Saturday, August 11, 2012

Yesterday I found this snarky article about women in science, with the thesis that few women are scientists because they find better paying jobs doing other things.  The best part of it, for me, is Philip Greenspun's explanation for why boys/men join academia:  "Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:
1.  young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group
2.  men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question "is this peer group worth impressing?"
This explanation really makes sense for many of the personality types that I have met in the science field.  I don't think that this comment necessarily has to be about gender per se though- I have also met women who passionately fall into this category as well.  If I am going to make general gender comments about women in science though, I might also add that for some women in science, a sexuality component does exist.  For gender-unbalanced fields, the few women who participate are given a disproportionate amount of attention.  This is a boon for egotistical personalities, but more complicated for insecure women.  They are left wondering if they are good enough as scientists, or if they are just succeeding for external reasons (known as their breasts).  Many of my male colleagues are single, and have openly acknowledged their sexual frustration and lack of suitable partner, which does  make me reevaluate why they like hanging out with me.  To be honest, in the short term it is nice to have attention, but I think I'm growing out of that desire.  Being "physics hot" gets old- this peer group is no longer worth impressing. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

I have been searching for PhD completion rate information off and on for a few weeks now, and I finally found a broad brushstroke of what I was looking for, here.  The long and short of it- after ten years, the PhD completion rate for math and physical sciences stands at 54.7%, at least from students who entered their programs in 1992-1994.  This is crazy!  How do universities get away with this?  People coming into graduate school have no idea that the completion rate is so low, and then feel guilty or like a complete failure for dropping out, when in truth nearly half of entering students do just that.  No one holds individual programs accountable, but they should.  Apparently Britain publishes the retention rates for each of their universities, which has probably forced the universities there to at least work on their numbers.  This information would at least allow people to make more informed choices.  Even if perspective students made the exact same choices, they would at least psychologically prepare themselves for the possibility of incompletion.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Are GRF's a good idea, or are there better ways to improve scientific caliber in the US?
     So I have been wondering- are graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation a good idea, or not?  On one hand, there are too many graduate students, which in turn produces too many postdocs.  Why not half the number of GRF's and pay them twice as much?  Then you are only promoting the best scientists to stay in science, if you can identify who they are.  This would be fantastic, because then mediocre scientists might reassess their worthiness as scientists, and pursue careers that would be more lucrative for themselves and potentially more societally useful.  After all, what good are mediocre scientists?  Do they have any worth, or do they just clog the journal-sphere with mediocre or incorrect articles?
    I have no idea how to assess the value of a good scientist though.  I know that my labmate is a good scientist, but I don't know how he would be identified.  He would excel at all of the standardized tests though... but I also remember one of my classmates who absolutely crushed the chemistry GRE, and has not amounted to a good lab scientist.  My labmate's problem, however, is the fact that he is an international student, and not eligible for a GRF.
     Maybe in addition to GRF's, we could give out magic cards to really good international students that allow them to instantly become American citizens... this could potentially increase our human capital by a large amount.  Instead of them wasting time going home and fighting for student visa renewals, they would be working and assimilating and making scientific advances.  When it came time to apply for postdocs, suddenly the US would be the most reasonable place for them to apply.  Everything would be so much easier for everyone involved.
     With a combination of a small number of high-powered fellowships and magic green cards for the most talented international students, we could improve the caliber of science in the US without producing a huge excess of both great and okay scientists.  This would help everyone in the long run, and the rubbish scientists would not waste their time playing a game they are destined to lose.  Any comments, big empty world?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Today I found yet another article about women's career choices and career satisfaction.  The gist- science careers leads to fewer children, which ultimately makes women unhappy.  I don't really have that much to say about this article, except that seeing all of this research is a bit demoralizing.  The NSF should only pay for happy propaganda about how everything will work out in the end (just in case you don't know me, I am definitely kidding about this).  It just seems like this survey was destined to find unhappiness.  They should have included some questions that might have helped to balance the article- for instance, does your job make you feel intellectually satisfied?  My guess is that stay at home moms probably don't find their jobs as intellectually satisfying as academia...  Everything comes with a price, and it just depends how much you want any given thing.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

     Today, the Washington Post printed an article on the scientific job market, echoing sentiments  and trends revealed in the National Academies Press 2000 book on improving postdoc outcomes.  The article mentioned a few scientists in industry who had recently lost their high-salary jobs.  The gist of the article was that the job market is really bad, except maybe for physicians and physicists.  I was surprised by the statistic in the article that only 38% of new PhD chemists were employed in 2011.  This article confirms my suspicion that my classmates were having more difficulty than in previous years at finding employment.
     From talking to my graduating classmates, it seems to be that industry pays up to* $100,000 to $120,000 for new PhD graduates, but is strongly cyclic in regards to employment demand.  On the other hand, the academia game requires a few years of indentured servitude at $35,000 (postdocs in chemistry at UC Berkeley, for instance) to $70,000 (i.e. national labs), with the lottery ticket win of stable employment at around $80,000, give or take depending on liberal arts college vs. research university.  Of course, this lottery game can be played multiple times, as your options dwindle, and the number of postdoctoral appointments that you take increases.
     Culturally, it seems as if other options are frowned upon.  I recently had dinner with a classmate, and she was shocked that another classmate decided to have a baby, while still in graduate school.  She was confused and alienated by the mere fact that someone would decide to have a child instead of dedicating herself completely to science.
     I don't understand- what is everyone thinking, and where is the exit door that goes to greener grass?

*of course, you can compare my observations with survey information from ACS at

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

     Happy 4th of July, and Happy Higgs Boson Day!  I am excited that the Higgs Boson has been found, so now particle physicists can start testing the Standard Model.  I am also impressed by the publicity machine of CERN- the leaked videos, bringing Peter Higgs to the lab a few days in advance to help build the buzz...  I wish I could have been around during the Space Race, just to compare.
     While the Large Hadron Collider is cool, I do wonder if the results are worth the approximately 5 billion pounds used on it.  I guess the appeal is that the existence of the Higgs Boson is not a political issue, and given that the world did not become a massive black hole, hardly anyone is complaining about the implications of the project.  Everyone involved also has a huge incentive to carefully create publicity about it, including all of the people who are knowledgeable about the subject (i.e. particle physicists, who want funding to continue and expand, and science writers, whose job is to make science seem exciting and newsworthy).  However, to some degree, the search for the Higgs Boson seems like a distraction from issues that need to be addressed in the nearer future.  For instance, climate change is scarily making irreversible changes to global environments, and it seems unlikely that advances in unifying theories in physics will have any impact on that problem.  The Higgs Boson problem seems so much simpler- the only questions that have been answered are, "Does it exist?" and "At what energy?".  If only all of our questions were that simple and uncontroversial.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

   Today was a bit of a downer.  I found a book by the National Academies Press about the fate of postdocs, in 1998.  It was grim, to say the least.  The figures contained the most damning information, effectively helping me further come to the conclusion that I need to figure out my career trajectory before I make any post-graduate plans.  (By the way, the book is available online here:
   Highlights of the book include page 37, which states "Many postdocs report a prejudice among both men and women faculty against women who choose to start a family during postdoctoral training and against men who wish to take parental leave after the birth of a child. "  I have heard this a number of times informally, and at least for my field it seems to be true.  Plus, having a baby during a postdoc sounds miserable.  I know that I'm not particularly good at multitasking under conditions involving sleep deprivation, so I don't think that this plan is for me.  My biological clock has informed me that waiting until after a postdoc is too long, so... This book makes me even more seriously consider my plan to quit science temporarily to raise our two kids.