Friday, September 28, 2012

Podcast: Chemjobber and Daniel Lametti

Daniel Lametti is a graduate student at McGill University and a writer for Slate Magazine. He wrote an interesting piece on science PhDs and how they do. As folks may remember, I took aim at the post and critiqued it. Dan and I decided to talk over Skype about our different views on the topic. The results (lightly edited for clarity and audio) are below:



Once again, my apologies for the audio and the lack of prettiness. Also, I apologize for the background noise, including my ice machine.

If you're looking for two people yelling at each other (or me yelling at Dan, and Dan giving up, Perry Mason-style), don't bother. If you're looking for two scientists talking about their differences rationally and holding their own, feel free to give it a listen. (For what it's worth, I think I could have represented "my side" better, but I don't think I acquiesced too much.)

Selected highlights:

0:00: Introduction of CJ and Daniel and the topic
4:00: Daniel and I talk alternative careers! transferable skills!
8:00: CJ argues that your late 20s are special, and people may not realize how much of a chunk of your youth graduate school will take
13:00: Daniel argues that graduate school is really fun and that should be taken into account.
16:00: Daniel talks about the varying reactions to his piece.
17:38: CJ and Daniel talk about older chemists and how they're hurting.
20:00: CJ asks Daniel, "Would you recommend the Vastag piece?" Daniel says "No."
22:00: Daniel argues for the importance of a good Ph.D. adviser.
25:00: CJ and Daniel talk about whether it makes sense that biologists and chemists become business consultants.
28:00: CJ talks about how chemistry is special, especially with respect to the working world.
30:00: CJ and Daniel talk about whether policy should be changed to discourage Ph.D.s.
36:00: CJ and Daniel agree on how student debt is undesirable.

12 comments:

  1. Why not make a FaceTime video. It's nice to see who is speaking!

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    1. Since I intend to remain a pseudonymous blogger, any video of me will have to be of my hands, Kefauver hearings style.

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  2. Very interesting discussion, and pleasantly civilized. On the subject of Ph.Ds in neuroscience: it is possible to do neuroscience in industry. One of my grammar school students did a Ph.D. in neuroscience at University College London, and is now senior project leader in virtual neuroscience at Astra Zeneca.He also held similar posts at Merck, Wyeth and Pfizer. The jobs are there (though they might not be as many of them as there used to be, or as many in neuroscience as there used to be for chemists).

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  3. Is this the first Chemjobber podcast? I'm in support! I like that you've been able to get more out of the dialogue than would have been possible from various blog articles. Anyone else you can think of chatting with?

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    1. No, the last one was with Janet Stemwedel: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/search/label/podcast

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  4. At around 9:00 it seems as though Mr. Lametti is insinuating that a "tough" PI would expect his students to be in the lab "10-12 hrs a day." If someone can find a PI in the organic division of a top 20 school who doesn't consider these hours to be a MINIMUM for all students in the group, please sign me up! The fact of the matter is that getting a PhD in organic chemistry is in no way similar to getting a PhD in neuroscience. I too would enjoy grad school if I wore flip flops and shorts into lab and worked 8 hours a day 5 days a week. This is not the experience that any organic chemistry PhD has during grad school. The problem then is compounded when you realize that there are almost no jobs available to you upon graduation. It then becomes difficult for anyone who has subjected themselves to this lifestyle to chalk it all up as a "valuable experience" and go into another field. The problem is that Mr. Lametti, and many others like him, do not understand the atmosphere of chemistry PhD programs (of which most would say that Organic is the harshest). Without pharma jobs where organic chemists can utilize their skills in a meaningful way, it seems as though an organic chemistry PhD becomes an exercise in masochism. I think it's time that people within the world of chemistry start commenting on this issue publicly, rather than having people like Mr. Lametti tell us that we should be thankful that we can "have fun" in grad school and learn "transferable skills."

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    1. I agree, I am baffled by the "fun" logic. I work 15 hours less per week in my corporate job than I did in grad school, virtually never work weekends, and get more than five weeks off each year between vacation and holidays. The one time I took a week long vacation in grad school, my PI blew a gasket. Grad school without a doubt was the worst part of my adult life, the summer I spent working in an overseas lab excepted.

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  5. Has Mr. Lametti read the story about EJ's lab and the tragic saga of Jason Altom? Not much has changed in the last decade : http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/29/magazine/lethal-chemistry-at-harvard.html

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  6. I enjoyed listening to it. Some of what he had to say I agreed with, and some I didn't.

    As an interesting counterpoint - could you do an interview with Brian Vastag? It would be rather enlightening to hear his perspective on this issue, as well as finding out why he wrote his piece on this subject, and how it came to be on the front page of the Sunday Post (a not inconsiderable honor).

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  7. He works in McGill which is kind of a spa. All those wine and cheeses:) A PhD in science might be worthy just not in Organic Chemistry. Sorry fellows.

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  8. Hey CJ, could you offer points you missed making to represent "your side" better? I actually felt you acquiesced to Mr. Lambert's points too easily with many "I don't really knows" in regards to enjoyment of grad school, disparate STEM fields, transferable skills, and future job prospects. I wish you had confronted him with the main point of your critique: ignorance of a "cold look at the facts." The economist article made a convincing argument from relevant data that was largely ignored by Mr. Lambert in favor of mostly anecdotal evidence from a top university. On the contrary to Mr. Lambert's observations of success for himself and his colleagues, I have too often seen dissatisfaction and disappointment towards my science graduate program. I wish this perspective was better represented.

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    1. Hi, Martin:

      I felt he granted my main point and my strongest ground: things are not good for chemists, and that was reflected in the Vastag WaPo article. He felt that the point was not generalizable, and I'm willing to concede that I don't know enough of the data to agree one way or the other. I also felt that he granted that science graduate school is not the best ROI, which is the point of a lot of those different articles.

      Let me see what I can gin up, or we can talk further via e-mail.

      Cheers, Chemjobber

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