Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why chemistry professors want to make more chemists

Faithful commentor Dr. Oaks mentions in a comment that "I also think advisers also should really consider fielding their grad students for more non-research related occupations." He acknowledges the problems with this thought by saying "If their students aren't towing the line, they don't get funding either."

I think that last is a big part of why more chemistry professors don't push their students to look outside chemistry -- it doesn't help the professor or her future group members, either in the present or the future. If your graduate students and postdocs go on and perform good science, there is some amount of reflected glory to be had; it's not a coincidence that the introduction of seminar speakers starts with a ritual recitation of the speaker's former kung-fu masters research advisers. The soft power from having lots of prominent group alumni in your contacts is pretty darn high.

If a chemistry professor was known for training people who left the field to be doctors, successful Wall Street analysts or high school teachers, would this professor win as much praise from their colleagues as one who had R1 professors and big pharma directors as their chemical progeny? I doubt it.

I should close this by noting that I like chemistry professors a lot and count my former research adviser as a friend. But they are rational actors, too -- and there is no shame in admitting that.


  1. Rational actors is the key here. I support abolishing the PhD system in favor of just a plain job + "invisible hand" approach.

    In this scenario, grad school would become a regular job. It's workers could quit or be fired at will (just like the real world). Employers (professors/industry) would just use publication record and presentations as a way to value these workers.

    The arbitrary PhD 5-7yr cutoff would be eliminated. Those who could not find jobs elsewhere, would just stay and keep working. Those who just aren't good enough, can just switch field without the PhD stigmatizing them. This cutoff would eliminate the massive oversupply that happens every summer and give people more stable employment. This would also maximize the tax payers money by giving money to more experienced workers, who can produce more valuable science. Instead of constantly replacing them with the unexperienced, who often are not good TA's for the undergrads.

    If people still wanted the merit badges and alphabet soup that academia produces (aka Awards and degrees), the ACS could just set up professional standards that are more transferrable and independent of academic institutions.

    Students would be able to see the long line to a job and gauge whether grad school was worth investing into. An equilibrium with the "invisible hand" of the market could finally form. Students could also use this "at-will" employment to control working conditions through turn-over. Thereby providing a way to incentivize these "rational actors" to improve working conditions, instead of destroying them.

    All of this is obvious real-world checks and balances. But most academics have never had to deal with the real world. And would like authoritarian power instead of persuasion to decide matters.

    Despite my low pay as free-market wage slave during college pushing shopping carts, I was treated significantly better than in grad school. I was also able to leave that job anytime I found a better opportunity, instead of waiting 5yrs. No one would call me a quitter either.

  2. I'm Anon 1011. I would also add this to my prior solution. Eliminate the loan deferrment for these jobs. This incentivizes students to go to grad school to avoid the reality that their investment may not be paying off. We need some way of showing when an institution has failed their student by allowing default to show. Instead of hiding it for years in a grad program. This again would allow the best minds to stand out, instead of being lumped with debtors looking for an easy out.

  3. Well, I'm no longer in academia, but felt I should make a few comments. Realistically, the main answer to this is because the administration says so. If I could have gotten away with just me doing research and make tenure and promotion expectations I would. It would certainly be easier than trying to supervise a bunch of other people. But when you take the TT position and they tell you that you will need 5 pubs/year to get tenure while teaching your classes, well no one person is going to do that on their own. So you get students and you get funding to support them. And then you are breeding more chemists. It's the nature of the beast.

    As to informing students about other options or encouraging them to develop some breadth in their experience, my experience is most faculty did try to do that. The advice varied depending on what area of chemistry they were in. I'm in analytical and I encouraged my students to look at engineering and business courses to supplement the straight science. But, in the end, I'm not sure encouragement to look at other options matters all that much. I've sat in a room with undergraduate chemistry majors trying to explain what the job market is like and talk about non traditional options. Patent work? Boring! Law school? If I wanted to do that, I wouldn't be in science! Pharmacist? Who wants to sort pills? Post grad school, most people forget how idealistic college students are and they think they can conquer anything. If you doubt that, look at the liberal arts fields. They've had overproduction at every level for decades now, but people are still willing to spend 9 years going into debt to do a History PhD just because they want to.

  4. Anon10:52: Do you have time for questions? Please e-mail me at chemjobber-at-gmaildotcom. Confidentiality guaranteed.