An analysis of my current career path

So I’ve been doing some research lately, for myself. Personal research. The type where you have no doubt that it’s useful and of what it’s applications are. The topic? What it’s like to leave academia, in particular to leave science academia. Possibly, what it’s like to leave science research. I’m looking for information on people who have made that choice, how they made it, and if they’re now happy with it. Below I’ve linked to some articles I’ve found, and I’ve tried to parse them all by general area. I hope that some of my readers may find this information useful as well! Also, if my lovely readers have any tips for resources, I’d be appreciative!

Research and teaching careers at small liberal arts colleges still appeal to me, I think:
There is a great brand new CHE article: A Research Career at a Liberal-Arts College:

The department offered me a competitive salary and a teaching load of two courses a semester, comparable to what I would expect at a major research university, as well as a generous pot of start-up money and the promise of a one-year sabbatical after my third year on the tenure track.

Ultimately I did get the chance to leave for the supposed promised land of a Research I university. Instead I stayed. I stayed because I realized that most of the advice I had been given as a graduate student was just plain wrong. I believe the general disdain for the liberal-arts college that I heard back in 2001 is alive and well today, preventing aspiring researchers from even considering positions at such institutions.

In my own case, as a result of a low teaching load, generous internal grants, and two years of junior leave to take advantage of external fellowships, I was able to do the research and writing for a second book and several peer-reviewed journal articles. I successfully came up for tenure in my sixth year.

But the truth is, some of those universities offer comparatively lower salaries, less generous leave policies, fewer internal resources, more service commitments, larger bureaucracies, and, when graduate advising is considered, higher teaching and mentoring commitments. In exchange for those considerably poorer labor conditions, many universities proffer the cachet of being at a Research I, the highest totem on the status pole of academe.

But for serious scholars committed to living in the world of ideas, the ability to carve out of one’s professional obligations enough time for reading, thinking, and writing should be the true measure of whether an institution is conducive to research — and not simply whether it is called a “research” institution.

But what are my chances of finding a job like hers?

The plausible career paths look less and less appealing the more I look into them, and I think the chance of securing one of the few jobs I’m interested in may be too low to justify the time put in towards reaching it. From CHE‘s September 2007 article, The Real Science Crisis: Bleak Prospects for Young Researchers (tagline: tight budgets, scarce jobs, and stalled reforms push students away from scientific careers):

But for many of today’s graduate students, the future could not look much bleaker.

They see long periods of training, a shortage of academic jobs, and intense competition for research grants looming ahead of them. “They get a sense that this is a really frustrating career path,” says Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

In particular, I find the following excerpt of the article speaks to me.

Melinda Maris also sees hints of that dark future at the Johns Hopkins University. Ms. Maris, assistant director of the office of preprofessional programs and advising, says the brightest undergrads often work in labs where they can spot the warning signs: Professors can’t get grants, and postdocs can’t get tenure-track jobs.

Such undergraduates, she says, “are really weighing their professional options and realize that they’re not going to be in a strong financial position until really their mid-30s.” In particular, those dim prospects drive away Americans with fewer financial resources, including many minority students.

Although I’ve been in this lab since my undergrad years, I didn’t know all the details of what was going on around me back then. So I didn’t realize that it was very hard to get grants and to find jobs. It’s the second paragraph that weighs strongly in my mind. If I stick it out long enough to actually get myself a tenure-track job somewhere, I’ll be in my 30’s by the time I reach a strong financial position. Even then, how much would I make at a small liberal arts college? The average female assistant professor at Sarah Lawrence is $61,700. Well if you’re trying to raise a family on that in NYC, you’re gonna want your spouse to contribute too.

I’m so tired of living the way we do, and I know it will get better soon if Husband’s investors come through (which it looks like they will), but still it’s been so hard and it will take us a while to dig out of the debt and I just…need to look into if it’s worth it, to keep doing this grad school thing for such cheap pay. I could make more money private tutoring and teaching ice skating!

I think maybe I’ve been pursuing this career as a science professor because it seems so noble and grand, but I’m really scared that it won’t be attainable without making concessions I’m not willing to make.

