Sunday, February 27, 2005

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.


At 8:58 PM, Blogger coturnix said...

When you got into science late and are starting a postdoc at the age of 39, and have a different perspective on the fleetingness of life, you understand that the remaining 25 years of your career are so short (only 5 grants cycles!)- it has the same effect as your proposal to cut at 40. Thinking of cutting at 65 makes me adopt all the above strategies (including thinking about running for office afterwards). It is all relative....

At 7:57 AM, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Well, I tend to agree, YoungFemaleScientist. In the sciences, people who make breakthroughs are usually under 30 and seldom over 40. This is especially true in my field, mathematics, where if I don't produce anything noteworthy by 35, I never will. Unfortunately, in the academic bureaucracy the strongest professors are the old full professors who haven't invented anything in 30 years and would be less than enthusiastic to give way to 20-something year olds fresh from post-doc.

The greatest problem, however, is what coturnix said - what about people who started late? Hedwig at Living the Scientific Life is about forty and only became an Adjunct Professor less than two months ago. In cases like these, age limits make no sense. What you might want is to have time limits, that is instead of tenure after 10-15 years of hard work, you get the boot, unless you produce truly extraordinary research. That'll leave the Chomskys and the Einsteins, and the people who actually produce significant results beyond their late 30s.

The second worst problem is that some disciplines don't have the same pattern of progress being made by young researchers. History, literature, philosophy - in all of these, extraordinary results tend to come from older professors rather than from young ones.

However, overall I still think this idea is pretty good, though I fear it would create a schism between rigorous disciplines such as the hard sciences, psychology, linguistics, and mathematics, where breakthroughs are made by the young, and more intellectual ones such as history and philosophy. A career in science or mathematics would mean near-certain termination around 40 for people who start at the usual age. A career in history would be completely different, which would weaken the already tenuous connection between the humanities and the sciences.

At 3:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In light of all this, is it still possible for a scientist to start a family while she is still young, and spend as much time with her children as they need, at the same time pursuing grants and possible fame in science? In my brief experience with a mom who was a medical researcher, her only son grew up neglected and emotionally needy. However, her carreer has been very prosperous.
For research, you gotta be married to your carreer to be a success.

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I agree, time limits make more sense than age limits.

As for having children, here is what I have to say on the matter:

1. EQUAL PARTNERSHIP IN MARRIAGE. Men need to get time off for kids, too. If you marry someone who expects you to do all the work to raise the kids, it's your own fault!

2. Anyone who spends too much time pursuing personal interests- especially children, but let's say windsurfing counts too- is not going to be a good lab head. They might be happier themselves, but it's likely that the people in the lab will feel neglected (sort of like children!).

3. The best advisors (and frequently the best scientists) are usually not the ones who spend a lot of time with their families. It's just a fact of life. The best ones are usually the ones who go home and read papers in the evening and come to lab on Saturdays. It has to be your all-consuming passion, or at least, the thing most likely to keep you from dying of boredom, the thing you fall back on when all else is mundane or unsuccessful, science has to work for you as a LIFESTYLE. It is NOT a job, it is a LIFESTYLE CHOICE. Anyone who tells you anything other than that is trying to sell you something that doesn't exist.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Pinky said...

I don't agree that science is a lifestyle. It CAN be if you want it to, but it does not have to be.

My experience is that those professors who did have outside interests were the ones who were, in general, more balanced and were better equipped to deal with people. And, less stressed out.

My boss was divorced with no social life, no hobbies and worked ALL the time - and guess what? We still felt neglected and we still disliked him. Having a family does not automatically mean you'll neglect your job, and being family-less does not mean you'll be a good boss.

I also don't agree that scientists are done after 40. It may be that most big discoveries are made in the early stages of one's career, but if you go into it thinking that you'll be washed up at 40... well, chances are, you will be.

At 4:55 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


If you want to be successful in any field- REALLY SUCCESSFUL- you have to live, breathe, sleep and bleed it. It has to be your lifestyle.

Any job can be just a job. But that attitude usually doesn't equate with resounding success.

I'm sorry your boss neglected you- I've been there. But I've been just as neglected, if not more so, by multiple advisors who had kids, than by the ones who didn't. But it's no guarantee.

You'll notice that I'm usually very careful to use lots of qualifiers- such as usually, generally, and most. I am making generalizations to generate discussion, I don't mean to say that these are rules that will always hold true.

Of course I don't think most scientists are done after 40, either. But in light of the discussion about being SUCCESSFUL, the super-successful ones are most frequently the ones who had some major lucky break when they were young enough that it created opportunities for them for the rest of their careers.

At 10:10 AM, Anonymous jbarker said...

I'd like to actually see some evidence for the oft mentioned "if you don't do anything big before you're 40, you never will".

