In defense of the independent academic lifestyle

Reposted from Lost in Transcription:

So, as I noted previously, there was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about independent scholarship. The article profiled nine scholars, four of whom are affiliated with the Ronin Institute. (Scientiam consecemus!) Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall. Given that the article’s primary audience is probably unemployed academics, this is kind of ironic, predatory, or clever, depending on your perspective.

Most of the comments on the article were supportive and hopeful — some perhaps posted by people who are anxious about the job market in academia and are pleased to see that there are paths outside of the standard one.

In fact, that is consistent with the most of the responses I have gotten in person, as well. Most people I speak to, including tenured academics, agree that there are certain systemic problems with the way that academia is structured and funded. While they may or may not believe that the Ronin Institute is the (or even a) solution for these systemic problems, they are often enthusiastic and supportive — glad, at least, that someone is trying something like this.

To be honest, this came as a pleasant surprise, as I had expected to find more people who responded out of defensiveness, with a knee-jerk impulse to defend the status quo. I expected this particularly from successful faculty who have tenure, or are on their way to getting it, who benefit most from maintaining the current system. Maybe it’s just that the academics whom know personally are extra awesome (true), or that the skeptical ones have the courtesy to keep their skepticism to themselves.

There are a few of the comments in the Chronicle thread that do seem to reflect the conservative impulse that I had expected to see more of. Normally, I would say it is not worthwhile to address negative comments (especially negative comments that are hidden behind a paywall). On the other hand, I suspect that these comments may reflect attitudes that are fairly widespread in the academic community. One of the challenges that independent and non-traditional scholars face is the attitude that they do not have the authority to participate in the community. So, these comments represent criticisms that need to be addressed.

Let’s start with this comment from “Shanna123”:

Always interested to hear about folks who did not receive tenure. My experience has been that most departments/institutions (I’ve been at 4, either achieved tenure or was granted it coming in at all) strive VERY hard to support and ensure that folks hired in TT positions achieve tenure. So I always wonder about folks who did not achieve this. How are we supposed to evaluate whether someone’s independent/”off the grid” contributions are worthwhile?

First, many independent scholars did not “not receive tenure.” Some have never wanted a tenure-track position. Some have received tenure and walked away from it. Some would, ideally, like tenure, but are geographically constrained. (The fact that the commenter makes a point of pointing out her history of tenure is typical of the self aggrandizing and posturing that pervade so much of academia and make it unattractive to people who got over playing the “who’s cooler” game in high school.)

Second, yes, most universities work hard to support their tenure-track faculty and get them to tenure. However, many universities are also reducing the number of tenure-track positions in favor of adjunct positions, which pay less and provide basically no job security.

Third, and most gallingly, “How are we supposed to evaluate whether someone’s independent/’off the grid’ contributions are worthwhile?” This is pretty simple: YOU READ THE WORK! If you are evaluating someone in the context of reviewing a manuscript, or a grant proposal, or on a hiring committee, you read their work and decide if it is good. If you don’t have the skills or knowledge or time to do this, you have no business evaluating them. If you are simply going to say, “Well, this person got tenure at such-and-such University, I guess they must be good,” you’re not doing your job.

Next, here’s part of a comment from “Docbot”:

Those identified in the story have obviously come to the crossroad of reality and hubris. As an academic myself, I understand the desire to contribute to a field and the joy of having my own views adopted.  However, I also accept that if my impact stalls, or my respect diminishes, so too will my hopes for tenure and future positions. This is our commodity, much like the craftsmanship of a carpenter or the execution of a chef. I find the promotion of this semi-professional academic lifestyle to be irresponsible. Not only is it an unrealistic career path, (ie how do you support a family without health insurance?) it also drives down the wages of full time professors, by providing administrators a pool of mediocre stop-gap replacements.

This is just a bunch of nonsense. Yes, impact in the field, in the form of scholarly papers, books, seminars, etc. is our chief currency. Docbot somehow assumes that independent scholars are incapable of generating such work. Yes, if you stall, it makes it hard to have impact in the future. This is just as true within the university system as it is outside it (although there are ways to jump start a stalled career).

Re: “I find the promotion of this semi-professional academic lifestyle to be irresponsible”: This is classic  concern trolling. “How do you support a family without health insurance?” Well, I don’t know, YOU BUY HEALTH INSURANCE, DUMBASS!! Yes, the financial instability that accompanies the independent scholar lifestyle means that it is not a path that everyone can pursue. However, maybe you have a spouse with a regular job with insurance. Or maybe you live in any one of the non-US countries with universal health care. A number of the Research Scholars at Ronin have full-time non-academic jobs, and engage in their research in their “spare” time. And before you object that no one could do legitimate research and hold down a forty-hour-a-week job, keep in mind that many academics have forty hours a week of teaching and administration, and they basically do their research in their own spare time.

Finally, about driving down wages of full-time professors, I think Docbot fails to understand the difference between adjunct faculty and independent scholars. I don’t think that there are a lot of administrators are out there hiring cheap “stop-gap” researchers. Also, to the extent to which this point is true, it is, for better or worse, how our economic system works. Docbot seems to feel that everyone else should get out of the way so that he or she can have a good salary without competition. As for the implication that independent scholars are inherently mediocre when compared with traditional faculty, well, I reject that as irrelevant/ridiculous on its face. Or rather, while it may or may not be true that tenure-track faculty do better work on average than independent researchers, it is certainly true that the judgements about pay, funding, publication, etc. should be based on an individual’s skills and qualifications.

Docbot goes on to say:

In closing I would like to add, that in my experience I have always found the anything requiring me to attend a ‘support group’ is something I should change.

First of all, meeting with and communicating with people who share common interests and problems is what non-psychopathic humans do. In academia we hold journal clubs and discussion groups. We go to conferences and symposia. We also meet to discuss specific challenges, to share solutions to shared problems. Would you say that anyone who has ever joined a “Women in Science” group should leave science? That seems to be an implication of your statement here. To denigrate people who do these things in a way that is slightly different from the way that you do it does not make you clever. It makes you a dick.

The last comment I want to respond to is from “wassall”:

Ms. Ginsberg found that “(h)andling a full-time academic job” while raising two preschool-age children “wasn’t feasible.” I work with several colleagues who apparently find it quite feasible. With its generous vacations and summers off from teaching, a tenure-track position seems hard to beat in terms of flexibility while raising a family. Yes there is pressure to publish, but how is this different than the pressure of making partner in your law firm, running your own restaurant, or being responsible for annual sales targets?

This one looks to me almost like astroturf spawning out of that “academics are lazy” / “university professor is the least-stressful job” meme that the Wall Street Journal has been pushing. Enough so that if this comment were posted on my blog, I would probably just delete it. But let’s take it seriously for a moment.

When I read that Ms. Ginsberg (not a Ronin . . . yet!) found that raising two preschool-age children was not feasible, I don’t take that to mean “logistically impossible,” nor would anyone else who was not actively trying to misrepresent her position. I suspect that what she meant was that a traditional academic job is very time consuming, and it requires making certain sacrifices. In her case, she concluded that the sacrifices she would have to make with respect to her two small children were not worth the benefits of a full-time academic job.

Many independent scholars have consciously made the choice to have a smaller paycheck, and less job security, because the greater independence and flexibility is worth it to them. These people are perfectly aware of the consequences of their choices, and are willing to take responsibility for them.

Let’s follow wassall’s analogy with the law firm. Honestly, I suspect that making partner in a high-power law firm makes for a harder lifestyle than getting tenure at a university. Perhaps partly because of this, many lawyers don’t go work for high-power law firms. Some of them take poor-paying jobs as public defenders, or working for nonprofits, because they care about something in the world other than money and prestige. Some of them might go to work for a smaller law firm, maybe even work part time, because they want to be home when their kids come home from school. Some of them start their own law firms, because they have an entrepreneurial spirit and value their own independence.

The idea that you can’t do scholarship if you’re not at a University is like saying you can’t practice law if you’re not in a skyscraper in Manhattan. Now, the path for how to pursue a career in independent scholarship is not as clearly laid out as the paths that lead to becoming a public defender, or starting your own law firm. This is why I believe that “support groups” are valuable, so that people who are interested in developing new models for scholarship can discover and share what works.

