the end.

With the end of my post-doctoral fellowship on August 31, I feel this is a good time to wrap up this blog. It’s been a great learning platform for me, and I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read.

My adventures during my upcoming sabbatical take a sharp turn from science, teaching, and society, so I’ve decided to start a new blog dedicated to adventures and travel. If you’d like to follow along, check me out at: https://thesabbatiblog.wordpress.com/

Thanks for reading, keep in touch, looking forward to the future. Onward.

Ben

The end of science? Sabbatical 2015.

Dear 2015, you’ve been a rough one. New instrument challenges seemed to be never-ending, but have been overcome with tenacity, and things are finally running smoothly. Intellectually, we’ve turned the existing body of knowledge for oxygen-17 in the sulfur cycle on its head, revealing how little we knew when this project began. However, proposal after proposal for continued funding has been declined despite interesting results generated by department seed money. And, with no interviews in a tight academic job market, I’m being deported from the US because there is no more money to pay my meager salary.

August 31 marks the end of my post-doc, and likely the end of my academic career. It’s been fun at times, challenging at times, and there have been stretches of time where I’ve worked harder than I thought was possible. I’ve accomplished a lot (built an instrument in my first year, and will have five papers worth of data out of less than a year of data collection since my instrument was completed), and most importantly I’ve met so many incredible people here. The J-lab team, and the broader geobiology postdoc crew are more than a great network, they’ve become good friends. My advisor, Dave, deserves an extra shout out for putting together bits and pieces of funding for me, being a great collaborator, and building a fantastic group of people to work with. Thanks, Dave.

However, after all of this, I’ve realized academia isn’t for me. And that’s a good thing. There are things I love about doing isotope geochemistry every day: testing new ideas, thinking about big picture “how the Earth system works” kind of problems, the job flexibility, and freedom-ish to work on things that are really cool and might change our way of thinking about the world. In general, I just think using isotopes to solve geological problems is really fun and interesting. However, the downsides of academia have become too apparent at this stage, and I’m in need of a career change. There are many scientific jobs in the United States for which I am qualified, and that I would find interesting (USGS, EPA, various companies), however these positions nearly unanimously require US citizenship. Similar scientific positions in my country of citizenship, Canada, are virtually non-existent, unless one is “researching” the soon-to-be-stranded oil sands resources. Notwithstanding the current recession, science in Canada is a dead end right now, so it’s time to consider something different.

For me, that something different is a sabbatical. I’m taking six to eight months off to reflect on my experiences as a researcher, and to plan for my next career. This process may launch me into a place and industry very different from where my path has taken me so far, and I’m keeping the door open to almost anything. I’ve got a long list of personal reading to catch up on, lots of mountains to climb (and ski down), friends to see, places to visit, and my Blue Jays should be fun to watch this fall, too. While this is all happening, I’m going to be thinking, writing, and planning my next steps, evaluating strengths, and envisioning my future. I’ll be driving across the US during September, ultimately to be located in western Canada, somewhere between Calgary and Vancouver for the next several months. If you live along that path, or are visiting the mountains, send me a note, I’d love to meet up to share a beverage and some ideas. I’m excited about the future, whatever it may bring. There is only one direction: onward.

~B

Ramping up the academic rat race: Moore’s law of scientific publishing?

To conclude this series of posts, I’ll start with a quote that my good friend Chris is fond of.

C: “Ben, do you know who wins the rat race?”

B: “I don’t know, who wins the rat race, Chris?”

C: “A rat.”

Of course, Chris has long realized that to even play in the rat race that is our modern society, one must become a rat in order to succeed. Joining the rat race is certainly essential to a career in academia in its current state.

This idea crystallized for me this morning when I found a new paper by Brischoux and Angelier. This paper has suggested something crazy, that I suspect might be broadly true. During the time period that I have been a graduate student and a postdoc (2005-2015), the number of scientific papers required to obtain a permanent academic job in evolutionary biology in France has doubled. Doubled. What’s more depressing is that the number of years spent in temporary employment has also doubled during this time. If their findings are more broadly applicable across the sciences, this represents a fundamental shift in academia that I’m fairly certain nobody would have predicted a decade ago. From the time that I decided academics might be an appropriate career choice for me, until now, the rat race has changed entirely. The cause of the increase in publication stats and temporary work is complex, but I suspect it doesn’t have to do with increased absolute productivity. People applying for faculty positions today aren’t twice as smart, or twice as productive as people ten years ago.

