Archive for September, 2012

On clarity in writing

September 30, 2012 2 comments

Does the writer know what that sentence actually says? The answer is routinely no…Here’s another example: “Fixed-gear bikes are ridden exclusively on these tracks.” This sentence is almost proud of its perfect ambiguity. It means one of two things: “People ride fixed-gear bikes only on these tracks” or “On these tracks people ride only fixed gear bikes.” Both are statements about exclusivity, but one is about bikes, the other about tracks. The sentence as written offers no way to choose between them. — Verlyn Klinkenborg

Klinkenborg’s advice should be heeded by science writers, this one included. Though clarifying the vocabulary of science has been a hobby-horse of mine for some time, I’m starting to wonder what that phrase means as it is written. My intentions, as Klinkenborg helpfully observes, are blind to all of you. Am I speaking about the research vocabulary scientists use among themselves? Or the vocabulary of journalists popularizing science? And which scientists? What parts of science?

To try start the process of clarification…

All of us use generalizations. We generalize about sports, about states both red and blue, about men, about women. Thankfully, we mostly recognize these generalizations as generalizations. We know they have limited value and we expect deviations. We get that Orange County can be conservative even though California is liberal.

We also know that complicated systems can be analyzed on different levels. Sports reporters focus on details of the game as well as the backroom negotiations. We routinely hear that sports about greed and corruption as much as it is about teamwork and grit.

So the question is…do we know that sentences like “science is about testing hypotheses” are also generalizations? That not all scientists test hypotheses in the same way? That some fields are not amenable to hypothesis-testing? And do we know that science, like sports, can also be analyzed on different levels? That science is “about” writing grants as much as hypothesis-testing?

Helping us think about “science” in this way–the way we already think about many large categories–is a central goal of this blog. I hope that’s now clear.

Is a science PhD worth it, part II

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Let me expand on the closing sentence of my last post, which got some attention in the comments (emphasis added):

The upshot of this is that national data-sets can miss a lot of nuance in this issue. And regardless of the final outcome, we can do a lot to make a PhD “more worth it” for grad students. Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful.

From my casual observations (and a whimsical Google search), it appears that most college students roughly follow this path:

  1. End up in a major where employers value the skills you will gain: finance, marketing, engineering, journalism, education, etc.
  2. Because, the recession notwithstanding, many jobs require your newly acquired skill-set, apply for and start working in something you’re trained to do.

Keeping in mind that individual experiences vary, that generalizations have limited value, and that perhaps I’m biased because I studied space physics rather than bioengineering or chip design…it seems that many science PhD students who don’t end up in academia roughly do this:

  1. End up studying something obscure and irrelevant to almost everyone, and gain expertise that isn’t widely applicable.
  2. Because there aren’t many jobs that value your skill-set, and because grad school generally doesn’t afford you the chance to develop non-research skills, stumble around and stress mightily until you get a job.

Now if all you do is reference aggregate statistics, and ignore the stress and worry that accompany many PhD job searches, point number 2 is no cause for concern. But that’s the notion I was explicitly rejecting in my last post. The process matters, and matters a lot. That’s where the PhD experience can be improved. Back when all PhDs became academics, it have been fine to ignore this issue. But that’s not the world we now live in.

This is not a particularly profound or deep observation. The disconnect between PhD training and career trajectories is fairly well-studied. As far back as 1995, the National Academies noted the need to rethink PhD education, and there’s a veritable cottage industry around helping PhDs take command of their careers. This industry wouldn’t exist if there weren’t demand, and is proof enough that something can be done to make the PhD job search less stressful.

Categories: Academia

Is a science PhD worth it?

September 22, 2012 8 comments

Most students are between the”PhD sucks”                and ‘PhD rocks” camps

Daniel Lametti gives it a resounding yes:

The pharmaceutical industry, the Washington Post reported, has cut scores of chemists. Even so, the American Chemical Society told me the unemployment rate among its Ph.D. members is 3.4 percent this year, down from 3.9 percent last year. During these rough economic times, the unemployment rate of scientists in one of the hardest hit fields is less than half the national average. Why? Because scientists learn more in graduate school than how to peer into microscopes and pour chemicals ever so carefully from one Erlenmeyer flask to another. As one biologist told me, the statistics and computer programming she learned during her degree can be applied just about anywhere. More generally, scientists know how to solve complex problems, and finishing a doctoral dissertation shows that you can get things done…

You might argue that if I leave academia to, say, teach high school or become a journalist, I’ve wasted my laboratory training. This argument is ridiculous. Since the Ph.D.’s inception in 18thcentury Germany, the product of a doctoral education has been a dissertation—a body of research that, in a small way, moves a field forward. There’s nothing wrong with contributing to science and then moving on. The work won’t disappear. Dissertations are published, and doctorates last a lifetime.

