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

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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

On the origin of Assistant Professors

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After spending the last fifteen months as a postdoc (and to be honest, mostly enjoying it, it’s been fun despite the brutal frustration of building a new homebrew instrument and getting it running), I’ve come to appreciate first hand how difficult getting a faculty job offer is—not that I previously held delusions that it was easy. I’ve recently gone through my first round of job applications, and I’ve had a few bites, but no offers so far. It’s still early in the game, and interviews are still being conducted, but I’m not holding my breath. To evaluate where I stand compared to other possible candidates, I went on a small quest last night to figure out what the career paths look like for recently hired Assistant Professors of Geology (Earth Science, Geoscience, whatever you want to call it) in Canada. I chose Canada because I’m Canadian, but also because it’s a smaller more manageable data collection effort. Admittedly, this was partly self-serving because this year there were no hires in Canada for which I would be a suitable candidate, and I wanted to scope out where might be hiring in the near future. The findings were intriguing, and while the sample size is small, it may be helpful for students who are trying to plan their careers. The key piece of information that is lacking in this study is nationality—there are restrictions on hiring at all universities in Canada that rank equivalently qualified Canadians and permanent residents higher than foreign nationals in almost every job competition including those of faculty. Therefore, the results should be skewed toward Canadian citizens, regardless of PhD or Postdoc location, but I was unable to test this idea.

Here’s what I found (please note that the data are incomplete,. but I can only spend so much time hacking around trying to dig up details that should be easily displayed on a university website). At the 12 universities I examined, there are 36 Assistant Professors of Geology. Fourteen (39%) were female, and twenty two (61%) were male. An obvious gender imbalance, but small sample size. The median year of attaining a PhD was 2007, and the median number of years spent as a postdoc was three. There was a wide range of postdoctoral experience, ranging from none to ten years. Most Assistant Professors (67%) did their PhD outside of Canada. Most also did their postdoc outside of Canada (73%). There was only one case that did both PhD and postdoc in Canada and currently holds a junior tenure-track position.

Qualitatively, all of the people holding Assistant Professorships had exceptional qualifications and publication records, and I don’t see universities being short on outstanding people anytime soon. However, this led me to another (yet unanswered) question: where do all the students and postdocs go? In any university department there are far more PhD students than faculty. Doing the math, there were 12 people hired in the last ~8 years, and probably 400 (this is a back of the envelope calculation) graduating with a PhD during the same time frame from Canadian schools, the rate of 1 faculty job for ~30 PhD’s seems similar to that of the American system. In grad school, nobody is under the delusion that they are all going to become professors, but that we don’t know the ultimate destinations of these highly qualified people speaks to our general ignorance of science in our society. The data to conduct this study certainly exist—NSERC collects information about trainees from all its supported researchers, and it would be interesting to follow up on this in a more detailed and data rich study.

What I took away from this is probably more of the same things I knew already. Things are hard if you choose science as a career path. Generally low pay, poor job prospects, etc. etc. that we should all be aware of before embarking on that journey. However, I also see opportunity. The 29 out of 30 people (the 97%?) who didn’t get a faculty job (or maybe didn’t want one in the first place) are still very qualified scientists with good ideas and clever ways to solve problems. Perhaps by reversing the trend of training so many students, better science could be done with a more permanent staff. If I were a PI, I’d expect better science to be done by a competent research associate who’s spent ten years thinking about isotope geochemistry than a newly minted undergrad who doesn’t know the difference between alpha, delta, and epsilon. Perhaps by taking advantage of the current glut of qualified researchers Canada can change the way science is done, and get back to leading, instead of lagging behind, the rest of the scientific world.

~B

ps – I’d hoped to get this published on Darwin Day (hence the title), but I’m a day late.
pps- The raw data can be found here, and admittedly it’s a bit rough. Please feel free to use it however you’d like to share, download, make it better, etc.

Location_PhD Years as Postdoc Male_Female Location_Postdoc

The Scientific Method

I haven’t posted here in a while, most likely due to thesis writing and abundance of industry-related confidential projects I’ve been working on. This is my first post-Calgary post, however, as I’ve recently moved to Toronto, and it will be a short one.

I just discovered this genius one-minute clip of a Richard Feynman lecture from the 60’s that deserves to be widely shared. As a scientist who does primarily the latter part of the equation right now (testing hypotheses with experimental data, rather than modeling) I couldn’t agree more. I love modelers, I love the questions the increasingly complex numerical models can generate, but I think it’s highly relevant to remember that it is data that ultimately drives science.

Without further ado, here’s the clip:

Procrastination

Ok, I admit, every academic ever has written a piece about procrastination. This isn’t new. If you are looking for universe-altering insight turn away now, and recognize that I am CURRENTLY PROCRASTINATING BY WRITING THIS BLOG. However, if you’re interested in how I procrastinate and my self-reflection on my ‘useless time wasting,’ here’s my rant today while I procrastinate from writing a chapter that I don’t have a good vision for yet…

There are some days when I think procrastination is a necessary part of science. Sometimes I think it’s productive for writing to procrastinate a bit before starting. I tend to write in big blocks, where I will focus for hours on the paper I’m writing, or not at all. The last few days have qualified as “not at all.” I think this is OK, perhaps collecting my thoughts, letting my brain fire some electrons around the paper that isn’t quite as structured as it could be. Perhaps this shuffling of electrons will give organization, new insights, or ways to communicate the things I’ve learned over the past few years into the document known as “the thesis.” Perhaps I should distinguish procrastination in general from productive procrastination, otherwise known as “thinking” I don’t think that enough thinking happens today. Few people would consider what I’ve done this morning productive. Stared off into space at my local coffee shop, not writing anything, just clearing my mind of the things that have complicated it in the past few weeks. There’s a strong probability that I won’t write a single paragraph this morning before lunch, but I think that’s OK. I find after a good procrastination/thinking session, my brain is more apt to flow freely and produce organized thoughts and paragraphs that actually make sense when put together. I’ve written entire papers in a single day that sound far better than the piecemeal potpourri of paragraphs I’ve put together over the past couple days. Sometimes procrastination, and thinking, is better than trying to mash keys better than a million monkeys. So if you’ve read my brief Friday rant, go spend some time procrastinating this week before trying to be creative. It just might help you achieve your goals faster.

– Ben

ps – naturally, after clicking “publish” the quote that was given to me advertising the WordPress Pro bundle was exactly relevant to my writing today:

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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/