It's not at all obvious in my tiny corner of the academic world. The last really big, singular thing I can think of in psych/neuroscience was the discovery of mirror neurons, and I'm pretty sure the guy who led that team was in his 40's or 50's (I forget his name, but I saw him give a talk, so the age is purely an estimate).

It may be true of "winning a noble prize" or "making a huge breakthrough" (though I'd still like to see some data), but these experiences are WAY outside the norm in science, and shouldn't really have any bearing on what we expect or want of most people. There's a lot of slow, gradual, non-sexy work that needs to be done as well to support those few breakthroughs.

If anything, it seems more likely to me that the *groundwork* for a good career is indeed laid when you are young, but that because of all the grunt work, money troubles, moving around, and such, it often doesn't bear fruit until you're quite a bit older.

That strikes me as applicable to a much broader range of people than the handful who become iconic in their fields with some sort of a big "aha" breakthrough.

At 8:40 AM, Blogger Mike the Mad Biologist said...

I think the reason it appears that most scientists do their best work by the time they're forty has more to do with a lack of ingenuity than any age-related phenomenon. I've found that many scientists are 'one-trick ponies': they found a system, a methodology, and a question that got them a job and/or tenure, and they then ride these into the ground.

I'm currently working with someone who's 62. He has kept coming up with novel ideas throughout his career (although the occassional funding drought will force creativity) that have moved our subdiscipline forward (microbial population biology).

It's not age, it's just some scientists aren't that creative.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger CD318 said...

There are an awful lot of BS urban legends in this tread.

The most successful (number & importance of papers, potential to change the direction of his field) young scientist in my department works about 45 hours a week and I KNOW he is spending a lot of time with his kids because his wife, also a professor in our dept., works longer hours than he does -- he's the one who picks up the kids most days. My postdoc advisor worked REALLY hard during the week (in at 6, out at 5), but was NEVER in on weekends, and spent (and continues to spend) a lot of time with his daughters. My Grad advisor was also my department chair, and was a single mom. Is it easy? No. Can it be done? In some cases, yes. I couldn't do it and that is why I'm not a dad; but I'm not exactly worried about the survival of the human race (6B and counting). We make choices.

As for when one makes one's most important contributions, both biology and chemistry (the fields that I know) are replete with examples of people who made hugely important discoveries in their 40s and 50s. Seymour Benzer, Sydney Brenner, Grace Hopper, Charles Darwin, Barbara McClintock, Linus Pauling, and many, many, many others did fundamental and important work well into their 40s and 50s. Math might be different, but in chemistry, biology, and even physics the pervasive and empirically unfounded ageism is a pathetic throwback. Many older scientists will not make important contributions -- but science is a demographic pyramid: there are more active young scientists, and as a consequence they will make more discoveries. The fact of attrition introduces a whopper of a sampling bias. But I'd pit Benzer or Brenner or McClintock or Hopper's creativity & productivity at age 50 against ANY randomly-picked grad student at a top-5 university in the US...

At 1:29 AM, Blogger Alon Levy said...

There is a very big difference between inventing something and publishing it. Newton developed all of his great ideas between the ages of 22 and 24, at which time Cambridge was closed due to the plague, except possibly optics, which he researched between 28 and 30. However, he published these results in his 30s and 40s. Darwin discovered the principle of descent with modification in his late 20s and started working on writing The Origin of Species when he was 35, but delayed publication till he was 50 for political reasons.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Hooray for Alon Levy! This is exactly my point. Unless you really do your homework, it's easy to forget that publication introduces a huge delay into the system. It used to be worse in the days of the Pony Express than it is now with the Internet, but politics can create a huge, immovable boulder in the way of objective scientific success...

One has to wonder how many big discoveries get swept under the political rug because the grad student who did the work is a 'nobody', or their advisor doesn't have the nerve, or the wherewithal, or the political pull to get the stuff published.

Or any other variation on this theme...

And we might also point out, the people who were lucky enough to be able to sit on their data for 20-30 years are in the minority. Somehow they managed to get, and maintain jobs, or live off their family's money in most cases, while hiding their manuscripts-in-progress under the mattress? How nice for them! Certainly it's impossible to work in a patent office and still do experimental molecular biology. You have to pay the rent, and you have to have a funded lab to do the research. Barbara McClintock didn't have lab space, she drove all over the country borrowing chunks of land to grow maize. And she couldn't have done that if she didn't have enough money to eat.

We're constantly reinventing the wheel because manuscripts are sitting around on desks all over the world, not being submitted. So how many people got scooped somewhere between making the discovery at age 22 and trying to get it published?

Even Einstein was not the only one to propose a lot of the stuff he proposed- but you never hear about the 10 or 12 other people who published papers that led to his ideas. How old were they?

At 8:45 AM, Blogger Carl said...

> [A]re people more motivated by
> potential glory with lack of job
> security, or by optimism that
> they can earn job security?

I really think the best scientists - and most of the others - are motivated by interest, not glory or job security. By the genuine desire to know more. Maybe I'm naive.


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