Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Perspectives and expectations

There's an interesting thing about the place I now work. Almost everyone who isn't faculty is from here. By from here, I mean from this state, and in most cases from this region. People have lived their whole lives within three hours drive of this small town, and in many cases, so have their parents and grand parents.
In contrast, almost no one is from the city I grew up in. And even people like me, who lived there long enough to almost qualify, have only been there for one generation. Furthermore, my city looks to the world. It's one of those places of which people say that's it's more similar to New York or Tokyo than to towns an hour away.
In graduate school, almost no one I knew was from the city itself (for complex, difficult and unpleasant socio-economic reasons). It was a private R1 institution (in fact, pretty much the R1 institution) in a heavily socio-economically deprived area. As a rule, places like that aren't so good on representing the local community.
So to be somewhere where most people's perspective is limited to the State, and even to an area of the State, is an adjustment. Well meaning efforts at improving diversity at the university come across as naïve and ham-fisted. Awareness of broader world issues is limited. Knowledge of either of my home countries (which are not particularly obscure places) is limited to stereotypes and, in some cases, gross falsehoods resulting from right-wing political discourses about the depravity and lack of freedoms in the old country. The oddest comment yet was when one of our summer students asked me how I felt about my home country having presumption of guilt rather than presumption of innocence. I was slightly baffled by this, as it was news to me.
In spite of this, everyone in the lab is very open to discussion about political and social issues. This could be tense, but I have to say that these are the most respectful and least awkward such conversations I've ever had. Which is good, as they tend to occupy much of the 5 hour surgeries we've been doing lately. The group mix covers several decades of age difference, several thousand miles (mostly due to me) of geographic distance, and a fair breadth of socio-political views on most issues.
Today was an interesting challenge of my assumptions though. In a conversation about gay rights, I mentioned the Stonewall riots. At least one of our summer students is involved in the local LBGT community as an ally, but even he had no idea what the riots where or how they related to the modern gay rights movement. More surprising to me was that when explaining the history of the riots, the students were amazed to discover that the police used to regularly raid gay bars in cities across the country. My advisor then reminded them that, when she was a child, there was nowhere in her home town for her mother and her African American friends to have coffee together.
In some ways, I guess I should be heartened that a new generation should be so far removed from that time that they would have no concept that such overt, state sanctioned discrimination should happen. On the other hand, I cannot help but slightly fear that such a degree of unawareness of where we have come from explains much of our erstwhile allies lack of urgency in joining us in the struggle for a better world.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Always learning

This week has been one of interesting juxtapositions. On the one hand, we're starting the fourth set of experiments in our lab. By this point, I'm the second most experienced person in many of the procedures (though number one is ahead of me by about... three decades, at least). On the other, I've been checking the proofs for the first ever manuscript I ever submitted (slow ass society journal), which comes directly out of project I started in my second year of graduate school, before I'd even settled on a dissertation topic.
That first paper, and my current research, share very little beyond requiring a thorough grounding mammalian anatomy. Even then, the paper is exclusively concerned with bones, the research with muscles and nerves. In each case, I took on the projects feeling I knew nothing, or next to nothing, of skills I would need to make the project work. I went into both projects to learn how to do specific tasks: anatomical description of fossils in the case of the paper, experimental kinematics in the case of the post doctoral work.
How quickly the move from knowing nothing about a topic to being confidently knowledgeable happens is amazing. Or, more specifically, that transition happens unnoticed. You simply do the work, and then one day a particular circumstance makes you realise that you've gone from novice to competent quasi-expert. For the descriptive project, it was reading another manuscript by one of the better descriptive anatomists out there on a closely related species. I was surprised to see that my description was as detailed and technical as hers, and that she and I had seen similar structures in our specimens, and interpreted them similarly. For my current postdoctoral work, it was giving a talk to our department on the lab's research earlier this week. Or, more precisely, it was the questions afterwards. I'd asked my PI to be present in the audience to deal with any questions I might not be able to answer. As the questions progressed, I realised that I didn't need her to jump in and save me. Somehow, over the past ten months, I'd learnt enough that I could talk about what we were doing, how we were doing it, why we were doing it, and where we intended to go.
One of the reasons I returned to do my PhD after a couple of years working in the real world was precisely that I missed this feeling of going from ignorance to competence in a field again and again. I distinctly remember realising that, well, no other job could really provide me with that. Once I'd understood how to craft a cold letter to a new fundraising prospect, or write a grant project, or develop a 12 month engagement strategy, that was it. I'd be doing that over and over again for the rest of my career. That prospect sounded boring, and I thought I didn't want to start a career that would bore me by the end of my twenties.
Is there ever a point in an academic career when you are not constantly teaching yourself new skills and new ways of studying nature? I hope not. The satisfaction of going from knowing nothing to being a competent expert in an area just by doing the work is one of the things that keeps me in this gig.

