The listening game

The last few weeks have been busy: I was visiting old friends in Germany and San Francisco and other old friends came to visit me in my new home, Philadelphia. Since most of my friends are also scientists, naturally much of our conversation evolved around academia, gossip about old co-workers and experiences with new labs. Interestingly, although our careers have diverged extensively, there was one recurring theme that linked many problematic experiences: PIs who don’t listen.

Pis who don’t listen… Cartoon [De Niro as Newton] by RedPen BlackPen.

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Paying for equal opportunity

I came across this open letter to the CEO of Yelp from an employee, asking for better wages – and the response: immediately firing her. It reminded me of a post that’s been lingering in my drafts folder for a while about investments in academia. Obviously Yelp has very little resemblance with academia, but in both worlds, believe it or not – money talks! It especially says a lot about how institutions value their more junior/more lowly ranked employees.

More specifically, one of the things that’s been bugging me for a while is the dichotomy between what academic institutions say (nominally supporting diversity and equal opportunity) and what they do. Because, more often than not, it’s just lip service, and they don’t really give a dime. Literally. Obviously, there are also a lot of mindset problems between the here and now and generating true equal opportunity workplaces (think no further than the recent sexual harassment cases in science or or the complex issues LGBT academics face), but sometimes, sometimes a little financial investment could be enough and go a looong way.

Two issues that seem particularly unfair – and easy to fix – are the absence of affordable daycare for young professionals and that most internships in academia are unpaid*. Continue reading

The long road home

This morning I was catching up with some old podcasts from Science, and came across a report by John Bohannon, about scientists in Turkey. The report discusses how the country is trying to “attract expat Turkish scientists back home“, and Bohannon also makes the statement that “[t]he expat Turks that I have spoken to […] have plenty of criticisms of the current political environment in Turkey, but they really clearly love their homeland.“ (from the 26 July 2013 Science podcast).

This statement touched a nerve, because that’s kind of how I feel about returning to my home country, Hungary. Honestly, I’d love to go back: I love the people and the lifestyle. I think the country is full of potential (creative people with great ideas), which could give rise to amazing research if someone would tap into this goldmine. But when I think about returning I also instantly see all the problems of the academic system, which had motivated me to leave in the first place. Continue reading

Is more really better?

As long as I can remember, I’ve heard teachers, professors and politicians say that we should encourage more high-school and university students to pursue a career in science. And I used to be a believer. After all, the people who said this, were the ones at the top, the ones with a proper oversight of things. However, today, I’m not so sure anymore. In fact, I’m becoming more and more convinced that encouraging people to pursue a career in science (or at least research) may just be a way for universities to generate competition and thus obtain a source of cheap labor.

conspiracy-theory-alert_display_imageSounds like a conspiracy theory? Maybe. But here’s why:

As I grow older, more and more of my friends, who used to work in research (and who really liked doing so) drop out. They move towards alternative careers, such as science communication, industry, teaching etc. And they generally list the same reasons for doing so:

1. Early-career researchers get little reward for their work: this primarily means that they consider themselves being underpaid and overworked. Money matters.

2. There’s too much insecurity, pressure and competition as you move up the ranks: there are many, many good scientists with great publication records, who’d all like to have a junior group leader or tenure track position. Obviously, the more people you feed into the system at the lower ranks, the more will compete for the jobs at the top. But there are increasingly less long-term contracts handed out . Security matters. Moreover…

3. … science is becoming less of a vocation and more like a job: It seems to be less crucial nowadays how good or creative you are, and increasingly important how well you can manage and advertise yourself. Your ideas and hands-on experience seem to matter less than what your CV looks like, in what labs you’ve worked and how well you’ve published. And since the results of your first five to ten years of research may therefore define your later career options, this discourages “outiside-the-box-thinking” and taking on risky projects. Often this also means, that science-related non-research activities are undervalued: I’ve filled in fellowship applications where there is no option to include teaching or the organization of science events as an asset.This is extremely frustrating, if you consider that much of science knowledge is actually passed through the grapevine: by great teachers and lecturers who transmit their love of science as well as up-to-date knowledge, and by experienced lab staff who show you the do’s and do not’s of experimental design and lab techniques.

Motivated teachers matter!

Motivated teachers matter!
from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

So, all in all, my interpretation of the data: thanks to increasing numbers of PhD students and postdocs, there’s plenty of “raw material” to chose from. Therefore PIs and legislators can get away with providing low job security, as well as relatively low salaries. Also, having more early-career researchers also requires less personal touch and more standardized metrics.  And keeping it this way means a cheap workforce, which is why people at the top encourage more students to pursue a career in research. And thus the vicious circle continues…

Still think it’s a conspiracy theory? Maybe. Maybe also have a look at Paula Stephan’s book, How Economics Shapes Science. It provides a much broader and nuanced overview of the interplay between economics and science, including a detailed analysis of supply and demand in research.

But please keep this rant in mind, next time someone tells you we need to recruit more students into science!