What to be with a PhD. (Banff science writing assignment, 2010)

Looking out, I saw a sea of familiar faces. Anxious faces. Faces peering up at the speakers on the dais, searching for a reflection of themselves. I had learned these faces at seminars and networking events on science-related career pathways. We would meet again and again, as well-dressed representatives described careers that might, just might, be hiring PhDs. Most weren’t.

There are many more PhDs than “traditional” academic jobs. The number of doctorates in the biomedical sciences increased by 54% between 1980 and 1995, and is increasing still, while the number of academic faculty positions remained almost the same. This surfeit of PhDs often end up unemployed and grossly underutilized.

As the Canadian government implements its Science and Technology Strategy to encourage more students to obtain PhDs, the question looms: what will become of the ones we already have?

Earning a PhD in the sciences takes between 5 to 8 years. This is longer than any other professional degree and the least likely to be rewarded monetarily. Students accept this dubious bargain because they are motivated by the ideal of contributing to the advancement of knowledge and one day being the head of their own laboratory.

But in reality, there are not nearly enough of these positions. This imbalance between job seekers and jobs leads to a pyramid scheme that has become the foundation of the research process: several PhDs do the bulk of the research for one faculty member. After graduation, PhDs spend years in low paid training positions, called post-docs, with only a small chance of this dedication netting them their goal.

Martin Hudson, now a tenure-track professor in neuroscience at the Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia, is an example of a science PhD who battled against the odds. It wasn’t easy. He spent 11 years in 4 post-docs, submitted 126 applications over 4 years, and was separated from his wife and child for over a year, before finally landing his position. He describes this as the “ruthless reality of academia” and states that he “was seriously considering the end. No more science. Nothing. Gone. Walking away. 15 years of academic endeavor down the drain.”

The reality of few jobs for many also has an impact on the science itself. Post-docs desperate to earn the credentials required for an academic position feel pressured to compete instead of collaborate—while collaboration remains an essential component of the scientific method. An extremely talented post-doc at the University of San Francisco, with a PhD from Stanford University (who wishes to remain anonymous), accepted a job at a small biotech company. He chose to leave academia when he personally experienced what he had thought were rumors of sabotage between post-docs in his laboratory: “there is an intent to make other people’s jobs harder.”

Perhaps shockingly, he and Martin are the lucky ones. Megan Hall, who has a PhD from UCLA, spent 7 years in graduate school and 6 in two post-docs, before she became a secondary victim to her advisor’s loss of funding. She is “disgusted with the whole field” and looking for work away from the bench.

Although such “alternative” careers do exist, most scientists like Megan have had little training outside of the laboratory. John Spiro, who has a PhD from the University of San Diego and did post-doctoral work at Duke University, left academic research to become an editor at Nature magazine and now works at the Simons Foundation, a non-profit granting foundation for autism research. Although his own transition was very successful, he confirms that “only lip service is given to things you can do with a PhD that don’t involve running a lab.”

For Megan, the experience has been “less confusing, than just demoralizing.” She has reached out to contacts in several fields, but remains unemployed.

Despite thousands of similar stories of trial and heartbreak among brilliant and talented scientists, the field has been slow to admit the problem. Those with the loudest voices are the small percentage who have managed to scramble to the top of the pyramid and benefit from its structure. Yet, the only way we can ensure that valuable PhD training is not going to waste, is if we accept that not all PhDs will end up in academic positions. Only then will PhD programs provide the relevant training, and advisors the appropriate mentorship, for the majority of doctorates.

Years of hard work and training go into earning a PhD, as well as significant government resources through grants and training. Instead of convincing students to enter the sciences, we should invest in those we promised a world of opportunity that no longer exists. A curious mind may be a terrible thing to waste, but so is a PhD.


Day 122- Ducklings

Siblings 122/365

Never is the evolutionary imperative that encourages us to take care of our young more apparent, than when observing babies– of all species. But before I wax on about the irresistibility of the ducklings pictured above, I will point out that I am not immune to the human variety. A co-worker can attest to this, based on the squeaks and squeals he witnessed today as I looked at baby pictures on an iPad. I did pet the iPad, and not just because it was an iPad.

But, back to the ducks, as they are the subject of this post after all. I have already described in several posts how families of Mallard ducks come and mate in our campus fountains, but I finally have the pictures to prove it. And not just pictures of extremely fluffy ducklings (see below for maximal fluffiness), but evidence of a rare, genetic abnormality– an albino duckling!

Chad, as he has been named to tease a certain Restaurant Associates manager who works nearby, is like a little real life Ugly Duckling, although he will grow up to be a mostly white duck, not a swan. He is, almost certainly, completely unaware of his difference, and yet it is so apparent to all watching as he bobs around the pond like a fluorescent highlighter.

What I observed on Thursday while watching him swim with his two siblings, was that he was by far the boldest and most adventurous of the three. Any doubts I might have had that animals can have distinct personalities (and as a pet owner I truly had no doubts) were set aside one day, years ago, when I watched a mother raccoon guide a large litter of her pups across our garden. She wanted them to climb up a tree, so that they could jump over the fence into the garden next door. All of them dutifully followed her–all, that is, except for two, very different (although physically identical) pups. Lagging raccoon #1 would not jump because he was scared. He hovered on the edge of the fence, trembling, while mom called to him from the other side. He inched closer and closer to the edge and finally, hesitantly, dropped himself over. This is when Raccoon #2 realized he was now alone in my yard, because he had been having just too much fun exploring to follow mum. He rushed up to the fence, but instead of jumping over right away, he climbed up a branch that reached even higher than the fence top, held on as the branch sagged into the neighboring yard, and let himself drop off–backwards.