Oh, and sorry for yelling. I wasn’t yelling at you. (Unless you are Shanna123 or Docbot.)

Having your awesomest grad school experience

Reposted from Lost in Transcription

So, welcome back for the third installment of me dispensing advice that no one asked for. Previous advice included two guides, the first to help you decide whether or not you should go to graduate school, and the second to help you to pick a program (and advisor).

Now, let’s fast forward to the point where you’re in grad school, and you’re thinking to yourself, “I wonder what advice that nice young Jon Wilkins would have to help me get the most out of grad school, now that I’m here and all.”

Well, you’re in luck, because here it is:

The Lost in Transcription Guide to Having Your Awesomest Grad School Experience Ever: A Guide

I’m going to assume that you’re already familiar with the basics here. You already know that grad school is hard work, that it requires dedication and creativity and the ability to maintain the veneer of work-life balance. In fact, I’ll assume that you have already mastered the seven habits of highly effective people (list-making, delegation, pretending to pay attention during meetings, not hitting Reply All, fiber, shaking the toner cartridge, and Adderall). Rather, I’m going to let you in on the stuff that I was told, or figured out, that applies specifically to grad school and might not be obvious.

1. Attend Talks, but not too many

If you’re at a large university, you’ll find that there are a crap ton of talks. There are departmental seminar series, topical seminar series, special colloquia, journal clubs, lab meetings and on and on. You could easily spend all of your time going from talk to talk.

The more likely outcome is that you will be so overwhelmed that you will avoid going to talks altogether.

This is a mistake. When you’re deep in your research, it will always seem like whatever you’re working on is more valuable than some talk. In the short term, that’s probably right. Attending talks is part of the long-term game. You go to talks with the hope that they will plant a seed in the back of your mind. That seed might not grow into anything for years. But eventually, when the time is right, it will blossom into a beautiful, original idea.

You will then harvest that beautiful idea and drain all the beauty out of it as you grind it up to fit it into a grant proposal.

One great piece of advice I received was to pick one seminar series (maybe a different one each semester) and go to every talk in the series. This forces you to stretch a little bit, attending some talks you might otherwise skip, while keeping a lid on the total number of talks.

Critically, don’t pick more than one series. You’ll still probably find another talk or two each week that you go to for various reasons. Maybe someone famous is speaking, or maybe the talk is closely related to your work, or maybe your advisor is worried that there won’t be enough people in the audience, or maybe that cute boy from your stats class is going to be there. Ha ha, I’m kidding, of course. There are no cute boys in your stats class.

If you find yourself going to more than three talks a week, you should either raise your standards or paint eyeballs on your eyelids, because there is no way you’re staying awake through all that.

2. Ask Questions

When you’re going to the too many talks that you go to, because you are ignoring my earlier advice, try to make yourself ask a question. You don’t need to ask a question every time. I mean, you don’t want to be that guy. But set hard goals for yourself, like, if you didn’t ask a question at the last talk, you have to ask something at this one.

The point here is not to draw attention to yourself, or to make sure that your advisor knows you are at the talk. (If this is important, you’ve chosen the wrong advisor.)

One very tangible benefit of asking questions in talks is that it keeps you awake. Even if you are in a field where people hold all of their questions till the end, pressing yourself to come up with a good question is a great way to keep yourself engaged.

The other thing asking questions does is help you to start thinking of yourself as a peer in your field. This is maybe the most important transformation you will undergo as a graduate student. As an undergraduate, you probably functioned mostly as a receptacle (for knowledge and/or beer). By the time you receive your PhD, you should be comfortable functioning as a real member of the scholarly community. When you start grad school, you probably view your advisor, and all professors, as some other species. By the time you finish, you should view them as an older, more experienced (and, in my case, better looking) version of yourself.

A lot of grad students feel like they should not ask questions during talks because they should leave that to the people who know more. That’s not peer thinking.

Also, like Big Bird says, asking questions is a good way to find things out!

If you’re having trouble coming up with questions, consider developing some questions that work in any talk. For example, if you work in Theoretical Ecology, try “What happens if you put that on a lattice?” If you’re in Statistical Physics, try “What happens if you substitute one of the generalized forms of entropy?” If you’re in Evolutionary Psychology, try “How does that correlate with the 2D:4D digit length ratio?” I’m certain that you can come up with the analogous question for your own field.

3. Decide when to Graduate

In some systems, like in the UK, there is a standard PhD length. In the US, however, the PhD tends to be more of an open-ended affair. It might take three years, or it might take ten. If you ask how long your PhD should take, the answer will probably be some variant of “as long as it takes to complete your dissertation.”

The secret is that there is no rule about what constitutes enough work to qualify as a dissertation.

There might be standards and norms. For instance, in my field, the rule of thumb is that you write three papers. Then, you write and introduction and a conclusion, staple them all together, and you’re done. But I have known people who have graduated with as many as ten papers, and as few as zero. Some advisors or departments might have stricter guidelines, but even in those situations, you probably have some say in when you graduate.

The advice I was given was this: Decide when you want to finish. Then, a couple of years before that, start talking about this as your graduation date. Soon, everyone will be convinced that you should actually finish then, including your advisor, and, more importantly, yourself. Next thing you know, you’re staying up all night to meet this totally artificial deadline. Moreover, however much work you have accomplished by that point (within limits), your committee is going to look at it and say, “Um, I guess that looks like a dissertation.”

So, how do you decide when to graduate? Well, it depends in part on what you want to do next. If you want to go on in academia (or an analogous, high-end research career), you want your CV to kick ass. You want to have good publications and something that looks like momentum moving forward.

That means you should not graduate too soon. There’s a weird thing. People tend to judge your CV by your rate of productivity: papers per year, or years per book, or something like that. But this rate-based evaluation does not kick in until after you get your PhD. In my experience, the person who published four papers during a three-year PhD comes off as only marginally more impressive than the person who published four papers during a seven-year PhD. Similarly, the seven-year, five-paper candidate often outshines the four-year, four-paper candidate.

On the other hand, grad school might convince you that you want to do something different. Maybe you’ll want to switch fields, or go into industry, or leave research altogether. Maybe you’re going to go into science writing, or go back to Law School and work in patent law. If you’re following one of these paths, the most important thing is going to be the fact of your PhD. If you graduate without publishing, it might make your ascent up the academic career ladder more difficult, but it won’t prevent you from forcing people to call you “Doctor” at parties.

Only good taste can do that.

4. Avoid the Lobster Pot Mentality

Academia is competitive. I mean, it would be really cool if we all got sinecures that let us work on whatever we wanted, and if we all wanted to work on things that were different enough that no one ever got scooped, but related enough that we could all collaborate in some sort of glorious transdisciplinary daisy chain.

Sadly, the reality is that there are limits to all of the resources most coveted by academics: jobs, grants, awards, prestige. If you continue on in academia, you’re going to spend the rest of your career competing with your peers for money, space, and recognition.

Here’s the thing, though. You don’t need to start stabbing people in the back yet.

It is easy in graduate school to let your horizon shrink. Sometimes it will feel like you need to be competing with the other grad students in your program for everything: grades, attention, approval.

Avoid this impulse as much as you can. Your peers from grad school are going to be some of your best friends in your life, and they are going to be your closest allies in your career. Years from now, they’re the ones who are going to suggest your name when someone in their department is assembling a list of speakers for a symposium. They’re going to tend to give you the benefit of the doubt when they’re reviewing your papers or grant proposals.

Sure, maybe it sucks to feel like your advisor’s second best student. Just remind yourself of the long-term benefits. Someday, that best student is going to be your best opportunity for name dropping. “Oh, yeah, I went to grad school with her. Why yes, I am pretty cool. Thank you for noticing.”

5. Don’t Learn a Skill

You might think that learning a skill is the whole point of grad school. You would be wrong. The point of grad school is to learn to be a scholar. A danger, especially in the experimental sciences, is in focusing on developing a set of technical skills at the expense of the conceptual skills that lie at the core of what you need to be learning.

I mean, sure, it’s really cool that you’ve mastered using this multi-million dollar piece of equipment, and maybe you’ve even gotten some cool results out of it. But there are two specific dangers here.

