I know. Enough with the bad news, already.
Feb24

I know. Enough with the bad news, already.

Which do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news? The bad news, you say? Okay, here it is. The bad news—wait for it—is that there is no good news. Cue the trombone. The surplus of scientists at the bachelor’s and doctoral levels has been a hot discussion topic recently, as well as in the past. Last week, there was an appearance of even more articles focused on how badly the Great Recession has hurt new college graduates, at all levels. The scope of this phenomenon appears to extend beyond science, and beyond North America or the EU. What follows is a quick overview of three articles on various aspects of this topic. A devalued bachelor’s degree First, there’s the provocatively titled “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk,” a New York Times article by Catherine Rampell. The opening statement provides a startling and depressing premise: The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job. An Atlanta law office is presented as a microcosm of what’s being seen more broadly. At this firm, the minimum prerequisite for employment, regardless of position, is a bachelor’s degree. This includes office administrators, file clerks and even their in-office courier. Evidence is provided that this situation is not unique to this one law firm: Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites. The shortage of scientists is nonexistent Returning to the sciences—in spite of the data supporting the premise of a glut of newly graduated scientists, there has been chatter bemoaning the opposite. The Atlantic associate editor Jordan Weissman had apparently heard enough talk of a shortage of scientists, and presents data that flies in the face of that notion in “The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts.” Politicians and businessmen are fond of talking about America’s scientist shortage — the dearth of engineering and lab talent that will inevitably leave us sputtering in the global economy. But perhaps it’s time they start talking about our scientist surplus instead. Weissman makes his case by providing graphs based on data from the National Science Foundation, broken down by broad disciplinary...

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Chemistry graduate school and mental well-being

In case you’ve missed it, this week there’s currently a dialogue between Chemjobber and Vinylogous (of Not the Lab and a current chemistry graduate student) on the topic “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” This dialogue began with Chemjobber relating a personal vignette of a low point he remembered from grad school and then posing the premise: Yes, graduate school in chemistry can be bad for your mental health. Science can lend itself to isolating workers from healthy habits, from friends and from family. For people who see themselves as competent and at least as good as their colleagues, bench research in chemistry can rub failure in their faces and deliver fierce blows to self-confidence. You can see yourself as falling behind, not pulling your own weight, never giving a good group meeting and just simply not up to snuff. After setting the stage, Chemjobber then asked Vinylogous, “Is graduate school in chemistry (which you’re participating in right now) making you crazy?” Both Chemjobber and Vinylogous were/are, respectively, organic chemistry graduate students (as was I—well, organometallic), so there’s a shared perspective. Of course, this has an inherent danger of describing circumstances not germane to other chemistry disciplines, but that’s probably a minor point. Vinylogous’ response is now up, and is the second post of what will become a five-part dialogue, alternating between the two blogs. This first response is very thorough, covering a number of aspects which may influence a graduate student’s behavior and their feelings of self-worth. After relating some personal experiences, Vinylogous arrives at a central theme: I think a question worth exploring is this: what aspects of the system contribute to the inordinate amount of stress and threaten mental health? I’m going to spend some time discussing my observations, and I invite comment on them. I found a lot of the observations very insightful. There’s a lot of pulling back the curtain going on here to expose activities and behaviors that usually go undiscussed. I particularly liked Vinylogous’ emphasis on the importance of work-life balance: Overall, discussions of work/life balance are absent from chemistry programs; frankly, a student and PI should establish a mutual understanding of what this means, and it should be open to re-negotiation later on. In our departmental orientation, we were handed a list of university counseling centers in an almost embarrassed manner. But no discussion of how to step beyond the lab. Instead, our area head told us: “You should always have something running in your hood.” Vinylogous then brings up other important considerations that are worth reading, so, please stay tuned as the rest of this dialogue unfolds in the coming days. I’m glad to see this topic discussed so frankly. It’s...

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How long does it take to make a chemist?