One of the obvious reasons for the increase in number of papers is the relentless drive toward quantitative metrics for scientific output. Indeed there has been a great deal of discussion about scientific metrics (references within the linked manuscript), and essentially the problem boils down to one idea: it’s really hard to measure the impact of scientific output. However, hiring committees, promotion and tenure committees, and awards committees must all conduct their business, and being quantitative scientists, they are looking for ways to score, or rank scientists’ output, and justify their decisions to administration. There are flaws in every scoring system, whether one ranks candidates by number of papers, patents and reports produced, the number of times these works are cited (h-index), or some other arbitrary assessment of quality. However, despite the flaws of this approach, metrics provide something that’s easy to understand for university administration—the numerical rank of Candidate A is higher than Candidate B.

Consider Job Candidate A who has written an impressive 16 papers that have been cited by 135 other papers. On the surface, Candidate A appears to have greater scientific impact than Candidate B who has only written 8 papers with 92 citations. Candidate A has an h-index of 10, whereas Candidate B has an h-index of 8. Using quantitative metrics alone, one is unable to determine that most of the citations of Candidate A’s work were from other scientists refuting the findings of a single controversial manuscript in a more popular sub-discipline, and the remainder of his/her papers were only cited a handful of times. However, Candidate B had made a series of important discoveries in a smaller sub-discipline which redefined the field, and are indicative of a truly rising star. This is an extreme example, of course, but highlights some of the problems with quantitative metrics of scientific output.

Second, an evaluation system based on number of papers and citations inevitably splits science into thinner “salami” slice manuscripts and “least publishable units.” Additionally, some papers may be important but not widely cited in the academic literature. An important discovery in applied science may have broad reaching implications for an industry, but little “importance” in terms of scientific literature citations.

Third, and interestingly, the most cited papers in science consist almost entirely of methods papers. While these papers are most certainly important, they didn’t directly change our understanding of the world we live in.  Hence number of citation isn’t always a measure of creativity or thought provoking work. So the quantitative system may not be measuring what a hiring committee might want, which is groundbreaking scientific work that makes an impact on society in the near or distant future. My favorite fortune cookie this year read “The purpose of education is not knowledge, it is action.” Impact on broader society (on an admittedly nebulous time scale) is essential for good scientific work.

Finally, there is a demographic component to this problem that I think boils down to an availability of cheap labor. The number of postdocs and grad students has increased substantially relative to the number of faculty over the past couple decades, and it appears that we’re near the breaking point of the academic ponzi scheme that has developed. It  means that early career scientists are spending many more years in postdoctoral purgatory than in the past. Living contract to contract, moving from city to city. Perhaps this is broadly reflective of larger society where full time permanent employment seems like a relic of the 20th century. Quote from a senior faculty member, “As I got older and developed more outside responsibilities . . . it became easier to have more postdocs than graduate students because they didn’t need as much supervision. You could have a bigger lab that way without occupying more of your time.” And maybe more importantly, “In 1970, scientists typically received their first major federal funding when they were 34. In 2011, those lucky enough to get a coveted tenure-track faculty position and run their own labs, at an average age of 37, don’t get the equivalent grant until nearly a decade later, at age 42.” This is unsustainable, and the end result will be a lost generation of scientists who mistakenly thought there was a career path laid out for them because the positions to train them existed. Picture a medical school that asked students to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, only to have jobs for about 15% of its graduates. There certainly wouldn’t be students lining up to pay tuition after a few years. So why do people continue to start PhD and postdoctoral programs? I suspect it’s because lost opportunity cost is generally invisible to a green 22 year old potential graduate student. It’s hard to think that far into the future and see what might lie ahead, especially when you have a professor that you like and respect telling you how good you can be at science if you only went to grad school. What else could you have done with those 20 years (between grad school and first grant) that would have contributed more to society? There is an enormous lost opportunity cost to the individuals and to society that they might have served. In retrospect, there are no easy solutions for the current supply glut, given the time and resources that have been invested into training these talented people. However, maybe we should stop training so many people in the first place?