Once you narrow it down to the places I think Husband and I are willing to live, the number of schools and departments where a job such as I would want might exist could probably be counted easily. Maybe even on both hands. If there are 20 such institutions in places I’d like to live…well that might be the most I could get. And then, the chances that they’ll be hiring anyone, and that I can convince them to hire ME, out of the huge numbers of candidates they’ll likely have….well, the odds seems low, don’t they?

I’m thinking of finding out information directly from and about those actual places in order to further assess what the chances are. I worry that they aren’t good enough to go through another 3 years of grad school just for that chance.

Which brings me to looking at what else I might do with my PhD, or, if I’d rather just go do something else now, with my MS in hand. So the next question is:

What are the other things I’d like to do, and do they require a PhD?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I love most about what I do these days, and far and away the first thing is mentoring undergraduates. Then, I like teaching interested students. I like science research, but…really just parts of it. I like the benchwork but not so much the data analysis. I can write well, but writing technical science papers bores me. I can’t imagine I’d like writing grant applications very much, and it seems like that takes up an enormous amount of the research time new professors have.

And when I think of what I like to teach, I can’t help but answer that it is not this material that I’ve been studying for the quals, but rather high school and first year undergraduate level science of a sort similar to what I do now. (Note that I could, however, get my PhD in the discipline I’m in now and then teach in that related discipline). I don’t like preparing lectures, writing or grading tests or homework problems, or dealing with students who only care about getting A’s. Although I might be able to mentor more and create more intimate relationships with my students at a small college, I would still have to do large amounts of the parts of teaching that I don’t like. And there are jobs that are more just mentoring and less teaching, or where I don’t have to do the boring parts. For example, one-on-one tutoring of high school and college students.

Another thing I love to do is to manage long-term projects and teams that work on those projects. I’m good at it, and that’s a valuable skill. I also like to research a topic and to organize the information in an easy to understand way, which is also a valuable skill.

Articles recounting experiences of leaving academia and academic science:

I have recently discovered the ongoing saga of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, who has been writing updates on grad school and then post-doc life for Science magazine since 2002. You can see an index of all of the chapters here. Most recently, she is very excited to have found a job outside of academic science. She tells us about it in her latest installment, Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 15: This Strange, Funny Feeling:

At long last, it has finally happened. I have been blessed with a job opportunity (which I have accepted), and I am damn happy about it. For a while there (as many of you could see; it was raw and in the open), I had no confidence, little hope, lots of numbness, rage, angst, and dread that my life would suck forever. I know, it sounds like hyperbole or extreme neurosis, but from the e-mail I get I know I’m not alone. Anyway, now that the guilt about leaving academic-type science has lifted and I have a new and shiny place to go (that I actually want to go to, instead of just fleeing from the current place), I feel like a new human being.

Also, this article recently ran in CHE about someone who left academia many years ago for his family’s business.  This was interesting to me as an example of how the skills I’ve learned are useful even if I, say, leave science research altogether.

For the immediate future, I will stick it out. Let some time pass, try to get back into research, and just look around and analyze my options as the summer begins. Hopefully Husband will bring in some more cash, and I’ll get my summer stipend payment, and we’ll be a little more comfortable. The quals will be further behind me and this experience of grad school itself won’t seem so raw, and with distance, all things are clearer. But the information gathering has begun, and the question is being analyzed.

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The quals are over!!!

And whether I pass or fail, I’ll never have to deal with them again! Woohoo!!!!!!!

So um, the exam was ridiculous. I had a hard time, with my mental state, and seriously considered just turning in the exam, saying “Sorry, I can’t do it,” and walking out of there, many times during the exam. My focus wained and I even teared up once or twice. All in all it was a hellish experience. But I stuck through it (go me!) and I kept trying, and by the end I had conjured up something for most of the problems. The chief issue I had was time. Many of the exam questions had 5-7 parts, and I just couldn’t work through it all that quickly. Without a book or notes or an equation sheet, I had to stop and think if I had the right equation, and sometimes I had only managed to memorize related or basic equations that needed extra manipulation, which of course took time, so that even if I worked through it, confident that my math skills would get me where I needed to go with the basic equations I had at my disposal, I simply did not have enough time to do so. One of the problems I essentially didn’t get to at all…leaving it nearly blank. It was the advanced problem for one of the subjects of which there were two questions, so realizing that I would need even more time to stop and think about which equations were correct and to work through how I might even begin this problem, I chose to try to get the basic problem in that discipline further along. I think I successfully completed parts a and maybe b of a-e on the simpler problem from that discipline. Yummy.