First, technology changes. No matter how cool that machine is, a few years from now it is going to be obsolete. If your expertise is really wedded to the machine, you become obsolete as well. However, if you can keep your eyes on the forest, you will have learned a much more valuable set of skills about how to pose and answer interesting questions. Those skills will transfer over to the next generation of technology just fine.

Second, if you have an unscrupulous advisor, you can find yourself painted into a corner, spending your grad school years effectively as an underpaid laboratory technician. In fact, I have seen cases where a grad student will master a particularly fickle piece of equipment. That grad student then becomes a critical resource for the lab, and their advisor will delay their graduation, so that they can keep milking that piece of equipment for data. Worse yet, you can get stuck being a sort of data mule, playing second fiddle on projects for other students and postdocs, at the expense of developing your own research program.

6. Don’t Be a Helper

Look, if you’ve gone to grad school, you probably have certain personality traits. You’ve probably got an impulse to respect authority, and you’ve always liked to please your teachers. This is part of how you got those good grades.

Some grad students tend to take this to extremes, and fall into a “helper” role. This could mean taking on part of your advisor’s teaching load. It could mean acting as a sort of lab mom/dad. No doubt, your advisor feels overworked and stressed out. If you take some of their stuff off of their plate, they will probably be grateful, and will praise the crap out of you. In general, though, this is not healthy for your own career.

This depends, of course. For example, if your long-term goal is to work at a small college where you mostly teach, taking on additional teaching in grad school might be a good thing. However, you need to make sure that you are getting the credit for it.

7. Be the Youiest You You can Be

Yes, really.

Grad school tends to have a homogenizing effect. Sometimes this is okay. Some things really need to be homogenized, like how we format our bibliographies, or we calculate our p values. However, there are also a lot of things that get homogenized that really don’t need to be.

More specifically, don’t get caught up in other people’s definitions of success. Just because everyone else in your lab wants to get that prestigious postdoc at Johns Hopkins does not necessarily mean that this is whatyou want.

Also, develop your own interests. People tend to converge on a narrow definition of what constitutes an “interesting” question in their field. This leads to situations where everyone is racing to answer the same question. If you have a different perspective, embrace it. You’re much more likely to do something truly original that way.

Even if you’re wrong, and the question that everyone else is asking really is more important, you should still follow your own interests. The fact is, you are going to do more good for the world working on something that you’re passionate about, even if that something is objectively dumb. So go for it.

Yes, go ahead and get that pierced.

No, I’m not going with you.

Here, read this guide to choosing a grad school and advisor

This essay was originally posted at Lost in Transcription:

So, you’ve come here because you read the Lost in Transcription Guide to Whether or Not YOU Should go to Graduate School, and, at the end of having read said guide, you (YOU) concluded that yes, you (YOU) would give grad school a whirl.

Now you’re looking down the barrel of grad school applications and trying to decide where to apply.

Or maybe you’re looking down the much happier barrel of multiple grad school acceptances and trying to decide where to go.

Well, luckily for you, Lost in Transcription is here for you with

The Lost in Transcription Guide to Where YOU Should go to Graduate School

Okay, let’s start with the disclaimer. This guide will be most directly relevant to people looking at grad schools in the US and in the sciences. However, many of the considerations will be at least partly applicable more broadly.

Consideration 1: Reputation

In academia, just as in a pre-Joan-Jett Main-Street America, reputation matters. But what reputation, exactly? Is it your university, your department, or your advisor? And how much does it matter?

Look, in an ideal world, your prospects after grad school would be determined by the quality of your work. And yes, that is the most important thing. But the fact is, when you apply for a postdoc or a job, the people who are going to be reading your CV and your lovingly crafted research description are mind-bogglingly busy. They are also all flagrant (if sometimes closeted) Bayesians. They are going to look at where you went to school and who your advisor was, and they are going to construct a mental picture of you.

Yes, it sucks. And it is a bunch of crap. But the reality is that most academics, in addition to being overly busy, are ridiculously status conscious. So, while this shouldn’t be your primary consideration, it should probably factor in. As unfair as people’s biases and preconceptions (sometimes) are, you want to do what you can to be on the right side of them.

Of course, what I am calling “reputation” here is going to be at least reasonably well correlated with “quality,” which is a perfectly legitimate consideration. If you go to a higher quality program, you will tend to have smarter colleagues, better classes, and a broader and more interesting set of advisors and projects to chose among. Unless you have a seriously unhealthy big-fish-in-small-pond fetish, you’re going to want to be surrounded by the highest-quality people and resources you can find. You’ll be more challenged to push yourself, and you’ll learn more.

But let’s get back to the question of which aspect of quality/reputation you should focus on. For undergraduates, the most important consideration is the reputation of the school as a whole. For postdocs, it is probably the reputation of the individual advisor. As a graduate student, both of those matter, but the most important reputation by far is that of the department.

If you go to a top-notch department at a university that is otherwise known primarily for its binge drinking, you’re golden. We have a collective societal ranking of the prestige of various universities that is fairly well reflected in things like the US News and World Reports rankings. Most people have a sense (rightly or wrongly) that Stanford outranks Lehigh, and that Michigan outranks UNLV when it comes to academics. But in the world of grad school and beyond, those rankings, the ones we all know, really don’t matter that much.

Every field will have its own ranking of schools and departments, and it is this ranking that will shape your experience and job prospects. For example, it is fairly common for large state universities to have a few “flagship” departments where they focus a lot of resources. These departments are every bit as good as the best departments at the most prestigious universities.

That is, don’t go to Harvard just because it’s Harvard. (And don’t go to Yale just because you didn’t get into Harvard — Snap!) The prestigious universities are prestigious not because their good departments are better than the good departments elsewhere. They are prestigious because they have a larger number of good departments. But in grad school, you’re really going to be in one department. If you’re a molecular biologist, the presence of Nobel Memorial Prize winning economists on campus is not going to impact you much.

The only place where having gone to a prestigious school (as opposed to a quality department) is going to help you is in name dropping at cocktail parties. However, there is a much easier way to impress people at cocktail parties: don’t be the jackass who is always telling everyone where they went to school.

You can easily find rankings of various departments online, and this is worth doing, just to get a sense of the lay of the land. You can also look up the faculty in the corresponding department at a few different colleges and universities. See where they went to grad school. If you have a strong sense of where you want to wind up, focus on that sort of place. For example, if you think that you would really like to teach at a small liberal-arts college, look up faculty at small liberal-arts colleges.

Most importantly, ask around. Make appointments with professors and ask them for a list of good departments. Ask your TAs. If you know someone who knows someone, ask them to put you in touch. I know it might feel like you are imposing on their time, but you’re really not. Academics love ranking things, and they love love love passing judgement. Asking an academic to rank the departments in their field is like asking a normal person to judge a wet t-shirt contest. So don’t be shy.

The final thing, though, is to make sure you don’t take the details of those rankings too seriously. At the end of your research, you want to have a sense of what schools have quality departments, but there will be no legitimate sense in which the number three department on your list is objectively and quantifiably better than the number six department. Your goal should be to assemble an unordered list of “good” places. Then, if you are accepted into more than one of them, let these other considerations guide you.

Consideration 2: Your Advisor

This is important. Graduate school, and academia more generally, is built on this weird feudal system that more closely resembles the medieval system of guilds than anything else. Your advisor will hold tremendous sway over your life during graduate school, and over your career trajectory when you finish.

Why are we covering this here, though? We’re supposed to be picking a school not an advisor.

Well, depending on your field, as well as on the school you wind up at, the two choices might go together. At some places, you may be accepted by the department, and then have the opportunity to get to know various faculty members before committing to one. In some cases, though, you will be accepted directly to work with a specific advisor, or at least provisionally, so that it would require a bit of effort to change.

Either way, it’s an important part of the decision process.

The game here is not to find the best possible advisor. The game here is primarily one of “Do No Harm.” There are a lot of advisors who are going to be good enough. And the fact is, you are not going to spend nearly as much time with your advisor as you probably think you are.

There are a few advisorial archetypes that you particularly want to avoid. Note that these are not mutually exclusive.

