As a follow up to my post on the positive valences of academic science, here is other side of ambivalence. I almost didn't want to finish this post what for all the warms and fuzzies going on over the first one. But, alas, I am still ambivalent and so here goes.
I love science. I really do. But some of my experiences as a Ph.D. student, as well as the fear and uncertainty that I see in so many people on the job market (post-docs and faculty) have colored me a bit of a cynic. I am much more jaded about the realities of academic science now than I was as an entering student with my pie-in-the-sky ideas of the Academy. What follows are some of my unfavorable impressions about academic science. They are, by and large, gross generalizations. I am well aware that there are exceptions to many of these, and I am not in any way trying to paint all of academia or all academic scientists with a broad, crap-colored brush. After all, I am one too. Most of my readers (that I know of) are academic scientists, and I like most of them very much. So, dear readers, please do not take personal offense at some of these critiques -- they are not personal.
The negative valences of academic science, as I see it, include:
As it stands right now, academic science in this country eats its young. The numbers I keep hearing are these: for every 10 Ph.D. students that our academic institutions turn out, there is ONE available academic faculty position. If this is true, then 90% of Ph.D.'s are not going to get the job that they are being trained for. Now, it may be true that 90% of Ph.D.'s just aren't academic faculty material, though I think that estimate is a little high. I'm sure that some, possibly even many, just don't have what it takes. But many do. Many more than 10%. So what gives? I'm not really sure, but I'll go ahead and propose some hypotheses. Given my up-to-now rather short stint in the Academy, perhaps some wise sages can offer some insight into this problem. Fundamentally, I see the problem as: Labs need grants in order to function. Labs need data to write grants. Labs needs people to generate the data. The more economical you can be about which people are generating your data, the more science you can do on your limited grant funds, the more data you can generate, the better chance you have of landing one of these elusive grants. So it makes sense to hire cheap labor to generate data.
So who's cheap labor? Grad students and post-docs. PiT and I have had some interesting discussion about the relative economy of students v. post-docs - it was enlightening to me. I didn't realize that by the time you factor in health insurance and tuition on top of the rather measly student stipend, the cost of a student to the lab approaches or equals that of a post-doc. And post-docs should require much less investment of time and effort to get a return in data. So really, it is post-docs who are the PI's best chance at generating data at the lowest cost in time, energy and money. But post-docs don't stay post-docs forever. Some of best and luckiest move on to their own faculty positions. Some of the best and unlucky, get tired of the perma-post-doc prospects and do....something else? So you need more post-docs to replace them, which means you need to graduate more Ph.D. students.
But here's what I don't get: grad students are costly to PIs in terms on time/money/energy. They are costly to grad schools too since in most cases it is the grad school that covers stipend/tuition/benefits until the student joins a lab (contrast this against med students who generate revenue by paying tuition). So there's this glut of over-trained and underemployed scientists out there and we keep making more? Why? Well, as funding becomes more competitive, there is more pressure to get data, more pressure to get people to get the data, and post-docs are not going to stay post-docs forever. From the grad school's perspective, they want grant money coming in and as such need to supply people to help a PI get it. Turnover is high in trainee positions, so you need to keep bringing more into replace the ones that move on. So I guess that's why we keep training more grad students.
But as I said, nobody stays a post-doc or a grad student forever, so what happens eventually to the 9o out of 100 of them that don't land the faculty position? Honestly, I don't know what happens to all of them. Some of them teach or work in industry. Some of them take on other alternative science careers. Some of them get thrown under the bus. Not all, probably not even many, but I have seen it happen and it is grotesque. In some cases, the trainee (as both grad students and post-docs are known in this country) are chewed up and spit out by the data-production factory. You can't help but feel a little exploited when you look around and realize that these things happen.
Of course, there are plenty of PIs and programs out there who will bend over backwards to make sure this doesn't happen to their people. Sometimes that's because it makes them more attractive to future trainees if they have a long track record of their former trainees going on to successful positions. Sometimes it's just because they're good people (the two are not mutually exclusive). But how much can these individual PIs do in the deluge of trainees with nowhere to go? Of course, an academic faculty position is not the only career option for a Ph.D. and not all Ph.D.s want it. But that is what academic Ph.D. students and post-docs are being groomed for, and it's probably what most of us aspire to - at least in the beginning.
