The unhelpful academic/non-academic distinction

I’ve learned a lot in the 4 years since I started grad school, like how to analyze data in R, where to get the best food in San Diego, and how to file taxes (sort of). But one of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that there are two types of PhD holders — those who work in academia, and the others (people who pursue careers labeled as non-academic or alternative [to my knowledge, there’s no systematic difference in the way these terms are used]).

When you’re in academia, being part of the others is generally undesirable. Jacquelyn Gill described one pervasive mindset, that academics say “to the general public, ‘we want you to value us and our work, and be informed citizens, but we don’t want to walk amongst you– we are not you.'”

A lot of people ascribe to this strong categorical distinction between PhD holders “in” and “outside” the academy. But it’s a puzzling way to think about careers one might have with a PhD.

Talking about careers as either academic or non-academic suggests that those two are mutually exclusive, maybe even opposites in meaningful ways. But actually, whether PhDs are academics or non-academics, there are a lot of similarities in what their careers often entail: applying analytical and research skills to solving new problems, collaborating with others, reading, writing, teaching, and presenting. On the other hand, the only true difference between PhD-holding academics and non-academics (that I can think of) is whether their paycheck comes from a university or other organization (and even here there’s some flexibility). Is that difference really a meaningful one? One that warrants constantly separating PhDs into two distinct categories?

I also suspect that referring to non-academic or alternative careers turns many graduate students off of exploring those paths. If you had to choose to have either coffee or alternative coffee, what would you choose?! What if the alternative option was rebranded, maybe as a mocha or green tea? Under a new label, the option likely becomes more appealing for some people, and it definitely becomes more informative. Defining a massive suite of careers simply by what they are not is not very helpful.

Then why are so many careers referred to alternative or lumped together as non-academic?

In the not-too-distant past, receiving a PhD and embarking on a career that wasn’t traditionally academic was much rarer than it is today. There were fewer people graduating with PhDs than there are today, and there were almost as many academic jobs available as there were new PhDs, so remaining in academia was much more common. Now there are fewer available academic faculty jobs relative to graduates, and an exploding number of ways to apply PhD skills outside the academy.

Schillebeeckx-et-al-2013.jpg
Figure from The missing piece to changing the university culture, (2013). Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx, Brett Maricque & Cory Lewis. Nature Biotechnology 31, 938–941 doi:10.1038/nbt.2706

If we want to have meaningful discussions about PhD holders’ careers, we need to go beyond an academic/non-academic dichotomy.

Luckily, many people and groups are already raising awareness of the vast space of possibilities for PhD holders. For example, I’ve enjoyed following #withaphd discussions on Twitter, since they’re often initiated by PhD holders with jobs that help me realize there’s no end to the creative, impactful, and innovative work PhDs can do throughout their careers. I also participated in a Questioning Career Transition Group (though I do think the word “transitioning” reinforces the distinction I don’t love) at my university. In the group, we were guided through the process of introspecting on our values and goals for our careers, and to translate those into concrete career-related steps. I’ve also found the book So what are you going to do with that? to have great resources and anecdotes for PhD students thinking about post-defense possibilities.

These resources are helpful for raising awareness of the vast world that we often lump into the non-academic or alternative categories. I’m glad they exist. But I think we can and should go further to be more conscientious of our tendencies to juxtapose academic work and everything else, and the way this distinction might hinder career possibilities for grad students and PhDs.

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Remembered Lessons from James Watson

Reading a memoir often feels like holding an in-depth conversation with the author, albeit a largely one-sided conversation. When I finish, I feel like I’ve just spent hours with an accomplished person who has something valuable to share. What’s better, I’ve taken in the information at my own speed, on my own watch, and haven’t had to worry about things like exactly how much eye contact I should make while listening and when and what to interject. Humans’ thoughts and experiences are so often fascinating, and this is one of my favorite ways to learn about them.

avoid

I was recently browsing the memoir section of the library and a book called Avoid Boring People caught my eye (how could it not?). It’s a memoir by James Watson, one the discoverers of the structure of DNA. The book chronicles Watson’s life, focusing on his path to scientific success. Each chapter discusses a phase of his life so far, and concludes with a list of Remembered Lessons, which are written as nuggets of advice to scientist readers.