Monday, 14 July 2014

"You have not been trained for this" is bollocks: missed opportunities in training scientists

To my mind, one of the big problems of training new researchers is an institutional insistence on treating trainees like children. This attitude, as much as anything else, is what leads people to be so thoroughly unprepared for the leap to assistant professor.
There are certain responsibilities that a PI has that no graduate student or postdoc can ever fully experience. Hiring decisions are one. Managing the budget of an entire lab is another. The balance that must be maintained in order to train postdocs and graduate students in the practice of science is such that they cannot devote as much energy to the higher level or managerial tasks as the PI can/should. However, these tasks and experiences can and should be introduced to trainees judiciously. Postdocs and graduate students can review hiring dossiers and be on interview panels. Trainees can be given control of portions of the budget relevant to their projects. Better, they can be encouraged to apply for grants themselves. Many PIs in fact do this. My current mentor is wonderful at including me in as many aspects of running her lab as she can, explicitly so that I am exposed to the realities of lab management before I (hopefully) get to start my own lab.
Yet, at an institutional level, there are barriers to allowing trainees to begin developing all the management skills required of a PI. The story that follows is from my own graduate student years. It still irritates me.
Before I started graduate school, I worked in the real world, such as it is, for a couple of years. (As an aside, this is something that I think is invaluable in a graduate student. Anyone who comes back to academia after having experienced the world of employment knows why they're there). For six months in that period, I was part of a three person development team for a science communication charity on a major fundraising drive. In that time, we developed a strategy which included approaching new donors from all three major branches: corporate, individual philanthropy and foundations. I ended up specializing in foundations, and coordinated the writing of several grants. A few were awarded, and I raised my own salary several times over. In development, this is the basic benchmark of how good you are at your job, and whether you're worth what you're being paid.
A few years later, as a graduate student, the scientific society of which I was then a member sent out a request for new members of the fundraising board. I sent out an email detailing my experience in fundraising and offering to serve on the committee. Although the head of the committee was initially enthusiastic, the society did not allow graduate students to serve on the committee. To this day, I cannot see how such a policy can benefit an organization when it overlooks the fact that I had directly relevant professional experience. Only a mindset that sees graduate students as intrinsically less valuable, rather than as young adults with several tears experience, could defend it. In putting up this barrier, I was deprived of valuable service experience, and the society was potentially deprived of my experience in the topic.
It's entirely possible that my experience was not unique, in which case my lack of experience would certainly count against me. This was not the reason I wasn't allowed on the committee. So before saying that trainees are not prepared to be assistant professors, ask yourself: are there any barriers to trainee involvement in more managerial tasks that exist solely because of their trainee status, and not because of any fundamental lack of ability? And how can we find ways to include trainees more in these tasks?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

