Challenging vs Toxic Grad School

Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso wrote a beautiful article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She mentions the differences between a challenging and a toxic grad school environment.

Challenging environment –

  1. Long hours spent working on a research project problem, going on tiring long field trips, studying courses, doing assignments, writing proposals and journal papers.
  2. Research related rejections including publications and a wrong dataset of results etc.
  3. Disagreeing with advisor and colleagues; having healthy discussions.
  4. Long hours studying for qualifying or candidacy exams.
  5. Multiple failures but still hanging on with the help of family, friends, and colleagues.

Toxic environment –

  1. Being yelled at, asked to be more mature and understanding.
  2. Dreadful and abusive group and individual advisor meetings.
  3. Fear of asking for a vacation.
  4. Extreme competition among doctoral students.
  5. Not helpful in guiding during meetings.

If you are in a toxic environment as described above, there are a few questions you need to answer.  Are you happy? Do you like graduate school? Do you like your research? Leaving grad school is not a failure. Do what is best for yourself. Meet a psychologist and talk to him/her. It will definitely help. Talk to a middleman in the department or university and take their advice. It is important to note that God helps those who help themselves.

If you are an advisor and a student is in need of help, encourage them to have family and personal time. Have a friendly and healthy environment. Provide students with links and phone numbers for counseling if required. If you are in a powerful position in the university and can help a doctoral student in distress, please do so.



Shift in the purpose of higher education – Future of the University

Over the past years, getting a job eventually has become the sole purpose of doing higher education. It is important to note that about 80% of the freshmen today believe that being financially well off after graduation is very important compared to 40% in 1971. Only 40% people believe that developing a meaningful philosophy in life is important. People are more focused on paying off their tuition debts than focusing on gaining knowledge, non-technical skills and intellect. Higher paid majors like Business and Engineering are gaining popularity. Students graduating with business degrees is almost double than the second in the list.

The question being – Is this shift good for higher education? Are other skills like critical thinking and diverse background not needed? The prime focus of students is to finish assignments, quizzes, and score well in exams. One goal of education is to get a good job. But, that’s not it. Employers are also nowadays in need of employees with not only good GPAs but also qualities like adaptability, communication skills, and the ability to solve complex problems. There is a need to have a more comprehensive curriculum not only for a getting a good job and salary package but also for the overall development of a human being. What do you think?



Higher education should focus on more than just workplace skills

2016 Doctoral Degree Recipients Data

According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), a federally sponsored annual census of research degree recipients, U.S. universities awarded 54,904 research doctorate degrees in 2016 very close to the previous year’s record of 54,909. The report ( was published by SED in collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF). SED has been collecting this data since 1957. Some of the important findings of the report are –

  1. Science and Engineering Doctorates – S&E doctorate numbers have constantly increased over the years. The proportion of S&E doctorates climbed from 57% in 1976 to 75% in 2016. This gap between the S&E and non-S&E is gradually widening.
  2. Citizenship – The number of doctorates awarded to both U.S. citizens and temporary visa holders has increased by 2% since 2015. It has increased by about 20% for temporary visa holders and by 39% for U.S. citizens since 2006.
  3. Foreign Countries – China, India, South Korea accounted for about half of the doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders.
  4. Gender – U.S. women citizens have been awarded slightly more doctorates in 2016 as compared U.S. men. Woman temporary visa holders account for about 30% of the total doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders. From 1996 to 2016, the number of women earning degrees in S&E fields increased by 84 percent.
  5. Race and Ethnicity – Number of doctorates awarded to African Americans has increased by 32% from 2006 to 2016. For the same period, the proportion of doctorates earned by Hispanics or Latinos increased by 67 percent.
  6. Field of Study – The largest share of doctorates awarded in 2016 was in the life sciences (nearly 23 percent), followed by engineering (17 percent), and psychology and the social sciences (16.5 percent). All fields of humanities and arts made up 10 percent of doctorates awarded.
  7. Median time to complete a degree – The median time from graduate school to complete a doctoral degree has decreased for non-S&E fields but it is still years longer than the average 7-year for S&E fields.
  8. Academic Employment – Non-S&E doctorates have shown more commitment in joining academia after Ph.D. (about 75%) as compared to engineering (14%) and sciences (20%).
  9. Median Salaries – The median salaries reported for postdocs in all fields of study were lower than salaries reported by doctorate recipients entering non-postdoc employment in industry or academia.
  10. Education-related debt –  In 2016, over three quarters
    (77%) of persons who received a doctorate award at age
    30 or younger reported no graduate debt at all, compared to 55%
    of those age 31 to 40 and 50% of those age 41 or older. This is primarily due to more number of scholarships, research grants, fellowships awarded to younger Ph.D.s as compared to older ones.