The beginning of the book really captured me. Maybe Watson’s earliest days in science are the most interesting to me because I’m still near the beginning of my own scientific career. As I neared the midway point, though, Watson had already won his Nobel and I had to put the book down because I was getting bored of reading page after page about Watson’s elbow-rubbing with other famous scientists and the details of so many of his experiments. I realize the irony of my capitulation given the book’s title, but the latter half of the book just wasn’t for me. Maybe it was just to hard to identify with an older man who was a Nobel-prize winning scientist and seems to speak biochemistry as a second language.

I did, however, skim the book to read the rest of the Remembered Lessons, which I had been enjoying since the start. I’ve decided to share some that resonate with me. If you’re not up to reading Watson’s 320+ page magnum opus (actually, it’s just one of his three memoirs), here are some of my favorite takeaways:

  • College is for learning how to think.
  • Keep your intellectual curiosity much broader than your thesis objective. Especially timely advice for me, as I’m in the process of drilling deeply into one topic in order to formulate my dissertation proposal.
  • Banal thoughts necessarily also dominate clever minds. He comments that “most high-powered minds… mostly lie idle until the input of one or more new facts stimulates their neurons to resolve the conundrums that stump them.”
  • Exercise exorcises intellectual blahs. I’ve heard it has a few other benefits too…
  •  Read out loud your written words. 
    And of course…
  • Avoid boring people. Watson means this boring both its verb and adjective senses: Do not bore people and do not associate with people who bore you.

Amen to that!

Lab Girl: Review

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I discovered Hope Jahren’s new memoir Lab Girl because it’s listed under the genre of Environmental Science, a type of book I don’t usually gravitate to. It didn’t take me long to realize that the scientific world has been begging for this book to be written for a while. As I’ve continued to immerse myself more deeply into academia, I’ve realized that the massive rift separating the Ivory Tower from the rest of the world is not narrowing. Lab Girl is an account of one woman’s journey toward and through academic science, a glimpse of what a scientist might actually be like as a person and what it means to conduct scientific research as a career.

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Jahren’s story starts when she was a little girl, spending hours in her dad’s lab, and continues to cast glances into her life as a young adult, graduate student, assistant professor, and finally as a tenured professor. Her road was anything but smooth. While many features of her path were unique, so many were not. Financial struggles were a theme throughout a good portion of the book. First, she had to pay for her education as an undergraduate, and once she completed grad school, she had to apply for competitive grants to afford her lab, her right-hand man Bill’s salary, and her own. At one point she writes about buying a bunch of fast food burgers when they were on sale and freezing them for future lunches. She also writes about periods in which mental illness overcame her daily life and left her unable to function. Again, the Ivory Tower might seem like a utopia where everyone is happy and nobly working toward the pursuit of knowledge, but such struggles are not so rare among the ultra-driven academics who have never failed a test in their lives and are now pursuing PhDs or esteemed faculty positions. And she writes about the tedium, discomfort, and anxiety involved in doing science, like meticulously labeling vials and taking long road trips to dig up and study the earth in new (often desolate-seeming) locations.

Writing about these less glamorous moments and years sends the message to other academics, you are not alone. This shit is hard. And it sends a message to non-academics that the road to becoming a successful scientist is not paved with gold. Jahren adds even more value because she’s a female scientist, and although she doesn’t belabor the point, there are many stories that shed light on the extra hurdle that many females experience in science.

Jahren paints a clear picture of what doing science was like at different stages of her life, while also shedding light on what being she as a person was like at different stages and interspersing short chapters that expose trees’ beauty and complexity. Lab Girl is a love story between Hope Jahren and science, exposing their relationship’s joys and challenges and showing the readers that all along these two were meant to be together.

Do babies matter? A review

I was very excited to find this book by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden: Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. The authors deal with the complex and multi-faceted relationship between families and academia in an organized and data-driven way. They use detailed survey information to present the beliefs and career decisions of academics (especially women) at different points of the academic “pipeline,” from graduate students through tenured faculty members and how these relate to two of the most typical milestones for family formation: marriage and childbearing.

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As a married female graduate student who loves much about academia and also hopes to raise kids eventually, this book’s agenda is important to me. After reading the book, there are a few undeniable takeaway points:

  • Women, especially at the earlier stages of academic careers (PhD students and postdocs), are more likely than men to perceive raising a family and obtaining a tenure-track faculty position as incompatible goals.
  • Academic institutions lack flexibility that exist in other professional fields like law and medicine like alternating between full- and part-time work or taking maternity and paternity leave after a birth. Even when academic institutions do have these policies, people often do not know about them or are hesitant to use them because of their associated stigma.
  • Women (and especially mothers) are underrepresented at the top of the academic career ladder.

