Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The best paragraphs that I disagree with, written by Andre the Chemist

In the midst of the Schuman/Roiphe no-you-should-NOT-get-a-humanities-PhD/Yes-I-loved-it Slate debate, Andre the Chemist wrote a wonderfully reasoned essay on reasons why you might want to get a Ph.D., and then sets out this gem (not being sarcastic here) in the comments:
You do gain skills with a humanities PhD, that was the point of the pro-PhD piece. The development of serious research skills, critical thinking, and writing is something applicable to a wide number of jobs out there.  
The skills you describe can be gained by job experience, and this is much of what chemistry grad school has become: a substitute for on-the-job training. You can see that there are very few jobs for zero years experience out there because industry is using graduate school as a way to get out of investing in its employees in the form of training. (and please note I'm not saying that graduate schools are not complicit in taking advantage of students in the current system to meet their own ends) 
Call me old fashioned, but I don't think a PhD should equal simply five years of bench experience. It's about the problem solving, writing, and critical thinking skills - the deeper understanding of a subject AND how to develop deep understandings of other subjects.  
Right now someone may go to grad school for organic synthesis and then think they've prepared for a job doing organic chemistry. I think if someone gets a PhD doing organic chemistry, they should be prepared to do a broad range of chemistry (or even some non-chemistry) jobs because their value isn't in their knowledge of organic reactions, but in solving complex problems and teaching herself or himself (learning) the new skills they need to address those problems.
To his comment that you gain skills in a humanities Ph.D., my question is, "At what cost?"

I believe that the main reason that there are relatively few entry-level positions in chemistry right now is that corporations don't see sources of future economic growth in the West. You hire newbie PhDs for research; if you foresee flattish economic growth in the developed world right now and no obvious sources of expansion*, why invest in new workers that will cost you money now and might pay off in the future? It's not a coincidence that pharma was hiring like crazy in the late-90s when the sky was the limit on pharma's stock price and the US (and the world, it seemed) was in the midst of limitless economic growth.

I agree with Andre that a Ph.D. in chemistry should have signaling value to other fields and show that the holder is capable of complex problem solving. I think my problem is this -- other fields have certificates and signals of their own. Even if we all know (and we do, don't we?) that chemists are master ninjas of problem solving, I have yet to see other fields poaching Ph.D. chemists and allowing substitutions of the Ph.D. credential in lieu of their own special credential. (Sure, there's the odd hedge fund and think tank.)

Even within chemistry itself, it seems that we only hire from our unique subfield. While I'm more than prepared to believe this is the old-boy/girl-network doing its thing true, considered meritocracy at work, I suspect that it is representative of our extraordinarily specialized economy. We just don't make generalists anymore, not in graduate school, anyway.

*That should be "no obvious sources of expansion that do not have their own built-in sources of research scientists, i.e. India or China." 

18 comments:

  1. I shall bask in your generous compliments (and ignore your label for the post) for a spell before saying my piece.

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    1. NB that all of my theorizing on the blog is ironically (or not) labeled.

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  2. "I agree with Andre that a Ph.D. in chemistry should have signaling value to other fields and show that the holder is capable of complex problem solving."

    Yes, but unfortunately gaining this set of skills is actively precluded by the high priests of academia. I mean, who would want to teach critical thinking to a grad student if it's going to interfere with using him as cheap labor?

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    1. What Ive noticed is most advisors are simply too lazy to teach you how to develop critical thinking skills. Most advisors take on the "benign neglect" approach toward Grad Students; for example, the "sink or swim" approach from "Female Science Professor". If you manage to get a PhD it may indicate that you were able to develop critical thinking skills on your own, because its unlikely that your advisor would help you with that. However, many get through simply because the PhD comittee does not want to nix 5 years or more of work, no matter what your critical thinking skills are.

      So in sum, just because you have a PhD does not mean you have critical thinking skills. If you do, it was most likely not through the teachings of an advisor.

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    2. @ NMH: I don't agree with your reasoning, but I do agree with your conclusion.

      It's not that professors are too lazy. Rather, it's because newly minted R1 professors are not evaluated on their ability to teach students how to critically think for themselves as much as it is on teaching students to have the minimal functioning ability to do the work. This is reinforced by the incentive of tenure and the reality of the cost of goods.

      In academic organic chemistry, contrary to biochemistry, the largest expense in performing research is the cost of personnel (tuition & stipend). For most research groups (irregardless of field), their ability and success in receiving funding is proportionate to the number (and quality) of papers published. In organic chemistry, there is a correlation (but not always causation) to the number of papers a group publishes and the amount of time spent in front of a fume hood. Given the pressure of newly minted faculty to perform and publish in a very short amount of time, it should not be unexpected that they start to develop micro-managerial behavior when it comes to mentoring graduate students and postdocs. Why waste time letting the student work it out when the professor can more efficiently direct them?

      Of course, those that comprise a newly minted professor's first class of graduate students are typically the best and brightest, or come to be, due to not having (but needing!) a certain institutional group framework of SOP. However, the benefits of a closer educational interaction with their PI do not necessarily translate to developing critical thinking skills, beyond those that were exercised in making the decision to join the group in the first place.

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    3. I agree with what you're saying about new professors, but what about established, tenured profs? What's their excuse?

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    4. Seconded. Nothing angers me more than tenured professors who let students languish in lab for years without knowing how to run a proper column, while claiming that there isn't enough money to support other students who are actually good workers *and* thinkers.

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  3. "Critical thinking skills" is always a phrase that makes me cringe. What the heck are those? Could someone at least teach me WHAT they are, let alone how to use them? To me, this phrase has always been the education version of MBA-corporate-babble.

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    1. I can't define "critical thinking skills," but if you want the antonym, look to Congress.

      Seriously, though, I think you're underestimating critical thinking skills, which is understandable because for most scientists, they're intuitive. Most people, however, simply cannot solve problems that are out of their experience. They don't perform literature surveys. They don't test their hunches with experiments. They don't attempt to remain objective. They don't let the data talk.

      Having said that, I don't think graduate school has a monopoly on developing CTSs, and I don't know if the costs are worth the payoff.

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    2. I don't want to sound flippant, but critical thinking is exactly what it sounds like: the ability to think critically.

      Many people have the idea that treating something "critically" is the same thing as "criticizing" something, and while the meanings may technically be the same, the latter definitely has evolved in popular use to mean "point out all the negative aspects of". I'm not sure I can say it better than the Merriam-Webster website: critical in the case of "critical thinking" means "exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation".

      What you are learning to do is to make your own reasoned, independent evaluation of information that you collect or are given. This can involve finding trends in data, or looking for holes in someone's reasoning or logic, or even developing a set of experiments to definitely explore a proposed theory.

      Critical thinking is not easy to learn, to teach, or to test for. It's also not an easy concept to explain, nor are those "critical thinking skills," but I wouldn't consider them babble or buzzwords. And Anonymous above is right, grad school is not the only way to develop them, nor is it guaranteed to do so.

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    3. I think a reasonable practical standard for demonstrating critical thinking in science, especially in biochemistry/molecular biology, is can you drive a piece of work to, or at least toward, publication without the help of your advisor?

      I think most PhD's do develop these skills on there own most of the time. If the advisors out there actually helped them than they would have a 2x better publication record. I think there is a lot of waste in science due to advisor's benign neglect.

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    4. I think there are some trained monkeys that could get a piece of work published. I think a better test (still not perfect) is can you get a project to the point of publication of a full paper (i.e. not just a communication).

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    5. No offense to anyone, but what a strange, academic way of thinking, to equate publications, or type of publication (?!) with critical thinking skills.

      Off the top of my head, a couple criteria more in line with "real world" critical thinking skills: (1) being able to evaluate information sources for reliability/biases/etc. (2) knowing how to design experiments to efficiently test your hypothesis.

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    6. It's also not an easy concept to explain, nor are those "critical thinking skills," but I wouldn't consider them babble or buzzwords.

      But because they are difficult to explain or quantify, they have become buzzwords that everyone puts on their resume.

      In the current job climate the ability to think critically is trumped by tangible skill-sets that employers want. A company is less likely to want to train someone if they can find a person with the experience and specific skills they are looking for. How many job postings do you see that ask for someone's ability to think critically?

      It's great ability to have, but there are a lot of unemployed people who can think critically. It doesn't make you more employable, unfortunately.

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  4. I don't think hedge funds hire organic/medicinal chemists (or MDs) to do anything but chemistry (or medicine). Sure, there's some financial modeling work involved, but a house cat could learn that in a week (it took me longer...). I do think that guys like Schultzy how shown that chemists can be biologists, though I don;t know of any biologists who could be chemists. I'm sure physicists have the same view of chemists. I'm pretty sure having a sociology Ph.D. running even a small scale LiAlH4 reaction would be a not great idea, though I imagine they both have similar critical thinking skills..

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  5. I don't think the critical thinking skills learned in a chemistry Ph.D. study are better than those learned in any other scientific study. People study chemistry to get jobs in chemistry. There really is no papering over of this. I'm sure some chemistry Ph.D.s find great jobs in other fields but they will be competing with people already trained in that field.

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  6. To me, the biggest problem is the meaning of a PhD degree - is it the same for one earned at fancy pants Ivys or one earned at no-name generic universities? Unlike professional degrees (MDs, PharmDs, JDs), where everyone who get the degree supposedly pass the same exit exam (different by states, I know), there is really no way to know the true value of a PhD. Even publications may not tell the whole story - did the student write the paper? Did he/she plan all the experiments or is he/she barely a pair of hands replaceable by monkeys?! I think that's fundamentally what's driving the hiring decision - people tend to go with the brand name PhD producing institutes/groups to minimize risks of getting a not-up-to-par employee. Are all people coming out of fancy pants Ivys necessarily better than non-Ivys? On average, I'd say yes, but there are exceptions. Although, having worked in industry for a few years really made me realize how the current PhD education (at a large top-10 state school I attended) is totally out of touch with what industry looks for in terms of skillsets.

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    1. It's not even the comparison between the elite schools and the no-name schools, it's a comparison between the Ph.D. criteria in other nations and the U.S.

      From what I've heard these criteria can be quite different. And yet all that matters is the piece of paper at the end, and the letters after your name, not that what you did to get those letters is qualitatively, and regimentally, different than what your competitors for the job did to get those letters.

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