No one true path for PhDs

So, there’s a nice little op-ed piece up at the Chronicle for Higher Education. (For the non-academics out there, it’s sort of like People magazine, but with History professors instead of Kardashians.) It was written by Jon Bardin, a current PhD student at Cornell Med School, who is planning to abandon the canonical academic path. Unfortunately, it’s behind the Chronicle paywall, but basically he argues against the idea (much hyped, recently) that there is an over-production of PhD students. At least in the sciences.

He mentions the common complaint that graduate school has become a sort of pyramid scheme, where huge numbers of PhD students enter, with the implicit promise of a tenure-track position waiting at the other end of the tunnel, while there are not nearly enough such positions available.

This is true, but he argues that we should look at the situation from a different perspective.

First, he argues that there are many alternative careers for PhDs. Of course, we all knew this already. After all, Starbucks is almost always hiring. But, actually, he argues that the skills that you develop in grad school are widely applicable. He talks specifically about the humbling experience of having his first manuscript rejected:

Through this and subsequent experiences, I learned to absorb the sting of harsh rejection, to ingest criticism, to accept its value, and to turn it to my advantage. These are life skills, not scientific skills, and rejection was only the beginning. Since then, I have had to devise and adopt quick, practical solutions to unexpected problems, to communicate clearly and concisely in front of crowds, to think on my feet in response to an unexpected question, and to pick my battles within my own research group. Perhaps most important, I have learned to approach problems by reducing them to their component parts and solving them one by one.

These are experiences and skills that will carry me through many dark days as a writer. But the same skills would have benefited me if I were leaving for the pharmaceutical industry, or for consulting, or to open a microbrewery. Everyone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator. If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview, I think many who choose to leave would find that they had not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid, to boot.

These are great points. Now, the availability of funding varies a lot from field to field, but, at least in the sciences, I think the typical graduate student stipend is somewhere on the order of $30,000 per year. Now, that’s not huge money, but it is enough to provide a comfortable living. Add in the fact that grad school is a great social environment (at least, it is if you’re a dork, and you like hanging out with other dorks, which, if you’re reading this, you probably are, and probably do), and you’ve got the makings of a pleasant and rewarding five years.

The trick, of course, is to find an advisor who’s not a jerk, but that’s a topic for another post.

The other point that Bardin makes is that the problem is not one of the availability of a certain type of job, but of the perception that the tenure-track path is the only honorable one. What is needed is a change in attitude, from the students themselves, and from the advisors responsible for them. In Bardin’s words:

Such a change in attitude should start with graduate advisers, who must fulfill their role as true mentors, helping students explore the range of opportunities that their training has enabled, both inside and outside the box. Crucially, they must make it clear that leaving academe does not suddenly brand them a waste of their mentor’s time; graduate students—and their older siblings, the postdocs—by virtue of being cheap, productive labor, are anything but a waste of time.

In a way, maybe we need to start viewing graduate school more like undergrad. After all, professors don’t resent teaching undergraduates who are smart and engaged, but who are going to do something other than academia.

Or, rather, most probably don’t. I’m sure there are some who do. (Those are also the ones you want to avoid when choosing an advisor.) But, they probably also resent the students who are going to follow in their footsteps, just for different reasons. What are you going to do? Resenters gonna resent.

h/t to Ronin Kristina Killgrove.

Lessons from a 40 year old

So, this was posted on Boing Boing last week, but I only just got a chance to watch it. This is a talk at “Webstock,” by Matt Haughey, the guy who started Metafilter. (He also has a cool blog called A Whole Lotta Nothing.) He talks about the value of maintaining work-life balance, and avoiding the pitfalls that come with the raise-huge-money-and-grow-really-fast model that everyone in the tech industry seems to want to pursue. Instead, he favors a model where you work reasonable hours, build a quality product, and focus on a long-term strategy.

A lot of this resonates with some of the things we’re trying to do with the Ronin Institute. Of course, academia isn’t exactly plagued by a get-rich-quick mentality. However, there are some analogous traps that a lot of people fall into. Younger scholars often feel like they have to score the big paper in Science or Nature, and beat themselves up for doing work that is good, solid research, but not the sort that grabs headline. Faculty often feel a pressure to bring in large grants, and will sometimes let this drive their research agenda, rather than letting the research questions be the driver.

I like to imagine that the independent scholar is following the Metafilter model rather than the Facebook model. Because, you know what’s cooler than a billion dollars? A million dollars, and your soul.

Anyway, this is well worth a watch when you’re chilling out, or when you’ve just set up a batch of simulations. While the mapping from Silicon Valley to the Ivory Tower is not one-to-one, there is enough similarity there to make the talk thought provoking for anyone who wants to ponder how to integrate scholarship into their life.

Webstock ’12: Matt Haughey – Lessons from a 40 year old from Webstock on Vimeo.

Calamities of Nature, RIP

Nature got a little bit less calamitous last week when Tony Piro announced that he would no longer be updating his absolutely superb webcomic Calamities of Nature. Fortunately, he has announced that he intends to keep the site up, so you can peruse the archive of over 650 of the smartest meditations on science, philosophy, religion, and bacon that you’ll find anywhere.

I’m writing about this here because of something that he said in the post where he announced the end of the strip:

Today is my last update for Calamities of Nature. And I’ll be perfectly frank about the reasons. My full-time career is in academics, and I need to put everything I have into it if I’m going to have any chance of keeping it that way. As much as I love this comic, I can’t have it taking precious time away from my work. It’s time to move on.

Now, I hope, for Tony’s sake that he had also grown tired of maintaining his updating schedule, that he felt that five years was long enough, and that he is happy committing his efforts full-time to his academic career.

But, whatever the actual situation in this particular case, there is no question that he has hit on an unfortunate truth about academia. The fact is, it is extremely difficult to establish and maintain a traditional academic career while devoting time to other interests. Once you add in family (Tony also mentions that he has two kids), traditional academia basically demands that all of your time not spent sleeping or parenting be devoted to a very specific, constrained set of activities.

I think this is a shame. Certainly, there are people out there for whom this is the ideal lifestyle, people whose interest line up neatly with the demands of an academic career. I’m glad that they exist, and hope that they will continue to populate our Universities. But, for a lot of people, a more piece-meal career with time devoted to a broader range of activities would be more compelling, more fun, and would lead to their doing higher quality work over all.

Calamities of Nature is consistently smart and thoughtful, and it has a huge readership (roughly 5% the traffic of the mega-popular xkcd, according to alexa). It has probably engaged more people with ideas from science and philosophy than most academics do over the course of their entire careers. It seems criminal to me that the all-or-nothing structure of traditional academia means that someone with this much talent, and this great a platform, has to abandon it in order to maintain their career.

This is one of the things that the Ronin Institute aims to change. We are building an alternative model of scholarly research, one where scholars would be able to scale their commitment to research based on their personal interests and constraints. I imagine an ideal world in which someone like Tony Piro could commit, say, two-thirds of his time and effort to traditional scholarship, and one third to maintaining Calamities of Nature. I’m putting words in his mouth, of course, and I don’t know whether or not this is something that the real Tony Piro would want, but I think the world is full of Tony-Piro-esque scholars out there, who have other talents and interests that they have had to set aside in order to commit themselves to academia.

Of course, a part of this alternative model is that the two-thirds-time scholar would only be paid, say, two thirds as much as the full-time scholar. For people whose outside interests also made money, this would likely be an ideal scenario. For people whose other interests have no corresponding income stream, full-time academia might be the only way to pay the mortgage. However, I suspect that there are a lot of academics and would-be academics out there who would gladly trade a portion of their paycheck for a saner and more well rounded life.

Here’s the final Calamities of Nature strip. When you have a chance, go check out the whole archive.

Best of luck to Tony Piro in his all his future endeavors, academic and otherwise.

Short-term job opportunity for a Ronin Anthropologist

So, on my recent visit to the Colorado School of Mines, one of the people I got to meet was David Muñoz, who recently retired as a professor there. He has started a cool initiative that he calls “Humanitarian Engineering.” I will write more about it when I understand it better, but, briefly, he wants to instill a greater sense of service, and a greater awareness of cultural issues, in tomorrow’s engineers.

You can read some more about it here.

But here’s today’s action item: Dr. Muñoz has been working to build a water system for a village in Honduras. The village dates back only to 1998, when it was founded by refugees from Hurricane Mitch. The “Humanitarian Engineering” angle means that this project is not just about creating the infrastructure, but also about integrating it into the existing social/cultural milieu. He had a cultural anthropologist on board with with project, but this person had to drop out unexpectedly at the last minute.

This creates a perfect opportunity for the Ronin Anthropologists out there: if you have the right set of skills, and you are currently un- or under-employed, you might be able to fill in.

If you are interested, you need to be a cultural and/or social anthropolgist. You need to be pretty fluent in Spanish. And, you need to be willing and able to go soon. The job would involve going down to Honduras ASAP (ideally sometime in the next few weeks) and staying for a couple of months. Dr. Muñoz has funds to cover travel and expenses, as well as a modest stipend (something on the order of $4000).

If this is something that you might, possibly, be interested in, contact Dr. Muñoz for details: dmunoz@mines.edu. If you have friends (or colleagues, or family members, or former students) who might be a match, please forward this information on to them.