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about careers in science, so I’d like to ask you one question if you’ve made it this far without closing your browser: if you were advising an undergraduate student about careers after graduation, could you honestly recommend a PhD and academia as a viable option, given the current state of science? Could you recommend a prolonged underpaid adolescence (grad school, postdoc), while working toward a rare, and even more intensely competitive (but equally underpaid) junior faculty position that may or may not exist when you’re done? I’m certain I could not recommend this path to a student starting today. If I were a tenured faculty member right now, I could not justify taking on a graduate student. I’m not sure it would be ethical. Ten years ago, when I started on this path, things were a little different. I saw postdocs in my lab, and in my large interdisciplinary project getting good jobs, and saw scientists doing interesting work (one out of three attained a TT position). I saw a reasonable career pathway that would be challenging but rewarding. Today’s students should (hopefully) see the numbers from studies like the one I’ve highlighted today, and run away screaming from an academic path that offers little in the way of job prospects, salary, or future job security. The current labor supply glut is far greater than the system can absorb into permanent positions in the near future, and a silent majority of trained scientists have dropped off the academic track along the way. The tenure track has become a war of attrition, rather than a fair competition among young scientists with the best new ideas, and that is a big problem.

So given my current position as a postdoc, I suppose the question is: what now? Before I started my job, I laid out a set of concrete rules that I’ve followed perfectly so far. These rules help me manage and accept the major structural problems in academic science that I see around me. I took my current position with three ideas in mind: 1) this is an exciting project, in a field I always wanted to explore (I changed disciplines entirely following my PhD), 2) this position would be the only postdoc I’d ever have, and 3) if I didn’t have an academic TT job by the time this postdoc was over, I’d find a different career. So far #1 has been great success. I’ve learned a ton, contributed a solid paper that helps understand “Snowball Earth” (an undergraduate fascination of mine), and will continue to work hard to understand triple oxygen isotopes in the geologic record, at least until funding runs out. I’m still awaiting results of #2, as I’ve applied for a number of jobs recently and interviews are still being conducted at a number of schools. As for #3, I’m funded until the end of July, and we’ll see where things go after that. As much as I’d love an academic career, there are a lot of other paths in life, and I’m not so one-track focused that I’d do “whatever it takes.” At the end of the day, it’s just a job like any other, and there are things that are important in life outside of science.

Perhaps most of all, when I’m old and grey and look back on my career, I hope I can confidently say that I didn’t win the rat race. I think Chris would be proud of me for saying so.

~B

When you strike out three times in one game …

To continue with Peter Newbury’s (@polarisdotca) baseball analogy week, when you’re playing baseball, and have struck out three times in one game – you go up to bat the next time even more determined to get on base. This mentality is one of the reasons I think baseball players make good scientists – when you’re working in the lab, sometimes your procedures don’t work – again, and again, and again. Determination to get a result is sometimes all that matters.

Sometimes in the lab it’s faulty equipment. Sometimes the reagents have expired. Sometimes you don’t know what happened and have to go back and troubleshoot. After doing my DNA extractions and PCR reactions last month, my positive controls have DNA, my negative controls are free of DNA (both good things) and my Agar Gels seem to look clean of any problems. Unfortunately, my real samples aren’t showing any bands of DNA anywhere. Possibly there isn’t much DNA in the samples to begin with (they’re methanogens after all, low-biomass communities), or the oil in the samples interferes with the extraction process. Either way, I’m starting from scratch this week to get results, and not giving up – the geochem and isotope data look great in this experiment, and having some proper DNA sequencing will be the Mariano Rivera (or Tom Henke, if you prefer) of this study – providing the last bit of evidence to close out a really great story.

Baseball is life. Life is baseball. Particularly true in science, these analogies never seem to end.