There are lots of injustices in the world, and academia is not immune. Whether we want to or not, humans have subconscious biases, and these biases take a ton of work to overcome. Bringing awareness to discrepancies is a crucial step toward eliminating them, and this book does a great job of doing just that. There are a few recurrent underlying assumptions, though, that didn’t sit right with me as I was reading this book.

  • Tenured faculty is the ultimate goal. For many grad students, this is true. In fact it is a waste of a graduate education if the recipient is not going to remain a competitive academic researcher. In a paragraph about how “Many of our best and brightest young people are rejecting careers at research universities,” the authors write that “The United States cannot afford to lose many of its best researchers and thinkers, scholars who will eventually train the next generation. And these talented young scholars should not have to forsake careers for which they have already invested many years of their lives.” If PhDs take jobs outside academia, the United States is not losing them at all. Their training isn’t going to waste, it’s just going to a different use than many people assume it is “supposed” to go to. Not to mention, many people don’t look at getting a PhD to be career training in the sense that getting a Nursing Degree or even a Master’s Degree is. You do a PhD to gain experience, thinking, communicating, innovating, and answering nearly intractable questions. Academics love to say that you don’t get a PhD to get rich (though a job is pretty universally expected at the end).
  • Correlation and causation… There are times when the authors do remind us that statistics don’t allow us to make causal claims, but other times when the authors seem to forget that crucial notion. Comments like “Marriage also leads women to leave the labor force. Compared with an unwed woman, her married counterpart is 28 percent more likely to not work.” It may be true that marriage is the reason these women leave the labor force. Or perhaps women who leave the labor force have more time for dating and get married at higher rates (that’s fairly ridiculous, but technically possible based on the statistic). Or perhaps there’s some underlying personality difference between women who choose to get married and to stop working and those who don’t, a hidden variable responsible for the different work behaviors that isn’t marriage at all, but instead tracks with marriage. What if marriage is so fulfilling and stabilizing that women decide they don’t need to keep working at jobs they’ve hated?
  • Women and men have the same career goals and desires. This follows from the assumption above. Men and women are biologically different. It’s a good thing, too, because that keeps humans on the earth. These biological differences are pronounced in parenting. I don’t doubt that dads and moms can love their kids equally, but women carry the fetus for 9 months, give birth, and often feed the baby milk from their own body. As they’re raising a human being (or multiple humans, as is often the case), women may decide that their former jobs don’t provide the same meaning that parenting does. They may cut back on work or cut it out entirely, and this might be a great thing for many women. It is a luxury to be able to make this choice. And in some families, it may be the father who makes the choice and the mother who continues to work, but I don’t think that biology has set us up for that to be the majority choice. The statistics about women who remain in R1 (top research) faculty positions and those who take less demanding roles or stop working altogether are presented as proof enough that women are underachieving because of families. If it is a genuine choice that a woman makes to prioritize family over work, isn’t that quite an achievement?

Crucially, it needs to be possible for women to be successful researchers, wives, and mothers if that’s what they want. I believe that is the authors’ motivation, and they give suggestions for ensuring this possibility. But women who leave the pipeline shouldn’t be considered failures, and their decision should not necessarily be chalked up to injustice. It’s a really messy issue, but it won’t get better unless we keep talking about it as this book has successfully prompted many to do.

An exercise in wrongness

Wrongness isn’t a word, you say? Then I’m off to a great start. (It is, though).

My department makes a pretty big deal of our second year projects. We don’t have any qualifying exams, just an oral presentation and paper. We’re still 4 long weeks away from presenting these projects, but there have already been plenty of eye-opening moments for me to write about. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve done a project of this nature and magnitude from start to “finish” (are these projects really ever over?) largely independently. This means that there are a lot of surprise moments for making mistakes.

Going back to last summer when I started running the experiments that will be included in my project, I screwed up plenty of things. My sloppy programming meant that the experiment crashed sometimes. Other times, I failed to communicate important details to the research assistants running the experiment, and we had to trash the data. It turned out that the data collection was actually the phase of the project in which I made the fewest mistakes, though. The process of analyzing the data was a cycle of mistakes and inefficiencies that were usually followed up by more mistakes and inefficiencies. Every once in a while, I’d do something useful, and that was enough to keep me going.