1. The Narcissist
This is a remarkably common personality type among academics. In many fields, particularly in the sciences, the “productivity” of senior researchers is actually measured by the productivity of the people who are working under them. In a lot of experimental sciences, in particular, faculty members write papers and grants and manage lab personnel, but may not have been engaged in hands-on research themselves for years.

That means that your advisor’s success is tied up with your success. Fundamentally, this is a good thing, as you are both pulling in the same direction. At some point, though, your interests and your advisor’s interests will begin to diverge. It is at this point that, if your advisor is a narcissist, you are totally screwed.

If your career is not prestigious enough, the narcissistic advisor will be pissed off because you have embarrassed them. If you are successful, well, at some point, you are going to become one of your advisor’s competitors. Either way, they are going to turn on you.

The key to rooting these people out is to ask them about their former students. Ideally, you want the advisor who comes off like the proud grandma or grandpa when they’re talking about their fledged advisees. Do they seem to talk about them as if they were people? Or do they seem more like statistics and trophies?

2. The Best Friend
Now, on its surface, this seems like someone you should want as an advisor, right? It is also the sort of advisor that everyone thinks they want to be. The problem is, the vast majority of us need an advisor who is willing to hold our feet to the fire a little bit. Grad school will probably be the most unstructured thing you have done in your life. Most people struggle a bit with learning the tricks of motivation, focus, and self control that are required to make good academic progress. While you’re trying to learn these things, you don’t want an advisor who is all, “What? You’re spending this week at home in your pajamas watching TV? Just like last week? That’s cool. See you whenever.”

You need an advisor who has enough authority and emotional distance from their students that they can say, “You know what, you need to do this over. At this point, it’s just not good enough.” Yes, it totally sucks to have someone tell you that, especially when that person is your boss. But the thing that sucks even more is when no one ever tells you that, and you wind up being completely unemployable because you never learned how to do rigorous, high-quality work.

3. The Slave Driver
This is the flip side of the best friend, of course. You really do want an advisor who will push you, but not one who will be controlling and abusive. One thing to look for is a distinction between quality and quantity.

Some groups have a culture where students and postdocs feel they need to be seen in the lab. They will work in the lab on Saturday in the hopes that their advisor comes in and sees how industrious they are being. You hear some professors talking about wanting to be able to look at their lab at 10 pm on a Friday and see all the lights on. If students are trying to hide their hobbies from their advisor, out of a fear that having other interests will make them look lazy, this is a bad advisor.

4. The Pre-Retiree
Some time in their careers, most academics reach a point where they’re just, like, “Fuck it.” For some people this happens the day after they get tenure. (NB: These people are in the minority, but are well on their way to ruining tenure for everyone else.) For most people, it happens much later though, and within a few years they go emeritus. The trick is not going to work with someone who is still in that window between intellectual retirement and actual retirement.

This is especially dangerous in the case of famous, well respected senior researchers. The idea of working with a living legend can be incredibly attractive. But if they have lost interest in their research, then they are going to be shutting down their group, if they have not already begun to do so. They won’t be taking more students, so your life will get lonelier and lonelier. Also, there’s this dangerous path where you wind up abandoning your own research and editing their memoirs.

5. The Letch
This, I think, is much less of a problem than it used to be, but it is certainly still there. Most universities now have sufficient protections in place that if you have trouble with sexual harassment, you can probably find a fair amount of support. Also, I think that our culture has evolved enough that most of your fellow students will also tend to be supportive. But none of that is going to make a harassment situation not horrible. And if the harassment is from your advisor? Well, best case scenario, you probably wind up switching advisors, and maybe losing a year or two. Basically, avoid at all costs.

How to avoid this, though. Basically, you want to rely on the rumor mill. That doesn’t mean that you have to take every rumor about every professor at face value. But you should absolutely not fall for the old, “You shouldn’t spread rumors. Nothing was ever proven. It’s so unfair to sully his name.” bullshit.

Talk to grad students who have been around the department for a few years. Talk especially to students in other groups. Ideally, talk to them at some sort of social event where there is alcohol involved. Grad students actually love to gossip.

Of course, it is possible that there will be a story out there, and that a particular faculty member will have been accused of something, but will, in fact, be blameless. If you hear a specific story, ask around some more. If there’s another side, someone will probably give it to you. If no one in the department offers any sort of defense of the professor, that does not necessarily mean they’re guilty. But it does mean that no one likes them enough to defend them, which is a data point in its own right.

If there is more than one story, run.

And before you start quoting some “innocent until proven guilty” nonsense, recall that choosing to work with a different PhD advisor is not the same thing as putting someone in prison. You have every right to err on the side of caution.

So those are a few of the advisors you don’t want to work with, but what are the positive traits that you can look for in an advisor?

1. Are their students happy?
And by this, I don’t mean rolling-into-the-lab-at-noon-still-drunk happy. I mean, are they optimistic and enthusiastic about their projects? The ideal lab will have people who are eagerly working long hours, not because they are scared of their advisor, but because they can’t wait to get the results of their experiments. Part of this is going to be driven by the mix of students and postdocs who happen to be there, but part of it will be a reflection of the advisor’s managerial style. If you can find a lab like this, jump at the chance to join it.

2. Do you connect?
It is not as simple as there being good advisors and bad advisors. A lot of it is about a match between you and them. Are you snarky and sarcastic? Don’t go with a super-earnest advisor, no matter how much everyone talks about how nice they are. Are you thin-skinned? Don’t go with the gruff professor, even if they do have a heart of gold.

3. Do they have a plan?
A good thing to ask a potential advisor is how they imagine your grad career being structured. The details of their answer are not necessarily that important. There are many paths to a successful PhD. However, if they don’t have any ideas, that should raise a red flag.

4. Where do their students go?
With the exception of very new faculty, you can look at a potential advisor’s track record. What have their students gone on to do? Remember, there is no one right answer here. If all of their students go on to be professors at major research universities, that’s great — so long as you are sure that you want to go on to be a professor at a major research university. It might also mean that if you decide you want to go into science writing, you’re going to catch hell.

In my view, the ideal track record would have a majority of people who have gone on to successful, traditional academic careers, but also people who have gone on to do other things. Perhaps most important, though, is how the advisor talks about their non-traditional students. Do they seem ashamed and embarrassed? If so, that’s maybe a problem. Even if you think you want a traditional career right now, who knows what you’ll think in five years. Make sure you find an advisor who will support whatever path you choose to follow.

Consideration 3: Your Project

This seems really important, right? I mean, what you actually work on for your PhD has got to be one of the most critical considerations, right?

Wrong.

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

This might actually be the least important consideration. Sure, you can factor it in if you want, but you should rank it somewhere below the quality of the linoleum in the hallways.

Remember that thing that people say about undergraduate education, that what you’re really doing is “learning how to learn”? Well, grad school is sort of like that. The most important thing you do in grad school is learn how to be a researcher.

When you break it down, doing independent research actually takes a lot of different skills. You learn how to read up on a topic, teaching yourself what the state of the art is. You learn how to identify an interesting open question. You learn how to pose that question (or some aspect of that question) in a way that you can answer it in a reasonable amount of time. You learn to actually do the research. You learn how to write about your research clearly. You learn how to speak about it clearly. You learn how to respond to challenges and criticisms, both in person and in writing. You learn how to identify when a project is a dead end. You learn how to salvage what you can and apply it to the next question.

The thing is, of all of those skills, “doing the research” is the only one that is specific to your particular project. Everything else in the list will transfer over, even if you completely change fields.

Let’s say grad school takes an average of about six years. It is typically the case that 90% of the stuff that goes into your thesis will be things you do in the last year and a half. That’s because most of what you’re learning is how to be a researcher. Once you get that down, you do a little research, write it up, and graduate.

So what happens if you finish your PhD and decide that you want to work on something different? Well, you change. In fact, lots and lots of people make big shifts in what they work on when they do a postdoc. Obviously, if you switch fields, you’re going to have to spend some time learning the new one. The thing is, while it took you four years to learn what you did about your field in grad school, once you’ve finished, you’ll be able to accomplish the same thing in a new field in like six months. In part, you will have developed an intuition for how to zero in on the relevant information in the literature. In part, you will have learned how to stop yourself from playing Halo when you’re supposed to be reading papers.

