Jun. 15th, 2010

If you're at all interested, intrigued, amused, or worried about "America's deficit in STEM fields" (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math), careers in academia, or education in general, I highly recommend you read "The Real Science Gap" by Beryl Lieff Benderly. It's a little long to be light reading, but I'll wait.

I've personally known this problem for 10-12 years now, although I've only been able to articulate it as clearly as this article in the last 4 or 5. This problem is why I left graduate school at Chicago. Ironically, a cousin to this problem is also why I restarted grad school, here at Michigan.

At the U of Chicago, graduate work in the sciences was the entry to a great and storied career in the Ivory Tower of Academe (especially if your successes reflected greater glories back upon UC). Successful advancement upon this high road however, demanded you sacrifice personal freedoms, frequently any relationships with people outside the school, often sleep, and sometimes your health. But if you mentioned you were considering any career other than academic research faculty, you received numerous cold shoulders from professors and the institution.*

I'll admit, I pondered my boss' life as young faculty, I looked that career right in the eye, and I blinked. I didn't want the $30-50K/year for 70-hour work weeks for 10 years while starting a family and living a life and attempting to get a career up and running. I knew that I was not a sufficiently driven scientist to let the job be its own reward. I walked away. Yet here I am, coming perilously close to that potential Gate of Horn anyway, hoping that I can land a postdoc fellowship and find a good position at a small college after I defend.

Now that I have found a far more satisfying path in the sciences, as a research-educator excited to see my students excited, who looks to use my scientific expertise as a tool to enhance teaching, I wonder what I am doing for, or to, the next generation of scientists, those 'kids' that I'm getting all hopped-up on the thrill of discovery, that I'm teaching and training to enjoy science, and to consider it a career.

I can only hope that with my awareness of the inherent flaws in this system, I can do some work within the system to help students find other paths, ways to let them use their great intellects, and amazing depths of curiosity, to find fulfilling careers. Just not necessarily in The Sciences. Barring a major revolution in how academia operates, how the entire Research Enterprise is structured, there won't be any jobs except for the ever-more select few.

* I acknowledge the possibility that UC life sciences has changed since I left. However, I was sufficiently embittered by my time there I have not bothered to investigate to see if anything has improved.


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