Saturday, February 27, 2010

Why couldn't undergrads do research?

A link via my last post led me to this article in the chronicle that says both the oversupply of PhDs and the shortage of scientists are myths.

And some really scary stuff about Bill Gates, H1B visas and Walmart. Definitely worth a read.

But there was one line in the article that caught my attention, because it implied that having students do research is a bad thing.

I'm not sure I agree. If anything, I felt like most of my structured education was inefficient at best, a huge waste of my young energy and time at worst.

Why couldn't we accelerate more students through required courses faster, and let them start doing research younger? Would that really be such a bad thing? They're curious, they have fresh ideas, and they ask good questions. Why not?

The idea that "casualization" of scientific jobs is okay is also lost on me. As I've written here before, I think it would make more sense to let younger people do scientific research like time in the Peace Corps, while they have the energy for the long hours, and before the creativity is beaten out of them by the conformity of too much school.

Having more older temporary staff is stupid. Have more adjunct/lecturer type positions is not the way to instruct students at the college level, and it's a complete waste of a PhD, not to mention postdoctoral research experience.

Between this kind of stuff, earthquakes, and generally crazy weather, it sure does seem like things are getting worse, not better.

But hey, Olympics, possibly healthcare of some kind.... oh whatever.

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12 Comments:

At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...

Dear YFS,

It's a good article; I liked the Microserfs bit.

It's also interesting to see how the model of using young, keen, unqualified casualized labor is working in other professional sectors as well, like journalism, which really has become a join-the-dots effort that uses databases and tricks instead of investigative effort to fill whitespace.

As somebody who has recently returned to school, I agree with your comment about the university process. The format of lecturing is incredibly outdated and a very inefficient way to get information across. Kind of like scientific poster communications, only less efficient (sometimes you actually learn something when people talk to you about your poster).

I'm dismayed at how little effort is put into the structured dissemination of knowledge in these environments; somehow I get the feeling that they'll manipulate the pass/fail rate at the end into a bell-curve so nobody ever has to face up to the problem.

I remember reading in Robert Pirsig's ZATAOMM that the people in car engineering plants who are the most incompetent or klutzy get given the job of writing up the manuals to keep them out of trouble; dissemination of knowledge comes from the people least able to do it effectively.

I get that feeling about a lot of my lecturers, some of whom I know are actively retraining to do something else, when while they're teaching us! There is little enthusiasm, with some notable exceptions.

Other than that, I'm still positive about the move out of science. Being poor sucks, but less than being employed but un-funded and under-appreciated, surprisingly.

Ask me again in three months when my savings run out and I'm working as a bartender again.

(best advice to PhD students: learn how to pull a beer, change a keg and run a coffee shop: it will come in handy!).

Am very glad you're still posting; I'll do the same if that's OK with you.

I hope the Transition is going well for you: keep us posted, highs and lows.

 
At 8:34 PM, Blogger Becky said...

Having undergrads do research is an enormously helpful thing... for undergrads. It's important that they start learning how to do research and how science works "in real life." However, in my experience, they just don't know enough to actually move the field forward. (That's why grad school exists, in my opinion.)

So, yes, have undergrads do research, but know that it's for their benefit, not the benefit of the lab.

 
At 9:57 PM, Blogger Crazy Daisy said...

Undergrads should do much more research. Instead, time is often spent in class sleeping while the teacher lectures (yea, this is a very general statement). There is research :) that backs up the idea that undergraduate students should be spending more time doing hands on activities, including research! It is part of the learning process. To truly understand something one must be directly involved. Not just read out of a book or listen in a lecture hall!

 
At 8:32 AM, Anonymous karl said...

Arguably, my best research experience was as an undergrad. Classes were mostly easy, and I didn't have a car, and the school was in a rural area. I easily managed to work the max payable of 20hrs/week, then crafted directed study courses for my research advisor to sign off on to make my work show up on my transcript.

I had a great time: there was little pressure, I got paid enough to buy food and rock climbing gear (all that mattered at the time). I also had the added bonus of international travel and conferences in exciting places I would never think to go. I thought grad school would end up being a continuation of the same, but with fewer classes and a pay raise.

I definitely thought the things I was doing in the lab were things that I would enjoy building a career doing.

Human beings, undergraduates, whoever is completely capable of doing research. The scientific method doesn't require and explicit application of The Standard Model to work out.

Also, academic courses are incredibly text-book and theoretical in nature, and the rest of the world expects results. Exposing undergraduates to an environment where they can learn applicable skills is important. Learning science in a classroom, even doing lab classes, is far different than what it's like when you're trying to solve problems.

 
At 1:53 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Becky,

what I had in mind when I wrote this would be to change the current system, i.e.

a) get people to the "grad student" level in fewer years, by shortening the formal part of schooling, so they can start doing grad-level research when they're younger, and get jobs before they're 42,

b) change the formal school system to give undergraduates more opportunities to do more independent graduate-level research while they are still taking college-level courses.

