-based courses during the sophomore and junior years represents a "weak link"in their curriculum. Sigh! ...if students could only make it to their senior year, they'd realize how GREAT science is!! As an example of this, MIT, with a curriculum inclusive of independent projects and international travel, is held up as a beacon of how to do science education "right".

Readers it seems are skeptical. In their letters they suggest that tying uninspiring science curricula to STEM dropout rates is overblown. For example, the authors of one letter remind that science is just as hard as it was 30 years ago and just as hard as it is in India, China, or Germany. They attribute the leakage to "the widening gap (both in compensation and respect) between careers in the classroom and careers in industry" that has proffered under prepared high school graduates. Another says that students actually "wise up" to their future prospects. While in some nations pursuing science is a way out of poverty, in the US, it's likely a way into it. Finally another blames the lack of classroom innovation on the government's use of immigration policy to keep college science classrooms full.

Truth be told the humanities continue to survive despite poor pay and job prospects. And just as a English major convinced that she's the next Maya Angelou won't be deterred, neither will a physics major who is convinced she's the one to one-up Albert Einstein. It's also just as likely that those marginal students concerned by future job security and pay will drop out of a History major (almost) as quickly as they'll drop out of Math.

So, it's my guess that trying to use the curriculum as an instrument to keep the masses engaged, may not make the best policy.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Petitioning for PhDs

I just found out about a petition to make graduate student stipends tax exempt once again. The strain of a meager income piled onto the stress of getting a PhD is certainly less than idea.  Further it is frustrating that not all stipends are created equal. The relative comfort in which a student studies will depend on a number of factors such as their discipline, institution, funding source, etc. (here is a great sampling from the biomedical sciences). Despite the unwelcome monetary pressures, I think that being compensated (including stipend tuition, health insurance and travel) to get a PhD is far more valuable than any tax exemption.

Of far greater concern to me is the declining currency given my degree. Are PhDs becoming a dime a dozen? Or is it that our training is of limited relevance outside of academic and research contexts? Traditionally, many PhDs have gotten jobs in industry and at science funding, advocacy and regulatory agencies. There are others, but are these established PhD-friendly venues becoming overcrowded?  Where are the new and exciting career pathways?

I recall being told that life with a PhD is good (it is) and that my disciplinary focus was unimportant to the "outside" world (less true). Perhaps I was just naive and a bad listener, but they made finding employment worthy of my degree sound so easy! But finding "my place" has not been simple for me--nor has is it for others.  Struggles are unavoidable, but for PhDs they are becoming less existential and more about adequate compensation and reliable employment.  The stresses many postdocs express as well as the proliferation of postdoc-only career fairs, soft skills training seminars and other supplemental career/job services are indicators of concern.

The dilemma for postdocs is a difficult one that will require dedicated focus to resolve. I think that education and training is a powerful thing for individuals and for society. Simply stopping the flow and support of scholars isn't the answer.  But we must be creative in our thinking and innovative  in our utilization of the PhD talent that we have invested so heavily in.  How can PhDs be further empowered to contribute in a wider array of employment sectors?

Its clear to me that while postdocs are in dependent professional relationships, we can no longer view their needs as wholly subservient to those of the PI, the university or to research itself. A petition demanding that?? That's one I would definitely sign!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Influence starts with being known

Scientific American's Urban Scientist blogger is rightly concerned that the 100 Most Influential African Americans list recently released by  The Root did not feature a single scientists (for shame!). I shared The HistoryMakers link with her--and now you! I think this is a great resource, featuring African Americans from a diverse array of fields (full and proud disclosure--my dad is featured).  They have their mission and certainly do it well, but I would love to see younger scientists from more fields (their list is heavily-although not exclusively- based in the physical sciences).  Any recommendations?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The ties that bind, may break

I gave in to my preoccupation with postdocs years ago, but I am constantly searching for the significance of this hang-up.  After all, postdocs come and postdocs go (although it is true that they may hang around a bit longer than they did a decade ago). Still, relative to the duration of their PI's career, their department's existence, and academia's legacy, each individual postdoc is a cursory disciplinary footnote. Isn't it right then that the most raucous debates center on the modern day relevance of higher and graduate education, the evolution of disciplinary boundaries, and the continuation of the tenure process?

For whatever reason, these questions don't occupy my mind or imagination.  But I do feel a sense of foreboding when pondering the experiences and travails of individual postdocs and when considering the all-too-limited array of employment and career opportunities that await them. We are a country hungry for innovation and technological advancement, and one that is willing to support the perpetual pursuit of knowledge. Unfortunately, we use these priorities to justify the misuse of doctoral scholars as an over-populated and underutilized research battalion.

This has proven to be no good for postdocs. And I believe that it is no good for science.

It may be that postdocs are the most immediate sign that research goals and practices are not well-tethered to important realities. Thus, I think it is time that national and institutional research priorities include goals for the sustainable use of the scientific workforce.