Monday, April 14, 2014

About STEM Crysis

One of the bests ways for me to get really angry is to read something about how STEM education is bad, and how "STEM crisis is a myth". Something like this thread on Reddit:

The STEM Crisis Is a Myth

People write long passionate posts there, and all of them seem to agree that "STEM is bad", "Liberal arts education is bad", and "There's no STEM crisis". A lot of this rhetoric also eventually boils down to the protectionist sentiment about "closing the borders", because, allegedly, the whole "STEM crisis" theme is just a lobbying plot to bring more skilled immigrants from China and India to the US. And to lower the wages for honest hard-working Americans. Right!

I guess it is so annoying precisely because it happens on Reddit, where traditionally people like to think of themselves as quite liberal and progressive. And yet suddenly once this topic is touched, they are not liberal anymore.

Anyway, I think there are several important points that are totally missing (or downvoted) from this discourse:

  1. When discussing the utility (or uselessness) of STEM education, don't think about your chances of getting a job in biology after getting a masters degree in biology. Think of your chances to get a good job (any kind of job you would consider "good" or "decent") after getting a degree in biology, compared to your chances of getting a similar job without college education, or after some alternative type of education. Don't think narrow. Think as broad as possible; think of your total chances: compare overall unemployment rates and average salaries for BS in math or physics, as compared to those who didn't get this degree.
  2. Don't even start about academia and "oversupply of PhDs" when the initial topic was STEM education. Academia is only a small subset of total job marker for PhDs. And getting a PhD is only a minor track among all those you can pursue after getting a bachelor degree in STEM. These two topics are tangentially related, but only very tangentially.
  3. These days, it is normal to change your occupation in your adult years. It's not the medieval world in which being born in a family of potters meant that you were bound to stay a potter for the rest of your life. It is in fact quite probable that you may decide to start something entirely new in your middle years, and you have no means of predicting today what will interest you later, in some 10-20 years from now. Flexibility is both a blessing and a curse, but I still think it is much more of a blessing. It means that you can change your life later on, even though it also means that getting college education doesn't "guarantee" employment in exactly same field that you happened to study.
  4. Complaining about immigration to the US is just... a bad tone? I don't even know how to put it properly, but it just doesn't sound American at all, does it?. The very glory of this nation always relied on the supply of newcomers, on mixing of different cultures, and on using other people's willingness to work, and their education (one they received abroad) for free. To talk about H visas in a negative context is just unpatriotic! Xenophobic sentiments like this one are OK, I guess, for some nations: there are protectionists and racist countries out there, but it sounds very odd, and very off in this context.
  5. Living in a global world works in both directions as well. If people from Germany can come to the U.S. to work here, it also means that you can go to Germany from the U.S. to work there. Or South Korea. Think of it, it may be an interesting opportunity.
  6. Finally, to get more STEM jobs one needs more entrepreneurs who are both interested, and well versed in STEM. The only way to get them, is to educate people in STEM; almost to push them into STEM. STEM jobs won't appear by magic just because you happened to get a STEM degree. Yet with a STEM degree you have a chance to create some new jobs. And in the broader perspective, it may be the most important point here.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Adjusting the numbers: 5% of those accepted to a graduate school will get a tenure-track position eventually

Previously I claimed that about 20% of neuroscience postdocs eventually get tenure-track positions. (Link to the diagram). I also assumed that only 50% of graduate students make it to the end, and graduate with a PhD, which meant that for a fresh-new graduate student the probability of eventually, some day, getting a tenure-track position was about 10%.

Now it looks like I may have to correct these numbers down a bit. Still about 50% of PhD students graduate  with a PhD (link; the rest either drop out, or get a Masters), but the success in getting a tenure-track job was somewhat lower this year. In 2013-2014 season top universities got about 350+ applications; decent universities got about 300 applications. Total number of positions in neuroscience this season was probably about 40 (maybe 50), liberal arts colleges and small state schools included. It means that about 15% of those postdocs who looked for a position eventually got it. There were probably positions I didn't notice, but also some of those 300 candidates applying for positions were not postdocs, but more senior candidates, trying to move to a different place, or upgrade to a better institution.

Which leaves us with this estimation. 15% of postdocs who seek a tenure-track position now eventually get it. Because some postdocs probably get disillusioned earlier, and don't even bother applying, It should be a safe bet to assume that not more than 10% of mint-new postdocs would end up in a TT position.

Which means that not more than 5% of new graduate student will get a TT position.