The point is this: Maybe you have strong opinions about what you want to research. That’s cool. But the fact is, you know almost nothing. Most likely, this thing you want to research is one of a very small number of things you’ve been exposed to.

Maybe you had a positive experience working in a insect biomechanics lab for a semester. Or maybe you had a really hot TA in a your evolution class, and he/she works on insect biomechanics. And now you think that insect biomechanics is the most important topic in biology, and that working on it is your life’s calling.

I want to offer you an alternative explanation. What you have actually learned about yourself is that you can get excited about academic research. In all likelihood, you would have had a similar response to any number of topics. So keep your mind open. Find a program that makes you happy, and one day you will be the hot TA.

If, after finishing your PhD in yeast senescence, you still think that insect biomechanics is the bees’ knees (see what I did there?), go do a postdoc in it. You might even find that some of the things you learned about yeast give you an interesting new perspective on the insect biomechanics problem.

Consideration 4: Location

Unless you completely ignore consideration number 2, you are not going to spend all of your time working in your advisor’s salt mines. Don’t get me wrong. Graduate school tends to be pretty all-consuming. And there are some people who seem perfectly happy with spending basically all of their time at the lab (or the library, or the steam room, or whatever).

Personally, though, I’m a fan of a more process-based perspective. Remember, grad school is not just five (or seven, or nine) years on your way to a stressful career, it is five years of your life. If you have outside interests that you love, I think it would be a mistake not to take those into consideration.

If you love skiing, and there is a good program in your field in Colorado or Utah, that is a perfectly legitimate consideration. If you can be happy on the weekends, it will help to carry you though the dark time in your fourth year when you realize that your entire thesis has been built on a faulty assumption. (Yes, this willhappen. Just think of it as the Kobayashi Maru part of your PhD training.)

The thing that I would discourage you from, though, is a vague sense of regional loyalty. You know, like where you’ve always lived on the West Coast, so you’re only going to apply to West Coast schools.

All you’re really doing here is limiting your own experience. Also, if you are aiming towards an academic career, you’re probably going to have to learn to be flexible in where you’re willing to live (unless you wind upgoing Ronin). The academic job market is a national one. In fact, it is increasingly becoming an international one. For many people, the possibility of traveling to and living in a variety of places is one of the appeals of the academic lifestyle. If that is really not attractive to you, think carefully before you commit to this path.

Of course, maybe you have other constraints and considerations that have you anchored to a particular location (like maybe an ailing parent). Obviously, in this case, you should go wherever works, and put all your effort into choosing a good advisor.

Consideration 5: Your Peers

This is easily, in my opinion, the most important factor to consider. Yes, you’re going to be doing your own independent research. Yes, you’re going to be taking classes from the faculty. Yes, you’re going to receive at least some mentorship from your advisor. But whatever you learn in those contexts is going to pale in comparison to what you learn from other graduate students and postdocs.

There are the more senior members of your group, who are actually going to teach you things. If they are nice, and smart, and engaged, you are going to learn a lot more.

There are the other students who come in with your cohort. You are going to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours with these people. You are going to take exams with them. You are going to practice giving talks in front of each other. You are going to drink beer with them (wine if you’re in the humanities). You’re going to play poker with them. It’s reasonably likely that you’re going to wind up getting married to one of them. It’s even more likely that some of them are going to get embarrassingly drunk at your wedding.

Thirty years from now, these are the people you’re going to be connected to via whatever replaces the thing that replaces Facebook.

Of course, you won’t be able to pick exactly who your peers are. But a lot of programs have some sort of interview visits or recruiting visits. If you have this sort of opportunity, take it. And don’t just look at the program and the faculty. Also look at the other interviewees/recruits. Are there people here with whom you could imagine forging lifelong friendships? If you can’t imagine it, maybe this won’t be the place for you.

Conclusion

So, young Gradawan, imbued you now have been with all the wisdom required to choose the right graduate program for YOU! Be sure to write in to let me know how it works out!

Should YOU Go to Graduate School? A Guide

Reposted from Lost in Transcription:

So, it’s that time of year again, when thousands of college seniors emerge briefly from their beer-bong haze long enough to ask themselves, “What the hell am I going to do next year?” At times like this, for many of you, your thoughts may turn to graduate school, and to the question of whether or not you should go there. Some of you are imagining grad school as an opportunity to continue doing whatever you’ve been doing for the past four years. Some of you are imagining a path to riches paved with scholarly articles on the mating habits of the Brazilian Wandering Spider. Some of you are all, “I don’t know, I guess it’s a thing to do.”

If you clicked on this post, then you’re probably feeling torn about whether or not grad school is right for you. I’m going to say that the answer is probably yes. But that’s because I loved grad school. Also, according to my wife, I have poor Theory-of-Mind skills, so I have a hard time picturing that you would not, also, love grad school. But it is just possible that you might not.

So perhaps a more detailed analysis is in order.

Well, here is a comprehensive guide to whether or not YOU should go to graduate school:

The Lost In Transcription Guide to Whether or Not YOU Should Go to Graduate School

Consideration 1: Lifetime Earnings

Okay, the first thing you might want to consider is your lifetime earnings potential. On the one hand, earning an advanced degree is correlated with higher salaries. On the other hand, you’ll spend the next several years earning only a small salary, or even going into debt, depending on your field (and lifestyle). Furthermore, if you get started on a money-earning career now, you’ll have that many more years of seniority. How do these things balance out?

Well, if you’re eagerly looking to this paragraph for detailed economic analysis of the effect of having a PhD on your lifetime earnings, then the answer to whether or not you should go to grad school is an easy one: You should not go to grad school.

If your primary consideration looking forward is monetary, this is not the right path for you. Yes, most PhDs are able to earn a very comfortable living, certainly substantially higher than most jobs. However, most of these PhD careers require long hours and a willingness to move thousands of miles for a job. If you have the intelligence and work ethic and commitment to make a go of a PhD-type career, but your primary consideration is monetary, then there are other, better paths for you. Go work for a consulting firm, or start working your way up the financial analyst ladder. If you want more school, go to a professional school (e.g., Business, Law, or Medical). These will also lead to careers with long hours, but your earnings upside is much greater, as is the degree to which you will be able to tailor your career to other considerations, like living close to / far from your in-laws. Or, if you’re really set on grad school, at least consider engineering, where you can go off and make a bundle of money working for a defense contractor.

If lifetime earnings potential is at the top of your list of considerations, do not, under any circumstances, enter a graduate program where the best-case-scenario outcome has you teaching Medieval German History to a bunch of bored premeds fulfilling a distribution requirement.

Consideration 2: Your Deathbed

Previously, writing about work-life balance, I quoted someone (whose name I could not remember) who said something like this:

You know, I don’t think anyone has ever been lying on their deathbed and said, ‘Boy, I wish I had published just one more paper.’

While I think that this statement is a reasonable prediction for most people on their deathbeds, it is not entirely universal. I remember one time at a dinner I was seated next to Daniel Aaron (an Emeritus Professor of English at Harvard). At one point he said that he was beginning to reread Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (a.k.a., In Search of Lost Time) in the original French, because he wanted to make sure that he read the whole thing one more time before he died. (He would have been about 92 at the time. He is still alive, at 100, so I assume he accomplished it. He probably also got to rewatch all twenty seasons of Law & Order on DVD.)

Does this story resonate with you? Imagine that you have just learned there is an asteroid heading towards earth, and you have thirty-six hours to live. Would you rush to grab your Greek edition of The Republic? Would you see if you could crack that one really hard problem from this week’s problem set?

If you answered yes to the you-appropriate analog of these questions, then you have your answer: You should go to grad school.

Take out loans if you have to. Sell plasma. Live the life of the mind. Die a happy pauper. Stop reading this. Go.

But what about the rest of us?

Okay, most people won’t fit into either of the two easy cases above. For the remainder here, I’m going to assume that you’re smart and a little bit dorky, or, you know, “academically oriented.” You can picture becoming a professor, or working at a national laboratory, but you can also picture not becoming either of these things. I’m going to assume that you enjoy classes and reading and research projects and such. If these assumptions are wrong, well then no, you should not go to grad school. But you’re probably not even reading this.

