Re: Academics fear PhD quality is slipping–>Standardization?

 brings up a very interesting point about concerns of academic quality slipping and how that impacts standards for a PhD degree.  I recently came across an article (afraid I can’t find the link now) but it was an interview with an undergrad who couldn’t find a job.  According to the article, 1 out of 2 graduates this year will be either unemployed or under-employed.  The student being interviewed explained since he hadn’t been able to find a job, he was probably just going to go to grad school.

Hearing that statement always makes me a little queasy.  It certainly speaks volumes about the student’s perception of their field’s graduate programs.  The particular student being interviewed was in creative writing, but I’ve heard the same statement from students in biomedical science fields.  “I don’t know what I want to do, so I think I’ll just go to grad school and figure it out”.  How is it that graduate programs have become the back-up for so called “real world” jobs?  Is this just a reflection of students’ opinions of PhD programs?  Is it actually a reflection of slipping PhD quality?  Or maybe this is just economics – a solid application can still get you into grad school even if it won’t get you into a career.  If minimum wage is $7.25/hr, then the avg NIH stipend is a decent bit better, and generally comes with benefits.

In the sciences, graduate students are cheaper to employ than a technician, who is often entitled to full state employee benefits (even when they are employed off of grant money).  Technician’s also get overtime benefits, whereas grad students are basically expected to work “overtime”.  So it’s no wonder that there would be great appeal to PIs to fill their labs with graduate students rather than techs or worse yet, expensive post-docs.  Yes, students come with pesky mentoring responsibilities, but it’s a small price to pay as a PI for all that productivity.  And if those students can at least manage their experiments, who cares about developing independent thinking or writing skills or teaching experience?  There’s no motivation for a PI to develop the grad student beyond being efficiently data producing.

It’s easy to see how the current system could be abused to the point of “watering down” the academic rigor of the PhD program.  So a student isn’t quite up to snuff for the degree?  Well, then just keep her/him working in the lab for another year…and the PI gets another year of data.


Posted in FutureProfSpring2012 | 1 Comment

The conundrum of work-life balance

Our discussions about ethics in class always lead me back to thinking about the pressures of academia that push people into non-ethical behavior.  I recently read an opinion article on work flexibility that I think relates to these kinds of pressures – the pressure people feel to balance work and families. The opinion article was about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent announcement that she leaves her position as vice-president of Facebook at 5:30pm to spend time with her kids:

While the opinion piece is a cry to arms in support of working women who choose work-life balance as a priority, it brought to mind a bigger conundrum to me.

Let’s look at an example: An individual chooses their career as their priority.  They dedicatedly work long hours and their goal is to move upwards into management.  In the same environment, we have a similar individual who has young children and can’t stay at work later than 5pm because of daycare hours.  This individual works hard, but is less productive because they make a point of spending quality time with their children.

Now both individuals apply for the same promotion.  Who do you choose??!?

If I were the one with the family, I wouldn’t want to be penalized for spending time with my family!  I still worked hard and was a productive member of that environment.

But if I were the individual who focused on their career, well, I would feel like my extra work and productivity should count and I should be picked for the promotion.

The conundrum in my opinion is we try to accommodate both individuals with childcare responsibilities along with those who don’t in the same performance evaluation systems – Publish or Perish! – whether it’s in academia or elsewhere.  How do we treat the people who choose not to have children?  Does protection of working parents inadvertently disadvantage those who do not have children?

In my example, the individual who chose not to have children probably looks better on “paper”, having been more productive, and would probably get the promotion.   This is where some of the outcry against pressure on working women comes from – that those who do not have children (or primary childcare responsibilities) are able to spend more time on their careers and ultimately have beefier resumes or CVs.

I don’t have the answer to this situation.  We evaluate people for jobs and promotions by their performance, and to better a workplace we try to hire the people with the best performance.  Even if we could completely change how job candidates/promotions are evaluated, how would we do it to be fair?  I’d love feedback!

Posted in FutureProfSpring2012 | 1 Comment

Learning how to teach people “how to think”?

Welcome to my blog!  This is going to be a venue for ramblings, opinions, not particularly-well-referenced material and other discussions about the Life of Professors.  Maybe something like a National Geographic special, but without the cool David Attenborough accent.  Sorry, I just can’t seem to find that font.

Anyway, the first thoughts I’d like to share come from a more philosophical side, about the nature of college education.  How many times have you heard that you go to college to “learn how to think”?  I’m not sure exactly where my total is, but it’s got to be over 20.

I recently discovered a remarkable address given by David Foster Wallace that deals with the concept of “learning how to think”.  Many of you might be familiar with it, as it made the rounds on the internet few years back, having been transcribed from his commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College.  It has subsequently been published in book format and is therefore difficult to find now, however the audio of the speech can be found here:

I highly recommend listening to the entire thing, but the most pertinant part for my purpose today is:

“Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious…

…Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…

…It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.” “This is water.”  – D.F. Wallace

I think this is beautiful; the concept that from entering college to leaving it, students perceptions are transformed and their thinking redirected in more purposeful and compassionate ways.  That that is what true education is.

Of course this address was targeted to the student audience, but think about the implications it has on the professors.  According to DFW, the educators and administrators duty is no longer to transmit information, but rather to imbue their students with compassionate thinking and awareness.  Think about who provides the experience, the environment, that will transform students perceptions and re-direct their thinking.

Uh, yeah, that would be us.  The future professors.

What do you guys think?  Is this the direction of modern college education?  Is it a professor’s responsibility to challenge their student’s thinking processes and try to change them (or open them), even if they are just teaching differential equations?  How do we even do this??


Posted in FutureProfSpring2012 | Tagged | 1 Comment