I greatly appreciate Lametti’s sentiments, which offer a needed corrective to the all-too-often ‘grad school is a waste of time’ screeds (h/t Freddie). The low salary notwithstanding, there are many benefits to graduate school. And for the most part PhD’s don’t have to worry about unemployment. Though it might take a while, we do eventually get jobs.

But despite its many positives, Lametti’s essay doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know–education generally helps your employment prospects.

The problem isn’t Lametti’s answer so much as it is the question. There are only so many ways you can determine whether a PhD writ-large is “worth it.” By necessity you end up relying on aggregate data data that have limited value to questions that are deeply particular and personal. Survey results and national economic trends don’t tell you how I experienced my PhD, what I thought about it, and most crucially, what could have made it better. Given that tens of thousands of people will continue to enter PhD programs every year, and also given that neither Lanetti nor his dissenters will change that fact anytime soon, this last question is what we should be focusing on.

Instead, we end up with a cramped, depressingly binary debate:  The “grad school sucks because you spend six years making no money only to end up with a job unrelated to anything you learned” camp vs the “grad school is awesome because you are intellectually engaged for six years and the odds are you’ll end up with a decent job” camp.

Without a doubt, some grad students found their calling in the academy and loved every minute of it. And surely some hated the experience and only have regret. But if my friends and I are any indication,the majority are somewhere between these poles. Like all human beings, we have conflicting feelings about our experiences. Academic research is, after all, just a job for so many of us. And like jobs everywhere, it is constrained by certain immutable truths. Research, like most jobs, can be beautiful in the abstract but ugly up close. There is a daily grind that sometimes complicates and dampens our our enthusiasm without completely negating it. There is no contradiction between loving the idea of your job while hating your actual job.

So for those of us in the messy middle, the blistering confidence of both Daniel Lametti and Penelope Trunk doesn’t seem relevant. Consider the careers issue since it figures so prominently in these debates. Yes, statistics show that PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate among all demographics. But those stats don’t capture the insecurity, the pain, the self-doubt, the “how can it be so hard to get a job when I’m so smart and have a PhD” feeling that so many of us go through. I can’t count the number of people who wished they dropped out after their masters (or earlier) precisely because of feelings like these. And the people I’m thinking of are scientists and engineers. I suspect it might even be worse for those in the humanities.*

The upshot of this is that national data-sets can miss a lot of nuance in this issue. And regardless of the final outcome, we can do a lot to make a PhD “more worth it” for grad students. Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful.

*In light of the Jonah Lehrer dustup, I feel compelled to point out that I self-plagiarized this passage from a comment on Freddie’s blog.

Categories: Academia

Harvey Brooks in a Flow-Chart

September 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Harvey Brooks’s classic “The Resolution of Technically Intensive Public Policy Disputes” suggested a way we can separate experts’ technical judgments from their values:

“Differences among experts resulting from disagreements over the burden of proof might be “smoked out” by requiring each side in a controversy to specify in advance what type of experiment or evidence or analysis would convince them to alter their policy position on a controversial issue…force each side to understand more clearly the bases of its technical judgments and the extent to which those judgments depend…on prior desired policy outcomes, value premises, or [their] biases or implicit value preferences …By shifting the focus of the debate to the real issue, this approach could make the discussion more accessible to the general public. And even if the issue were highly polarized…and the parties were unwilling to stipulate what evidence would sway them, clarification of that fact would help illuminate the debate and isolate the more polarized positions from broader public support-possibly the first step toward an ultimate resolution of the issue “

We can all benefit from this approach. Here is my synthesis of the above in flow-chart form:


Categories: Misc

Help me rename my blog!

September 12, 2012 5 comments

Hello world. I am in fact still alive. So much so that I’m kinda, sorta planning on blogging more regularly again. Meaning I want to start blogging at my normal blistering rate of one post a week.

So along those lines…I would like to rename my blog to something more informative. Does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions? Keep in my mind that ultimately I want to reach out to scientists (specifically PhD grad students in engineering/science) and expose them to concepts from science studies, history, philosophy, etc. So methinks something with either “PhD” or “scientist” or “grad student” in the name would be good. But I’m not set on it.

Here are some initial ideas to spark your thoughts (all of these would presumably be the URL with a ‘.com’ or ‘.org’ at the end):

  1. VersatileScientist: not quite what I’m going for…and it’s also totally plagiarzed from (which already exists).
  2. ReflectiveScientist/ReflectivePhd: Conceptually, this is what I’m going for. But frankly, I think the name is a tad lame.
  3. SelfAwareScientist: Also what I’m going for conceptually, but (if this is even possible) it’s probably even more lame than number 2.
I can also go with something more general. Some of the suggestions I’ve heard:
Number 3 is in jest, although my former advisor may disagree…I suspect he would insist that at no point was I ever a scientist.

At any rate, I don’t like the second batch as much. But I’m willing to be swayed, and also to consider something out of left field that’s really creative and clever. You know, like a jump to conclusions mat:

Anyway…any thoughts/suggestions really appreciated.