As I am sure most of you are aware, Virginia Tech recently announced that it is creating a 1 billion dollar innovation campus in Northern Virginia in conjunction with Amazon’s second HQ (article 1, article 2). Personally, I have mixed feelings on the matter and a discussion with some graduate students friends raised some interesting points.
To begin, anything that is going cost one billion dollars immediately raises questions about funding. The Roanoke Times identifies that Virginia Tech and the State of Virginia are bringing 250 million forward, each, and didn’t disclose where the additional 500 million will come from. The article goes on to say “The school said in its announcement that private philanthropy, industry partners and other revenue streams through sharing spaces will fund the project.” If this is true, and VT gets a new one billion campus for 250 million privately funded dollars it seems like a pretty decent deal – though I guess it largely depends on what percent of the campus is higher education driven and what percentage is corporate/“sharing spaces”. For me, questions remain how this type of campus will inevitably impact the cost of attendance at Virginia Tech both in the immediate and distance future.
Generally, I think the connection with Amazon’s HQ2 will largely be seen as a benefit. It allows for the seamless creation of a student to company pipeline with one of the largest corporations in the world, but in doing so it further blurs the lines between higher education and corporate America. I think even without the new Amazon HQ2 the idea of an innovation campus is beneficial and well received, but there has been speculation that the State of Virginia was unlikely to invest in Techs initiative without the HQ2 centers close proximity. Obviously, there are and will continue to be connections between higher education and industry, but how much impact corporate decisions should have on higher education’s development remains to be seen.
Our professors and mentors are experts. I wanted to start by pointing out the obvious, and go further to say that I think there are a lot of PIs that are not only great researchers, but are great mentors and teachers, as well. However, there are a number of professors that aren’t. Throughout a lot of the blogs I have read this semester (in addition to conversations I have had with fellow graduate students) a common set of topics seem to persistently come up in graduate student circles…
PIs that are great researchers, but leave some things to be desired while teaching
PIs that struggle to provide adequate mentorship outside of the laboratory
Committee members that fail to adequately grasp the intricacies of their research
Admittedly, I feel like the above can be (in some ways) contributed to the fact that human nature predisposes us to complain – but that doesn’t mean the gripes aren’t real. I think there are a lot of explanations for the above (whether they be related to a lack of time and resources, distractions, pressures, expectations, etc) and I think a lot of their ‘excuses’ for not being the ‘perfect’ PI are somewhat justified.
One concept I want to identify as a potentially contributing factor is the idea of ‘expertise drift’. I put it in quotes because it’s my name for the phenomena and I do not know if this concept is readily acknowledged or not. The basic premise is that once someone works towards and becomes an expert, that real level of expertise can gradually leak or drift into a perceived level of expertise in other fields or areas. I think that once someone becomes used to thinking (intentionally or subconsciously) of themselves as an expert it is easier to blur the lines of where that true expertise resides and where it doesn’t. By becoming a PhD or a PI you do essentially become an expert in your field, but it takes close to a decade (4 years of undergraduate + 4-5 years of graduate school) and is localized to your work. Personally, I think this contributes to the three major qualms above… you can have a PI that is an expert on their research, but never put the same level effort into learning to be a teacher or a mentor or an expert in research that isn’t directly in their wheelhouse. Instead, the feeling of expertise can drift into those realms and fosters a lack of self-awareness needed for further development and improvement.
I would be glad to hear others thoughts about this idea… if it’s good, bad, or idiotic. I tried to find some examples of others talking about similar concepts and surprisingly didn’t find much. It seems it can be an issue in the medical field where doctors who specialized in a particular subfield during their residency get a medical degree to practice all types of medicine and then drift into fields well outside of their expertise (source).
I recently came across a tweet that summarizes a problem in academia that I feel needs to change moving forward. Meg Brayshaw, an early career researcher, highlights one of the most pervasive and (in my opinion) harmful institutions of academia – the culture of overwork.
Meg, in her tweet, identifies something that I think most of us are aware of… that overworking, that pushing yourself and those around you is not only rewarded in academia, but it is glorified. It happens to graduate students, who work ridiculous hours under some less than healthy living conditions, and it happens to professors and administrators.
Take a minute to listen to my advisor’s, Dr. Amy Pruden, TED talk about how ‘Changing the World takes more than Hard Work’.
Pay special attention to around the 3-miniute mark (and beyond) where she identifies what it takes to be a ‘successful’ professor and how the system judges a person’s scientific contribution by a set of numbers.
