23 November 2012

Kill the “scientist as monk” meme

Is The Guardian trolling us?

Yesterday is was a flailing piece that tried to justify the existence of for-profit scientific publishers, and flailed like a beached fish.Today, it’s an article about scientific careers that asks researchers to just accept that society will treat them like crap.

Steve Caplan says that academic research looks like a Ponzi scheme. This charge that is so well known that Ph.D. Comics has parodied it:

In the next paragraph, Caplan anticipates my reply: entry level positions always outnumber the managerial positions at the top. Nobody calls this a Ponzi when it occurs outside academia. Perhaps the problem is that outside academia, you can make a comfortable career in middle management. In academia, there fewer opportunities to have a long term career in the middle of the pyramid.

Yet despite saying academic research looks too much like a criminal scam, Caplan won’t bite the bullet and say that we are producing too many graduate students. According to Caplan, the problem is that we aren’t doing a good enough job at getting people to leave academia.

The problem... is... general failure to inform students (as well as post-doctoral fellows) of their career options and train them for a wide variety of scientific careers, including the many opportunities that exist outside academia.

The reason that people typically embark on doctorates, though, is to become professors. To join academia. To be a working scientist. It’s no surprise that they don’t want to leave because that’s what they set out to do. It seems pointless and a little cruel to get people into programs, then spend a lot of time telling them they will probably have to take on jobs that they didn’t sign up for.

Are other professional programs worrying about this? Are medical schools running workshops on what career options their med students have for when they fail to become physicians? Do law programs train their students for the many career opportunities outside of the legal system?

My first idea... is to provide far better training for students. Many universities are already employing career development plans to help their graduates prepare for a wide range of science-related jobs.

My question is whether that “wide variety of scientific careers” are careers that need a Ph.D. to do. I suspect not. Instead of putting people through an academic wringer that was designed to create professors, let’s create new programs and training that are not doctoral programs. Let’s get those people out in those science-related careers faster and more efficiently.

It’s Caplan’s second recommendation that makes me mad, though.

I am of the opinion that despite dwindling academic job prospects, this country and the world needs more scientists with PhD degrees, not fewer. Although for the most part careers in science are unlikely to lead to high-paying salaries, society benefits greatly from churning out more scientists with advanced degrees. Critical thinkers who have a working knowledge of the intricacies of scientific research can be the very best ambassadors for science. Whether they become politicians, businesspersons or leaders in any other occupation, their support for science could be the key to the future of science. So in some respects, I almost view a graduate degree in science as a form of national (or international) service – poor pay, but something to be proud of and with great benefits for society as a whole.

Screw. That. Noise. I am so sick of the “Joining the monastery of science” and “Science is a calling, you shouldn’t do it for the money” memes. This “scientist as monk” meme is hurtful and deserves to die a flaming death.

As I’ve mentored students, and watched them consider graduate school and scientific careers, it’s become clear to me that a major reason that they don’t want to go into graduate school is because they want to live their lives. They see continuing in university as something that will interfere with them from meeting people (including potential partners), travelling, having families, and enjoying themselves on their own terms.

In other words, I’ve seen that many bright, hard-working students who could get doctoral degrees do not want to be monks and nuns for science. I don’t want to be a monk for science. I set on this path because I thought it was a career that could offer me some long-term stability and a way to keep a roof over my head and food on my plate.

We cannot simultaneously:

  1. Call for more people trained in science, and;
  2. Say people trained in science should be willing to leave the profession they want to join, and accept a crummy standard of living regardless of whether they join the profession. 

These two things are not compatible. You want more scientists? Then FUCKING PAY US. Other professions are not stupid enough to fall for self-immolation, and scientists shouldn’t be, either.

Photograph of Charles Ponzi, originator of Ponzi scheme.


Anonymous said...
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Kevin Folta said...

The other huge problem I see is that postdocs (and grad students) are not being trained completely for academic positions, making your issue self sustaining.

Now they are becoming skilled bench technicians, good at one thing, and no lateral ability. Instead of training them in diverse science, experimental design and thinking, scientists use postdocs to plug gaps in papers and churn out data-- to keep funding going. That does not prepare a postdoc for a professional career in academia.

I've run a postdoc mentoring program at U Florida for over a year. You could never believe how grateful they are for this training.


Your post is spot on. The big problem I see is the huge pile of postdocs that have are 6-10 years post Ph.D., 10 pubs, 100 applications in for jobs and no phone calls. It is because a critical facet of their training is missing.

Baroque said...

I LOVE the idea that if something is considered valuable to society, but we don't really want to bother paying for it, we frame it as a "calling." I see it all the time with teaching. I think teaching science would be a career I would enjoy (until I throttled a parent for spouting sciency-sounding nonsense, at least!) but I will never do it because I like to be able to afford to pay all my bills and spend my evenings doing something other than plowing through poorly written assignments.

