Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tips for grad school recruiting weekends

It's the new year, which means over the next few months everyone who has applied to grad school in chemistry (and other fields... there are other fields, right?) should be receiving responses back from admissions committees. Acceptance letters generally contain salary information, program information, and an invitation to a visit weekend. In chemistry, these visits are almost always paid for by the department. Yep: free trip, food, and drinks. But why?

There are two ways to look the motivation behind visit weekends. Decide the veracity of either for yourself:

Rationalization 1: Most good chemistry departments don't want to waste their time and money.* An admitted student in a graduate program is expensive: stipend, research supplies, tuition, etc. are all paid for by the department and/or the student's adviser. So it's in everyone's best interest to make sure students are picking the appropriate school for them. Hosting a visit weekend allows prospective students to meet their possible classmates, their future advisors, and see if the grad program and facilities are appealing to them. That way there's a better chance they are happy where they go, leading to a better chance of graduation.

Rationalization 2: If you throw free stuff at students who have been paying for school, offer them money, and paint an inordinately sunny picture of your grad program, you'll get more students. The more students you get, the harder you can work students, and it won't matter as much if some leave. Cheap labor! 

Grad school visits can be fun. They differ from med school interviews, vet school interviews, and non-science grad school visitation weekends in one key way: you're already accepted. And the visit doesn't cost you anything financially.** Note the following figure, which illustrates the processes comparatively:



Overall, grad school visits are an important opportunity. Keep in mind a few things:

1. It's not an interview. You're not trying to impress the department. They're trying to convince you to make essentially minimum wage, working the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 full-time jobs for probably 6 years with minimal outside social contact or hobbies so that one person in your department can get approximately 5 more papers. Also you'll have to babysit undergrads. If you're going on a visitation weekend (except, I guess, at Scripps, which actually does hold interviews) that means you're in. You're guaranteed a spot. It's their job to impress you and convince you to attend.

That being said, don't dress like a slob; don't drink too much; don't deliberately offend anyone. Your professional career is beginning, and first impressions are kind of important. But it's not a med school interview or a corporate meeting: in grad school, getting work done is more important than showing off your suit and haircut. So relax and be yourself. Unless you happen to be an arrogant idiot.

2. Don't talk about yourself very much. Again, you're not trying to impress the admissions committee. You shouldn't be trying to impress any of the students there (they won't be impressed by you, no matter how many fifth-author Chem. Bioorg. Med. Chem. Lett. Eur. J. Int. Ed., Dalton Trans. papers you have)--it serves no point. Make the visit about listening and learning, not about boasting. You can boast after you succeed in chemistry and land a $40k job after ten years of school. Instead, observe the professors. Are they approachable? Arrogant? Distant? Humble? Listen to how the grad students talk. Do they brag? Are they competitive or easy-going? Can any of them talk about something besides chemistry? Are they trying to impress you? And very importantly, pay attention to the other prospective students on the visit. Do they all act like they have something to prove? Are they people you could get along with? Are they bragging about their seventeen fifth-author Chem. Bioorg. Med. Chem Lett. Eur. J. Int. Ed., Dalton Trans. papers? Are they fun to hang out with? (Being fun to hang out with is a legitimate concern; you'll see some of these people a lot).

3. Find the best and the worst about the program. Generally, admissions committees will carefully select which grad students host prospective students. They'll hand-pick the ones who still have their optimism; may the group that have just passed candidacy exams or who haven't had to TA in a while. Generally 2nd to 3rd year students.

It's important to listen to these students: you want to find out about the good parts of the program! But make sure you seek out the embittered, late-stage students as well. You want a spectrum of opinions. Find at least one student who doesn't really want to talk to you. Have a conversation like this:

You: "Hey, seventh-year grad student!" 
Student: "F@#* off." 
You: "Cool! What do you think of Professor Schmorey? His research is so cool! I want to be a PI! Do you like working for him?" 
Student: "F@#* off." 
You: "Awesome! Is teaching really fun or super fun?" 
Student: "F@#* off."

In short, you need to know what the possibilities are. No department is as rosy as the admissions people want you to think. Ascertain what the emotional arc will be on your grad school journey.

Also, be wary of how much or how little effort/money the school puts into recruitment. Too much effort: are they desperate for students? Too little effort: do they even care? It's a courtship. Try to distinguish genuine enthusiasm from mere marketing.