What are your views on these statistics? Are the number of Ph.D.s awarded more as compared to the demand? Is it worth financially to do a postdoc or go into academia as compared to the industry? Is it financially viable to do a Ph.D. after the age of 30?



Retraction Watch – Massive Database of Retracted Papers

The number of Journal paper and Conference paper retractions over the past 3-4 decades have increased sharply. Although the statistics are alarming, it’s not sure whether the retractions have increased due to increased misconduct and fraud or are journals getting better at finding out these frauds? Retraction Watch is a blog based out of NYC and is founded by two health journalists – Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus. The blog is a searchable database consisting of more than 18,000 retractions dating back to 1970s. Science Magazine has worked with Retraction Watch to find some interesting findings and trends.

  1. Number of Retractions and its Rate – Although the absolute number of retractions have been increasing since the 1970s, the overall rate has slowed. It has remained constant since 2012. But, this reduction in the rate is partially due to the sharp increase in the number of publications which has doubled from 2003 to 2016.
  2. Retractions Reported – The number of journals reporting retractions has increased from 44 in 1997 to 488 in 2017. This is indicative of the fact that journals are considering retractions seriously.
  3. Problematic Figures – According to a study ( conducted by Stanford researchers on 20,000 papers, about 2% contained problematic figures or images suggestive of deliberate manipulation.
  4. Disproportionate Database – Around 500 out of 30,000 authors whose papers have been retracted make up about one-quarter of the total retraction database. On an average, these 500 authors have 13 or more retractions each.  Top 20 account for >30 retractions each.
  5. Country-wise retraction rates – Countries with smaller scientific communities, less strict policies and institutions for handling academic frauds and misconduct have higher rates of retractions.
  6. Retraction can be due to many reasons –  A retraction does not necessarily mean fraud or misconduct. Moreover, about 40% of retraction cases were due to errors, reliability, problems with reproducibility. Rest, 50% is mostly fraud or misconduct (fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism). Forged authorship, fake peer reviews, and failure to obtain approval from institutional review boards for research on human subjects or animals account for about remaining 10%.
  7. The stigma associated with retractions – Most of the readers of the retracted papers under notice are scared of citing or believing the results in these papers. But, it should be noted that these papers are under notice for correction because of honest errors or problematic practices.
  8. Single Origin – The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has about 40% of the retractions in the database which is about 7300 abstracts. Most of the abstracts are from IEEE conferences that took place between 2009 and 2011. The 2011 International Conference on E-Business and E-Government alone resulted in retractions of more than 1200 abstracts.
  9. Co-authors – Co-authors who become targets of retraction due to collaborations need to be more careful. They should always think of authoring papers with different colleagues. In case their co-author work is hit by retractions, it is not the end of the world.

These are some really fascinating findings. What do you think? Are the increasing number of misconduct cases alarming? Are the editors or peer review committee review process getting better in finding these cases? Why do developing countries like Iran, Romania, Singapore, South Korea, China, India etc. have higher retraction rate than developed countries like the U.S.A, U.K. etc?