Dr. Pruden created a ‘system’ to be successful that revolved around limiting social interactions, typing short emails, not answering the phone, and frequently sleeping 3 hours a night while relying on caffeine to stay awake. This is the system that we live and work in, and is the result of academia’s culture of overwork. Dr. Pruden’s wakeup call was almost falling asleep while driving on the interstate with her two children; hopefully academia’s wakeup call doesn’t require a similar experience.
I could sit here and type out example after example of what overworking in academia looks like (and feel free to give your examples in the comments as I feel acknowledging our problem is the first step toward fixing it), but I am curious as to why academia has such a problem with overwork to begin with.
Personally, I think the problem revolves around how willing people in academia (graduate students, professors, etc.) are to overwork. The benefits are obvious – more work is done, more papers published, more grants written, more… more…more – so as the percentage of people in academia willing to overwork goes up, those who are not willing to overwork go from being ‘less successful than their peers’ to being ‘unable to succeed’ as they become replaced by those willing to overwork or are never hired in the first place. Essentially, the number of people willing to overwork has to be less than the job demands before those not willing to overwork become competitive.
Personally I don’t think we are anywhere close to that – as graduate students or faculty. Regardless of what people say or think, academia attracts enough intellectually competitive people that there will always be a willingness to do more for less IF it means they can get ahead of those around them.
Take graduate students for an instance, I sadly think graduate school can often be equated to an arms race where we are all essentially competing against each other. If student A is willing to work 60 hours a week and student B is unwilling to overwork, student A (more times than not) produces more and becomes the standard. Student B then realizes that they are essentially being judged by student A’s bar and either 1) has to overwork to meet that standard or 2) accept not being as competitive and the consequences that it brings (whether that is longer time to graduate, less publications, advisor resentment, fewer opportunities, inability to become a professor, etc.). Then consider that it’s not two students, but most students and most prospective students – all willing to work 62 hours or maybe 70 hours until the bar required to be even average is unhealthy.
What choice is there? How does a student look around at their peers (all grinding away) and at their advisors (who barely sleeps) and decide ‘I am the one that deserves a break’ when you feel you don’t work as hard as those around you? The system makes it hard to even acknowledge what overwork is, because in academia overwork has become the norm and it has been glorified.
I do imagine this problem is found in other industries, as the pressure to be successful radiates externally and internally in most of us. I think the difference with academia, and why overwork is so prevalent, can be attributed to the saturation of competitive and driven people in academia vs the typical work place. Like it or not, the vast major of people not willing to do more for less is what sets the bar at what’s typical or average and the vast majority of people in academia are willing to overwork.
I don’t really have many suggestions for how to fix this problem, and admit that it’s one that will be particularly challenging because it goes against what seems to be our basic instincts. Personally, I think wide ranging, systemic changes are the only way to eventually make lasting changes, but it has to begin with understanding that we do have a problem and that an unwillingness to overwork shouldn’t be perceived as laziness.
In my last blog I talked about how being in a goal driven society that doesn’t adequately acknowledge successes (instead quickly moves toward a new goal) can contribute to the unhealthy mental state that is persisting throughout higher education. When I was looking for background information on the general state of mental health in graduate education I came across a study that was honestly startling. Entitled ‘Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education’, the study was published in Nature’s Biotechnology Journal and identifies a number of concerning statistics related to graduate student’s mental health.
Polling 2,279 students, from 26 countries, 234 institutions, and a wide range of disciplines (biological/physical sciences – 38%, engineering – 2%, humanities/social sciences – 56%, other – 4%) this study found that graduate students are more than 6 times as likely to experience depression or anxiety than the normal population. Figure 1, shows how major factors (work-life balance, faculty mentor relationship, and gender) can influence a student’s mental health.
The study went on to recommend intervention methods to help alleviate some of the stresses graduate students are experiencing. These include enhancing access to mental health support and making a concerted effort to change the culture that is leading to these stresses in the first place. Personally, I feel that enhancing access to support systems is very important, but until higher education can fix the underlying causes of these mental health issues they will continue to persist. I believe the first step would be to assess the role that faculty mentors take on and contrast it to the role these mentors should be taking. If faculty are expected to help handle quality of life mentorship in addition to their roles in scientific mentorship, then they should be better prepared to handle these responsibilities. If not, some effort should be made to connect students with a mentor that can bridge the gap.