4. Ignore the stipend (but do look at cost of living). Yes, it's cool that they're going to be paying you. At least, it's cool for about four weeks, then it's depressing, because you could be managing a McDonald's and making more money than that, but that would only be a 40 hour work week, you'd get benefits, and hey, you'd get infinity fries if you wanted them.

Point is: you're not going to get rich in grad school. That's not the point.  If a school doesn't pay enough to live off of, that's a problem, but pretty much every school will. Ask grad students about it on your visit weekend. But it's not a good idea to make a "high" stipend an important part of your decision. You'll be poor either way.*** What's more important is choosing a school that will benefit you in the long run.

Also, don't ask other prospective students if they got additional fellowships or signing bonuses, or brag about yours. You'll either wind up sad or you'll annoy everyone.

5. Learn about departmental seminars. No one really says this, oddly. I guess I think it's important because I've seen schools with very bad seminars and schools with very good seminars. Seminars (sometimes called colloquiums) are when the department hosts a speaker (usually an academic scientist; occasionally an industrial chemist) who gives 1 or 2 free lectures to the department about their research. Often there's coffee, muffins, cookies, tea, etc. 

Departmental seminars can be very bad for several reasons: sometimes attendance is required; sometimes the material is boring; sometimes the speakers aren't engaging and the PowerPoints are weird and the artwork and data are definitely recycled from 1995, and who uses WordArt anyway? Usually this happens at lower-tier schools, where no money is available to pull in noteworthy scientists and so anyone within a walking radius is invited to lecture. In these cases, seminars can interfere with getting your labwork done, as you don't really gain anything from them.

But seminars can be very good. Ask current students about this! Some schools have fantastic speakers--Nobel prize winners,**** influential chemists, people whose names you've read or whose work you've learned about. These are great opportunities: you can network (important), you can hear interesting chemistry, and you can broaden your base of knowledge. In short, good invited speakers are an important, underrated factor you should consider in your decision. 

7. Don't make it all about the research. Your undergrad advisor will sit down and look you sternly in the eye. "Make sure you're choosing a school for the science," he'll say (or she'll say). That's what a lot of people will tell you: to make sure the science is something really interesting. That makes sense, doesn't it? It's a research program! You'll be doing research every day! Isn't that important?

Yes, it's obviously important. It would be absolute drudgery to be stuck for an indeterminate number of years doing a project you hated -- or worse, were ambivalent about. So it's critical to pick a program that has a couple interesting-sounding research areas. Ask students on your visit weekend about their research: do they seem excited by it? Often it's not the exact research itself but the people involved that make the work exciting--if you have an encouraging research advisor and helpful labmates but a good project you may easily end up more motivated than someone who has their lifelong dream project but a manipulative advisor and bitter labmates.

You'll probably change what you're interested in during your first semester. Additionally, very, very, very few people end up doing for their career what they do in grad school. Tenure-track positions are rare, and they almost always require one or two postdoc appointments beforehand, and they involve a change in research focus. Plus, many people go into industry or non-traditional careers completely unrelated to their dissertation topic. So don't worry about finding the 100% perfect research fit. It's vital to learn about things other than The Science on your visit. After all, you'll be living there too.

8. Meet the professors you want to work for. Some people don't think this is very important. But you're committing a lot to the program--more than half a decade. Shouldn't the person who will hold your fate in their hands at least show up to meet you?

There's a lot of professors who don't go to recruiting weekends, citing busy travel schedules. To an extent, that's understandable. But is the professor you want to work for more interested in promoting him/herself than serving as a mentor to you?

Meeting professors and groups will also show you that group webpages are deceiving. Some professors who seem crazy good on paper are kind of weird and creepy in real life. Conversely, some folks with lame webpages or research that didn't strike you as appealing are engaging and exciting to talk to.

9. Don't do homework at the hotel. It's just undergrad. Don't take it so seriously. Use the free coffeemaker! Hang out with other prospective students and current grad students! Seriously: take the opportunity to socialize on the visits, even if you're tired.

Overall, remember: in the worst case, your visit weekend will mean free food and a free trip. Unless, of course, the university loses the paperwork and doesn't reimburse you for the plane ticket, in which case you paid $600 for a trip to a weird town but didn't get to see anything except NMRs.

* Some departments do seem to want to waste money and time, but that's another matter. 
** There are exceptions, of course. Some schools don't have the budget to pay for prospective students to travel. Others only have enough money to pay for gas or meals. Some will make you arrange your own travel.
*** Obviously, extreme differences -- say $19k vs $25k for the same city -- might be worth considering. 
**** Actually, from experience: Nobel prize winners are, more often than not, terrible speakers. But it's nerd cred to hear them, I guess.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Reading assignments, vol. 8

Links and interesting topical stories from the week follow below.

