Musings on science, education, and the living world.

Education in academia

Before you read my take on academia below, I want to start with a disclosure: I will fully admit I’m jaded at the moment as I work on finishing my dissertation, writing postdoc applications, and working as a full time teaching assistant. At the same time, I still hope to one day hold a job in academia as I love to teach but also love research, and there really just aren’t that many places to do both that don’t involve working at a college or university.

If any of you are getting ready to send your kids off to college, and you are talking about what you want to get out of college, consider this: R1 universities are fantastic if your student wants the chance to potentially work in a lab, is extremely independent regarding their learning, and doesn’t care if their professors and teaching assistants only put minimal effort towards teaching them. However, if you actually view college as higher education, I recommend you look elsewhere. These universities have placed their emphasis on research for years (hence the R1 designation), but this has become even worse as more and more funding is cut from grant agencies (e.g. NSF and NIH) and states continue to cut funding to education. The money must come from somewhere, and although tuition does bring in much of the budget, it is not nearly enough to pay for the exorbitant salaries of the coaches and high ranking administrative officials (NOTE: not the faculty that teach the students), while running a small city (as most universities are). Much of the funding is expected to come from endowments (which decrease during economic troubles) and overhead from grants. For those of you that don’t know what I’m writing about, universities automatically take a sum (often 50%) of any grant a faculty member brings in for research. So when you see the papers talking about the thousands of dollars being spent on a scientific study, please keep in mind that only 1/2 of that money actually goes towards research.

To get grants, faculty members must write detailed proposals for the work they will do, and make sure to publish the results from the work they have already done to show that they can accomplish such work. Because there is less and less money available for grants, it is more and more competitive to have access to any money, so any given researcher must write several proposals a year. As for the publications, remember those term papers you had to do in college, the ones where you had to have 5-10 sources and write 10 pages? Imagine doing that, but being expected to know all of the research that has been accomplished on that topic, reference all of the most relevant papers, summarize years worth of data in a few tables and figures. Then, you have to fit it to the specific format of whatever journal you are trying to publish it in, have several people read through your work (many of which don’t have the time to truly devote to reading it, but are more likely to be nitpicky then just say, oh, okay), and hope that they deem the work worthy to be published. Then, if accepted, you have to PAY to have your article published. Note, you probably already pay a yearly dues to be a member of the society that supports such work, and the school pays huge amounts of money to have access to such articles. (Did I also mention the reviewers are not paid to read through the articles?) In the meantime, you’re also making sure your current research is proceeding, serving on various committees for your college and department, oh yes, and teaching a course or two. The president, provost, dean, and department chairs are all pressuring you to bring in more grant money and publish more papers. So, how much time would you spend planning your lessons and writing your assignments and tests?

The only way this will change is if faculty stand up and refuse to fall into the vicious cycle (unfortunately not likely), or if funding increases to research grant agencies and institutions of higher learning. We are a capitalist society, and therefore even schooling revolves around money. So, think about where your tax dollars go, pick your schools wisely, and make sure your children and students know what they are getting themselves into.

When to ask for help

I’ve developed a bit of a pet-peeve for a few listservs and Google groups I follow for software I use, statistical help, etc. Disclaimer: I’ve only been following these groups a few years. In that short time, I’ve observed more and more posts from researchers who post questions that would have been easily answered had the researcher just gone to the literature. I’m not talking obscure articles, but articles cited by everyone that uses that particular software. I’ve always thought part of being a graduate student and becoming a scientist is learning how to research: not just pipette fluids into wells and run chi-square tests, but also to read the literature to determine what methods are most sound, the details of those methods, etc. In this age of increased communication online, are we more easily allowing researchers to get other people to do the work for them? I want to add that I also don’t think people should reinvent the wheel every time they want to use a method. Protocols should be easily available and shared between researchers. But this is one reason you publish: to allow your work to be viewed and shared by the scientific community.