Okay, moving on.

Basically, my short answer is sure, why not. Particularly if you can go to grad school for free, with some sort of stipend, then yes, give grad school a shot, but keep your options open. Be ready to bail, and remember that you don’t have to go right away.

Let’s unpack this.

Consideration 3: Can You Go for Free?

I know we already said that you should not go to grad school if money was your primary consideration. But even if it is not primary, for most people it is at least a consideration. This is a place where there is huge variation among fields and among universities. If you’re in the sciences, there tend to be a lot of opportunities to go to grad school in such a way that your tuition is paid for, and you will, in fact, receive some sort of a stipend. If you get a fellowship from the NSF or NIH, this might be on the order of $30,000 a year. If not, you might be looking at more like $15,000 a year.

Now, that’s not a ton of money, but $15,000 is about what you would be making if were working a full-time job at minimum wage. And, with a little ingenuity, you can stretch those dollars pretty far. At many universities, there will be opportunities for subsidized on-campus housing if you’re willing to hold undergrads’ hair while they vomit. If not, you can probably find some other grad students to share housing with. Also, you will quickly learn which seminar series provide free food.

Depending on where you are, you may have to do some teaching, grading, etc. as part of your stipend package. If you’re in the social sciences or humanities, this is more likely, and the teaching load might be heavy.

Here’s the thing, though. Taking classes, teaching undergrads, and grading papers is going to be a more varied and interesting job than most things you could be doing for minimum wage. Let’s say that you wind up teaching (or grading for) a couple of classes each semester, all while taking classes of your own and trying to do your own research. Does working at Starbucks sound better or worse than that to you? This will give you your answer as to whether or not to go to grad school. The fact is, the job you’re facing down as a grad student is a lot like the job you’re looking at having for the next forty years. If that’s not appealing, get out now.

But what about something where you have to pay out of pocket. Honestly, I would be skeptical. I mean, if you come from money, fine. Otherwise, the only way this makes sense is if you already learned that you should attend grad school after reading consideration 2, above. In which case, I already told you to quit reading. Get out of here!

Consideration 4: Take a Process-Oriented View

A lot of people, when they think about grad school, focus on the long-term goal: the faculty job, or the pharmaceutical-company job, or the government-agency job, or whatever. In general, goal-oriented behavior is a good thing, and your capacity to pursue long-term goals is probably one of the reasons why you’re in a position to consider grad school in the first place.

But remember what Aerosmith said: “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” Someone else probably said that, too, but whatever.

Let’s say you’re in your early twenties. Using ballpark numbers, you might spend the next five years in grad school, and maybe another three, or five, or eight as a postdoc, depending on your field. Let’s say you retire between sixty-five and seventy.

That’s forty-five years of working, ten of which will be training for your career. That’s not the majority, but it’s a huge fraction, and you should make an effort to be happy, not just working towards something that you think will make you happy.

Here’s the good news. Grad school can actually be a lot of fun. You’re surrounded by smart people. It’s like college, but without the jocks and the frat boys and all the other assholes who used to call you Poindexter. You’ll make lifelong friends among your grad school cohort. You’ll hang out together and watch reality television and play poker and volleyball and drink beer.

This, of course, depends in part on your choice of field, school, and advisor. That’s a topic for a different post, however. The point is that grad school, when well chosen, can be a great time. Even if you wind up with a shitty advisor, the students will often bond together over the shared trauma. But what if grad school sounds appealing, except that you hate having a great time? Well, if you’re not confident in your ability to choose an advisor who will make you completely miserable, consider Chemistry.

Consideration 5: You Don’t Have to Stay

You’re reading this because you’re not sure if you would like grad school. Here’s the thing. Going to grad school is a good way to find out if you’ll like grad school. Grad school is quite a bit different from undergrad, but it is, in some ways, not that different from what you would be doing after finishing grad school. It also gives you opportunities to see close up what postdocs and professors do (or close-ish, anyway).

So, one thing you can do is start grad school. If it’s not working out for you, leave. Many PhD programs have some sort of a terminal masters degree. In some cases, you actually earn the masters in the normal course of pursuing the PhD. In others, the masters is awarded if you pass your exams, but drop out before doing your dissertation. Either way, that means that after a couple of years, if you decide this isn’t for you, you won’t leave empty handed. The people in your field and in your lab will tell you that the masters degree is a sign of failure, and within the academic community of that field, it is. But here’s the thing, if you’re leaving that academic field, who cares! People outside in the rest of the world will recognize your masters degree for what it is, an indication that you went out and gained a whole lot of knowledge about something.

Alternatively, you can leave your grad program and join another one. I started off in a PhD program in Biochemistry. After two years, I changed fields, schools, and cities, because after that time I had a much better sense of what I wanted to get out of school.

So if you think you might like grad school, give it a go, but keep the escape hatch in mind. This sounds easy now, but may not seem so easy later. There is a lot of myopia in grad-school culture, and a lot of echo-chamber nonsense. People tend to get tunnel vision, and buy into the idea that there is one true, golden path for success. If you start to stray off of that path (like by thinking about leaving with a masters), everyone will try to discourage you: your advisor, senior grad students and postdocs. They might even stage an intervention.

Just remind yourself that Stockholm is not only the place where they give out the Nobel prizes, it is also the name of a syndrome.

Consideration 6: You Don’t Have to Go Right Now

Consideration 5 was really sort of an argument for jumping into grad school if you are leaning that way. But what about if you’re leaning the other way? Here’s the other thing to keep in mind: grad school will still be there next year. Probably even the year after that. Have you always wanted to spend a summer working on a fishing boat? Go for it. Did you want to backpack across Asia? That sounds exhausting to me, but, hey, why not!

You meet a remarkable number of twenty-two year olds who feel an enormous pressure to get their careers started. I just want to shake them and say, “What the hell? You’re twenty two!” Let’s say you take five years off before starting grad school, and then follow the standard career path. Most of it will be exactly the same, except that, instead of being a Full Professor somewhere for twenty years before retiring, you’ll be a Full Professor there for fifteen years before retiring. No one cares, even you.

Recall again, that if you really are that desperate to publish five more papers in your life, you should already have stopped reading and started applying.

There are also ways to sort of hedge your bets. Like, apply to work as a lab technician in a lab in some country you’ve always wanted to visit. I did this before grad school. The country was the United States, which is sort of lame, but I’m sure you could do better. If you’re in the humanities, apply to be whatever the equivalent of a lab technician is in your particular field. Unless the equivalent is “prostitute.” Don’t do that.

Conclusion

So, now that you’ve read through the entire Lost In Transcription Guide to Whether or Not YOU Should Go to Graduate School, you know whether or not to go. Still not sure? Perhaps you didn’t read carefully enough. If you’ve read this guide three times, and are still not sure, send fifty dollars, and I will refund half your money.

For those of you who have decided on grad school, check back here for the Lost In Transcription guide to choosing a graduate school program and advisor.

For those of you who have decided against it, check back here for instructions on how I like my coffee.

On Ronin and the Importance of Physical Colleagues

Originally posted at Lost in Transcription on December 12, 2011.

So, welcome back to my intermittent live-blog of my adventures in forming a non-profit research institute in order to function as an independent scholar. I’ve written a couple of times before: about my own goals for the enterprise, and about the things that an independent scholar will most be in need of.

One of the things, of course, that an independent scholar needs is colleagues. Depending on the nature of your research, you might be able to do the day-to-day work (math and programming, in my case) entirely on your own, but unless you are a very special sort of misanthropic genius, you need interaction with a set of colleagues. Sometimes you will want to take on collaborative projects that require the expertise of more than one person, but even more, you need knowledgeable people to bounce ideas off of, people who will ask the critical questions that make your work better, or who will drop some jewel of knowledge that lets you see the problem you’ve been working on in an entirely new way.

Now, in principle, much of this can be accomplished on the internet, but I am wondering if there are not certain types of information that more or less require face-to-face contact.