Harvard Admission Process – Additional Blog Post 3

Most of us are aware of the ongoing trial regarding the alleged racial discrimination against Asian-Americans in the Harvard admissions process. It has become clear in the first couple of weeks of trial that getting into Harvard is not all about grades and scores on standardized tests. The admissions are done on the basis of scores in four categories – athletic ability, academic achievement, extracurricular activities, and personal qualities. Family connections, large fundings to the school, racial background, low income, and other factors all make a difference. Specifically, it is the category of personal qualities where a student’s ethnicity and racial background is considered. It has been found that Asian-American students score relatively low as compared to African-Americans, Latinos, and White. The case is by a group named Students for Fair Admissions who argue that Harvard disfavors high-achieving Asian-Americans and gives a boost to African-American, Hispanic and other white students in their admission process.

During the trial, Dean Fitzsimmons agreed to keep a dean’s list of children of big donors for admissions. He argues that these funds are necessary for scholarships and other purposes of the university. Dean also agreed that the university provides admissions to African-American and Latinos having test scores in the middle range as compared to White Americans and Asian-Americans who are required to relatively score higher in the tests. Fitzsimmons explains that this support is required as the blacks and Hispanics do not get an equal opportunity to prepare for standardized tests because of economic disadvantage. He also said that the chances of a son of a migrant worker getting admission is higher than a regular student from Boston because of the diversity and the life experience that the student brings to the table.

Answering to the allegations of discrimination against Asian-Americans,  he admitted that they do score lower in the personality category but it is due to the letters of recommendation that they receive from the guidance counselors and teachers in high school. He feels that Asian-Americans generally do poorly in this category which represents likeability, leadership, and other personal traits. Dean provided facts that the Asian-Americans constitute about 22.7% of total students which is a great improvement as compared to just 5% in the 1980s. The 22.7% is still greater than 15% of African-Americans and 12% of Latinos.

I personally feel that the Harvard admission process might have some flaws(big donor admissions and some racial discrimination in the admissions) but dividing the overall admission process into 4 categories is good. It is not all about merit and good scores but about the different skill sets that make you stand out in the audience. A more balanced student in terms of studies, grades, outdoor activities, life experience, communication skills etc. should have a better chance of getting admission. I would happily accept rejection till the time anybody processing my application is not racially biased and goes through the admission process properly.  This process is still more balanced and complete as compared to caste or religion based reservations in Indian universities. So, if the dean is to be believed regarding no discrimination against the Asian-Americans, I would partially support the Harvard Admissions Process at least for its somewhat balanced process. I would, however, question the advantages given to some students from a racial or religious background during the scoring of the admission process.  This is something that needs to be looked at more carefully. Some of these people might not have money, resources, scholarships and opportunities for getting into an Ivy league but definitely not all. What do you think?


International Journal of Advanced Structural Engineering – Blog Post 3

My research field is Civil Structural Engineering. I found quite a few open access journals in my field and I chose to write about the most famous one – International Journal of Advanced Structural Engineering (IJASE). IJASE is a peer-reviewed open access journal published under the brand SpringerOpen in Heidelberg, Germany. The journal is published quarterly in both printed and online editions. It is associated with Islamic Azad University (Tehran, Iran) and is printed under the permission of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The Journal is accredited by the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology as Scientific-Research Journal.

The website (see below) clearly mentions the aim or scope which is “To provide a unique forum for the publication and rapid dissemination of original research on structural engineering”. It further goes on to mention “The articles are expected to make a significant contribution to the research and development activities of the academic and professional engineering community with the highest quality. All articles will be peer-reviewed in accordance with the Journal policies by the professional advisory editors”. I think the aims of the journal are well descriptive and very similar to the top journals in my field. They are targeting excellence, quality and significant contribution to the field of structural engineering.