Sometimes, I’ve gotten annoyed at myself for making these mistakes, especially when deadlines are approaching or when my advisor has to be the one to point them out to me. I’ve been frustrated by the messiness of the data, though logically I know that I should probably be skeptical if my data weren’t messy), and all those things I should have done differently continue to come to mind and nag at me.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
http://www.phdcomics.com

Luckily, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. A handful of older grad students have told me about their second year project mistakes, and mine start to look like par for the course.

And then I discovered a Nautilus interview of physicist David Deutsch. It’s a pretty philosophical interview on the importance of fallibility, but the takeaway is that the ability to be wrong is something we should embrace because the very fact that we’re error-prone means that it’s possible to be right. He points out that so often in science, people prove things wrong that have been assumed for many years to be truths.

What makes progress possible is not whether one is right or wrong, but how one deals with ideas. And it doesn’t matter how wrong one is. Because there’s unlimited progress possible, it must mean that our state of knowledge at any one time hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. [As the philosopher Karl Popper said], “We’re all alike in our infinite ignorance.”

This interview lifted a lot of weight off my second-year grad student shoulders. I’ve made lots of mistakes throughout the process of putting together this project (and I’m not finished making them, I feel pretty confident), and therefore, there is a such thing as doing the work correctly. In the end, the p-values that I find when I analyze my data aren’t really the important part (though, unfortunately, they’re what will determine if and where the work gets published…). Instead, it’s a reminder to focus on the ideas – the ones the work was based on and the one the work opens up – and embrace the wrongness.

A movable academic feast

This weekend I’m at Psychonomics, and except for the fact that there’s no food at the conference, it is very much a movable feast. Just like at many restaurants, before the experience even starts you can go online to get a menu in the form of a 300+ page program. Both menus are broken up in a logical sequence – either by appetizers, mains, and desserts or by morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. Instead of separate sections for meat and fish, though, the conference menu has sections for poster sessions and talks, and subsections for posters and talks that are on related topics.

The menu is only a small part of the experience, though. It’s a guide. The feast starts when you get to the conference center, choose an item off the menu, and seek it out. You float from one conference room to another in many cases, each time getting a small taste of something new. It’s not the Olive Garden with whopping portion sizes and bottomless breadsticks, though by the end you’ll probably feel like you ingested the mental equivalent of a huge bowl of penne alla vodka (which is delicious, but also invokes lethargy, a coma-like feeling). It’s rich and filling, an experience you know you want to have again… but first, a recovery period.

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Exponential Learning

We toss around the  phrase, “learn something new everyday” jokingly, but in reality, we learn so much more than one thing per day. Many of these things are implicit, so we don’t realize we’re learning, but each experience we have is making its mark on our cognition. Many other things we learn, though, are explicit – we’re consciously learning in an effort to get better at something. Before we can master a skill or knowledge set, we often have to learn how to learn that thing. What strategies facilitate optimal learning? Which are ineffective? A recent NYT column by David Brooks highlights some overarching differences in the learning processes in different domains.

In some domains, progress is logarithmic. This means that for every small increase in x (input, or effort), there is a disproportionately large increase in y (output, or skill) early on. Over time, the same increases in x will no longer yield the same return, and progress will slow. Running and learning a language are two examples of skills that show logarithmic learning processes.

logarithmic

Other domains have exponential learning processes. Early on, large increases in effort are needed to see even minimal progress. Eventually, though, progress accelerates and might continue to do so without substantial additional effort.

Mastering an academic discipline is an exponential domain. You have to learn the basics over years of graduate school before you internalize the structures of the field and can begin to play creatively with the concepts.

My advisor has also told me a version of this story. She’s said that working hard in grad school (specifically I think she phrased it as “tipping the work-life balance in favor of work”) is an investment in my career. Just as monetary investments become exponentially more valuable over time, intense work early in my career will be exponentially more valuable in the long run than trying to compensate by working extra later on.