Last week, I was at a “catalysis meeting” at NESCent (the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center) on genomic imprinting. The meeting was superb. It had excellent people who work on the problem from all different perspectives: theorists and experimentalists, molecular and developmental biologists, mouse people, marsupial people, bee people. I learned a ton, and, perhaps more importantly, I learned of the existence of a bunch of things that I didn’t know. I still don’t know them, but now I know that I should know, and I know where to start looking, and whom to ask for help when I get stuck.

As an aside, I also had the chance to meet Craig McClain, Assistant Director of Science at NESCent and doyen of the group blog Deep Sea News.

He was as nice as their blog is awesome.

Some people say that biologists grow to resemble the organisms that they study.

You be the judge.

You might think that meetings like this are particularly efficient for transmitting information, but that you can accomplish the same thing through more aggressive and far-reaching readings of the literature. After all, the organizers of the meeting were able to find these people. In principle, I could just get all of their papers and read them carefully, referring to textbooks on biochemistry or mammalian physiology whenever there was something I didn’t understand.

But I’m not sure that would actually work.

The thing is, some of the most important pieces of information I got at the meeting were things that are not written in papers, or perhaps anywhere, nor are they likely to be. For example, there were a number of people there who have spent years working with lab mice. They have observed thousands and thousands of crosses (e.g., the outcome of a mother of one mouse strain mating with a father of a different mouse strain). This has given them a deep knowledge of what does and does not happen in these crosses, as well as a sense of how sensitive different traits are to the details of the experimental procedure.

An interesting thing was that there were certain results from the scientific literature that none of these people believe, because they are not consistent with their own observations. Now, no one has gone and written a rebuttal letter, or published a set of negative results contradicting the original papers. They have all just sort of implicitly agreed that results using a certain technique, or sometimes results coming from a certain lab, are unreliable, and they move forward with their research as if those results did not exist.

So, there is this substratum of knowledge that is widespread among experts, but which does not find its way into print. In part, this is due to the thanklessness of writing response letters and publishing negative results. In part, I think, it results from a sense of decorum / political consideration. It is common for scientists to have opinions that whole swaths of research are garbage, and it is common for them to share this knowledge in conversation, particularly over beer. However, most are too cautious to put their genuine opinions down in writing — even in e-mail.

As the good folks at Gawker say, “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news!”

Fundamentally, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with this arrangement, as it maintains a pretty high bar for calling someone out for doing bad science, but permits people to move forward with what they collectively perceive to be the best possible information. However, it does point to the importance of getting out there and interacting with people face to face. Otherwise, you may find yourself developing a whole research project that is predicated on some results that no one thinks are true.

I should note that this problem is not unique to the independent scholar. If you are working in a typical university department, there may not be anyone else in your department — or only a small number of people — whose research is close enough to your own that you share the same scuttlebutt. That is, no matter who you are, you need to make sure that you pursue opportunities to talk informally — and in person — with the people who care about the same things that you do.

One last observation from the NESCent meeting. This was the first scientific meeting I have attended under my official affiliation with the Ronin Institute. This meant that people would look at my name tag and ask me about it. I would tell them briefly about the idea and my plans for Ronin, and they were all very enthusiastic. The people who had come over from England, in particular, tended to comment on how very brave I was. After I got back, I came a cross this translation guide:

If you work with anyone British, you should print this out and carry it around with you. It serves as a handy guide as to whether you need to be punching them in the nose.

I’m going to assume that this is just wrong. Let’s posit that a better translation for “That is a very brave proposal” would be “Wow! You are a singular genius and an inspiration to children around the world! Also very sexy! Mee-yow!”

My Goals for Independent Scholarship

This was posted at Lost in Transcription originally on August 22, 2011.

So, I’ve already received a number of very thoughtful responses to my previous post, in which I asked for people’s thoughts about the needs of an independent scholar — particularly those needs that could potentially be filled by an outfit like the Ronin Institute. I’ll start sharing those ideas (along with my own thoughts about what is doable) in a couple of days.

In the meantime, I thought that I would share my own goals in starting my own institute. Basically, it is about escaping the constraints of the (university) academic system. Now, that sounds a bit odd when you say it. After all, as far as jobs-with-a-paycheck go, academia provides you with more freedom than most things, in that you have control over both what you do and when you do it.

At least that’s what we all tell each other in grad school.

This recent entry from PhD Comics better sums up the reality on the ground:

The fact is, what you work on as an academic is highly constrained by a number of factors, like what is publishable or fundable. To a certain extent, that is as it should be. You need incentives that encourage people to do high-quality, relevant work. After all, at the end of the day, through whatever mechanism, it is the rest of society that is paying for us to live and eat while we are doing our research.

You may be absolutely fascinated by Heidegger’s early correspondence, and it may well be a worthy subject of the book you’re writing, but it is not unreasonable for society to devote more of its resources to, say, HIV.

The real problem, as I see it, is not the existence of market-style incentives, nor the overall distribution of those incentives, but the way that those incentives are implemented through the bureaucracies of funding agencies and universities.

One key issue is the way that the incentives are channeled through the departmental structure. I think of this in terms of a story that a colleague of mine tells about giving a seminar in a physics department. At the end of the talk, the first comment from the audience was, “That’s really interesting, but it’s not physics.”

(Note that the only appropriate response to such a comment is, “Thank you, and, who the fuck cares?”)

Of course, this problem is not at all limited to physics. Most researchers have, at one time or another, stumbled across an interesting question or collaboration, but have not pursued it the way they might have out of a concern that the work would not be recognized by their department. In many cases, they fear that having an outside interest will actually count against them. This is a widely-acknowledged problem in academia, and is often the motivation for establishing interdisciplinary centers and trans-departmental programs. However, these centers and programs tend to have specific missions, which come with their own constraints and dogmas. And anyway, any academic structure will only be as openminded as the people running it.

The other constraint relates to publication, which is the currency of cultural capital within almost all academic fields. Again, nothing wrong, in principle with requiring people to publish their work, and to have that work scrutinized by their peers. But what about those insights and ideas that don’t lend themselves to whatever the standard publication format is in a particular field? I think that most researchers have also, at one time or another, done an interesting little piece of work that they would like to share, but which is, say, too small to justify a full research paper, or, in some fields, a book. Projects like these may lie dormant on your hard drive for years before finding an outlet, if ever.

My personal situation is exacerbated by the fact that my interests are abnormally diverse. I remember in graduate school, when a lot of people seemed to think that I was some sort of crazy rebel for doing work on two different kinds of theoretical evolutionary biology.

Yes, two different kinds of theoretical evolutionary biology.

In fact, I have interests in neuroscience and behavioral economics, population genetics, game theory, systems biology, philosophy, and linguistics. Beyond that, I write poetry, and this spring I started a webcomic. Finally, I am a husband and a father, both of which I view as deeply more important than any of my academic interests.

There are people who can pull off being a successful university professor while not ignoring their families. There are also professors who manage to pursue some sort of extracurricular interest.

But unless you’re one of those people who only has to sleep like four hours a day, it is nearly impossible to satisfy your department while working across multiple fields, actively pursuing multiple outside interests, and going home at a reasonable hour

I finally figured out that I was not willing to walk away from any of my other interests, and that I would have to walk away from at least some of them in order to fulfill my obligations to even the most forgiving and open-minded department.

Basically, what I want to do is live a normal, balanced life, and to spend something like 50 or 60 percent of my work time doing things that would be generally recognized as scientific research. Of that “research” bit, only a fraction would fit comfortably within any given department.

The problem is that what I want does not really mesh with the expectations that are placed on you (both institutionally and culturally) within academia.

I am reminded of something that happened way back when I was a biochemistry grad student at the University of Wisconsin. The department organized a sort of career day, where they had people come and talk to us about different career paths. Among others, there were people who were PIs at the university, people working for biotech companies, someone working in forensics, and one guy who was teaching at a small undergraduate college.

The undergraduate teacher explained that the era of the nine-month-a-year academic was over, even at small colleges, as even the smallest colleges now expect you to develop research programs that can involve undergrads and actively pursue grants. However, he said that it did lend itself to living a more balanced life compared with being a PI with a big lab at a major research university.