Later in the evening I spoke to one of my friends as the other exam-takers were all going out to celebrate (I had my own plans as Husband had been planning on showing me a great time all weekend), and he told me that everyone was complaining about how ridiculous it was. It sounds like they all struggled too and my own performance may well have been par for the course. As such, I know think there’s a decent chance that the faculty will give me a pass on the exam, especially considering it’s my second attempt at it.

Unfortunately, that does not remove the bitter taste from my mouth. I don’t want to be all complaints and disgruntled, but as the solid Generation Y-er that I am, or perhaps the idealist, or the dreamer, or the honest pragmatist who realizes that people can change things…I just don’t understand why the faculty, who this year have seemed to acknowledge the ridiculous format of this exam, couldn’t have managed to just, well, make it more useful and realistic. Graduate degree programs aren’t regulated by the undergraduate accrediting boards like ABET, and there are many other forms of PhD qualifying exams out there in academia. The particular form that my department is currently using seems completely out of touch with modernity and the skills a modern PhD student in my discipline actually needs. The level to which we were expected to perform required hours upon hours of studying, something that took significant time away from my research, and as such, from my junior faculty member PI’s progress this semester as well (I am the only current graduate student in the lab group). My time could have been much better used while still requiring me to do significant work to show that I am worthy of a PhD if I had been asked to do a literature review, or if I had even been asked to be tested on these different subjects at different times so as to be able to focus and spread out the work more evenly, or even just by simply having the exam have been open book or, gasp, with the use of a laptop and all the internet allowed (because by putting a time limit on it, I still have to show significant amounts of knowledge and skill to be able to solve these problems in a limited amount of time, no matter what tools I have at my disposal).

I am left to conclude that this was a rite of passage, something that the faculty didn’t change because they see it as “the way it is.” Their reluctance to modify the exam format to match with the real tools we’ll have at disposal any other time in our lives when we’ll need to work with these concepts, their poorly guided use of so many of the resources that graduate students are to their research programs…well, I can’t help but feel that this is indicative of a lot of the larger problems I see with academia.

It is too slow to change – egos are too big and tiffs between faculty members lead to poor decisions on the part of what’s best for the students. Younger faculty members who have better ideas about how to interface with the current generation of students and how to move the discipline and the education of the grad students into the future are ignored because they haven’t earned their say yet. And these people are already in their 30’s, full adults who’ve been growing and learning in their discipline for years. Blogs and articles everywhere illuminate the disconnect between the older members of academia and the younger; those who accept and promote the status quo versus those who work to change it.

Well I will not accept the status quo. I don’t know if I will or won’t stay in academia, but wherever I am, I will be an agent for change – I will stand up and point out the value of a compassionate workplace, of listening to ideas that have value no matter who they come from. This may mean I will lose jobs or favor at various places because of my refusal to just fit in and accept things, to just try to blend, oftentimes, to be an “honorary man” in a workplace full of masculinity. But there are enough new options out there, enough new opportunities, enough others entering the workforce who feel the way I do, that I see no reason to settle for less than what will make me happy, and I will work to create a career for myself where I am respected, my ideas are valued, and where I enjoy the majority of aspects of my work.

Quals are almost upon me

They begin at 9 am tomorrow morning.  I am fairly calm, but mostly because Hubby is great and I’ve been clinging to him all afternoon and evening for company, assistance, and distraction.  I just couldn’t look at the material anymore…I’m really, really tired of it.  I feel a lot more prepared than last year, but I am still not sure how I will perform – there are just so many things to know.  I think my study strategy was better than last year – since they failed me when I understood concepts but forgot some equations and could only explain how I would solve it if I had the correct starting equation, this time I put more of an emphasis on memorizing equations.  But this has annoyed me to no end, because I honestly hate it and think it’s a waste of my time.  Nonetheless, time is not infinite and there is only so much information I can hold in my head at once, such that things I reviewed 2 months ago for the exam may already be fading from memory.  Earlier today, however, I decided that at this point I know what I know and that would have to be good enough, and settled for reviewing the (numerous, oh so numerous) equations that I think I should have memorized.  As I see it, the possibility still remains that they could throw a topic at me that I simply didn’t have time to cover, or covered a month ago and since forgot, or that requires an equation that has gotten jumbled in my head amongst all the variables, partial derivatives, tensors, del operations, solution methods, manipulations, and whatnot.  And that possibility isn’t as tiny as it could be.  If this were an open book, or open notes, or even if we were just allowed a one page cheat sheet, I would feel very confident that I am prepared.  But it’s not.  So I will go in tomorrow, I will do what I can, and whatever will be, will be.