I will admit I typically assume that the posts are coming from graduate students, because I can’t help but hope that hired scientists know how to find information for themselves (or get their graduate students to do it for them). This makes me wonder: are the spoiled results of ‘every child deserves a trophy’ making their way into graduate programs? I realize I sound like the jokes we make about grandmas and grandpas talking about “back in my day…” but this is a documented phenomenon (Tsui 2002, Quitadamo et al. 2008, Cook-Sather 2010). In my time in undergrad and graduate school, I have watched the responsibility and accountability levels of students drop. If I could have a dime for every time I’ve heard “but I put a lot of work into this. It should at least get a B”, I would have paid off my student loans. I am very worried about our education system, in particular the STEM programs, where it seems information is just being spoon fed to students, who then expect that to be the norm. (For an excellent review of the current state of STEM education, read “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future” published by the National Academy of Sciences, which is now available as a free pdf online.) What will happen to innovation in this country?

I know this is drawing a lot from several posts on google groups and listservs, but I’ve been taught to look for patterns and make predictions. I can only hope I’ve been teaching my students the same. It is hard to teach critical thinking, especially when teachers cannot do it themselves, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Now if we could just convince our state and federal governments and school boards to make steps in the right direction… Sometimes I feel if I could do that, I’d win a Nobel prize.


Cook-Sather, A. 2010. Students as learners and teachers: taking responsibility, transforming education, and redefining accountability.   Curriculum Inquiriy. 40(4): 555-575.

Quitadamo, I.J., Faiola, C.L., Johnson, J.E., and Kurtz, M.J. 2008. Community-based inquiry improves critical thinking in general education biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 7:327-337.

Tsui, L. 2002. Fostering critical thinking through effective pedagogy: evidence from four institutional case studies. Journal of Higher Education. 73: 740-763.


I had an interesting conversation with my PI last week about collaboration, and it really got me thinking: are there differences between scientific generations and subdisciplines on how they view collaboration? I love participating in journal clubs and seminars and going to scientific meetings because I get to interact with many people who have different viewpoints than myself. I often find that I gain great insight into topics that I think about on a regular basis, just by getting another person’s point of view. However, I’ve begun to notice that many professors don’t share this viewpoint. Case in point: I told my PI that I was planning to run a reading group in the fall on “Evolution: The Extended Synthesis” edited by Pigliucci and Muller. His response was to ask me why I wanted to spend time on a reading group when I could just read the book myself.

I can’t help but wonder how many other scientists share this viewpoint: it takes less time to do it yourself, so why bother with others? I understand that collaboration can be problematic when labs are competing to publish on the same material. I would normally suggest collaborating with the other lab and divvy up what research needs to be accomplished, but as game theory shows, people will cheat the system (just think about Watson, Crick, and Franklin). Still, I believe insular science is slowing our progress. It does take work to collaborate, and the more people involved, the harder it becomes. But then again, science is hard to begin with. (Otherwise, everyone would do it.)

In my experience, ecologists, population geneticists, and systematists communicate much more frequently than molecular and cellular biologists (although there are certainly exceptions). The pattern I notice is that “big picture” scientists tend to welcome collaboration, as do many of the most successful scientists. I welcome any differences in opinion because I’m limited to what I’ve seen at two universities and a couple governmental institutions.

It seems that NSF has picked up on this idea, as they are shifting funding to inter-institutional and inter-discipline research. This leads me to another question: will the threat of not getting grants encourage collaboration or just force people to put their names together on grant proposals? I guess we’ll find out as the results of the funded research comes out in years to come. I can’t help but hope it will encourage scientific collaboration.

The Beginning

I’m very new to blogging (first blog, only follow a couple others), so forgive me if it’s a bit awkward at first. I’m a graduate student nearly finished with my PhD, so posts may be a bit sporadic. (For anyone who hasn’t been in grad school, know that time is often our most limiting resource, especially towards the end.) However, I’ll try and post at least once a week. Today is just an intro to make sure everything is up and running. So, here it goes!

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