~B

TomHenke

Tom Henke, closer for the Toronto Blue Jays first World Series win in 1992. Photo: http://www.rocketsports-ent.com/

The Motivation Fairy

I had the fantastic opportunity last week to attend a research and motivation workshop by Hugh Kearns, a psychologist based out of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. His message was consistently that the freedom that is provided in an academic career is a fantastic thing, but managing that freedom is very difficult, especially when you have interests outside of your specific research field. His tips were fairly practical and could be put into use quickly in your everyday life, so I thought it might be a good place to share some of these, and point you to his company website (Thinkwell) if you’re interested in learning more. Thanks again, Hugh for a fantastic workshop. The motivation fairy will visit my desk more often because of you.

My top three tips from the workshop for being productive in grad school

1 – email. deal with it, schedule it, or delete it. I’ll admit I’m probably one of the worst people for doing too much email. This idea of taking every email and filing it immediately, scheduling a time to do it, or deleting it (also applies to snail mail) was incredibly useful, and has already let me get through a few days of emails more efficiently than I did before this workshop. Not opening your email first thing in the morning and actually working on the thing that’s most important that day (usually thesis research for me right now) is a huge boon to productivity, and now I’ll only open my email after morning coffee. So if you need to get hold of me in the early AM, don’t try email – my inbox is off.

2 – measuring outputs instead of inputs. I’m definitely guilty of this too – if I spend a couple more hours on this I’ll not feel “the guilt” anymore. Fellow grad students, you know what I’m talking about. “The guilt” is that feeling that you’re not working hard enough, or long enough hours. In our creative field, this is totally bunk. Much off the time, those “extra” hours you put in aren’t all that productive and would be better spent doing other things. Working a dedicated and focused two hours can often be more productive than eight hours at a half-assed pace. By focusing on things and working hard for a short period of time, and measuring what you produce (your outputs – could be a thesis chapter, or this blog post) rather than the time you put in (hmm today I sat around thinking about blogging for a few hours, then decided to write a paragraph then get coffee, then thought some more… etc.). There are few times in academia that “hours worked” actually translate to deliverables (lab work might be the only thing in this case – if I spend 12 hours on the mass spec, I get a whole lot more done than 6 hours on the mass spec. The same doesn’t apply to writing or thinking about problems. Spend less time, but more focused time, and measure your success via your outputs instead of your time spent in front of your computer.

3 – Learn to say no. This is the final one that really stuck with me, whether it’s committee work, or teaching, or volunteer positions, we all have interests outside of our PhD’s. However, none of these things help us achieve our goal of writing a PhD dissertation (in “partial fulfilment” of the degree, Doctor of Philosophy). They might look great on a CV, and it might feel really great to help your friends out, but picking and choosing your battles is essential, and learning when to say no to something that will truly push you over the top is important. I love doing these extra bits of work. They’re extremely satisfying, but they will likely delay my PhD in the end. Focusing most of my time on research, and limiting my time doing extras is important, and learning how to refuse these great opportunities with grace (especially when you’re ‘expected’ to do them) is an essential skill I wish I’d developed sooner.

~Ben

It was a dark and snowy night…

On a dark and snowy Calgary evening, I finished a book that inspired me to (finally) start blogging. I’d set up this blog site a while ago, but had never had inspiration to write anything, or believe that anything I’d write was important enough that someone else would want to read it. I finally realized that sharing experiences and learning from each other is how the human species has propagated successfully over our entire planet – from pole to pole – and that while I risk having my thoughts archived by Google forever (no way to retract statements here), by not publishing a blog I run the greater risk of having those thoughts lost forever. On this blog I’ll share my experiences as a scientist, teacher, learner, and human being, and encourage responses and comments from the untamed blogosphere.

Tonight I was part of several excellent discussions (over pints, of various topics) at the University of Calgary’s Graduate Leaders Circle. The GLC is a new group that consists of Vanier and Killam scholars at the university. I realized tonight, looking around the table, that there have been very few times in my life where I’ve been surrounded by as many awesome people as I was at that particular moment. People who work on so many diverse topics from public health initiatives, to understanding human history, to unraveling fundamental structure of molecular complexes and to figuring out why plants produce certain proteins – the group was filled with diverse and expert researchers. What really strikes me about the GLC, however, is the human side of these scientists. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone breaks the classic stereotype of the solitary scientist in the laboratory. These people are game changers, and have both the raw intellectual curiosity and people skills to lead into the future, wherever that may be. It’s been a pleasure to get to know each one of them.