22 November 2010

Dear Academic Search Committee

Dear Academic Search Committee,

            Do you have a minute? Are you sure? I’ve got something that I need to tell you. It’s a little embarrassing to have to bring this up, but it’s gone on a little too long now. We’re all professionals here, right? Can I tell you something that’s a little personal?
            It’s about manners. It’s pretty basic, really. Everyone bemoans the young kids and their smart phones, always texting, IMing, and in general being rude to the people standing right in front of them. But the interesting thing about all this technology is that they are communicating. There are so many ways to stay connected. It’s amazing. And while many of you on those search committees may not have grown up with a computer, it’s impossible to think that you don’t spend a little time in front of the computer each day. I know that you use email. And so here’s what I’m proposing: Use your email.
            OK, let me be a little more explicit. I answered that job add that you placed in all the academic journals and online job boards. First of all, if you aren’t going to answer email inquiries about the job, leave out the line “For more information, contact faculty@college.edu.” That’s easy enough, right?
            OK, next: I am not 100% certain when I hit that send button that your spam filter won’t see an incoming message from an unknown address (mine) with an attachment (my application package that you requested should be “sent by email only”) and unceremoniously direct my future into the junk mail folder. You don’t know how many times I’ve sent an application package to a committee and felt like it dropped into a black hole. Can you believe it? How do I know I’ve really applied? Why not try this: Dear Applicant, We received your application package. Thanks for applying to the position.” There, you can even cut and paste that text. I don’t mind.
            Maybe you’re not really not serious about hiring, despite the multiple postings – just testing the waters? I usually do get some response at this point. Sometimes it’s even invitation for a phone interview (or a Skype interview: now I know you’re into technology). As a postdoc, I’ve been to various seminars and meetings and workshops about making the next steps to independence. I’ve learned about the ways to make a letter and CV stand out, how to write thank you notes, and so on. And maybe it has something to do with growing up with a European mom, but manners mean a lot to me. I see these things as basic human courtesy. It’s easy for me to send emails or postcards to the interviewing faculty, thanking them for their time and thoughtful conversation. I do it without much effort.
            So when months go by, and I haven’t heard anything from you, I get antsy. I assume that I’ve been passed on – but how am I to know, really? Do I call or email to find out if there will be a follow-up? I don’t want to be annoying, I just want to know. I realize that there may be hundreds of initial applications, but generally they get whittled down to just a handful for the phone interviews. So someone on the committee should be able to follow up, right? So when you pick your onsite interview candidates, do me a favor: Update me. “We’ve reviewed the applications and have chosen our top candidates for onsite interviews. Unfortunately, we cannot invite you at this time.” There, you can use that text, also – I don’t mind.
            The thing I’ll never understand is why academia puts up with rudeness and social ineptitude. What is it about academia that forgives someone so easily for faults that actually affect their jobs. People should not be given latitude because they are “brilliant but eccentric.” If that’s really the case, then they should be brilliant enough to know that they need to pass on the responsibility to a secretary or another responsible faculty member. Science is increasingly about collaboration, so even the most “brilliant but eccentric” faculty has to be able to play nice with others. And please, give me a break with the other lame excuses about heavy teaching loads, grant writing, managing students and postdocs, committees. Sorry, we all know what those excuses are simply covering for your colleagues’ inability to think past the end of their noses. Delegating someone to send a 2-line email to five or ten candidates does not take up much precious time. Face it, we all could use a few more hours in the day. Regardless of rank or status, we’re all busy, we’re all doing research, and managing our lives as committee members, commuters, husbands, wives, parents, and those in need of grocery shopping. Just because you have made it into that precious faculty position doesn’t mean that your life is so much more hectic and troublesome that you should forgo simple human courtesy. Send that email. Do it now.

Frustrated Scientist

The Red Wave of Anti-Science

The mid-term elections are over, and now we’re left with tattered, abandoned political posters taped to street signs and the promise of a Republican majority in the House and what seems to be Republican control of the Senate, even without a majority. It may have been a referendum on Obama’s politics or style of governance; many people cite frustration and anger as reasons for voting Republican. They say they are worried about the unemployment rate and economy, and angered that the Obama administration was too focused on passing the historic healthcare bill. At the same time, they criticize the stimulus package funding that kept the jobless rate from climbing even higher.

But as I watched the election map turn red on Tuesday night, I couldn’t avoid the sinking feeling that my own job was being threatened. And not only my job, my livelihood, and everything that I’ve worked for over the last dozen years, I think it threatens your personal health. Not just because the Republicans want to overturn “Obamacare.” The problem is the apparent disregard for science in the conservative camp. I have a Ph.D. and work as a cancer pharmacologist at major medical school. But my research and salary are paid for by Federal grants. So between the Republican distain for science, education funding, and the use of embryonic stem cells in research, the red map is truly scary.