The journal website provides a link for accessing all the 195 open access articles on their homepage. The articles can be downloaded as PDFs from anywhere in the world but the copyright remains with the authors.  All the articles published under Springer are readily available online after publication and free of cost to view and download. However, the author or the institution funding the research work is responsible for paying the Article Processing Charges (APCs) after the manuscript is submitted online. The journal popularity has increased since its inception in 2012. Springer is well aligned with the open access movement and considers “open access to research as essential in order to ensure the rapid and efficient communication of research findings”. As per SpringerOpen website – “The unrestricted distribution of research is especially important for authors (as their work gets seen by more people), readers (as they can access and build on the most recent work in the field) and funders (as the work they fund has a broader impact by being able to reach a wider audience)”.


The Evolving role of Technology in Higher Ed – Blog Post 4

I recently read two articles in “The Chronicle of Higher Education”. One of them supporting the use of technology in higher education and the other critical of it.

1st one was titled “Fighting to Reinvent Teaching and Keep Costs Down” and was authored by Dr. Carol A. Twigg who is the President and CEO of the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT).  She is an expert in the field of transformative technology in teaching and learning.

In the past couple of decades, there has been a great push for online education because of its cost-effectiveness and positive effect on learning. The article is really fascinating and she has been doing work in this field since the last 20 years. The sad part is that she has been facing resistance from all the sides on incorporating information technology in teaching and learning. As it is a known fact that humans naturally resist change, I am not surprised that she has been facing criticism at large.   For example, she along with her team at NCAT worked on redefining math courses as part of a $2.2 million project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It involved reconstructing 114 courses for 38 institutions. The redesigned courses cost around $161 per student as opposed to $400. Along with the reduced cost, students could work with interactive software in labs, get individual one on one help and get online modules to master. It definitely feels like online education is bringing about the necessary change. In my opinion and from my experience, it is effective and more helpful in learning as opposed to the traditional blackboard teaching. But, are we moving fast with this change? Should we research more about the different strategies to be applied? Well, the second article answers some of these questions.

2nd one was titled “Challenging Online Education to Prove Itself”. The article was authored by Mr. William G. Bowen, an economist and a former president of Princeton University.

He believes that the role of online education is increasing but this change should be guided by research and analysis. He is critical of this fast change. According to the research done by his team at Ithaka (a non-profit organization founded by him), the past research on the effectiveness of online education has loopholes. These researches are a result of small sample sizes, inadequate methodologies and the lack of good estimates for cost-effectiveness.  In a large sample randomized trial experiment conducted by Ithaka team on the comparison of partial online study courses and full classroom courses, it was found that this mix of online teaching is, in fact, effective and not destructive. Well, still Dr. Bowen believes that online education oversimplifies the course content sometimes which is not good. He is going to perform another study to test the effectiveness of massive open online courses (MOOC) which have been taken up by Harvard and UPenn very enthusiastically over the recent times. He still believes that there should be a thorough interrogation of online learning before jumping onto using it. In my opinion, it is good to conduct a randomized experiment trial as done by Dr. Bowen to remove any bias while checking any new technique. But, the question is “Is it worth the effort and money”? Some people think it is not and I agree with that. Previous studies at small-scales have shown that online learning is helpful and there is nothing wrong in accepting the change and trying it. Yes, if there is funding for a thorough study, it should be conducted but till that time the effort for change should not stop. What do you think? Should we wait for a more thorough study or keep trying something new?




World’s best education system – Additional Blog Post 2

Who has the best education system in the world? You will be surprised to know that it is none of the big superpowers – the USA, China or even Russia. The country of Finland was declared as “miracle of education” by World Bank recently this year.