Pressure to perform/conform
The pressure to perform is a big one. Scientific discovery is moving at a blistering pace thanks to many technological breakthroughs and the exponential increase in information available. As such, it can be tough to keep up. We are many scientists with many ideas and worthwhile projects, competing for limited resources. If you've carved out for yourself a little corner of super-hot-and-sexy field you must constantly fight to stay ahead or someone else is going to usurp your position. (I love natural selection as a concept, but it kind of sucks when it's acting on me.) Everybody wants a piece of what you've got and so you face the pressure to publish first, in the best journals, so you receive credit for the ground-breaking work that might land you another big grant, or maybe an appointment to the National Academy.
This kind of pressure creates an environment in which those that are willing to sacrifice most are often the ones who receive the rewards. You know the ones -- the Vitamin D-deficient grad student who never speaks to anyone and never seems to leave the lab for fear of wasting precious time that could be spent on experiments. The post-doc who is going through a divorce but won't talk about how the working hours affected the marriage for fear of being seen as less-than-committed to the bench. The bitter PI who resents the things given up in earlier years for sake of the career. When I see this kind of desperation it can suck all the joy out of the work. It makes me question myself. Not about whether I am a good enough scientist to do this work, but whether I am worthy. I love science, but not enough to pay that price. If I'm not willing to make such great sacrifices, am I less deserving of scientific success as those who do? I think not. In science there is not a linear relationship between effort and results. So while I may not have the talent of Mozart, I will not choose to be Salieri. There has to be some middle ground, but not everyone sees it as such.
There is a second kind of pressure: "You must make the same choices I did to be successful and validated as a scientist." Coming from someone who's "made it" this kind of advice can seem pretty compelling. But sometimes I suspect that it's really just a rationalization of the choices they've made. To see someone else making different choices about their lifestyle and career -- and still succeeding -- must make it pretty hard to live with the sacrifices that they regret. Moreover, the idea that there is only a single path to success is just crazy. It makes no more sense than asserting that there is only a single experimental approach to tackle a hypothesis.
Yet this attitude is pervasive. I remember being told by my Program Director on the first day of my graduate school career that our Ph.D.'s "really meant something" and that we ought to "aspire to great things"...sounds like a pretty good pep-talk...but he went on to say that "anyone graduating from this program and going on to teach or work in industry was a failure and a disappointment and a cut-rate scientist". WTF man?!?! I got into this for my passion. I want creativity and independence, so you can take your rigid ideas of what a good scientist looks like and stuff them into some choice orifices.
Finally, there is always some resistance to new ideas and challenges to the dogma...which is really what science is all about, but despite the ideal of objectivity, we do get attached to our ideas, and that makes it so much harder to change our understanding. I see greybeards attacking the character of young upstarts who challenge the dogma put forth in Dr. BigWig's GlamorMag publications. I hate this. I just hate it. While we all should strive for objectivity when examining scientific work, I really have no problem with heated debate over data and conclusions. However, when the debate turns to character assassination it leaves me feeling pretty disappointed in those practitioners of our profession. Pressure from any of these factions creates an environment where Science must compete with ego and so many other demands. No good.
I almost hate to bring this up with all the echoes of "professorial" and "the educated elite" still ringing in my ears since the presidential election. But I'll try to explain what I mean here. I think we can all agree that having an education is quite a privilege. At the same time, I don't appreciate the slinging of "educated elite" by some members of my least favorite political party as if it were some kind of epithet. I've worked hard for my education - this here learnin' don't come easy. At the same time I recognize that this places me in a privileged position, and I don't take that lightly. But it also doesn't make me a bad person, or one who thinks poorly of those who have not had the same kind of educational opportunities as I. I do get pretty tired of the attitude I get from some of my high school classmates, "Ooooh, so you think you're hot shit since you're gonna be a doctor or something?" Actually, I don't think I'm hot shit. I think I work my ass off. It makes me sad that a higher education is not more highly valued in this country and I dislike being made to feel as if I ought to apologize for wanting to be an awesome braniac scientist. I don't like that I am presumed to be "elitist" because I have a passion for science and education. I hope that will change.