In upcoming news, expect a discussion of my intent to re-evaluate my career trajectory and whether or not I really want to stay in graduate school, or if I’d like to pursue other options.  I got my MS this spring, and with that in hand, I recognize that now is the ideal time to evaluate my choice and whether it remains the right choice for me (i.e. if I were to get out, I’d better get out quick before I get sucked in and begin to believe that I am failure if I choose to leave the cult of academia).  Economic factors weigh heavily on my mind, as do chances of achieving what I had originally imagined for myself, and the viability of creating a career path that allows for the voluntary lessening of both work hours and pay during my children’s younger years.  Things I’ve learned since entering graduate school about the nature and culture of academia and about being a women in academia and a women in science have only served to exacerbate my fears that this is not the ideal career I thought it might be.  Other options that are chief on my mind: tutoring, popular science writing and science journalism, public policy, jobs in the atheist movement, and working full-time for my husband’s company (which looks like it well may be a viable option starting within the next few months).

Babies of high BMI mothers have more fat and less muscle

I came across this article today, which I wanted to briefly share. Yet more reason for me to get healthier before we start trying to get pregnant! I am making good progress and so is Husband, so we’re on the right track. Since we joined Traineo (a year ago), I’ve lost 12 pounds and he’s lost 27 pounds! Over a whole year 12pounds may not sound like a lot, but it’s been very easy and sustainable and because of that I’m confident that I can keep it off and continue to lose more!

Anyhow, here’s an excerpt from Reuters’ reporting of the study:

However, infants of the 39 overweight or obese moms had significantly higher percentages of body fat (13.6 vs. 12.5 percent), higher fat mass (448.3 grams vs. 414.1 grams), and lower fat-free mass (3,162.2 grams vs. 3,310.5 grams) than the babies born to the 33 normal-weight women, Fields and his team found.

Gauging babies’ body composition at birth could provide a clearer picture of their health than weight alone, Fields added, but then the question remains as to what should be done if babies are found to have a high percentage of body fat. One possibility, Fields said, would be to encourage their mothers to breastfeed. His own research has demonstrated that formula-fed babies tend to be fatter.

Expelled?

Ugh. I am so sickened by even the previews and hype around this new documentary, “Expelled.” From watching the preview, I get the idea that Ben Stein is trying to tell us all that science is persecuting those that disagree…but the problem is, science isn’t about freedom of speech, it’s about TRUTH. And if you come up with some bullshit that can’t be falsified through tests, then I’m sorry, but you’re not making a scientific hypothesis and scientists do NOT need to respect you. So, the hypothesis that there is a “creator” who is guiding the design of life on earth, well…it’s not science. You can have that hypothesis if you want, and you can tell your children that’s what you believe if you want, but you absolutely 100% do NOT have the authority to make my children hear about it in schools, or to be demand respect from the scientific community.

Dan Whipple writes in the Center for Inquiry‘s publication PSICOP:

Expelled is such a morass of innuendo, untruth, irrationality, and fear-mongering that it’s hard to know where to start dissecting it. While presenting a brief for teaching intelligent design (in university classrooms, at least), the film never says what intelligent design is. Then, at a media telephonic extravaganza on January 22, Stein and co-producer Walter Ruloff said they had no theology to promote.

Said Ruloff, “We really are not validating one particular position, being the intelligent design or the design hypothesis, or creationism or other forms. What we’re really asking for is freedom of speech.” But the movie, or even a cursory review of the film’s Web sites (www.getexpelled.com and www.expelledthemovie.com), shows that this assertion is—how to put this politely?—unsupported. Says the GetExpelled.com site, “For decades now, Neo-Darwinism has maintained a stranglehold within public education, suppressing all other theories on the origins of life—especially those that hint of a ‘designer.’”

