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Archive for November, 2011

What should all us PhDs do?

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

A roundup of links discussing whether a PhD is worth it:

1. Nate Kreuter at Inside Higher Ed says no one should get a PhD

2. Erik Loomis thinks that goes too far

3. Roger Whitson begs advisors and programs to rethink graduate education

4. Former research prof Karen Kelsky tells advisors to stop shirking their responsibilities. Although not applicable to my own advisor (who always supported my extra-curricular pursuits), here’s my favorite quote:

The point of graduate school, for the actual graduate students themselves, is preparation for a career. A career like yours, with benefits and a retirement plan.

That kind of career derives far less from a thick wad of dissertation pages than from the quantity of one’s publications, the impressiveness of one’s grant record, the fame of one’s reference-writers, and the clarity of one’s ambition. I don’t find it problematic to say any of that openly. But apparently you do. You reject it as “vulgar” and “careerist”—as if wanting to have health insurance is vulgar and wanting to not go on food stamps is careerist.

That is pure intellectual snobbery. To acknowledge your graduate students as people in a workforce requires you to acknowledge yourselves as workers, and to do that you must finally abandon the self-delusion of the ivory tower—that scholarly work is “above” capitalist exchange and anything as gauche as money. And that you will not do. The irony of faculty “work” (“I’m working on a project on death and the abject”) is its scrupulous denial of any acknowledged kinship to the actual wage-work for which you do, indeed, draw a salary.

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Categories: Academia

Politics drive political decisions

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

“It is absolutely essential that the negotiators get a continuous and repeated exposure to the science of climate change,” Pachauri told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday…Pachauri heads the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issued a report for policymakers on Friday saying an increase in heat waves is almost certain, while heavier rain, more floods, stronger cyclones, landslides and more intense droughts are likely across the globe this century. “I am afraid the way the whole thing is structured loses sight of these realities,” Pachauri said of the talks”–Reuters[Emphasis added-PK]

Pachauri should not lose sight of the reality that politics drive political decisions. Nation-states pursue their short term interests. We can throw hysterical temper tantrums all we want, but any treaty that ignores this reality will continue to fail. It’s a perpetual fantasy of academic scientists everywhere that the laws of nature are somehow more powerful and important than the laws of politics. We won’t make more progress until we acknowledge that reality.

Andrew Sullivan doesn’t speak for research

November 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Daniel Kammen-Research for helping people

During my blogging hiatus, Andrew Sullivan waded into the race and IQ debate yet again. While throwing his usual tantrum on the issue (ably refuted by herehere and here), Sullivan stunningly claims that “research is not about helping people; it’s about finding out stuff.”

Hey, I studied numerical relativity and space plasma physics. I get why some research is not about helping people. But, to continue with a hobbyhorse of mine, broad statements on a $1 trillion enterprise don’t mean much. Some research is for helping people and some for discovery. Sullivan does not have the authority to speak for all research, and he shouldn’t pretend he does.

New energy blog

November 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Watt Now profiles a new clean energy/recycling company every day. It’s very well written, and you should check it out.

Categories: Blog Dump

On those wasteful humanities majors…

November 9, 2011 1 comment

Will Wilkinson defends subsidies for non-STEM majors against Alex Tabarrok:

Speaking of human welfare, I wonder why Mr Tabarrok is so fixed on the role of education as an input to production but so uninterested in it as a form of consumption, whence all welfare flows. The fact that the percentage of students studying science, engineering, technology, and maths has declined, despite the fact that salaries for graduates with these majors are handsome and steadily increasing, ought to be very telling, especially to an economist. It’s important to note that everyone knows that engineering jobs are far more plentiful and remunerative than jobs in ballet companies. If we faithfully apply the economists’ idea of “revealed preference”, it seems we should infer that students decreasingly care to use their time at university preparing to land highly-paid jobs. We might even infer that parental/taxpayer pressure to do so has declined. I know I didn’t think I was making some kind of mistake studying in art instead of biology, because art is fun and putting test-tubes in a centrifuge is a perfectly awful way to waste one’s life, unless you happen to like that sort of thing, and, clearly, most of us don’t.

What is economic growth for, anyway? It’s for expanding our choices and making life better. Is it really so surprising that, as we grow wealthier as a society, more and more of our young people, when the amazing resources of the modern university are put at their disposal, choose to use them learning something satisfying and enriching and notfor anything except cherishing the rest of their lives? Is it really so surprising that taxpayers are not in revolt over the existence of poetry professors?

As we grow wealthier as a society, we also devote ever more money and time listening to music, attending performances, reading books, watching film and TV. Somebody has to make this stuff, and I’m certain its full value is not captured in the economists’ growth stats. I spent last evening reading a fine Pulitzer prize-winning novel by a graduate of a state-university creative-writing program. I appreciate everything math majors do for us. I really do. But, as far as I know, a math major has never made me cry.

Categories: Education

Science is really hard…

November 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Or so claims the New York Times:

Professor Chang says that rather than losing mainly students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with lackluster records, the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where he believes the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students.

“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

The bulk of attrition comes in engineering and among pre-med majors, who typically leave STEM fields if their hopes for medical school fade. There is no doubt that the main majors are difficult and growing more complex. Some students still lack math preparation or aren’t willing to work hard enough.

My basic problem is the overall framing of the article. I am deeply skeptical we actually “need” more scientists, and my casual reading of the economics suggests the problem would disappear if industry just raised salaries. I have to look up the references, but I believe a few studies document that interest in STEM fields fields closely tracks salaries and employment prospects. As the article itself noted, many gifted students quickly “see easier ways to make money.”

I also don’t think Matt Moniz’s decision (profiled in the article) to switch out of engineering into psychology and English should be viewed as this great tragedy.
That said, I’m all for people keeping people interested in science and engineering, making classwork more relevant to daily life, getting rid of/minimizing weed-out classes, and mostly eliminating the whole macho attitude around these fields.
Categories: Education, STEM