The other side of this coin is that there are certainly some who do think they're hot shit - and they give the rest of us a bad name. Such hot shit in fact, that not only should the undereducated public bow before them, but so should everyone else who holds the same damn degree. You know who I'm talking about. There's probably one in your department. There might even be a science-diva-in-training in your very lab. These are the people who have published some really-hot-shit-papers, maybe they've landed some huge friggin' grants and they're the only one who knows the first damn thing about the latest hot science field or technique that all the hiring committees are tripping over themselves to get in their departments. Or maybe they haven't done any of this yet, but they are so certain that they are so much smarter than everyone else that it is a foregone conclusion. These people are the steamiest of all shit. Don't believe me? Just ask them. They'll tell you themselves.
Somehow, their "elite" status within the scientific community grants them entitlement to be total ass-hats to everyone around them. Or just everyone. True, they've probably sacrificed a lot to get those GlamorMag papers and pick-your-favorite-science-society appointments. They've likely worked pretty hard for those things. But you know what? There are a lot of other scientists who work just as hard and do not expect special entitlement to asshattery and fuckwittery without consequence.
So much of this is manifest in the flagrant disregard that some Dr. BigWigs have for the rules of social interaction and professionalism. Example: I rotated under a PI who had previously thrown his coffee mug at his technician's head because he wasn't happy with her data. On what planet is this OK? Why is he still working here? Why is he allowed to supervise laboratory animals, let alone people?
In another rotation lab, the PI asked one of his lab staff if she would set him up with her friend (because the friend was of his "preferred" ethnic group) all the while shtupping the half-his-age-technician (also of "preferred" ethnic group) who claims she was just working there to boost her med school applications (I'm assuming she got some damn good LORs). I don't think that I need to point out the problems with this behavior. I mean, I'm not going to judge someone's sexual proclivities, but throwing that into the mix with a tremendous power imbalance is asking for trouble. It is not tolerated in most professional settings for good reason.
Everybody knew about this stuff. In fact, it was administrators who passed on these rumors to me when I said I wanted to rotate in these labs - I ignored the rumors because I couldn't believe they were true. Silly naive little AA. They warned me and I didn't believe that such things would be tolerated in a professional setting. What I still cannot understand is why these Dr. BigWigs got a free pass. They were held to a grossly lower standard of professional behavior because why? Because we can't afford to lose them and their big grants? Because if we tell them to shape up or ship out they'll just go to another R1 and become our competitors? I say bullshit. In any other industry I can think of, being a team-player (or at least not making others so uncomfortable that their job performance falters), is Priority 1.
The trouble with the Academy is that we are loathe to get rid of those who can't play well with others because there is no one else who does exactly what they do. So what? There's someone else out there doing something else that nobody's onto yet who can play well with others, and who probably doesn't run with scissors either.
Some of the bad social behavior is not malicious. I think that academic science tends to attract a higher proportion of introverts and socially awkward individuals than are represented in the general population. The whole "flawed genius" hypothesis aside (although there might be something to that), the Academy attracts the geeks and nerds and socially awkward out there because here your intellectual contributions are valued more highly than your ability to make small-talk. This isn't a bad thing - hell, I'm a geek and a nerd and I'm often socially awkward outside my native habitat (if you don't believe me, check out my nerd rating in the sidebar!). However, the general acceptance of social awkwardness should not be misinterpreted as license to be an intentional jackass to your colleagues or anyone else.
The other aspect of elitism that really irks me is snobbery towards alternative science careers. I wrote a little bit about this in the Cannibalism section, but it's worth stating again here - we are grooming young scientists for academic careers, but there aren't enough of these to go around. As such, many young scientists will take non-academic careers wither out of desire or necessity. However, those who do are often looked down upon.