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Even in my first year of grad school, I developed a clear sense that even learning how the field works and what are good questions to ask takes time. When I wrote my progress report for my first year, I concluded that most of what I learned this year has been implicit. I can’t point to much technical knowledge that I’ve acquired, but I can say that I’ve gained a much better idea of what cognitive science is about as a field. I’ve gained this by talking (and especially by listening) to others’ ideas, by attending talks, and by reading as much as I could. This implicit knowledge doesn’t necessarily advance my “PhD Progress Meter” (a meter that exists only in my mind), but it is also necessary to at least start to acquire before I’ll see any real progress on that meter. Once the PhD meter is complete, I will merely have built the foundation for my career, but will probably still have much learning to do before I reach the steepest and most gratifying part of the learning curve.

Brooks points out that many people quit the exponential domains early on. He uses the word “bullheaded” as a requirement for someone who wants to stick with one of these domains, since you must be able to continually put in work while receiving no glory. I think that understanding where you are on the curve at any given time is crucial for sticking with one of these fields, so that you can recognize that eventually, the return on effort will accelerate, and the many hours (tears, complaints, whatever) that went into mastering the domain early on were not in vain. Where I stand right now, progress is pretty flat… so I must be doing something right.

Ode to Silence

I titled this post in my head before I realized that Ode to Silence is a real poem, but I remember learning in high school that an “ode” is a love poem, and silence is undeniably one of my loves, so I felt justified in keeping it.

I self-identify as a textbook introvert. There are tons of posts and articles about introversion online (in addition to a recent favorite book, Quiet), but a lot of the descriptors in this post hit the nail on the head for me. 

Image: http://www.musedmagonline.com/2012/01/dont-call-introverts-shy-understanding-their-influence-and-power/
Image: http://www.musedmagonline.com/2012/01/dont-call-introverts-shy-understanding-their-influence-and-power/

I recently had a thought as I was reflecting on some interactions I’ve had with faculty members and other Ph.D. students: It seems like in academia (or at least in the department I’m in), being comfortable with silence is a must. I find myself fairly frequently sitting silently face-to-face with a faculty member. Maybe I’m just an  awkward person. Maybe my professors are too. Or maybe we’re just comfortable with pausing while we think. Today I asked a friend, also a student in my department, how the big neuroscience conference was that he just attended. His eyes bugged out a little as he told me, “Awesome, but as an introvert surrounded by 30,000 other people, I sort of wanted to go crawl into a corner. It was overwhelming.” In most of life, it seems like at least 75% of people are extroverted. Maybe that ratio is reversed in the environment I’ve chosen to immerse myself in. Is my perception a random and rare case, or is there something to it?

Image: http://ideatransfuser.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/23-signs-youre-secretly-an-introvert/
Image: http://ideatransfuser.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/23-signs-youre-secretly-an-introvert/

Academic Mafia

In academia, most people’s primary goal is to get their work published. Getting published is a start, but getting published in a reputable journal is more important. A journal achieves reputability by publishing papers that are cited often by other papers, since being cited by others is a fairly straightforward suggestion that a paper is meaningful and useful to others. The measure of how often a journal’s papers are cited by others is its impact factor, and it’s a big enough deal to encourage the introduction of some dishonest practices.

This article by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic talks about a “citation cartel” that was discovered in Brazil. Brazilian universities were at a crossroads because the impact factor of the journals that their students publish in is crucial in determining the university’s worth in the government’s eyes. Because Brazilian journals are newer and therefore tend to have lower impact factors, much quality Brazilian research is published in foreign journals instead. While the graduate programs look good to the government, it basically means that the commercial benefit of Brazilian scholarship is going to non-Brazilian countries.

Quick fix: Brazilian journals started linking to each other (Meyer writes: “…a lot.”). This made their impact factors rise, and made the journals more appealing to Brazilian students looking to publish. The plan did backfire when Thompson Reuters, the determiner of impact factor, caught them… but it worked for a time.

Image: http://www.bapress.ca/publication.html
Image: http://www.bapress.ca/publication.html

I recently stumbled upon another disheartening story about dishonesty in academia, about a publication by team of chemistry researchers at the University of Zurich. Unfortunately, one of the co-author’s comments to the principal author slipped through the editing cracks and was published. It read: “Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis…”

Ahhh, what?!?

Most groundbreaking studies aren’t given too much praise until they’re replicated, so that should help weed out fabricated data. And maybe stories like these in which liars are caught will encourage others not to go to dishonest lengths to achieve… Or maybe these are just unrealistic and naïve hopes I have of keeping the pursuit of knowledge pure. It’s a bummer to hear reminders that dishonesty pervades society, but it seems that academia is not exempt from the much-too-common pursuit of accolades regardless of the cost.