This guest post was written by Deirdre Lockwood, a chemical oceanography graduate student at the University of Washington, who recently completed an internship with C&EN: Out in the middle of the ocean, deep in the clanging engine room of a Chinese container ship, I found—broken in two—the PVC joint that connected my sampling hose to the bilge pump. Salt water and heat had done a number on the fitting. I was riding the ship to survey the chemistry of the North Pacific for my Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. The broken joint meant for the moment that I had no way of draining my experimental apparatus, and that meant no data. Of course, as a seagoing scientist, I had packed backups. I was sure I had, until I rummaged around in the action packer that held my supplies and found joints of all shapes and sizes, but none like the one that had broken. After a few minutes of banging my head against the hull and wishing for a mid-Pacific Home Depot, I started constructing a labyrinthine patch with the fittings and pieces of tubing I had on hand. It was a fearsome looking thing, and I knew the NOAA engineer who had helped me plumb the system would disapprove. But the thing drained, and I was back in business. I thought of this moment—and other, more scientifically thorny experiences in graduate school—when I saw the recent ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (and C&EN’s coverage here). They’ve done well to call out the elephant in the room: US graduate students who spend years toiling through chemistry Ph.D.s are finding it increasingly hard to find work as chemists when they finish. And they’ve made several recommendations for how to make things better. Some of them would help, I think: making sure programs don’t take on more students than there will be opportunities for after graduation, and creating a grant system that would fund graduate students directly rather than through their advisors. But the recommendation that jumped out at me involves limiting the time for finishing a Ph.D. “Five, six, seven, or more years is far too long for completion of a Ph.D.,” commission member Gary Calabrese said. “Four years should be the target, with the departmental median being absolutely no more than five years.” In the NSF’s survey of Ph.D. recipients in 2003, the median time to the degree in chemistry in the US was six years. In fact, chemists beat out Ph.D.s in math, physics and astronomy, and biological science, who had a median of seven years to completion. It would be wonderful, of course, both for students and for...

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Is Grad School Really a Stupid, Stupid Decision?
Jun22

Is Grad School Really a Stupid, Stupid Decision?

Hello JAEP readers! I have to apologize for things being pretty quiet around here recently. I, and my co-pusher Glen, will be picking up the pace again with electron pusher goodness in the weeks to come. But to start, I wanted to let you all know about a book I recently finished. The title caught my eye, so I had to check it out: Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to go to Grad School, by Adam Ruben (PhD!). In a nutshell, this book is not worth your time. If you want to know more, keep reading! I can summarize each chapter in a single sentence and spare you from having to read the entire book yourself. Chapter One walks the reader through the decision process: Do you want to ruin your life? If so, go to grad school. Chapter Two explains how to choose the right grad program. There are tradeoffs based on geographic location, cost of living, academic rank, but no matter what you choose it will be a bad decision. Chapter Three is all about grad student life: You will live in squalor with no time to sleep or tend to personal hygiene, and will need to depend on the free seminar donuts for daily sustenance. Chapter Four gives you awful advice on how to fudge your way through your research: Tips for choosing an adviser, writing grants, and how to cherry-pick your data to look more impressive than it actually is. Really, are you really turning data fabrication into a laughing matter in light of recent research scandals?? Chapter Five is about how to deal with undergrads: the common undergrad stereotypes, how to handle liars, cheaters, and plagiarizers. Chapter Six is about non-PhD grad programs: If you go into law, medicine or business, you will pay more but also make more than a science PhD, and also make your Jewish or Asian mom proud. And finally, chapter Seven is all about how to defend, deposit and “get the #@%$ out of grad school,” including tips on how to make your thesis longer without adding content, and making the choice between the miserable tenure-track life and “the dark side” of industry. Come on, no mention of non-traditional career paths? Have you never heard of this blog?? The book is meant to be funny. The author, after all, is a PhD-molecular-biologist-turned-stand-up-comedian, who is also into writing, storytelling, and has a day job as a scientist. But I did not find it very funny, frankly. Maybe I would’ve found it more funny if I was into encountering the f-bomb every few pages and reading crass jokes that reference female...

