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Science Careers Blog

Beryl Lieff Benderly: December 2010

December 28, 2010

Snow Job

Actually, no job may be more like it -- or so it must seem to many would-be faculty members who had job interviews scheduled at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Society's Eastern division.  This gathering, which serves as the discipline's main annual employment market, began Monday in snow-crippled Boston.  Inside Higher Education reports that the national airline snarl caused by the weekend's huge blizzard is keeping many job candidates and search committee members from holding scheduled interviews.  Many who planned to present papers or posters are also disappointed.

APA executive director David Schrader tried to resassure panicky applicants by noting that since "departments aren't scheduling interviews with people they don't think are very good," they would probably arrange another method of holding an interview.  The Eastern division's secretary-treasurer Richard Bett, however, termed the situation "a nightmare basically."  Apparently APA has no Plan B for the eventuality of a winter storm in wintry New England and no systematic way of letting people know what is going on.

One hopes that their advanced training may allow frantic job seekers to view the situation philosophically, but for some the damage may indeed be serious.  The situation remains fluid and chaotic, as people struggle to make new travel plans or re-schedule events.  Bett, at least, sees signs of improvement today.  (He, however, already has a job, as a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins). 

Inside Higher Education notes that APA is the only major academic society that holds its main job-interview confab during the snow-vulnerable and chronically overbooked Christmas  holiday season.  

Other scholarly groups perhaps should avoid feeling smug about their clever planning, however, unless they have contingency plans for inclement weather.   AAAS, for example -- the publisher of Science Careers -- will meet in Washington, DC, in February, the month when, last year, the city was engulfed by one of the two historic storms that supposedly blizzard-hardened former Chicagoan and new Washingtonian Barack Obama dubbed "Snowmageddon."

December 19, 2010

What Is the Value of a Ph.D.?

Not much more, and often less, than a master's degree, at least when counted in cold cash. That's the conclusion of an unsigned article in The Economist that takes a trans-Atlantic view of what it calls "the disposable academic."  

"Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done," the article perceptively notes.  "They will have amassed awards and prizes.  As this year's new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else.  They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic.  Someone should write a thesis about that."   

These strong and insightful words from a "correspondent" who "slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology" appear as part of the magazine's "Christmas specials" package.  Though some may see them as a journalistic lump of coal in the Yuletide stocking,  they offer the heartfelt gifts of analysis and experience.

In a step that attempts to differentiate the purportedly science-friendly Obama administration from its predecessor, on Friday the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, issued guidelines intended to shield government scientists from political influence.  He was complying, somewhat belatedly in the opinion of many, with a March 2009 memorandum signed by President Barack Obama that ordered the OSTP director to develop a policy "for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes."  

The new formal policy is the first of its kind in the nation's history, according the the Washington Post. Government scientists repeatedly complained during the Bush years of political pressure to shape their findings to conform with administration policies, and the Post reports that many say they had thus far seen little change under the Obama administration.

Scientists should be hired and retained only "based on [their] knowledge, credentials, experience and integrity," and each agency should have "appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency," the memo states.  It also calls for "whistleblower protections" to safeguard the integrity of the "information and process on which the agency relies in its decisionmaking,"  

Agency heads must report within 120 days on their progress toward developing those rules and procedures, Holdren stated in a Friday post on the OSTP blog.  Of course, the details of those rules and procedures, and the ways in which they are carried out within agencies, will determine the strength of the protections scientists will enjoy.

December 13, 2010

Unnaturally Not Selected?

Should a scientist's religious views affect his ability to land an academic post?  Astronomer Martin Gaskell believes they should not, and, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Federal Judge Karl S. Forester agrees.  That is why the judge is allowing Gaskell to go forward with a jury trial in the religious discrimination suit he has brought against the University of Kentucky.  

Despite "substantial evidence that Gaskell was the leading candidate" to head the university's new observatory, the judge found, the university gave the job to someone else once the search committee learned that Gaskell had expressed doubt on the subject of evolution.  With a P.h.D from the University of California, Santa Cruz [Editor's Note: Previously we wrote UC Santa Barbara; apologies for the mistake], extensive publications in his field of super-massive black holes, and successful experience founding an innovative observatory at the University of Nebraska, Gaskell has also written and lectured on the relationship between science and Biblical religion.

The University of Kentucky acknowledges that Gaskell's religious views hurt his chances for the job.  It argues, however, that other issues about his academic record and personality were also involved and, furthermore, that it has a right to consider the totality of a candidate's views on science.

