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Friday, September 21, 2018

Is academic career worthwhile?

Last month, advice for a young scientist. Now, some advice about graduate school. The fountain of wisdom never stops.


I must have been lucky: after many years of working in a lab, I already knew how to do science. When I was pushed unwillingly into academia last year, my first attempt at writing a grant, according to the Wise Ones Who Know This Kind Of Stuff, was very likely to be funded. Now I'm faced with the decision whether to stay in academia.

One person wrote an interesting blog back in 2011 about reasons not to. Aiming for a hundred, he made it all the way to 98 before losing interest, or maybe being overcome with despair. What struck me the most was the amount of whining, not so much in the blog itself, but in the comments. That, and the fact that my browser kept crashing.

Oh, the whining!

Complaining is, I guess, understandable for a student, considering their situation. It's the strategy of a person who feels weak and hopes to convince those in power to help them.

He's right about some things, though: it's a lonely, isolated life. There is no emotional support or intellectual stimulation. But here's this guy's problem: he's status-oriented. He, or maybe she, thinks getting a Ph.D. is a steppingstone to a career and a Beemer*, and those who enjoy being alone with their thoughts are weirdos.

One commenter wrote: “I think the medieval literature is neat, but I don't want to study and write about it obsessively for the next 10 years at least.” As your car mechanic and the guy on Mythbusters say, there's yer problem. If the subject matter doesn't inspire that kind of passion, the student might well consider the possibility, however remote, that it's not important enough to study at all.

Oh, the Stress!

He (or she, or whatever) says grad school is stressful, that people are wrapped up in their work, and it's hard and there are no jobs. Wait until this person gets a real job. Working ten hours a day plus two hours commuting in each direction to a job you hate may not sound very stressful, but it can be exhausting and mind-numbing.

In industry, where I worked, whenever there was a board meeting, things were so tense the secretaries always had to make sure the cutlery was all plastic. After listening through the door to the . . . measured tones . . . of their discussions, we used to joke that we should have installed metal detectors. But there's stress in academia, too: I discovered, while writing a grant, when the load increases to 70 hours a week, that stress really does cause physical pain. Without my sumatriptan and my aspirin, I never would have been able to finish.

Grad school is not supposed to be that hard. If you're really interested in the subject, the ideas are what make it fun. Honestly, though, it's mostly memorizing. In the sciences your task is to memorize vast amounts of information. You write down everything the professors say, then you re-organize it into lists and commit the lists to memory.

For instance, for neurobiology class I'd write down, say, 26 things about the synaptosome. Then I'd try to write those 26 things from memory. Then try again after 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 4 hours, 24 and 48 hours. This works for equations as well. And you spend five minutes learning the concepts, which is the fun part.

On the day of the test I was often surprised to see other students going over their notes. I knew from experience that this is counterproductive: it only drains your energy, confuses your neurons, and depletes the neurotransmitters out of your synaptic vesicles.

Oh, the Comps!

You also have to go through the textbook and select a bunch of topics they didn't cover, because they might ask them in your Comprehensive Exam. One of the things I picked was the shikimate pathway, which is the list of enzymes and chemical intermediates that plants use to make aromatic amino acids, because I guessed (correctly) that they might ask it on the comp.

Everybody should learn this, by the way: the second-last step happens to be the one blocked by the herbicide glyphosate.

The worst exams are the ones with only one question, something to the effect of “I propose that you didn't learn anything this semester. Prove me wrong.” Since you have to memorize everything they say, it's 30 or 40 pages of writing, all longhand, after which you sue the prof for giving you carpal tunnel syndrome.

Grad school is great. You get so good at memorizing useless lists that you can use that skill for something useful, like learning Chinese. Memorizing 15,000 characters and countless numbers of words is easy by comparison, and it comes in really handy in Chinese restaurants. And as for that commentator last week who said the Washington Post is boring to read, he should try reading Renmin Ribao, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, sometime.

Oh, the lack of social skills!

The blogger is right about another thing, too: If you write enough papers, you'll encounter reviewers who are less than tactful and who don't know the field. They'll demand that you state things you know to be false. One reviewer marked my grant down for this. I had to politely correct him or her, gently reminding them that neuroinflammation is quite different from inflammation elsewhere in the body. Another one was hopelessly confused about the mutations that cause neurodegenerative diseases.

Sigh. Correcting a reviewer requires tact. That's a social skill—a language, as all social skills are—that has to be learned, just as history is learned. Forget math; being tactful is hard.

What I'm learning is that if you care about social status, academia could make you miserable. I don't, never have, and never will. My car is sixteen years old and has rust spots. I live in the most unfashionable part of the country. If only my neighbors would stop discharging their firearms randomly into the air, setting of small explosive devices at three AM, and maybe consider buying a leash for their dogs, I'd be happy, if I can just do some science.

But I'm still having doubts.


* Apparently there is some controversy here. Jeremy Clarkson calls them ‘Beemers’. In one place, The Urban Dictionary informs us that Beemer specifically means motorcycle, and Bimmer refers to the car. In in another place it says only “douchnozzles” call them Bimmers. I take no stand on what is obviously a deeply contentious issue.


sep 21 2018, 5:32 am; updated sep 24 2018, 6:52 am


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