On the inevitability of career change

I've caught a bad case of Zeitgeist from twitter as a result of a number of recent posts on the difficulties PhDs face in getting jobs in academia, and on the continuing failure of any institutions (universities, departments, funding agencies) to do anything about it. My position on this is, as they say, nuanced. On the one hand, the discrepancy between number of graduates entering PhD programs and number of jobs available is indeed crazy. The refusal of PIs to acknowledge this in any way is nothing less than personal cowardice. The fact that, as far as the NIH (which pays my salary) is concerned, I don't exist is, quite frankly, unconscionable. And yet, on the other hand, I can't help but feel that, well, career changes are difficult for everyone. When I look at my friends outside the academy (yes, I still have some, more on that later), many of them were whacked in the face by the 2008 financial crisis just as their careers were getting underway, and many of them had to deal, quite suddenly, with career changes. If you think for a second that the banks, management consultancies or accountancy firms that had hired them invested heavily in helping them retrain for new careers just as they were keeping them in fear of redundancy for about three years, think again.
Going back further, neither my brother (degree in civil engineering in the late 90s, now works in strategic marketing (whatever that is)), not my sister (law in the early 2000s, went into PR and is now a civil servant at the ministry of justice), have had careers that were related to their studies or professional training. Heck, even my mother had an alt-ac career back in the late sixties (she dropped out of her PhD program for lack of funding and retrained as a secondary school history teacher). For none of them was any formal assistance in career change provided. For all of them it was bloody hard. To put it another way: if you go into the graduate training program at Goldman Sachs and decide after five/six years that investment banking is not for you (and I know a fair number of people with career paths like this), you wouldn't expect Goldman Sachs to help you change career. And let's be honest, at this point, most major research universities are about as warm and cuddly as the aforementioned octopus of global finance.
Of course, the error with this analogy is that Goldman Sachs doesn't routinely take on an order of magnitude more graduate trainees than it can find places for (although that is exactly what ended up happening in 2008). And to the degree that the majority of freshly minted PhDs can now expect not to be professors, there is clearly a bigger onus on graduate school (in so far as it constitutes professional training) to address this reality. Then again, how do you do that when no-one in your program has any experience of anything else?
Which gets me (in a rather long winded way) to my main point. As dangerous in my mind as continuing to support the status quo in terms of number of PhDs granted is the continuing infantilisation to which graduate students are subjected during the course of their PhDs. The view maintained that grad school is a continuation of studies rather than an equivalent to the aforementioned Goldman Sachs graduate training program doesn't lead to the kind of professional development mindset that will prepare students for the variety of career choices that come their way, and doesn't encourage PIs, universities, journals or professional societies to put forward genuine opportunities for professional growth to graduate students.
In essence, part of the preparation for the difficult career decisions  grad students will have to face is emphasizing to all involved that grad school is a career decision, not the delaying of one.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A moment of belonging

As well as a change in scientific direction (which I promise I will get to soon), this postdoc has represented a major lifestyle change for me. For the first time, I am not living in major city. In fact, I live in a rural area. I drive past cornfields on my way to work every day, and work is only two miles away.
In many ways, I'm now living in the sort of place I always swore I wouldn't. I'm renting what I would call a semi-detached house on a cul-de-sac on a modern property development in the rural rust belt. The nearest big town is an hour away. The nearest Ikea is in the next state. For someone who grew up in a world city of 8 million people, and found his graduate school east coast city of half a million a bit small, it's a change. Moving out here has required a lot of adaptation. I've had to get used to a slower pace of life, to more limited access to the sources of entertainment I'm used to, to having to drive everywhere, and to spending far more time than I used to at home.
It doesn't help that the countryside I'm used to (that of England and France, where I spent all of my holidays growing up) is very different than where I live in now. I can't just walk out of my door, Bilbo the hobbit style, and follow a footpath through the fields up the nearest mountain, and then to the nearest pub. Mountain, pub and footpath are all inexistent. American villages are not places of easy community. There is no village green, no cafe de l'hotel de ville. Yes, there are state parks everywhere, but I still view having to drive as an imposition. The outdoors is on my doorstep, I shouldn't have to drive there.
So finally, after a harsh and dreary winter, I've taken up cycling. It turns out the roads near here lend themselves wonderfully to it: straight country roads, not too many hills, and local drivers who are ridiculously respectful. They always give me plenty of space when passing, and on two occasions have stopped to let me take a left turn. Although I've been warned repeatedly by locals that cycling here is dangerous, let me tell you, compared to my home town, it's a kitten to a tiger. Through these daily back road rambles, I've found a connection to this place, specifically, to my childhood holidays. The neat yards and fields remind me of summers in France. The heat of the day lies heavily on the landscape in the evening; everything is lying still, waiting for a storm or the evening, whichever will bring respite first. I ride past growing, ripening wheat fields, past people mowing their lawns, past ditches full of reeds and wild flowers. As I cycle through the roads, the smells of summer holidays past - cut grass, wood fires, and the fragrant exhalations of meadows wilting in the summer sun - take me back to the small village where my aunt's holiday home is. For as long as summer lasts at least, I feel at home in this different place.
Academia makes us into nomads. This fact is well known and well lamented. Perhaps it would be better if things were different, if one could be an academic and stay close to home. Moving brings with it heartbreak, difficult choices, and a host of unanticipated complexities. As long as things remain this way, however, finding moments of belonging in unfamiliar places will always be a welcome balm for the soul.