Notes from one of Gaskell's science and religion lectures indicate that he sees Genesis  as compatible with astronomical science.  He also perceives, however, "major scientific problems in evolutionary theory," although he denies that he rejects evolution overall.  On this basis a search committee member e-mailed her colleagues that Gaskell, though "fascinating," was "potentially evangelical."  And an astronomy department member expressed fear of potential embarrassment were the university to be viewed as hiring a "creationist," especially in a state that contains the anti-evolution Creation Museum.   Gaskell counters that he is not a creationist and notes that the search committee chair believed him "superbly qualified" and thought his religous views "unrelated to astronomy."

Gaskell in fact would have served the university as "the perfect foil" to narrow anti-evolutionism because he is "an openly Christian man of science who accepts evolution," argues attorney Francis Manion, one of those representing Gaskell.  Manion suggests a strategy of co-option that some observers argue would emphasize the broad compatibility that many Christian believers -- including National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins -- perceive between their personal religious faith and their acceptance of modern science.   

Beyond that, Manion's use of a turn of phrase, "an openly Christian man," usually reserved for members of the gay community, carries a potentially powerful and provocative implication about discrimination and minority status within a dominant culture.  Who defines what is acceptable and normal?  How sweeping can that definition be?  To what extent must individuals be protected from harm?

Currently a research associate at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, Gaskell states on his personal homepage that he has "accepted a professorship in Chile.., where a large fraction of the world's largest telescopes are."  He nonetheless hopes to recover financial damages from the University of Kentucky to compensate for lost income and emotional pain.

Stay tuned for a courtroom battle over what constitutes unlawful discrimination and legitimate science -- a battle that, like Gaskell himself, could prove "fascinating."

[Editor's Note: For an excellent account of a scientist with a strong religious faith, read Elisabeth Pain's Testimony of a Young Christian Scientist.]

December 10, 2010

To Stay or to Leave?

Salon.com's "Since You Asked" advice column generally publishes pleas for help with commitment-phobic lovers, unreasonable in-laws, ornery bosses, or impossible-to-please parents.  Today's plaintive writer, however, expresses a form of anguish more relevant to Science Careers: "Grad school is suddenly meaningless," writes a student at a "top-ranked" department who, after "purring along" for years suddenly finds him- (or, from the internal evidence, probably her-) self struggling with doubt over whether to continue.  The student, who uses the nom de 'Net of "Lost in graduate school,"  is "ashamed" of these feelings because "my identity has been wrapped up in my studies." Now, "the whole premise of my efforts has crumbled." 

The major precipitating event, "Lost" relates, probably was the decision of a "close friend and colleague [to] quit a professorship that had taken over and ruined her life."  What's more, "post-docs are now telling me that they have no job prospects and that they wish they had known earlier.  I feel like I've been duped...."  Not surprisingly,  "Lost"'s "advisor keeps acting like pursuing his profession is the only way to be happy." "Lost" does not say what field this is, but, because it apparently has plenty of postdocs, one surmises that it must be some kind of science.

Cary Tennis, the column's hipper Anne Landers, advises "Lost" that "reclaiming your passion for this work" is the way through her crisis of confidence.  Based on what I know about graduate school and where it often leads, however, I must respectfully disagree -- as do many thoughtful comments from the more than fifty people who wrote letters in reply.  What "Lost" should do, I (and a number of the letter writers) think, is take a careful look at the warning lights flashing all around, consider deeply what they indicate, determine how this new information fits into "Lost"'s'  values and goals, and then take appropriate action, including the possibility of leaving graduate school.

What warning lights? First, there's the life-eating professorship.  One guesses from the context (top-rated school, intense pressure) that this friend has achieved what others strive for: a tenure-track post at a prestigious institution.  The years leading up to the tenure decision are  known to be brutal for many young scholars trying to make the grade in a major department, and, as the data unfortunately indicate, those years are especially hard on women who want or have children.  Statistically, single and childless women fare better in high-level academe than colleagues who marry and/or become mothers.  (Intriguingly, married fathers do very well, too.)  One surmises that it's the conflict between the tenure clock and the biological clock, both ticking deafeningly, that may have "ruined" the young professor's life.  Or perhaps the insatiable demands of doing enough research, writing enough grants, and publishing enough papers to get tenure consumed a romantic relationship that was dear to the young professor's heart.

Then there are the premonitory postdocs giving "Lost" the benefit of their own disappointment and sense of betrayal.  If "Lost" was counting on the degree to produce a certain kind of career, she really ought to heed their counsel before investing more years and possibly more debt-financed money in a possibly fruitless quest.

So, what's needed is not a search for a lost passion but an evaluation -- as dispassionate and searching as possible, but still taking feelings into account -- of motives, goals, and the available objective information.

The first thing to go must be her crippling sense of shame.  There is nothing dishonorable about re-evaluating decisions in light of experience and information.  It is, indeed, the definition of intelligence and the essence of the scientific method.