Now, as it is a high time for graduate schools interviews, this is some number to discuss with prospective candidates. Are they OK with that? Do they realize what it means for them personally? Do they know their options?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Again on PhD numbers

Two interesting people have written two interesting posts about reducing admissions to grad schools. GMP has described graduate students who are smart, but not motivated, and so obviously have no future in science. Which poses a question: is it morally acceptable to keep them in grad school? And is it ultimately good for science? Maybe it is better to give them some kind of Advanced Masters, and let them transfer to industry (where they were apparently heading all along), instead of forcing them to go through this whole PhD experience. Why would you teach somebody to be an independent scientist if they don't plan to be an independent scientist? And why wouldn't you use the money that is currently spent on training for funding permanent scientists instead?

Another great post by Prof-Like-Substance is about how certain specialists, even within one sub-discipline, may have much better chances of employment outside of academia than other specialists. The question here is pretty similar: is it morally acceptable to let people invest their lives in potential dead-ends? Especially where there is, apparently, a viable alternative? Or should students be discouraged from entering certain fields, and be by force redirected onto more promising (or safe) tracks?

My general attitude towards this whole "surplus of PhDs" problem did not change: I don't quite agree that the situation is dire, and I definitely don't think that admissions to graduate schools should be halted. As I have stated before, while the existing "end-road bottleneck" of low job prospects for senior postdocs makes people anxious, unhappy and desperate, bottlenecks placed at the very beginning (hard admissions to grad schools) would discriminate against vulnerable categories of people; against all those who either start low, or think low of themselves, such as ethnic minorities, lower-income students, career-changers, women, foreigners etc., which is both unfair, and inefficient. People should be given chances to try things out. Late bottlenecks are not particularly bad, but rather all bottlenecks are bad in general. Ideally, scientific job market should allow promising scientists to gradually converge onto permanent positions. Lots of people should be allowed to try; lots of people should be allowed to fail, and while the judgment shouldn't be brought too early (lest it be arbitrary), it also should not be postponed for years (it is cruel).

Below I tried to illustrate some scenarios of this kind as "people sifts", or reversed pyramids. If everybody are admitted to the program and kept in it, but after 22 years of learning 95% of people get sacked (left shape), the remaining 5% will probably be very worthy of the jobs they got. But it would be an extremely inefficient, and, at the same time, a very cruel scheme, as everybody participating in this rat race will be extremely anxious and unhappy all the time. Moreover, many women, for example, would probably opt out of this race altogether, as they will reason at year 3: "Either I have a baby now, or never. But if I have a baby, I'll be at least a year behind all those males around me. I guess it's better to withdraw altogether, and find another job". Which would be double-bad, as it is, again, both unfair, and inefficient.

If, on the other hand, everybody are selected early on, and then the employment is practically guaranteed (right shape), all scientists (those who have made it) will probably be happy and friendly, but they will either all share rich parents and good undergraduate institutions, or will be chosen at random. Because when a person is 20 years old, and they studied engineering for 4 years, it is impossible to tell if they will become a good biologist or not. You will have to either use criteria that are predictive, but intrinsically unfair (such as their GPA and pedegree), or just throw a dice.

The only workable solution, in my mind's eye, is the shape in the middle, in which many are called, and at every step many are chosen, but lots of small decisions gradually make this groud converge onto a successful group of highly efficient scientists (unlike in the right scenario). Some people will, obviously, be disappointed, and some people will still feel betrayed at the very end, but most of them will escape rather early (unlike in the left scenario). I think a sift like that could work.

Now, if we draw modern-day neuroscience world in a similar way, how will it look like? According to my estimations, it will look roughly like that:

As you can see, in essence, it is pretty bad at both edges. It is not that easy to get into grad school, but at the same time the pyramid has a dead-end-style bottleneck at the very end. Postdocs slam at it daily, weeping in sadness and sorrow, and it is this sound that shapes the emotional background of the field. Which is not at all healthy.

What can be done? Let's smooth out the corners!

Accept more people into graduate programs, but, indeed, make Masters a requirement. Make PhD more competitive by design, not by personal failure of individuals, but at the same time, don't kill candidates early: let them try things out. Then shorten the postdoc, and compensate this loss in manpower by creating permanent (secure) research positions. Make the salary in these positions somewhat higher than that of a 3d year postdoc (because a person with 10 years of experience is usually more productive than a newcomer), but more importantly: make them secure in some way or another. Maybe let them be employed by universities, and then be distributed between groups in a grant-dependent manner. Maybe make them employed by NIH directly, and let PIs compete for specialists, and not for money. There should be ways. But overall, I think, these 2 changes: widening the base (aka "Masters", or "Research Assistant"), and the pinnacle (aka "permanent positions") would totally do the trick, and make people on average happier, while at the same time making the system more efficient.