The countries were ranked by Universitas 21’s assessment of the world’s top universities and Finland scored way above the other countries when GDP per capita was taken into account. The USA tops the rankings if absolute scores are considered but when the scores were measured relative to the national income levels or GDP per capita, Finland tops the list. Moreover, most of the high-income countries fell out of the top 10 when relative income levels were considered. Considering the income levels is important as it is a measure of cash inflow into the education system and in turn the quality of education. The different measures of ranking taken into consideration are expenditure on higher education, government policy, industry links, the diversity of the country’s institutions, enrolment rates, and research performance. The question is how is a small country like Finland able to provide such good quality education? A few things done by Finland are –

  1. Better standardized tests – Students in Finland only take one standardized test during primary and secondary schooling as compared to annual tests taken by students in countries like the USA. Students in Finland are still assessed on the different tests set up by individual teachers. But, these exams are for personal development rather than competition and the concept of pass/fail. Students in Finland are still assessed on the ability to cope with issues related to evolution, losing a job, dieting, political issues, violence, war, ethics in sports, junk food, sex, drugs, and popular music. I like the idea of one standardized test as Finnish teachers believe in understanding and teaching the students more closely rather than judging on the basis of exam results. There are options for district-wide exams but are optional and results are not publicized.
  2. Playtime – Finnish schools believe that playtime is as important as the teaching. They provide regular play intervals during classroom teaching (15 minutes during 1-hour class). The Finnish students spend less time on homework as compared to an average U.S. student. I like the idea of not becoming test-takers and to be fresh while studying.
  3. Free higher education – Finland remains one of the few countries to provide bachelors, masters and doctoral programmes at zero cost to all the citizens and students from the European Union.
  4. Teaching is a respected profession – Teaching is one of the most selective and highest paid profession in Finland as opposed to developed countries like the U.S.A. The teachers are expected to work fewer hours and are respected too. One needs to have at least a master’s degree and complete the equivalent of a residency program in the U.S.A. Teachers in Finland are allowed to create their own mini laboratories if it helps in teaching.
  5. Political influence – Schools in Finland are all government schools but the education policy is solely based on effectiveness. They try a change, implement it if it works without any political influence.

In my view, the above points are really some good and different initiatives taken up by a small country trying to make a difference. This is why Finland is one of the leading destinations for teacher training in the world. The simplicity, honesty, mindfulness and no political influence makes it one of the emerging education systems in the world. It provides a learning lesson for other countries on how to impart good quality education to everybody at low prices.


Finland has the best higher education system in the world – rankings

Life of a new faculty – Additional Blog Post 1

I am writing this week about the stressful and hectic early years of a new faculty. I came across several papers and articles that I want to summarize in this blog post. A few of the problems faced are –

  1. ‘Foot-in-the-door disease’ – According to a survey, 59% of new part-time faculty joined an institution believing that it would convert into a full time soon. But, the statistics show that this is just a myth. Only 20% of the respondents said that they shifted to full-time from part-time in the same institution according to a survey done by researchers at Seton Hall University.
  2. Mismatch in Teaching – According to recent surveys, there has been a gradual decrease in the time spent teaching and preparing the class. Most of the new faculty members are busy doing research and securing their position or tenured job.
  3. Stress – Leading cause of the stress among new faculty is the self-imposed high expectations, lack of personal time and working with underprepared students. Budget cuts and proposal approvals are second in line in terms of stress risers.
  4. Anonymous critics – Every process in a university involves anonymous critical review. Be it a grant proposal, journal paper review or even tenure committee approval. Anonymous nature of the reviews is good but sometimes can lead to personal petty feuds and even stress at work.
  5. University indirect costs – University always gets a share for indirect costs when a faculty gets a grant. These funds are necessary for utilities, facilities and maintenance, and safety and security functions but sometimes their usage and applicability is questionable.

