Propagation of Indoctrination
This is inspired by the one, very sad, anonymous comment on my last blog. It's so sad because it's so true.
To paraphrase: This person mentions a postdoc who says he was always taught not to discourage grad students, depiste knowing everything that's wrong with academia.
Not discouraging grad students is just a survival thing. To do well as a young professor, grad students are your best, cheapest source of labor. Grad students stay longer than postdocs, as a rule, so they're a good investment in terms of training time. And you need grad students to succeed if you want to get more of them. It's literally in a PI's best interest to make more copies of themselves (you have to report job placement of previous disciples when you apply for fellowships for new ones).
Take-home message on why everyone lies to grad students: You don't discourage the hand that feeds you.
Herein lies a lesson for all grad students everywhere: NEVER FORGET THAT THEY DEPEND ON YOU TO DO THE WORK THEY CAN'T DO THEMSELVES.
This next part seems like a tangent but I swear it's not:
I was watching Arnold Schwarzenegger this morning on George Stephanopoulos' show, and he was saying how he can go all-out because he's not a career politician. And I started thinking, yeah, this really is our problem in this country. You shouldn't be allowed to be a career politician. You should have to have a day job, something to go back to when your term limit kicks in. It would really get rid of a lot of corruption, if you think about it.
I sometimes wonder if this isn't the case with science as well. If everyone knew that they would only be doing science for a few, peak years - the way ballerinas and olympic athletes know that they are physically limited from working forever - I think science would be a totally different place. We would make decisions on a totally different basis.
People claim that your peak years in science are before you hit, say, 40. They claim that most people who are going to get a big prize (you know which one I mean) will get it for work they did when they were younger.
Then.... the rest is mostly downhill, so the feeling goes. There are a few, outstanding people who continue to build on their early work, and there are some late-bloomers who work their whole lives toward one goal and finally reach it at the end. But this is not that common. In general, sort of like with pop music these days, the newcomers who burst onto the scene with a huge, flashy splash are the ones who will get all the glory.
But back to my main point. Let's say that you know that you're going to get kicked out of science when you hit 40. Here's what you would do differently:
1. Kiss ass? Not as much. What's the point?
2. Take risks? Sure, why not. What is there to lose?
3. Tell the truth? Sure, why not. Oh wait, that's taking a risk... But seriously, science couldn't rely on false advertising because more people would get a chance to take a turn. And it would select for people who really belong in science. And there would be more options for people when they leave. Right now we have an overabundance of people who wandered down the wrong hall and don't know how to get back out.
4. Work harder? Maybe. Maybe if you know your time is limited, you'll try to get more done before you have to leave. Maybe knowing that it's a short-term thing will make you realize what a privilege it is, so you'll work harder for your country, or whatever. This is the Olympic athlete argument. It might also make science more competitive (is that possible?).
The flip side of this is that people might say they're less invested in science because they won't get as much out of the system in the long run (tenure, security). But there are a lot of people who think that something like the French system, where you essentially get tenure as soon as you get a job (and you have to do that before you turn 30), ultimately backfires because people aren't motivated to work hard.
So the question becomes, are people more motivated by potential glory with lack of job security, or by optimism that they can earn job security (whether it's true or not)? Are the best scientists the ones who think like Olympic athletes?
5. Contribute to society? Probably. The older, ex-scientists can be better ambassadors to the public, and for longer. They could even take a turn at being a 1-term politician.