25 January 2010

The expectation rift and institutional diversity

There’s been some good posts at Professor in Training and Blue Lab Coats that I’ve been commenting on. I also riffed on this a bit last week. What stands out to me is just how divergent people’s expectations and experiences in starting a lab are.

What some people take for granted as things new faculty must have to survive as scientists are pipe dreams for other people. And it seems to be difficult to convince some people that such variation even exists out there in the university ecosystem.

Many students starting in doctoral programs expect that they are going to go down the same track as their boss: running an externally funded lab. But, according to the recent National Science Foundation Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 report:

Academic institutions employed about 42% of individuals with S&E doctorates, including those in postdocs or other temporary positions.

That’s all academic institutions, not just the major research universities. There are a lot of questions that data set doesn’t answer, but the point remains that staying in academia is not the most common thing people do with doctorates. Supervisors do bit of a disservice to their doctoral and postdoctoral fellows if they don’t convey the other options that are out there. (In some ways, I can’t blame the supervisors: they often don’t have experiences at other kinds of institutions besides big research intensive ones.)

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if the science blogosphere is tilted towards discussing research at particular kinds of institutions. I read a lot of blogs that are set at euphemistically set at MRU (Major Research University), where the complexities of how to get R01s are dissected in detail, and papers seem to be headed for Science or Nature.

This got me thinking about diversity. The much praised Science Online 2010 conference contained a panel on diversity in STEM, which is mainly concerned with racial, ethnic, and gender issues. Something that comes up as a virtue about blogging is that it can help people, particularly those who are in a minority of some sort, “normalize” their experiences. “Wow, it’s not just me, other people run into the same problems.”

I want to put forward a case for the importance of institutional diversity. (Bad term for it, but can’t think of something better yet.) My impression is that there’s not a lot of science bloggers writing about the experience of doing research at institutions that are not massive research players at the national or international level. It’s important for researchers at such places to do so, because researchers at such places are already marginalized, career wise. I am not saying that the level is anywhere near like the sort of marginalization that can be experienced by, say, a racial minority; just there are similar underlying patterns of behaviour.

A researcher could be looked down upon for not aspiring to become a R01 funded PI at an MRU. Those who did aim for such a job, and didn’t get it, might feel that they are a failure. Ideas or advice from someone at a research extensive university may not be taken as seriously as that of someone from an ostensibly more prestigious, or older, or bigger, or better-funded institution.

Just as a seemingly innocent question like, “When are you two having kids?” can bring along with it all sort of soft-pressure social expectations, so too can “How many postdocs do you have?” emphasize expected norms.


LM said...

I disagree that the science blogosphere is particularly tilted towards R1 institutions. Maybe the network centered around SB is, but there are lots of profs blogging from a "SLAC", a "PUI" or what have you. (Coming from a non-US background, it took me a little while to get my head around the distinctions...)

That said, I find that a lot of grad students (in my mega-department-at-mega-U, anyway) are aware that there is a range of career options for those with PhDs.

It's true that the PIs (and bloggers!) can only give advice/perspectives on what they know, but that's why the internet is great--you can get that range of perspectives with relative ease. It doesn't really make these kinds of career decisions easier, but please keep blogging :)

Zen Faulkes said...

I can only think of a couple of research blogs from people at institutions with moderate research program, particularly in biology. Obviously, I don't read everything, so would love some more examples!

biochem belle said...

I find that a lot of grad students (in my mega-department-at-mega-U, anyway) are aware that there is a range of career options for those with PhDs.

It is not solely an issue of awareness. Students and postdocs are indeed increasingly aware of other options in and outside of academia, including "non-traditional" careers. The issue, especially at R1 universities, is tunnel vision of advisers. The pervasive attitude at R1 universities (as Zen points out) is that anything less than running an independent lab at an R1 is failure. The most obvious demonstration is when a PI tells a trainee that he/she wasting his lives in pursuing a different path.

Certainly advisers cannot provide perspective on careers they've never experienced. However, they can encourage students to explore their options. They can establish contacts outside of the R1 sphere and connect students interested in other careers. When organizing career forums, they can bring in people from places outside of industry and R1 universities. Most importantly they can, and IMO should, stop carrying their derogatory attitude toward career paths different from their own.

LM said...

Sorry I took so long to reply--bad week for blogs.

Perhaps my view is rosier than most because my advisor has had a nonstandard career path.

Either way, here's a few blogs by non-R1 faculty. I realized looking at my RSS feeds that most of the blogs I follow tend to be from trainees, and lighter on the actual science blogging in favour of more "life in science/academia"-type posts. So maybe this isn't what you're looking for: