Yahoo ends telework as we know it…

I’ve been reading about this development all week. Today’s NYT story is here. The argument from Yahoo’s leadership is that while work-at-homers are more productive, they are less innovative.

For me, I’m less concerned about staff than science trainees. The Net and the advent of ubiquitous pdf scientific articles have in many cases ended the 24/7 laboratory culture that used to be de rigueur as a right of graduate student passage. Now the question is what is being given up? Are the new generation of science trainees as productive but less innovative because they aren’t hanging out in the lab at 2 AM?

And for those who are, are they gaining some competitive advantage?

Encouraging collaboration…

At our Institute, a major “price of admission” for new faculty is a willingness to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries–the notion being that the loci for many major advances lie at the boundaries of disperate fields. This in itself is challenging because different disciplines operate with different technical languages, commonly called “jargon”. Finding a lingua franca between different disciplines takes time and energy and the pay off, while potentially large, is always fraught with risk (true scientific research is always risky).

Hence, here at Krasnow, the challenge is to encourage such collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, but the even deeper challenge is to encourage collaborations in general. Why?

A major reason is that our current training in science, especially at the doctoral level, emphasizes a solitary rather than team approach. The PhD thesis is, after all, a singularly individual intellectual product–the doctoral advisor’s name doesn’t go on the title page as an author for a reason. While the acquisition of data used in a dissertation may in some cases involve a team approach (think big data physics), at the data analysis level, for the thesis, the work is generally that of the graduate student.

Another reason for the challenge in getting scientists to collaborate is the inherent difficulties, under current systems of sharing data. Until data sharing curation and provenance norms are universal, the “safe” approach is to keep one’s own experimental data under wraps. While large scale data sharing is a desirable end-point, we still aren’t there yet.

Finally, my own sense is that a key ingredient of scientific success involves the ability to think intensely, without distraction, about a problem–and most individuals find it easiest to do this alone. Even if this isn’t the case, the conventional wisdom is that the “ah ha” moment follows such a period of introspective pondering.

So those are some reasons….how might one still encourage collaborations?

Mentoring students in science soft skills

Yesterday I mentioned how European and North American science are joined at the hip. To walk around the Krasnow Institute, this is clear. Our students and faculty are truly international. And yes, that includes the rest of the world besides the EU, Canada and the United States. But I’d like to focus on one lacuna in how we handle advanced scientific training, both here and abroad:

Part and parcel of doctoral education here at Mason is training in the “soft skills” necessary to professionally succeed in science as it’s practiced here in the US. This includes grantsmanship aimed at US funding agencies such as NSF or the NIH. ¬†Crucially, we don’t, in general offer such soft skills for the European system (e.g. Framework 7).

By the same token, in my visits to Europe, I’ve noticed a complementary absence of such soft skill training for US sponsored research sources.

None of this would make much of a difference except for the fact that both here and in Europe, the trainee pool includes doctoral students and postdocs from everywhere. Hence, the New Yorker, I met briefly on one of my recent trips to Europe, will have a difficult time applying for her first NIH RO1 if she returns to the US. And our European trainees, while adept at preparing specific aims, intellectual merit and broader impacts (hallmarks of US NIH and NSF grant applications), will be in the dark as far as applying for EU support from Brussels.

This problem is even more acute for students from places other than the EU and North America. Simply put, we must train our students to succeed as scientists where ever they chose to put down roots.

Defending doctoral education as a viable career choice

The Nation’s William Deresiewicz has a stinging indictment of doctoral education as a career choice here.

His key point, as I see it, is that the opportunities for newly minted PhD’s are limited in the US by both the lack of mandatory retirement for tenured professors and the use of adjuncts to replace any retirements that do happen to take place.

I would say indeed he is correct factually about the above, however, the distinction between the humanities and hard sciences is somewhat blurred in his analysis, and to some extent this biases his argument.

Far more important, from my standpoint are the following:

First, there are many non-academic careers for which a PhD is not the albatross (think NY city taxi driver who reveals that he has a doctorate in political science–urban legend?) many folks would have us believe. This is especially true for all sorts of policy positions in government and NGO’s, but also very much the case for entire sectors of the global economy such has high-technology, energy and biomedical sciences that lie outside of academia.

Second, I would argue, at least in the sciences, the very best will always thrive in academia on the basis of their intellectual productivity, and for many doctoral students (as with many high performance athletes) the opportunity to make it to the elite levels is the motivational driver, immaterial of the chances for eventual success.

What I detect most in Deresiewicz’s piece is a passionate call for economic justice (perfect for a magazine like The Nation). This is admirable, but at some level irrelevant. The desire of creative human beings to create, whether in the humanities, social sciences or in the hard science disciplines, is something orthogonal to compensation levels.

What use the PhD?

There’s been a lot of Sturm and Drang lately about getting your doctorate–at least in the humanities. Now The Economist weighs in here –and not just about the humanities. The correspondent (The Economist contains no bylines) apparently got hers in the life sciences and is none too thrilled.

There are several major trends converging here, among them: the role of tenure, the role of postdoc, the role of graduate students in research and teaching and finally the market outside academia for persons with doctorates. The key element is that things are changing rapidly (as this piece implies) and that what the future holds for the academic research enterprise isn’t entirely clear.

That said, my own view of the majority of our doctoral students is that they are a bright, fairly fulfilled bunch. They work very hard, but they convey a sense of optimism about their own futures. Of course, this may be an advantageous strategy for graduate students within eyesight/earshot of their institute director.