A recent study found that graduate students are “six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general public” (https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4089). In other words, graduate students are disproportionally more depressed than the average person. A fact that, though it is disheartening, isn’t extremely difficult to believe. There are a number of reasons why graduate education can lead its students toward depression including, but not limited to, poor work life balance, stress, financial instability, isolation, and the abstract reality of a graduate education. I feel that these factors are extremely influential and are worthy of a blog post themselves, but one concept that is largely unacknowledged is the psychological impact of working in a goal oriented system.
Do not get me wrong, I think there are a lot of benefits from a goal oriented society that strives to work toward major achievements – whether they be personal, professional, societal or so forth. I feel that the issue arises with the implementation of what working in a goal oriented society has become, and how quickly we jump from the accomplishment of our most recent goal to the pursuit of our next, often without even recognizing the switch.
We are almost always working toward a goal on the horizon, focusing on the next project or assignment or checkpoint instead of acknowledging how far we have already come. I think this is especially problematic since we are usually conditioned to associate success, and in a greater sense our happiness, with the accomplishments that we never actually appreciate. Shawn Achor’s TED talk “the happy secret to better work”, see below, outlines the problems with connecting our successes with our happiness and how it can usually leave us unfilled.
Personally, I find the idea of the goal horizon to be ingrained in graduate education. Small successes usually lead to more questions, and in the world of research, more failures. I find that my peers (and myself) are often chasing some abstract goal that is usually just out of reach. Even when we feel that we might be close, a meeting or update can leave us feeling further away than ever. I am sure we have all had these moments, and it can be depressing. I remember talking to a post-doc acquaintance of mine who had recently spent the better part of a hundred hours, in the last two weeks, working in isolation on a novel, particularly challenging analysis. When they went to explain their progress to their advisors they were met with fairly significant criticism that failed to acknowledge the numerous successes that they had accomplished during that time. I remember them explaining how disheartening it was to have their progress go largely unrecognized and instead be replaced with more hurdles. By itself the psychological impact is likely minimal, something that will drift away in a day or two, but overtime these small (or large) interactions can add up and significantly impact one’s outlook.
Some would likely blame our mentors for these problems – saying they fail to adequate nurture their students – and I would agree to an extent. However, I think the first steps need to be taken by us, the students (or individuals more broadly), and work toward being more cognizant of our goals and be willing to appreciate ourselves for reaching them. By making a concerted effort to find positivity in the present and not attach it to a future horizon maybe we can not only get graduate students close to the average for mental health, but maybe improve the average as well.
I am not sure how many of you have been following the University of Maryland saga with their head football coach DJ Durkin. I am originally from Maryland, so though I am a Hokie, I still keep up with my home state and was appalled when I first heard what was happening with that particular program. For those unfamiliar, Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old football player, passed away in late May after suffering an exertional heat stroke at a team workout. Following McNair’s passing an investigation found the culture of the football program to be largely to blame. Maryland’s coaches have been accused of fostering a culture of “abuse, fear and intimidation” . Coach Durkin had been under administrative leave since August, and I began writing this blog after hearing of his reinstatement (much to the chagrin of many involved) on 10/30/2018. It turned out that the board of regents decided they did not want to part ways with Durkin and wanted him reinstated. Some media outlets even speculated that if University of Maryland’s President Loh (who decided to retire after the Spring semester in 2019) wanted to fire Durkin then the board would fire Loh and find someone willing to reinstate Durkin.
This begs the question, how have Universities become so indebted to athletic programs? Maryland is the most recent, ridiculous example of Universities going to extremely lengths to protect its high profile football coaches, and it likely won’t be the last. Earlier this year it seemed that Ohio State was investigating to find a way to keep Urban Myer as much as it was to remove him. I also know these problems are not entirely localized to college athletics – there are plenty of stories of scientists, celebrities, politicians, etc. doing similar things and getting, at most, a slap on the wrist.
Pat McAfee (an ex-NFL punter, podcaster) commonly gives behind the scene perspectives on NFL teams, his college days, previous mistakes, and commonly uses the phrase “be who you can afford to be”. The phrase has really stuck with me, and is my only explanation for how these things continue to happen. In my opinion, it’s at the root of why the proverbial book will be thrown at someone deemed expendable, while someone with a significant profile will be let off for doing the same thing. Sadly, this mantra not only exists in our society, but is also being realized in our institutions of higher learning.
Update: After receiving significant backlash from the community, campus, faculty, and Governor of Maryland (among others) Coach Durkin was released one day after his reinstatement.
Edit: I realized I published this under the wrong category so recently republished it for class.