Funny how being an investment banker is never described as a "calling." I guess it's such a horrible job they have to pay a ton to get anyone to endure the long hours, the constant peril to life and limb, the risks of being on the street with their reputations permanently ruined if they make the slightest wrong decision. Yeah, right. >:(

Alan Emery said...

The historical roots of "temples of science" are difficult to discard. Academics in the main have trouble carrying out a conversation with the general public as opposed to lecturing -- even in informal situations. If you "know" you are correct - based on evidence - it is difficult for most scientists not to make the assumption their evidence-based position is superior to a non-evidence based belief position.

Academic structures are held in place by senior academics. For example, science outreach by young scientists is discouraged because there is no tangible or even intangible reward within the academic regimen for that type of effort. By emphasizing the isolation of scientists from the general public, the "monkishness" you discourage is in fact encouraged.

Science jobs will continue to decline in numbers as the public increases its ability to communicate and the scientific community continues to withdraw from an active multi-partnered conversation and to stay in a lecture mode. Because the public is more able to communicate, it will expect a greater, not lesser communication in a dialogue fashion from scientists.

Having made that effort in a variety of venues, I can attest to the sometimes frustrating, often negative, even horrible reactions. But with deliberate patience and respect for the opinions of others, no matter how ill-informed, a dialogue is often possible. With that as a starting point, public support for the realities of science and the scientific effort will improve, but it won't improve just because you deserve it. It must be negotiated in a marketplace that now has many competing interests, many of which are not in the least friendly to science.

ilovebraaains said...

Great post! I agree that potential scientists need to be aware of non-academic careers--but maybe this knowledge should occur BEFORE students begin grad school. As Alan Emery said, science awareness in the public is poor--partially due to the academic tenure model. Maybe my opinion will change once (IF) I become a tenured scientist, but I think the model should go.

Zen Faulkes said...

Update: I've been very grateful for conversations on Twitter about this article, correcting me for a few points where I was overly simplistic.

Several people pointed out to me that not everyone goes into a doctoral program to become an academic. Today, that may not even be the majority of people. Fair comment. Some fields have a strong tradition of putting their doctoral graduates into industry, such as chemistry. That said, I've read several articles in the not distant past talking about how in some programs, most of the PhD students expected to become researchers running their own labs.

Still, maybe PhD students, and their supervisors, and their programs, are becoming more savvy to the difficulties of landing those academic gigs than they were even just a few years ago.

Second, my comparison of the range of positions available in the corporate world and academia were probably probably needed more consideration. For instance, it's not clear what's the academic equal to middle management. (And how many of those middle management jobs are there in corporations today, anyway?)

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AnnMaria said...

This is the exact reason I left academia years ago. I had the tenured position, had done a post-doc, publications but still, to get a "real" research position at a research university or any university back home on the west coast, I would have to crank out more papers, get more grant funding.

Working the same hours required to continue grant writing, teaching and publishing I could make FAR more in industry- so I jumped ship. Within a year I was making $70K MORE than my last academic position. There are people who are still mad at me, "Well, if all you care about is money ...."

That's easy for you to say if you have a trust fund. Since I was widowed with three kids, I took the consulting gig and haven't looked back.

In my field - statistics and programming - there are plenty of opportunities for someone with a Ph.D. outside of academia.

I teach one course a year now in a doctoral program. Most of my students are aiming for a career in consulting or working for a government or non-profit agency. At a university where I worked previously, ALL the doctoral students were convinced they were going to be professors at a research institution and no amount of me suggesting that perhaps they should consider the job market made the least dent in their optimism. That happened after they started applying for jobs.

Unknown said...

As one of those post-doctoral monks who is trying to make a change (and getting no-where fast), I concur with your post here.

I like science. I like education. But the path I'm on now isn't sustainable. I want to engage more with people,but fear I've become too institutionalized (as they said in 'The Shawshank Redemption- and no, I'm not saying Ph.D. students/postdocs are prisoners, just comparing the acculturation that is portrayed in the movie and seems to occur in academia) to do anything else.

Malcolm said...

Here in Southeast Asia, we're being paid just a fraction of what other professionals are getting.
The most prominent university in my country gives only USD1600 to postdocs.
I mean, seriously? after acquiring a PhD and countless publications, only USD1600?

Ben Colahan said...

Q) "It seems pointless and a little cruel to get people into programs, then spend a lot of time telling them they will probably have to take on jobs that they didn’t sign up for. Are other professional programs worrying about this?"
A) Yes, despite being a 3-year grad school, mainline protestant seminaries actively tell their graduates to find "useful skills" because there are no jobs for clergy. But perhaps that's your point with the whole "scientist as monk" meme...