Saturday, September 23, 2006

Academic follies, encore

I know this is a horse of indeterminate liveness, yet I cannot resist flogging it some more.

Over at the Daily Transcript, there are two posts [1, 2], and associated comment threads, about "The Academy", at least in the life sciences, that are worth reading in their entirety, especially the comments.

[What, you're still reading this ? Fine.]

The summary: postdocs complain about the long hours, low pay, and lack of a life outside the lab required to even have a shot at a faculty position, never mind the insanity then required to achieve tenure. The response of a couple of professors, stripped down to its essentials: "Stop whining and suck it up, because we've got plenty more people where you came from that are willing to sacrifice everything. You should be grateful that you get to work on what interests you, with other smart people".

The first bit of the response is amazing not only in that it's addressed at highly educated, skilled people [not that it's something that should really be said to anybody] but also that they're willing to be spoken to and treated that way. And the defenses of academia in the second bit of the response are the standard "But look at the benefits !" justifications for the insane state of affairs, and stick in my craw every time I hear them.

"You get to work on what you want": Well, really, you get to work on what the funding agencies will give you money to work on. And, increasingly, these agencies are funding not individual investigators, but rather large, multi-investigator projects; see these posts about the decrease in funding rates and funding inequities between Big Biology and individual investigators, leading to what has been called a lost generation of individual researchers. So, it seems like there's a pretty good chance that, to survive, you may have to attach yourself to one of the mega-grants and end up working on something that's not exactly what you want to be doing. That's probably even more true if you're a junior faculty member, in which case you'll probably end up somewhere fairly low down on the author list of the published papers, which in turn isn't great for your career.

"... work with other smart people": Yes, that's definitely nice. But I'm always reminded of a simple numerical fact: most of the smart people in the world work somewhere else than wherever you currently happen to be. So that's not a good enough reason to put up with the execrable conditions.

... and from what I've seen, there are at least the same amount of bureaucracy and stiflingly boring tasks and meetings in academia as there are in industry. The only difference is that they're called "committee meetings", and probably drag on forever because nobody really has the final say over anything.

The other thing that I don't understand is why there is such an oversupply of PhDs [at least in the life sciences] who want to become academics. The possible reasons I've come up with so far are:

- a lack of awareness of alternatives, maybe due to being given bad career advice
- that the vast majority of them think of themselves as the PhDs of Lake Wobegon: all Above Average, and so the grim statistics don't apply to them
- such a pure, burning desire to explore the mysteries of Nature that, damn the torpedoes, any other course of action is inconceivable [and that word means what you think it means]. In which case, hey, go for it. But is that really the case for the majority of people ?

Don't get me wrong: I strongly believe that we need research universities and institutions, and basic research. I'm just amazed at the self-flagellation people are willing to inflict on themselves in order to join the academic club. And I wonder how long this pyramid scheme can keep going.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

More baby goodness

First smiles, cheeky monkey, and meeting the maternal and paternal grandparents.

[Someday soon, I'll post something other than baby pictures. No, really. I mean it. In the meantime, you might as well enjoy them ;-)]

Sunday, September 10, 2006

"Abandon reason, all ye who enter here"

From a NYT article:

MUNICH, Sept. 10 ­ Pope Benedict XVI attracted some 250,000 people to an outdoor Mass on Sunday, urging his largely secular home country not to let science and reason make it “deaf” to God.

Hmm. Does that imply that it's not possible to be reasonable and religious [at least not all the time] ?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Shock and Awe, baby-style



Friday, September 01, 2006

Daddy, there's a monster next to the bed

... and his name is Zander. I say this not because he attempts to bodily devour Christina every 2-3 hours, starting with her chest, but rather because of the noises he makes. He is a veritable orchestra of monster noises while he's sleeping: grunts, gurgles, moans, sighs, crying, heavy breathing and, of course, the occasional, entirely unabashed, sound of a waste product download. Sometimes, he's so loud that I have to put a pillow over my head to drown him out. I always thought pre-verbal children either cried, made nonsense sounds, or were quiet ... little did I know they could easily find work as extras in "Where The Wild Things Are".

Showing off the captured Zandermonster: