Category Archives: Vicious Academia

Same Old Story : Too Many Graduate Students

Via Slashdot, I saw this report from the NIH advisory committee. The summary of the problem: there are too many graduate studnets produced in biomedical fields for the number of academic positions that will be available for them in the future. Quotes include:

NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period.

Of course, earlier there is the statement of purpose:

Attract and retain the best and most diverse scientists, engineers and physicians from around the world to conduct biomedical research as well as increase the number of domestic students from diverse backgrounds who excel in science and become a part of the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce

This is a decades-old story at this point. I remember my junior or senior year of college (back in 1989 or thereabouts) hearing news stories about how there was going to be a “shortage of scientists”, because all of those who rushed into science after Sputnik were going to be retiring. BS, of course, because during the intervening decades they all groomed multiple replacements for themselves, but they’re only retiring once.

In my very early years of graduate school (1990-1992 or thereabouts), there was a statistical continuum of letters to the editor to Physics Today talking about the sea of physics post-docs out there: PhDs who could get a temporary post-doc position, or two, or three, but who couldn’t find permanent positions. The astronomy journal club (I believe it was) at Caltech dedicated one of their meetings to talking about this issue. And, the professors there all gave lip service to “training students so that they can go into other careers.” But I could practically hear each and every professor there thinking “but not my students— they will be the ones who get the coveted academic positions.” (Some may even have been generous enough to think “Caltech” students.)

The sad truth is that those professors were probably mostly right, although not entirely. Of the three PhD students who worked with my advisor, Tom Soifer, when I was there, we’re all in faculty positions. James Larkin is at UCLA and Tom Murphy is at UCSD. I’m the odd one out, teaching at a teaching-focused small liberal arts college rather than at a prestigious research Unviersity, but still I’ve got one of those rare and coveted professor positions. In Physics, professor positions everywhere are heavily dominated people with degrees from the top handfull of schools… yet they are all themselves still training graduate students, with graduate training programs designed to produce more academic researchers.

Socieites and meetings and focus groups will meet every so often and wring their hands about the problem, and give lip service either to increasing the number of staff scientists and decreasing the number of graduate students, or give lip service to “training graduate students for other careers”. But little has changed despite this hand-wringing in the last twenty years, and I don’t expect it to change any time soon. The professors, the ones in position of power, are the rare few who got the desired positions, so they aren’t feeling the pain, and thus have little incentive to change it. Meanwhile, funding agencies keep talking about “attracting the best scientists”, which leads to university administrations talking about “improving the graduate program”, which inevitably leads to trying to attract more graduate students. It’s a vicious cycle that’s not going to end.

(And even if you do get into a scientific research position, you’re still screwed. At least in astronomy, funding has gone completely into the toilet. Last I heard, NSF astronomy was granting only about 1/8 of the proposals it received, which is even worse than when I was failing to get NSF grants in the 00’s. Also, national observatory facilities are being eviscerated on the altar of ausperity and gigantic projects. Not only are there too few research science positions for the graduate students we’re producing, there are too many research science positions for the amount of science that our society is willing to support! It’s bad all around.)

What you should do about it is be open and honest to any young people you know. Warn them that going into an academic PhD program is a trap. You will be enticed with the promise of an intellectually fulfilling job as a research scientist, once you put up with the years of hazing you undergo as a grad student. Only, at the other end, statistically you won’t be able to find a job. I wrote about this back in January in my post Why go to graduate school in Physics?. The short version is that there’s only one reason: because you want to be a physics graduate student for six years, and it’s worth it to you to take six years out of your life to do that. Yes, if you want to be a professor, you have to get a PhD. Similarly, if you want to win the lottery, you have to buy lottery tickets. but the competition is intense.

You will also spend much of your graduate school career frustrated as you will see that everybody around you knows that the system is broken, that academic PhDs are being vastly overproduced… but that nobody is willing to do anything about it.

So do something about it yourself. Don’t let yourself into the trap unless it’s not a trap for you, but an interesting diversion for your life.

Why go to graduate school in Physics?

I just came accross an article at The Economist entitled The Disposable Academic: Why doing a PhD is a waste of time. This has prompted me finally to write this post, which I’ve intended to write for a long time (like so many other posts on my too-quiet blog).

There is one, and only one, reason why you should go to graduate school in Physics or Astronomy. (This is probably true for any other field as well, but I’m going to stick to the field where I actually know what I’m talking about.) That one reason is: because you want to be a graduate student in physics for five or six years. That’s it.

It is true that if you want to teach physics at the University level, or that if you want to have a career in physics research where you’re leading and doing you’re own research, you need to get a PhD. This isn’t 100% true; you can certainly teach at the community college level with a masters’ degree, and you can get a job working with a physics research group (although those are quite rare). However, for the most part, it’s true. This leads many people to conclude that, because what they really want to do is spend their life as a professor at a University, they need to go to graduate school.

However, going to graduate school because that’s what you want to do is similar to buying a lottery ticket because you want to be a millionaire. Yes, buying a lottery ticket is a prerequisite for winning the lottery, just as getting a PhD in physics is a prerequisite for being a physics professor. However, the fact that you’ve met that prerequisite is very far from assurance that you’ll be able to do either. Thankfully, the chances of getting a physics professor job aren’t quite as bad as the chances of winning the lottery. However, in both cases, they’re bad investments.

There is a tremendous opportunity cost associated with being a physics graduate student. It’s not as bad as being a humanities graduate student. For the most part, if you can get into a physics graduate school, your tuiton will be paid, and you will receive a stipend of something like $20,000/year. You may be able to make this as a research assistant— a good deal, because you’re essentially being paid to do your PhD research. Or, you may have to teach some classes… which I also personally view as a good deal, but that’s because I like to teach. (And, the teaching you do as a PhD student is lower stress and less time consuming than what a professor at a small liberal-arts college does.) However, there is still the opportunity cost. With your skills and abilities, you would be able to make a lot more money doing something else.

If you think you want to pursue a profession in academic physics, but you are going to view the years you spend working on your PhD as a sacrifice, then it’s not worth doing it. The probability of getting that academic research job is just not high enough, even if you go to one of the top schools out there. What’s more, ironically, the experience you get doing something else may well serve you better for any other job you might get thereafter, and it will almost certainly look better on your resume than the PhD will.

On the other hand, the life of the physics graduate student isn’t necessarily a bad one. Yes, you will spend several years of your young life making a whole lot less money than you could otherwise. Yes, you will live the “graduate student lifestyle”, meaning that you’re still more or less pond scum in the hierarchy of your institution, and that you’re still in training, still living the life of an apprentice. However, you do get to spend five or six years studying very interesting stuff, and performing original research. It can be a very cool thing to do. Yes, no matter who you are, you will go through moments of self-doubt where you wonder just what the hell you’re doing, and you may go through periods of despair. But, overall, it can be a very fulfulling way to spend several years. That is, if you go into it recognizing that you’re doing it for the sake of doing it, not as an investment in a future career that you’ll have any assurance of achieving.

And, of course, to enjoy the graduate student lifestyle, you have to keep some perspective on life. If a professorial job were guaranteed, then perhaps one could stomach the idea of living several years with your life on hold, being underpaid and undervalued for working too hard. But, since that professorial job is far from guaranteed, you can’t sacrifice your whole life to be a graduate student. Some will consider this heresy, will believe that graduate students are supposed to work really really hard because “your education is an investment in your future”. But, again, a PhD program is today a terrible investment. Yes, you should probably expect to work up to 50 hours a week… not because you’re overworking, but rather because you’re inspired by your subject. But you should not, under any circumstance, join one of “those” labs where the professor expects you to work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. You need to have a life. Work hard, but keep perspective. Recognize that you need to value your life right then.

What’s more, you’ll need to recognize that the culture of the PhD program is a bit dysfunctional. You almost certainly will feel cultural pressure to want to achieve the highly valued research professor position after graduate school, especially if you go to a top tier graduate school. You will feel this pressure from peers, and from your institution. (They partially judge the “success” of their graduate program based on the “placement” of their graduates.) Take it all with a grain of salt. It’s your life. You are decidedly not a failure if you don’t get one of the vaunted research positions, and indeed there’s nothing shameful about deciding that you don’t want one. Try to get one if you want one, and it’s inevitable that you’ll be disappointed if you don’t, but don’t feel ashamed, don’t feel like a failure, and don’t feel like you’re letting anybody down if you don’t get one. After all, most of us, if we’re honest, will admit that we’re overproducing PhDs in all fields, including physics, for the number of jobs out there that Physics PhDs are “supposed” to want.

Physics GRE Considered Harmful

“As presently constituted, it’s quite possible that the GRE physics subject test does more harm than good, and we should either fix it, or seriously consider getting rid of it altogether,”

A quote from Jennifer Siders in this article at aps.org, that really we ought to take seriously. I doubt we will, though, because the Physics GRE is well entrenched at most graduate programs across the country, and making changes like that is always tough. Indeed, the article I linked to (as a result of seeing it in Pamela Gay‘s Facebook status) was written 13 years ago, and yet the Physics GRE is still going strong.

I’ve been grouchy about standardized tests for some time. When it comes to things like the general GREs and the SATs, I believe that it does correlate with overall academic performance. Whether or not it’s testing the right stuff, there seems to be some correlation between what it tests and what we’d really want to test. But, it’s not perfect. That is, for (say– I’m making this number up) 80% of students, the SAT and general GRE might a good indicator of how successful they’ll be in college. As such, from a mercenary college admissions’ point of view, it’s worth keeping using them. Most of the time, they get the right students, and damn but it’s really easy to cut down on the number of applications you actually have to put work into thinking about by sorting on a simple number. Of course, from an individual fairness and a humanity point of view, it’s pretty sad to think that the other 20% (or whatever) who would have thrived at a certain college aren’t even considered because of a bad test….

The Physics GRE, however, has bothered me since I started as an assistant professor. Now, mind you, this is not personal sour grapes. My Physics GRE score back in 1990 was 89th percentile. At the time, I felt a little bad about that; I was one of those geeks who always did well on standardized tests, and thought that I should get over 90% on anything math/science related. Much later, I realized that 89th percentile is damn good for the Physics GRE. I did not personally suffer as a result of the Physics GRE, so I’m not posting this out of bitterness.

But, there is evidence that the Physics GRE does not correlate very well with how you do in Physics grad school. It seems completely unsurprising. In grad school, you do well by doing well at research. Yeah, you have to pass your classes, but even there it’s very different from what the Physics GRE tests. The Physics GRE tests your ability to think uberfast (which may be relevant in conference arguments, but is not terribly relevant for most research), your ability to recall things you’ve memorized, and your ability to quickly go through canned problems about basic physics. It’s not completely irrelevant, but it’s not testing what is most important about graduate school.

Of course, all the hand-wavy justifications for why it’s the wrong test only mean so much. As I said, there is evidence that the Physics GRE does not correlate very well with how you do in Physics grad school. What’s more, there’s evidence that women who do just as well as men in grad school on average score lower on the Physics GRE. In other words, either because of societal conditioning or because of intrinsic differences, the Physics GRE is more unfair for women, on average, than it is for men. Given that we’ve got a recruiting and retention problem for women in Physics, we should take this very seriously.

Obama’s speech to the National Acaemy, my failure at my calling, and bad timing

It is a source of continual angst to me that I’m not teaching college physics at a small college.  It’s my calling, it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.  I sort of made a mistake by going to a research University (that really wanted to be even more of a research University, and was transitioning away from a balance in valuing teaching), but at the time it was the only job offer I had.  If you want to be faculty in physics and astronomy, you’re lucky to get in in the first place….  I would have been happy if I could have kept that job.  Alas, I failed, repeatedly, to get NFS (National Science Foundation) funding.  I tried reinventing my research program in an attempt to make something that would better match the preconception of the funding agencies.  Ironically, this was away from Dark Energy.  However, I was the only professor at my institution who was part of a large collaboration, and funding agencies aren’t interested in that.  Indeed, astronomy panels (at least 7 or so years ago) were suspicious of large collaborations in general.  But, still, no luck.  And, in my last few years, the knowledge (confirmed repeatedly by my department chair) that no NFS funding meant zero chance for tenure begin to weigh more and more heavily on me, and I became more and more dispirited, which made it increasingly difficult to produce any papers and to get good proposals written.  I was in a death spiral.

A year before I left Vanderbilt, I applied for jobs at small colleges, and got several interviews.  I did get one offer, but sadly, for family reasons, I wasn’t able to take the job.  The next year, I applied again, but only got a couple of phone calls, no actual interviews.  Now that I’m out, barring some particularly interesting angle, there’s very little chance of my being able to get back in.  There are just too many young hotshots out there with solid research records, no gap, and who aren’t already over 40.  This isn’t to say it’s inconceivable, but I’ve been on search committees, and I know what happens when they see somebody who’s more than 6 years in and not a superstar.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if things might have been different if the economy had crashed several years earlier, and if we didn’t have a president openly hostile to actual science in the white house.  In a speech to the National Academies, Obama announced that there’s going to be a huge increase in the budget for the NSF.  Mind you, only 1 in 6 grants were being funded, so even if it goes to 1 in 3 (which I doubt will really happen, because assuredly some of that NFS doubling will go to various big projects and other “rich get richer” sorts of things), it’s still difficult, you still spend a lot of your creative effort banging your head against thew all.  So, I might have had exactly the same outcome.  However, when grants were turned down, sometimes NFS program officers could only say they didn’t know what to say, because money was so tight; in previous years, they might have tried to help people applying figure out how to better tune their grants.  At 1 in 6, it was a complete crap shoot.

I can’t help but wonder if it might have been different.  If I was, in part, the victim of bad timing.

“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” –John Barrymore

The fact that I’m 40 doesn’t so much make me feel old.  The fact that I’m 40 and not spending my primary full-time-job creative effort on physics and astronomy, together with a realistic assessment that I’ll be able to get back into the sort of faculty job that I want, makes me realize that many (not all) of my primary dreams have in fact been replaced by regrets.

Academia : do I miss it?

Ethan Siegel asked me a question in a comment on an earlier post: do I miss it?

It’s rapidly approaching a year since I began working for Linden Lab (Prospero Linden’s rez day is August 6, 2007), and it’s now been just about a year since I submitted my resignation letter to Vanderbilt, officially ending my career as a professor of Physics and Astronomy. It had been a long road; I’d been in grad school at Caltech from 1990-1996, a post-doc at LBNL with the Supernova Cosmology Project from 1996 to 2001, and a professor at Vanderbilt from September, 2001 to June, 2007. I had dedicated my life, years of schooling and work thereafter, to this career. Once, upon meeting the chair of the department of Harvey Mudd (my college) at an American Astronomical Society meeting, he described me as “one of Harvey Mudd’s successes”… for, as many post-docs will tell you, it’s very difficult to get that tenure-track faculty position. But, as I told people many times, even though “most” pre-tenure people who actually put themselves up for tenure end up getting it, pre-tenure is hardly a cake walk.

I left. I jumped ship entirely– and in this field, it may well make it impossible for me to go back. Because there are so many more people than positions, any college that is hiring will be able to hire truly excellent people who never left, who don’t have a gap in their resume. Now I’m working as a computer engineer, trying to help build and maintain the metaverse. Some have said to me (including a professor of astronomy from Caltech) that I may well be doing more for Astronomy than many in tenure track positions– for, after all, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin, each did more for Astronomy (even though they weren’t thinking about Astronomy when they did it) than the vast majority of lifelong astronomy teachers and researchers. Who knows.

But, back to the original question. Do I miss it? The answer is an emphatic yes, and an emphatic no. What else would you expect from me?

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Hello Time! Please mention Nathan Smith, Robert Quimby

Time has their own personal list of the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2007. Seven out of the ten are in biological related fields— although a couple are paleontology, that is related to the history of life on earth. One is chemistry, and two are astronomy. Of the two in astronomy, one was really just continuing discoveries that have been ongoing for more than the last decade (the discovery of hot jupiters).

The other astronomical “top discovery” is about Supernova 2006gy, the most luminous supernova ever recorded, and the supernova of a star that was more than 100 times the mass of the Sun. Stars this massive are extremely rare. Your routine supernova (which only happens about once per century per galaxy) comes from a supernova more like 8-10 times the mass of the Sun.

As I was browsing through these, though, I hit this story and realized: hey, I know about that one! And here’s what bugs me about this a little bit. We live in a culture where hero-worship is key. Individual scientists win Nobel Prizes, even though huge numbers of them contribute to the discovery. Name recognition in the media and amongst your colleagues is of tremendous value and import, especially as resources to fund science get more scarce. University administrations will be in love with scientists who pull lots of positive press to themselves, but (as I know from personal experience and watching Vanderbilt’s administration suffer rectal defilade when thinking about other groups in the Physics department) members of collaborations who aren’t seen as “the leader” are highly undervalued by administrations and (at least in astronomy) funding agencies alike.

As such, it was sad to me that no names were attached to this. The original paper has a list of authors including some (Craig Wheeler, Alex Filippenko) who are not at all suffering for any kind of public recognition. However, the first author (Nathan Smith) is a post-doc… and post-docs are in a truly vicious world where any lost opportunity for recognition is a slight. I’m also personally familiar with Robert Quimby, who was a “post-bach” working with the Supernova Cosmology Project between undergraduate and graduate school, and who went on to graduate school at the University of Texas. The discovery of this supernova came out of searching related to his thesis work. So while it may sound great to say that the Chandra Space Telescope observed (allowing the reader to infer “discovered”) this, in fact there was effort from a lot of people, including people at the low end who are going to be fighting for recognition and resources in a vicious world of individual hero worship.