Interestingly, recent changes in K99 rules not only don't push towards this scheme, but in a way push away from it, by creating an "alternative track" with early decisions and higher competition. Early-career decisions are inevitably biased by irrelevant factors, such as the parent's income (manifested by the choice of undergraduate institution), country of origin, or just pure luck (noise). Essentially, it is the "Right scenario" from my first figure, superimposed onto the "Left scenario". Not "combined", but exactly "superimposed", so that you have bad effects from both early and late bottlenecks, and good consequences from neither of them. Decisions are noisy, people are unhappy, efficiency is low, and fairness is really hard to achieve.

Fight for the changes! Join the Pyramid-Smoothing Party!

Monday, December 9, 2013

You talk with an accent, where are you from?

GMP (aka "Academic Jungle") started a great discussion about people with accents, and about how everybody asks them "Where are you from?", and about how it can be extremely annoying.

I totally agree that it may be very annoying. As a Russian, I rather dislike talking about vodka, Putin and differences between Moscow and the rest of the country. At the same time, I realize that people on average don't know that much about Russia and Russian culture, and they are trying their best to relate. And I appreciate that.

And that's why, after reading all replies to that GMP's post, I have to disagree with most commenters, and explicitly state that it's OK, and moreover necessary to ask people where they are from. Even if it is annoying =)

Why? Because it's better to try to find some common ground with people, rather than stay cold, indifferent, sterile and perfectly un-annoying. It's better to be boringly curious than boringly uncaring and apathetic. It's better to fail in communication than not to communicate at all. It's better to be mistaken about people's background (as long as you try to fix your mistakes and learn more about them) rather than ignore this background, and assume that everybody are essentially same and identical, and do not even deserve to be asked about where they are from.

When people ask me if I like vodka I cringe. But at the same time I am grateful to them for this small pathetic effort to find something common between their life and mine. It's important for me to know that they did not treat me as "just another compatriot of whatever origin I don't care about", but tried to see me as somebody with a potentially unique attitude towards life. And if they are mistaken for the actual content of this attitude... Well, there are complex socioeconomic reasons for that, and it is fine. It is not the worst starting point for a discussion, after all.

My compliments go to those who ask "where are you from". My sympathies to those who are tired of providing stereotypical answers. But saying that it is bad to be interested in people's origins is just plain wrong =)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Google as a bibliography software

It looks like Google have introduced some bibliography software functionality to their Google Scholar. Now you can add Google Scholar results to your personal "library" of papers. And you can also assign labels (essentially - tags) to articles.

The interface for adding labels is slightly awkward (a bit too Gmail-style for my taste), but usable: to add a label to a paper you should first create a label (it will be empty just after you created it), then click on the paper title, get to the "paper page" (where the abstract is whoen), and there use a drop-down menu. A bit too many clicks to enjoy the process, but it's usable.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Linkedin endoresments

I like how on Linkedin I have 7 endorsements for "confocal microscopy" (which I in fact only tried for about a week), but just 1 endorsement for "patch clamp" (which I did for 3 years). Naturally, all from people who knew me ~7 years ago (before I tried either). Is not it nice?

Also one endorsement for "Communication audits" (I don't even know what this thing is. How did it even get there?)

Conclusion: endorsements totally don't work if most of your connections are from your previous career. People just choose words that sound nice, and then via positive feedback (most endorsed skills being shown at the top) these flukes perpetuate, and get written in stone.

I am now tempted to delete "confocal microscopy" from my list of skills altogether =)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Number of PhDs

Back from SfN. People still don't understand that the trendy motto "Limit the numbers of PhDs" inevitably comes together with "Make it harder to get to a graduate school".

Which, in turn, means "Make GPA mean more than it does now" (aka "No way back", or "You have only one chance"). Which would totally screw "non-traditional candidates" of all kinds, as well as "hesitant candidates", such as women, minorities, first-generation scientists, converts from other educational paths, people who had a baby, people who took some years off away from academia, etc.

The numbers are not the problem; it is the training program that should be improved (and there's more than one way to do it).