Karl - I agree.

Lou - I dunno. I guess that gets filed under, "Those who can't, write about it"?

 
At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There has been a shift in higher ed in general to include experiential learning at the undergraduate level. I run an internship program for undergrads in science and most of what they do is research (or helping with research at least). It's important to involve undergrads as early and as often as possible. This helps them to decide if they even want to go on to grad school because through undergrad research experiences they learn that lab experiments are completely different than what they learn in the classroom labs. The number one thing I hear from them at the end of the year is that, oh my goodness, it's not as simple as following the steps and everything turns out just like the professor said it would! Things go wrong! Experiments get messed up!

Textbooks and lectures are great, but it's the experiential learning that will really help cement what they've learned in the classroom.

 
At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a fellow female scientist (and long-time postdoc), I am sad that you are going to leave this blog, but I understand. I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for having the courage to put all of this out there into the blogosphere. I very often have read your words and thought that you must have been reading my mind. There were many days I read your blog just to see that I wasn't alone. I wish you the absolute best of luck in your writing career! Personally, I've just finished my MBA and am switching over to the business side of science...we'll see how that goes.

 
At 1:46 PM, Blogger Cloud said...

I saw that article, too. I've been following this discussion as an interested outsider- I got my PhD, but never did a postdoc, and now work in a job that is part science and part IT.

There are actually a lot of "casual" workers in IT who like the arrangement they have- they like being independent contractors. An interesting footnote on the "Microserfs" story- Microsoft was sued over the use of temp labor, and lost. This led to a lot of new rules about the use of contract labor through out the IT industry- mostly companies choose to limit the length of time that they'll employee any given temp, and also increase the differentiation between temps and fulltime employees. A lot of my friends who are happy independent contractors really hate the new rules.

Also, a lot of companies have sprung up to facilitate the match up between contractors and companies needing short term staff. Some of these companies also keep a "bench", so that when a contract ends, the contractor isn't immediately out of work. They also pay benefits. But to do that, they keep a portion of the contractor's hourly rate. So a lot of people prefer to go solo.

I'm not saying that "casualization" is all good, but in some industries, it isn't all bad, either. My take on it is that it wouldn't suck so much if our health care system wasn't so nutty. I was tempted to go contract at one point (because I could work fewer hours and make the same take home) but was stopped by the health insurance issue.

 
At 7:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 10.27 here...

Better yet, why don't we bring in some h.s. students!!!!

(Actually, I was once in a place where this was going on; it was NOT a good thing.)

This pretty much says that science is a totally unsustainable career choice and that you should take what you can from it and leave as soon as you possibly can.

However, I am still having a bit of internal conflict.

 
At 10:53 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

anon 7:10,

I started working in a lab when I was in high school.

I have had high school students who were more mature, articulate, dedicated, responsible, had better hands, and were actually smarter than several of the undergrads who worked with me.

I have other friends who said they had the same experience with training high school students vs. undergrad.

As we say about senior grad vs. postdoc - what's the difference? A piece of paper? A year or two? So what?

As I've always said, it shouldn't matter where you are in the totem pole. If you're smart and interested, I don't see why anyone can't start doing research at any age. The only issue I can see is safety, and that is not an issue if the students are supervised (as you have to do with undergrads anyway, unless you want to throw money out the window).

 
At 9:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

we also had a high school student in our lab, and he was awesome. He helped me build a lot of the infrastructure (we were moving labs at the time and had to take down and reinstall all the equipment, plumping, vacuum lines etc.) He went on to major in science and did a masters and almost every summer he came back to our lab to work. It was great to see him 'graduate' to doing more and more scientifically independent work, and he was a good worker too - he could think on his own but wasn't so delusional and narcissistic that he couldn't take direction.

I've also had other undegrads in our lab who came in on some prestigious undergrad summer fellowship program. Some of them were simply awful - straight A students but expecting to be waited on hand and foot and given an easy project that was also worthy of a Nobel prize. whatever...I've known a few grad students who were like that too..

 
At 1:19 PM, Blogger Dr. Smith said...

Well, I never would have pursued a career in academic science (however good an idea that may turn out to be) if I hadn't gotten the chance to work on an undergraduate project. I loved figuring out stuff on the bench, and my classes made SO much more sense when I got the practical application of them. I also got to write an undergraduate thesis, so I had a very good idea of the sort of thing that would be expected in graduate school.

Now, I take on undergrads and medical students who want some lab experience. Some are not so good. That's OK. The good ones more than make up for the bad. At the worst, I get someone who manages to give me a little data. At the best, I get a competent set of hands on the bench for little to no money, a boatload of data generated, and an excited, enthusiastic student who keeps me on my toes. I also make sure to keep them in the loop regarding things like seminars and journal clubs and grant submissions, just so they can really see how academic science "works".

 

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