Then he said this:

“You know, I don’t think anyone has ever been lying on their deathbed and said, ‘Boy, I wish I had published just one more paper.'”

The room suddenly filled with tension, and the organizers quickly hustled him off and introduced the next speaker.

Grad school is about a lot of things: learning a body of knowledge, learning how to perform independent research, etc. But more than all of that, grad school is about being imbued with a set of academic values. This guy, by saying something that is, with just the tiniest bit of perspective, undeniably true, had violated the code. He had undermined the part of our training that was about internalizing the notion that finishing the next experiment / writing the next paper / getting the next grant was more important than anything else going on in our lives.

I suspect that he was not invited back the next year, but his comment has stuck with me. (I’m sorry I can’t recall either his name or school.) I think most of us start of in grad school because we love whatever it is that we’re studying, but then we tend to get caught up in chasing all of the proximate goals (publication, tenure, society membership) that define the academic incentive structure, and many academics lose sight of the fact that there was ever something that excited them so much that they wanted to spend their life studying.

So, that’s my goal. I want to keep my eye on the thing that drew me to academia in the first place. I want to spend my time trying to say things that I believe to be true, recognizing that some truths lend themselves to being expressed as mathematical equations, some as poems, some as comics, and some as rambling blog posts about founding an institute devoted to supporting independent scholarship.

Calling All Ronin

This was originally posted at Lost in Transcription on August 20, 2011:

So, last week I posted about my plans to start my own non-profit research institute, to be called the Ronin Institute. Interestingly, I got a handful of notes from people inquiring — with various levels of facetiousness — about joining up. That matches up with my experience of talking to people in person about this plan, where a significant fraction of people ask to join up in a semi-joking sort of way.

In fact, one of my long-term goals for this venture is to create an organization that can help to connect and support scholars who, by choice or by chance, do not have an affiliation with a university or other research institute. Originally, I had viewed that as something that I would start building in a couple of years, after getting the basic place established. However, it seems that even the semi-joking responses point to a genuine desire by a lot of people for something.

I’m not sure exactly what that something is, but I have a couple of guesses.

[I go on here at some length about my guesses, but at the end of the post, I get to the point. If something like the Ronin Institute seems even vaguely appealing to you, send me an e-mail at jon@jonfwilkins.com, and let me know what is appealing and why. If you were to join the Ronin Institute, what would you hope to get from the affiliation?]

The thing about academia is that it requires a certain level of competence at / interest in a variety of activities. I think that most people who go to grad school do it with the idea that their life is career to be about scholarship and research. They usually know that, for most jobs, they will also be expected to teach, which is a plus for some people and a minus for others. These are certainly two of the most important things you do as an academic, but many professors will tell you that this is not what takes up the bulk of their time. Successful academics tend to spend a large fraction of time worrying about raising funding, through grants or donations. In the sciences, being a successful academic also requires being a competent manager, since most science is done in laboratories that include graduate students, postdocs, and technicians. And finally, for all academics, you have to be able to navigate the politics and bureaucracy of the university (national laboratory, pharmaceutical company, think tank, etc.).

I think it’s that last bit that is most surprising to people: the fact that your career depends so heavily on your ability to deal with deans and provosts, and to negotiate the (often quite poisonous) interpersonal dynamics of your department. I’ve known several people who are absolutely brilliant, but who have been marginalized in academia owing to their inability to play the politics game. I’m not talking here about the bullies or budding psychopaths who need to get flushed out. I’m talking about people who are kind, honest, and principled, but perhaps fail to recognize that, as they say, discretion is the better part of of valor. So they get crosswise with someone higher up in the academic power structure.

My other guess is that people are frustrated by the constraints of the academic treadmill. I think there are two aspects of this. The first is geographical. The fact is, if you are really committed to pursuing a traditional academic career, you have to go to where the job is. This is hard not only on two-career families, but on anyone with other geographical constraints on where they live. Maybe you have children and are divorced, or maybe you have a chronic illness and need the support of family, or maybe you just really love where you live.

The other constraint of the academic treadmill is temporal. This has been much written about, so I won’t belabor it here, but it is well known that a gap in your trajectory (due to, e.g., illness or having a kid) can derail your career in a way that can be difficult to recover from. Academic life is also constraining in that it tends to be an all-consuming job. Many academics feel that they don’t have time for outside interests. A few are good at cordoning off and protecting their personal time, but the fact is, it is rare to see university professors who have the time to coach their kid’s soccer team.

Now, there are certain realms of science (like high-energy physics or virology) that really require the infrastructure provided by a university (or university equivalent). However, there are many domains where an individual scholar can still make significant contributions. I’m thinking of most fields in the arts and humanities, as well as theoretical or mathematical work in any of the sciences. Even in those aspects of science that incorporate an experimental or field component, there is a lot that an independent researcher can do, particularly if they have collaborators who are at a university.

Basically, one of the things that I would like the Ronin Institute to be able to do is help all of those people who want to engage in research, but who are not in the standard academic track. What I need to know from you is this: what would you need? Send me e-mail at jon@jonfwilkins.com with your thoughts.

Keep in mind, I am not sitting on a big pot of money, and will not, at any time in the near future, be in a position to provide support in the form of funding. The sort of thing that the Ronin Institute could potentially provide would be more along the lines of an institutional address (for e-mail or for running grants through), and perhaps a community of like-minded independent scholars. What I would like to get is a sense — in as much detail as you can muster — of where you’re coming from, where you want to get to, and what specific things you think might help that a community of Ronin could provide. Also, if the Ronin Institute were to acquire a modest amount of funding in the future, what would be most helpful to you as an independent scholar (e.g., funds to pay page charges for publications, funds to pay for IRB review of proposed research, funds to pay travel to scientific meetings, etc.).

In case you’re wondering, “Does this apply to me?” let me give you some guidelines. Here is who should write in:

  • Academics who have left their university positions (by choice or not), but want to continue with their work.
  • Academics who are fed up with the university politics/bureaucracy, and are interested in investigating an alternative model for research.
  • Aspiring academics who have taken a hiatus in their training (by choice or not), and are trying to figure out how to return.
  • Aspiring academics who are looking at the academic job market and despairing, and want to think about alternative paths.
  • People who love research and scholarship, but who, because of personal constraints (or personal preference) can’t commit to the full-time academic lifestyle.
  • People who are happily living as full-time academics, but want to connect with independent scholars.
  • People who are happily living as full-time academics, and have thoughts about what they would find most lacking if they were to leave the university.

Also, if you know of anyone who might benefit from something like this, or might have ideas or suggestions, please forward this post to them.

Once I have a sense of what people are looking for, I’ll try to find the intersection of that with the set of things that I believe to be tractable in the short to medium-term future.

On Ronin and the Future

Welcome to the first semi-real post here at the Ronin Blog! I say semi-real because it is actually going to be the first in a series of reposts from Lost in Transcription. Basically, the things that I posted there about the Ronin Institute are going to be recycled here over the next few days. In a week or so, we’ll start rolling out new stuff.

This was originally posted on August 11, 2011, meaning that many of the things that were going to happen have happened already. So, you know, caveat lector.

So, for the past six years, I have been on the resident faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. As I am writing this, I am sitting at a laundromat in Santa Fe, preparing for a cross-country road trip to Montclair, New Jersey, where I am going to be founding my own research institute.

What does that mean? Well, technically speaking, I will be forming a non-profit dedicated to research. At least to start with, the non-profit will consist of me, so, practically speaking, it’s like I’m becoming a freelance scholar.

My new outfit will be called the Ronin Institute. Ronin refers to a masterless samurai. It may be familiar to you from this:

or maybe from this:

Since this is a career path that is a bit different from the one that most academics follow, I thought it might be interesting to write about it here. I’ll share some of the details of what is involved in establishing a non-profit, and the process of becoming an independent scholar. This is a new venture for me, one that is going to involve some trial and error. As I go along, I’ll let you know what’s working and what isn’t. Most of you are probably not going to start your own institutes (although I hope a few of you will), but many of you may be interested in thinking about alternatives to the archetypal academic career trajectory. I’m hoping that my experience will be helpful in thinking about your own plans.

Or maybe it will at least be comforting and entertaining to you in a schadenfreude kind of way.