I've seen the term "SLACers" leveled at Ph.D.s who go on to primarily teaching positions at small liberal art colleges and it just makes me bristle. I did my undergrad at a SLAC and I had some incredible science professors. They were phenomenal teachers (evidence: I loved going to class, and I kicked ass in grad courses compared to my counterparts that did their undergrad at R1s). They're pretty great researchers to boot. No, they're probably not getting multiple R01s, maybe not any at all, but they're doing some pretty hot science and publishing good work in solid journals with nothing but bumbling undergrads in their employ. If that's not indicative of someone who can really make science happen I don't know what is. And let's not forget that education is just as important to the scientific endeavor as research. Where else are we going to find an endless stream of starry-eyed young scientists to fill those grad student and post-doc positions without the teachers who are lighting their fires? Why are educators so undervalued compared to researchers? We've all heard that saying: "If you can't do; teach." Bollocks. There are a lot of piss-poor professors out there teaching courses when they would be much better off staying in the lab. I say, if you can't teach; stick to the research and leave the tough stuff to those who know how to communicate.
And then of course there are those that leave the ranks of academia and go to industry. "Tools." Not my epithet; I didn't make it up. Seriously. My personal ethical objection to drug marketing aside, what in the hell is wrong with wanting to be on the cutting edge of drug discovery? Or any other applied science for that matter?
The Academy would do well to step out of the Ivory Tower every once in a while and engage with the public, the educators, and industrial science on a level that shows value for all these positions. Science is never conducted in a vacuum and just as collaborations within academia are necessary to fully explore a hypothesis, a collaborative attitude toward scientists outside of academia is necessary as well.
Interpersonal relationships (or perhaps more frequently, disagreements) have a much greater impact than they should on which findings see the light of day. I really don't have a lot to say about this because I think it is so patently obvious. As much as we'd all like to believe that we as scientists are entirely rational beings, and are always objective and so on and so on...well, we're still human. We still do silly irrational things. We still apply subjective judgment to ourselves, our data, and our colleagues even though we know better. Some of the things we do as imperfectly-rational humans is to form political alliances and enemies. I think that this is my least favorite thing about academic science, because although it happens everywhere all the time and not just in science, it is the last straw that breaks my delusional camel's back.
You see, at some point in my youth I knew that I wanted to be a scientist and I really truly and honestly believed that line about scientists being totally objective and rational and by implication ego-free. Bzzzzzzzzt! Wrong. Which it turns out isn't such a bad thing. After all, I wouldn't very much enjoy working with a bunch of robots in lab coats, to borrow an image from Scicurious. But it really can get in the way of doing good science when people's political alliances trump the scientific pursuit. And they do. Sometimes the personal is related to science - "I don't like him because we have diametrically opposed hypotheses about the BigIdea in our field." I guess that this is sort of understandable. Because we are all so passionate about our science, we can get very attached to our ideas. We have our reasons for what we think is true, and these are tied to our egos. If my idea is wrong, that means I wasn't smart enough to figure out the right idea. Therefore the passionate debate over ideas becomes a pissing match about who is right and by association who is smarter. I think that this is annoying, but it is only human and it is forgivable.
What is not forgivable is when it crosses the line and these passionate disagreements motivate interpersonal nastiness. I wish that science were more like a sport. You see professional athletes shake hands after the game and congratulate each other on a match well-played. They may be friends from when they played together last season, or they may hate each other's guts. But at the end of the game, the competition stays on the pitch. With the exception of Tonya Harding, you don't hear much about professional athletes trying to undercut each other's professional assets outside of competitive play. We all know about conflicts of interest in the peer review process, and most people who have had a paper rejected for an unreasonable review can probably speculate on who that reviewer was and why they didn't want to see this paper published. Or the ad hominem attacks from Dr. TopDog that might quash all dissent from competing ideas. It would be nice if more scientists could concede that they disagree about the BigIdeas, but since nobody really knows the answers, neither of them is smarter or more deserving of success than the other.
Of course it can work the other way too -- BigWigs getting their friends positions, or a favorable score on a grant. I really don't know how often this happens in academia, but I have seen a few incidents that make me suspicious. We're only human, but it would be nice if we could at least try to keep our personal likes and dislikes out of the science decision-making process.
So that's what I don't like about academic science. I expect that I'll probably get flamed in the comments section now for characterizing academic scientists as a bunch of ego-bent maniacs. To those of you tempted to leave such comments, please go back and read the beginning of the post. I do recognize that not everyone is this terrible caricature. In fact I don't even think that most are. But these things do occur and they are systematically tolerated. These are the things that should change.
I am exhausted from writing all of that, so now I'm going to go home and curl up with my laptop and try to put together a talk for Saturday. Peace out.