And this tidbit from that same piece is a real gem:

ID isn’t explained very well in Expelled and neither is Darwinism. This quote from Ben Stein comes from the movie’s telephonic promotional extravaganza. It’s not in the film itself, but the theme is pervasive in the film:

“Darwinism as I understand it—and maybe I don’t understand it,” Stein said, “but Darwinism holds that life began by something like lightning striking a puddle and inorganic matter was converted into living matter. And from that, after four-and-half-billion years, came the form of life that we now know.”

Well, clearly he doesn’t understand it. He made a documentary that’s on the big screens and made top 10 at the box office last weekend, and he didn’t even bother to research what Darwinism is! Evolution and natural selection make no claims about how the first life began, only how it evolved after that point. While the origin of life is a fascinating question that scientists are investigating, the various theories on how life could have begun naturally are still being developed and data is still being gathered. The fact that we haven’t yet pinpointed exactly how the first living organisms began doesn’t negate the evidence for the truth of evolution, the science of how all of the species and organisms living today descended from that first life.

The article in CSICOP directed me to another interesting piece in Scientific American, Six Things in Expelled that Ben Stein Doesn’t Want You to Know. One of these things I had already heard of:

3) Scientists in the film thought they were being interviewed for a different movie.
As Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer and other proponents of evolution appearing in Expelled have publicly remarked, the producers first arranged to interview them for a film that was to be called Crossroads, which was allegedly a documentary on “the intersection of science and religion.” They were subsequently surprised to learn that they were appearing in Expelled, which “exposes the widespread persecution of scientists and educators who are pursuing legitimate, opposing scientific views to the reigning orthodoxy,” to quote from the film’s press kit.

Pretty deceptive of the filmmakers, huh? I bet then they probably selectively cut interviews to show those scientists as unfavorably as possible. Again, ughhh.

I also found that Scientific American has a whole slew of articles on the the documentary, which you can check out at this page: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed–Scientific American’s Take.

NY Comic Con

Well I spent a good part of Friday and Saturday at my first ever geek convention…the NY Comic Con!  I had such a great time, and learned a lot about comics and cartoon art and graphic novels and manga and women in comics and webcomics and games games games.  Husband and I went to lots of great panels, got lots of great free giveaways, and had a great time exploring the exhibit floor and seeing what’s coming out soon and what’s hot now in the world of comics, cartoon art, games, and cartoon merchandise!  It was so much fun especially just to be around all these people totally dressed up in costumes and having a great time and just being themselves and unashamed of it.  What fun!

How do you perceive Gen Y?

In the past year, I’ve seen a few articles here and there about generation Y, even a book intended for employers to help them understand gen Y. I came across this article this morning from Science Careers, and it piqued my interest. I had just been telling Husband last night how I think my generation will help to tip a significant shift in the workplace, such that America’s workforce and its workplace would complement each other again. By discrepancy between workforce and workplace, I speak of the lack of support and flexibility often found in professional careers today, which leaves no room for the work of raising the next generation, taking care of the sick or elderly, and makes it challenging for all workers to achieve balance in their lives. Meanwhile, fewer families have a family member who works at home full-time to manage the household and take care of the children, the sick, and/or the elderly. I got the idea of framing this as a workforce-workplace imbalance from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation’s Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program, which a friend of Husband’s and mine just got hired to work for!

The article’s tagline is: Experts consider “millennials” one of the greatest generations ever to hit the workplace. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Arrogant. Individualistic. Unable to commit. Short attention span. These are some of the labels assigned by employers and pundits to the generation just joining the workforce. Dubbed “Generation Y” or “millennials” in English-speaking countries, these tech-savvy folks, most of whom never knew a world without the Internet, were born between about 1980 and 2000.

A frequent complaint of Gen-Y employers is that they expect too much too soon and are immune to imposed authority. “They want to work in an organization where they are valued as employees and also valued as people,” Henry says. “If they don’t feel a sense of belonging and mutual respect between them and their manager, they will not stay.”

I really don’t think it’s too much to ask to be respected and valued by your employer. Do you?

How do you perceive Generation Y?