Why did "Lost" enter grad school in the first place?  Where did she hope it would lead?  How likely is this hope to be realized?  Does she still want to go there, assuming it is possible at this point?  Friends and colleagues have provided fair warning of what likely lies ahead. (The advisor may be thinking of the situation that existed decades ago, when he was young.)

If the original destination is not one that "Lost" still desires, then, as many of the letter writers indicate, there is no shame deciding to leave --  a decision that at least some of the postdocs apparently wish that they had made.  (But, of course, one must also wonder what is keeping those postdocs from also evaluating other options available to smart, highly educated people. Is it perhaps because they have lost faith in themselves?)

Such self-evaluation can be emotionally wrenching.  It may indeed require upending an identity, abandoning the dreams of a lifetime, and coming to terms with a not-totally-unjustified sense of having been hoodwinked.  In the end, it may result in new dedication to those original goals.  It may result in a new goal that can also be reached via staying in graduate school, such as an industrial rather than an academic career.  Or it may indicate an entirely new direction.  As a number of the thoughtful letter writers note, this process of self-assessment is a hallmark of adulthood.  

One hopes that "Lost" soon embarks on such an effort and that it leads in the end to a satisfying conclusion.

December 8, 2010

How Not to Write a Grant

What happens when six scientists working in five separate fields serve on a number of grant committees?  Apparently they see a great many truly terrible proposals full of lame-brained and sloppy mistakes -- and they remember the very worst of these goofs.

The exasperated band has now compiled actual examples of applicants' ineptitude into a tongue-in-cheek list of "proven techniques" for not getting funded and published it in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Some of their tips are simple enough: "Don't use spell-check."  Or : "Use very few subheadings.  Grant reviewers are smart enough to figure out where subheadings should be.  A single multipage paragraph is fine."  

Some are more global: "Focus your grant entirely on your own study species and/or area of focus.  Knowledge for knowledge's sake, right?  Dealing with problem of general interest is a waste of time.  A good panelist will be able to discern the global impacts of the research without being led by the hand."

Others are all-encompassing:  "Always assume that the panel and the program director will give you the benefit of every doubt."  

But especially importantly, none appears to have much bearing on the quality or significance of the actual research being proposed; instead they have to do with careless writing, slovenly formatting and thoughtless preparation.  And together they constitute an amazing catalog of how just how dumb and self-defeating smart people can be.

December 7, 2010

Capitol Hill Opportunity

The American Institute of Physics is accepting applications for its annual Congressional Science Fellowship program, which permits people with Ph.D.s in physics and related fields to spend a year on the staff of a member of Congress or a science-related Congressional committee. The Fellowship includes a salary of $70,000, a relocation allowance, health insurance, and an orientation program in Washington, DC.

For many former fellows, the program has opened the way to career opportunities in science policy or government.  Applicants must be US citizens and members of at least one of the AIP's member societies at the time they apply. The deadline for applications is January 15.

December 4, 2010

It pays to advertise

So, you think you've done everything you possibly can to land a secure academic research post?  Well, how about making a stunning, paradigm-changing discovery, becoming an instant, worldwide scientific celebrity, and naming the thing you discovered "Give [Me] A Job"?  That, writes Paul Davies of Arizona State University in the Wall Street Journalis exactly the strategy followed by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, discoverer of the now world-famous arsenic-based microbe.  The organism's name, GFAJ-1, he reports, actually stands for "Give Felisa a Job."  Wolfe-Simon, for whom future employment opportunities probably won't be a big problem, was an ASU postdoc when she had her great idea and has, according to Davies, since then been patching together short-term gigs that let her chase her hunch. 
Now here's a concept that could catch on if given a chance. Or maybe not: Graduate schools should keep track of what happens to their alumni and even offer them formal opportunities to prepare for careers outside academe.  Two graduate deans, Patricia Calarco of the University of California, San Francisco, and Lynne Pepall of Tufts University, suggested this last week at a meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, according to today's Chronicle of Higher Education.  

The deans further suggested that if universities collected information about which careers alumni entered, and took the additional step of finding out what careers other than academe students might be interested in, they could serve their students better than they do now.

Dean Calarco said that faculty members often don't want to know when Ph.D. students want to work outside of academe.  When UCSF asked its graduate students in 2008 about their first-choice careers, a third named non-academic pursuits.  The University has since established a program of formal 3-month internships in government and industry for doctoral students from its basic-science departments.

Dean Pepall asked the representatives of 34 universities whether their institutions kept systematic alumni records for former graduate students.  Twenty said no. For institutions supposedly dedicated to both research and the welfare of students, this seems a stunning oversight, especially in light of how meticulously professional and undergraduate schools tend to track their alumni.  These schools use that data to boast about the success of their graduates and to hit up those who achieve success for money. 