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Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense
Apr02

Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense

It is finished. My final defense was last Wednesday—and I passed! This is a milestone, and milestones are to be blogged about, right? The thing is, I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it. Perhaps it just hasn’t been long enough for it to sink in yet. It’s interesting, this whole final defense thing. For years, you’re going, going, jumping through each hoop that’s presented along the way. From the very start, you’re anticipating the end, which will one day come. You survive classes, give numerous presentations, pass your prelim. Years pass by, then the long-awaited final defense comes… and goes. And then… you’re done. Done? Huh… Okay, awesome, I’m done! That’s it, I guess… I have a Ph.D. Meanwhile, you proceed to announce on facebook that you passed your final defense and everyone can call you doctor now. Friends and family shower you with congratulatory remarks. It’s wonderful. But somehow it still hasn’t quite hit that I really do have a Ph.D. For real. I guess I thought I would feel a greater sense of relief and finality. Of course, I’m happy. But it’s a bit anti-climactic when all is said and done. Overall, I’ve had a wonderful time in grad school. Perhaps this is easy to say now that it’s all over. But really… I’ve lucked out. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but anyone who’s gone through grad school knows that there are a number of factors that are just outside of your control. Many of those things fell into place really nicely for me. I’m really thankful for that. My labmates have become my good friends—we have so much fun together both inside and outside the lab. My adviser is a down-to-earth person who has been supportive of my nontraditional career plans. Not all labs are as friendly, and not all advisers are as encouraging and supportive, to say the least. And perhaps most importantly, my project has cooperated with me. Even after I fell out of love with my research, we were able to maintain a good working relationship. So, what’s next? That’s the question of the hour! The good news is that I’ve been offered a fellowship for a 12-month Masters in journalism program at the University of Illinois. This is fantastic because I wasn’t really interested in taking out loans to get a degree that I don’t necessarily need to be a science writer. But, what can I say, I’m a sucker for getting paid to go to school! And I think I’ll have a lot of fun developing my skills as a reporter and writer. There are core classes that every student...

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2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures
Jan09

2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures

For the past four years, I’ve kicked off the New Year knowing more or less what the next year was going to hold: I’ll be in the lab, working on my project, hoping for good data that will lead to papers that will lead me one step closer to graduation. But this year is different. My defense date is almost scheduled in March (waiting for one last professor to confirm), and in May, I will walk across a stage and receive my Ph.D. diploma. While this makes me extremely excited, it’s also bittersweet. It’s exciting, well, because the end of grad school means the start of something new—finally! But it’s also a tiny bit sad because, as much as I’ve complained about it, I’ve enjoyed being a grad student and have made some really great friends who I’m going to miss. I know those who are in the thick of grad school will beg to differ, but it’s a pretty sweet deal, being paid to get a degree and all. I’ve learned a ton, and although day to day I haven’t noticed it, I’ve grown a lot in five years. It can also be a bit frightening, if I let it be. When several years of your life are spent doing one thing, and one thing only (or mostly), it’s a little unsettling to not know what you’ll be doing in five months time. Despite all that, I’m more excited than scared. I’m looking forward to an adventure-filled 2012. I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I am all about making a list of goals and dreams I hope to see fulfilled in the next year. Those two things may sound the same, but they don’t to me. It feels much less restrictive and more freeing to say, “Here are my dreams for the New Year” instead of, “Here are my New Year’s resolutions,” so that’s what I go with. Here’s what I dream of accomplishing in the New Year: Be intentional and patient with myself as I grow as a reporter and a writer. As a child, I remember getting frustrated with myself when I saw older kids doing stuff I just wasn’t old enough to know how to do—like write in cursive, do algebra or ride without training wheels. Sometimes I feel that way as a writer. I look around and see what other writers, who have 20 years of experience, are doing, and wonder why I’m not out there doing that. But that’s silly. And I know it is, but for some reason that’s how I’ve always approached life. In my frustration, I...

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