Chad is similar to Raccoon #2. It was time to jump into the pool, because Chad jumped first. It was time to dive under the barrier to swim to the second pool, because Chad did so–and so on. From the way his siblings happily, and Mom begrudging, followed, it seemed unlikely that any of them were aware that he was different, “challenged” perhaps–certainly not Chad.

I wish Chad the best. Not all the duckling that are born into these fountains survive. Currently there is Chad’s mom with 3, another mom with 6 and a third with 8 babies. At various times mothers and fathers succumb to the pressures of this over-crowding and atrocities occur. I am in the unique position this season of rooting for one specific duckling, one that I can follow and miss (should he go missing). The good news, however, is that I am not alone. Everyone has fallen in love with Chad and intends to protect him, especially–apparently–his human namesake.

More duckling pics, from the other families, below.

Just try not to pet the screen



Days 119-121- How I Spent my Week

MIrror Mirror 119/365

Or otherwise entitled, The Great Blog Catch Up!

What is there to say in a blog recap of an uneventful week.
Catching up on posts missed during trips, or holidays, is wonderful. Numerous fantastic pictures and great tales of adventures and exploration provide enough material for several independent posts.

But what to do about an uneventful week, where my only excuse for not posting is a lack of inspiration?
The answer, I suppose, is to give up and post a multi-day post, for the first time since starting this blog. (My double day during the Ragnar Relay does not count, since it really was one giant day).

Day 119 Monday– holiday for some, slow, lazy work day for others.
Pictured above are the ducks that nest in our campus fountains. More on these adorable guys later, but I did discover that my eyes were not deceiving me, and there is a bright yellow, fluffy, albino duckling amongst the group. Recently I have mentally grasped the concept that I will not be at this job forever, and this has made me realize how many wonderful perks I take for granted–these fountains and access to their outdoor space chief among them.

Pane of Glass 120/365

Day 120 Tuesday– Not much to report today. My picture, of the view from my grimy apartment window, tells the story. My knee has flared up recently and combined with increasing exhaustion and the heat wave, I have taken it easy this week– not doing much of anything, including exercise. I will tell myself this is a fantastic training strategy. There are training plans with dips as well as peaks in mileage, after all.

Reflections 121/365

Day 121 Wednesday. I did go for a run today, and would love to report that as soon as I got out there, I felt just wonderful. But, I cannot. I realize now I should have been more careful when a subtly boasted about running through the coldest of the winter days, because this is comparatively so much easier for me than running in the heat. So now I am called to task as I grunt, and sweat, and skip my runs as summer heats up. This will have to change. If I run the NYC marathon, and I plan to, I will need to do some very long runs, on some very hot August days. Perhaps I just need to acclimatize. Perhaps. The picture is an iPhone snap taken as I walked back across the bridge from the East river at the conclusion of my run. I wonder if sweat is bad for the iPhone?

Day 118- Gulls

Over the Waves 118/365

During the day, Long Beach is more of a playground than it is a habitat. As I sat by myself as day turned into evening, however, and as the tide began to recede, gulls started to arrive. Not the ratty scavenger gulls of picnic grounds, but maritime gulls pecking at mollusks– and even those of the black-headed variety.

I spoke in an earlier post about how seeing Buffle Heads on the East River transports me, for a brief moment, to the arctic tundras where they spend their summers. These Black Headed gulls also, belong mostly further north. Their North American range is described as being as “far south as Long Island” and they also breed “from southern Greenland through most of Europe and central Asia to Kamchatka and northeast China”. It is still amazing to me with birds, how they can travel so many miles and end up anywhere: at a fountain on a campus or at a crowded Long Island beach. There is something humbling about this, about how they have chosen this tiny patch of our world, out of so many other potential sites.

In the photo below, a gull shows off his plumage to a group of beach-goers. I was the only one watching.

Black Gull

Day 117- Long Island Nights

Party Time 117/365

Long Island Nights are different from NY nights for a few reasons. For one, long beach-style dresses and flip flops are worn by myself and my friends. Tank tops masquerading as dresses are worn by many others.
There is also a lot more hair gel in the room. But there is also good music, and sailors from Fleet Week being entertained by two older veterans, “taking them out on the town.”

Day 116- Heading out

Fern 116/365

Friday I headed out from the city on the LIRR, but this shot was taken well within NYC– at the Rockefeller University campus.
Perhaps one day I will run out of plant life to photograph just outside my work door. But, I haven’t yet.

Day 115- Guard Cat

Guard Cat 115/365

Almost certainly in direct response to my instituting a NYC guard dog series, this member of the fairer species presented itself to me last Thursday. Through a clearly disapproving gaze, conveyed despite the barrier of the store glass, this tabby insisted that I change my ways and stop all dog favoritism forthwith.

And so, I will do so. The series is now entitled NYC Guard animals– I wonder what species we will encounter next?