Could it be that graduate deans already suspect that Ph.D. students are unlikely to rank among the grateful future graduates who fork over handsome donations?

December 3, 2010

Truly Taken for Granted

The name of Beryl Benderly's monthly column -- Taken for Granted -- is always appropriate, since every month she writes about scientific workers who are exploited or under-appreciated by the scientific establishment. This includes, notably, postdocs, the scientists at the nexus of contemporary science. They, more than any other group, combine the intellectual insight that science depends on with the hands-on skill -- the actual bench work (or the theoretical or computational equivalent) -- behind most of our scientific output. (Of course, there's a pun hidden in there as well, since these scientists are usually on soft money: "grant"-supported.)

But for this week's column, "taken for granted" is an especially apt phrase, in at least two ways. First is the article's placement on Science Careers: Despite being an important piece of writing, it's listed fourth this week, pretty far down the page. This is partly because the top two articles describe such an exciting, and rare, career opportunity for people with the right skills -- including scientists. But whatever the reason, Beryl's article deserves much higher billing. It's important. So this month it may seem as though we're taking Beryl's art for granted.

The name -- "Taken for Granted" -- is also appropriate in a different sense: Established scientists take it for granted that any clear-thinking woman or member of an under-represented minority group (or any white male for that matter) would choose a career in science if given the opportunity, so all we have to do is remove barriers. That assumption is false and leads, I believe, to faulty policy on issues such as scientific-workforce diversity. Such assumptions also affect perceptions of a different kind of diversity: the diversity of career options. Some traditional scientists disparage non-traditional careers -- even careers like research in industry. It's remarkable how much space there is between common (among established scientists) assumptions about science's desirability and young peoples' perceptions.

Drawing on a recent study by Amanda Diekman and colleagues, this week's Taken for Granted column challenges the assumption that anyone in her right mind would study science, suggesting that that women often don't choose science because they don't think it's consistent with their values. Specifically, Amanda Diekman and coauthors determined that women embrace values of community and caring more often than men, and that people (men and women) who embrace those values most strongly are likely to pursue alternatives instead of the fields in which women are poorly represented.

This idea -- which, like a lot of important ideas, seems obvious once it has been pointed out -- has exciting implications. In recent years, many fields of science have, famously, become more communal. And in some areas -- basic biomedical research is an excellent example -- perspectives have started to shift away from intellectual mastery and penetrating insights and towards the more practical and therapeutic (think CTSciNet and translational research). If the ideas Benderly discusses in this month's column are valid -- and I think they are -- we should expect these changes to lead to improvements in the representation of women in the affected fields.

But there's a point underlying Beryl's column that has even broader significance. It is that good people, who could even be excellent scientists, often have real alternatives and sometimes choose them. It follows that, as I wrote in my commentary on the occasion of Science Careers's 15th anniversary, if you want to make science better, you have to make science a better career. Policy makers have to put themselves into the shoes of science trainees -- and bright young people considering a career in science but who have other appealing choices -- and think hard about how the science career path looks, and how to change it for the better.

Partly this is about perception: Some of the assumptions underlying women's career choices (as determined by the Diekman study) seem wrong. Yet, other unflattering assumptions about science careers -- the prospect of earning $30,000 a year with no retirement well into your 30s after 10 years or more of training, for example, with questionable long-term job prospects -- are accurate. So it's not just a matter of changing perceptions; realities must change as well. Changing perceptions is hard, and changing realities is much harder, but it's something that has to happen if science is to continue to thrive. The status quo is already failing.

December 2, 2010

A Batty Case of Harassment

Academic scientists need no longer fear that sharing a scientific paper with a colleague will lead to major career damage.  That at least appears to be the implication of a decision handed down by an Irish court quashing the punishment of Dylan Evans, a behavioral sciences lecturer in the medical school of University College Cork, as reported by the Independent newspaper.  In November 2009, Evans showed a colleague, Rossana Salerno Kennedy, an article published the previous month in PLoS One entitled "Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time."  At the time, he claimed in court, he believed Kennedy was amused.

She, however, complained to the university, which determined that, although Evans had not intended to offend, his act fell within the technical definition of sexual harassment.  It punished him by requiring counseling and two years of monitoring.  He also was not recommended for a promotion.  He took the case to court.

The judge termed the punishment "grossly" disproportionate and observed that the article, written in the dense and densely footnoted style appropriate to a reputable scientific journal and illustrated with graphs of statistical observations from what the authors termed 20 "completed copulations," was neither suggestive nor obscene.  The judge further noted that the article had won a 2010 Ig Nobel Prize, which, states the institute that gives the prize, is awarded for "research that makes people laugh then makes them think."  Or, in this case, maybe not so much the latter.