Some of the suggestions for new faculty are –

  1. Colleagues – Seek help from colleagues in your early days. They are mostly well equipped with the functioning of the department and the academic world. This creates an environment of sharing and collaboration which can be good for further collaborative research and also for other new incoming faculties after you.
  2. Professional Development – Most of the universities have different seminars, resources, and workshop in order to prepare new faculty. This not only helps in teaching but also helps in connecting with people outside your discipline.
  3. Teaching – It is okay to not know the answer if a student or a colleague asks you a question. The best way to tackle this situation is to take your time, be truthful, go back and look for the answer if you do not know. Students and colleague are the best resource and help you grow professionally. You can always reflect upon your weaknesses and improve them by taking suggestions from students and fellow faculty.
  4. Research + Teaching – Integrate research into teaching. This not only makes it more interesting for you but also helps in finding students who have the same research interests and will be willing to work with you.
  5. Expenditure – Keep a check on the research expenditure so that you can achieve future goals easily.
  6. Teaching and class preparation – Teaching and class preparation is a really important part of the job. But it is necessary to have a great balance of time between research and teaching. New faculty are mostly teaching 1-2 classes and are busy preparing for the classes. It is best to not spend more than 2 hours every day on class preparation. Another basic tip for research would be to do at least 1 hour of scholarly writing. This can be done early in the morning or just before going to sleep.

These are some of the points that I liked. Feel free to comment and add anything. I am sure there is no limit to the problems and suggestions both.


Chronicle –

Forbes –

Research Misconduct by John G. Pastorino

I chose the case study of Dr. John G. Pastorino for the second blog post. Dr. John G. Pastorino was an Associate Professor, Department of Molecular Biology, Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine(RUSOM). The Office of Research Integrity(ORI) in 2016 found out that Dr. Pastorino intentionally falsified and fabricated research data in 8 published papers, 1 unpublished manuscript, and 1 National Institutes of Health(NIH) grant application. All the research papers and manuscripts have been retracted. The research paper references and the summary of the report can be found at –

As per ORI, “Dr. Pastorino falsified and/or fabricated Western blot data for a mitochondrial function related to cell/tissue injury, in 58 blot panels included in 42 figures in the different research papers, manuscript and grant application”. Dr. Pastorino falsified and/or fabricated quantitative data in various statistical graphs, figures, and text. Dr. Pastorino duplicated, trimmed/cropped and manipulated images and graphs from other sources to add to his research.

Dr. Pastorino has entered into a Voluntary Exclusion Agreement (Agreement) for a period of five years starting on April 27, 2016 according to which:

  1. He cannot hold any contract or subcontract with any agency of the United States Government.
  2. He cannot have his name on any application, proposal, or other requests for funds to the United States Government or any of its agencies.
  3. He cannot serve as an advisor to any committee of the U.S. Public Health Service(PHS).

My thoughts

I dug a little bit more to find out that six out of eight research papers were published in one Journal (Journal of Cell Science) which is another concern I feel as far as the authenticity and peer review process of the Journal is concerned. Secondly, Dr. Pastorino was fired from his job in RUSOM in May 2016 but there was no investigation ordered on his fellow researchers. Although Nataly Shulga (fellow researcher) resigned soon after Dr. Pastorino, I was surprised that there was no formal investigation on any of the fellow researchers who were either first authors or co-authors on the eight research papers.

Journals retracted the paper after the internal investigation by the university followed by ORI evidence. I also feel that the universities only take action once research integrity organizations find fraudulent evidence. There should be internal peer review by fellow researchers in the university and integrity office of the universities before submitting the manuscript for a paper. This might increase the time for publication but if stopped at the initial stage, this situation can be prevented. Also, some kind of counseling and more rigorous ethical training at the faculty level would be helpful.

If I see from the side of researchers, they did a big mistake probably under the pressure of a tenure, competition, money, fame and other factors. But, this falsification and fabrication should not be tolerated. It is very evident from this study that the researchers knew very well that they were going against the ethical measures set up by the research community. They not only wasted millions of dollars but also ruined the university’s reputation and their careers. They might never be considered for any promotions or tenure-track positions even if they eventually come back to work in the same field. It is just a big blotch on their careers.

Other newspaper reports –