When I began grad school, the NIH budget was in a period of increasing funding. Then under the second Bush Adminsitration, the NIH budget plateaued. In real dollars, it registered as a budget squeeze. Funding became tighter, and grants became more competitive. The average age of the first-time grant winner increased into the mid-forties. With research dollars disappearing, and education funding in decline, tenure-track positions began disappearing along with postdoctoral and grad school slots. Everyone has had to tighten their belts.

And if budgetary concerns aren’t enough, it became obvious during the Bush years that politics will trump good science. Regardless of field of research we’re engaged in – the effect has been noticed and felt by all scientists. Data from climatologists and environmental scientists has been the most obvious examples in the media. EPA, FDA, and USDA scientists have described pressure to change or suppress results that conflicted with Bush polices. And for me and many in biomedical research, there’s the stem cell issue. Stem cells open up so many possibilities in biomedical science, I can’t describe them all here.

I’m afraid that students in our schools are gorwing up scientifically illiterate. Kids are naturally curious, ready to engage the world. Without classrooms that nurture that love of experimentation and exploration, or that teach kids critical thinking, we will be looking at a dearth of invention and innovation in America. And we’ll be faced with a generation who can’t distinguish between the “theory” of intelligent design and the theory of evolution. And America will not evolve intelligently.

[Note: originally published Nov 8, 2010 @ http://bike-nyc.blogspot.com/2010/11/red-wave-of-anti-science.html]

Why are Modern Scientists So Dull?

Bruce G. Charlton, Editor of Medical Hypotheses and Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham (UK) wrote an article last year titled Why are modern scientists so dull? How science selects for perseverance and sociability at the expense of intelligence and creativity.

He then followed it up this year with another in the same vein Why it is ‘better’ to be reliable but dumb than smart but slapdash: Are intelligence (IQ) and Conscientiousness best regarded as gifts or virtues

It's funny, though, because while I do see creativity hammered out of people by schools, from elementary all the way up to graduate school, I have always felt that academia protects socially-inept misanthropes - they are given far too much leeway to be stupid annoying people because pehaps that somehow is the mark of real genius...

[Note: originally published Oct 6, 2009@ http://bike-nyc.blogspot.com/2009/10/dumb-and-dumber-science.html]

Mind the Gap

As postdocs applying for fellowships, funding, and tenure-track positions, we’ve heard it again and again: Find the gap in the literature and make your previous work applicable to the gap. Match that with the priorities of the funding agency and a well-written proposal, and you’re on the right track. But nothing is guaranteed. You might get a reviewer who isn’t familiar with your line of work, or another reviewer who has a grudge against your advisor’s past work.

But the gap is coming to mean a different thing for me as a second-year postdoc. With the birth of my second child, I’ve decided that I can’t afford to keep a job. This is not because  of the impending recession, the Economic Downturn, the Subprime Crisis, the rapidly rising price of food, or the fact that we live in New York City, where the cost of living is high. It mostly concerns the cost of child-care and the stipend of a postdoc. I am paid on the NIH payscale. For a second-year postdoc, that’s $38,976 a year, or a take-home pay of $1,282.56 every two weeks. At $641.28 a week, I will make just about enough to pay a nanny to take care of our new son. I could quit and stay home and we would be in a better financial situation without the tax-burden of my salary. As poor graduate students, my wife and I got by because we had the flexibility to juggle our schedules to avoid most child-care costs. I used student-loans to pay for pre-school. Now, however, we are both done with school and working full-time. My wife has taken a temporary (unpaid) maternity leave for a couple months, and when she returns to work, someone will have to watch the baby. She is paid a similar wage as me, and here in New York, that salary cannot sustain a family of four. 

My first instinct was to ramp up my search for permanent tenure-track assistant professorships. But how much more can I expect to make as a junior faculty? An additional $10,000 or $20,000? That translates into only a couple hundred dollars a week more. The nanny still makes a higher salary in the end. Is that enough to justify leaving my youngest child to be  cared-for by someone else? Everyone bemoans the poor pay that America’s teachers get, and yet I’ve been offered a much higher salary to work in a middle school than I can ever make as a postdoc. No one seems aware of the underpaid Ph.D.s fighting cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and so on. Currently, I earn about $18/hour for a 40-hour week, and a 40-hour week would be a short one, indeed. I can’t do the calculations to determine what my take-home pay is following a typical 50-hour week. It’ll depress me.

Mind the gap, but don’t fall through the cracks.
[note: this was originally published on May 19, 2008 @ http://bike-nyc.blogspot.com/2008/05/mind-gap.html]

New Start

I plan to move some of my random writings, comments, etc. on science (and my life in science) to this location.. More to  come.