Academia

  • Scientific and writer DNLee of Scientific American gives a powerful account of the factors denying good STEM education to many students (namely, those of low socioeconomic status). It's a very important read, as it highlights many issues in science education (and education and science culture in general) that very often get ignored. 
  • At Gene Expression, Razib Khan comments on affirmative action and science. He's largely dismissive of it, saying science doesn't need cultural diversity per se (with a caveat that such diversity is valuable from a social perspective). It's a worthwhile read; only the myopic would be reluctant to admit there is a rather skewed demographic makeup in science relative to the entire population.
  • Derek Lowe has a commentary on an ACS Med. Chem. Lett. opinion piece regarding the role of academia in drug discovery. It's worth thinking about, especially to those interested in science funding or science policy. The case can really strongly be made that academia can not replace pharma as a productive drug production vehicle, but the decoupling from financial risk means academic labs can push innovations that are potentially high impact but not necessarily profitable.

Scientific representation and misrepresentation

Chemistry job market

  • Glen Ernst comments on a 1979 article from C&EN bemoaning an impending surplus of chemistry PhDs exceeding the number of available jobs. As Glen points out, "non-traditional" here meant not being a university professor. Today, the scope of "traditional" careers has broadened, but the employment outlook seems bleaker. Still, it's an interesting insight from the late 70s.
  • I found this interview of ChemDraw wizard (and recently-hired Perkin Elmer employee) Pierre Morieux by Chemjobber quite interesting. It's a neat career path, and a cool story of how social media and online networking can land you a job. At the same time, comments imply that some chemists think it is overkill (and perhaps a telltale sign of the job market) that a long PhD and a competitive postdoc do not result in a "traditional" job. (I'd caution that non-"traditional" careers aren't  necessarily fallbacks and can be more rewarding than the big-name jobs; I'd also like to point out that many people in many professions change career paths many times!). 
  • At Chemistry World, economist Paula Stephan has some perhaps-controversial, perhaps-obvious (depending who you ask) points on the PhD glut. She likens grad school to a pyramid scheme, where the focus of grad school has shifted from producing quality scientists to producing PI-promoting research. She has a series of thoughtful recommendations for improving graduate education. Derek Lowe notes the article and comments on the proposal to increase permanent lab staff (i.e. how to fund it?).
  • Chemjobber has some commentary and depressing statistics on the job market and unemployment rate for chemists (spoiler: it's worse than the average rate for bachelor's degree holders).
  • Don't miss See Arr Oh and Chemjobber's podcast on amusing interview stories.

Other

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Plagiarism and the role of publishers

Anyone who reads Just Like Cooking or Chemjobber is by now probably aware of the freshly-discovered plagiarism case wherein a 2013 Chem. Eur. J. article by Professor Xi Yan lifts, verbatim or nearly so, entire portions of a three-years-prior (2009) JACS paper by Professor ValĂ©rie Pierre. Reading the commentary, the plagiarism is pretty egregious. Additionally, comments and a further blog post by See Arr Oh have brought up more instances of plagiarism like this.

Of course, #spacedino is immediately brought to mind (for the uninitiated, that particular hashtag refers to the 2012 controversy where esteemed chemist Breslow, of Columbia University, was found to have submitted what amounted to essentially the same publication to multiple journals; it was only really caught because biologists took his lame ending joke seriously). After lengthy conversation on various media and social media outlets, the offending papers were retracted at Breslow's (and others') request (though initially he denied wrongdoing).

While the Breslow violation was aggravating and arguably wrong, the Yan violation is worse. I don't think that's a very controversial point to make, but it's an important one to recognize. The Breslow affair fell into what some categorized as an ethical grey zone; the Yan violation is in clear things-they-tell-you-from-day-one-in-university territory.

Rapid retraction is vital, I'd wager; thought many retracted papers still get heavily cited or believed, early correction is probably the best way to prevent such propagation. Once an article has been believed as true for a substantial period of time and gets included in dissertation of paper-introduction citation-vomits, less care is taken to check the original source and see the glaring retraction notice. Better to stop the train before it leaves the station.

I think this highlights the role of open and quick dialogue among scientists, along the same lines as Blog Syn. The ability to rapidly disseminate these issues when they are discovered can, ultimately, improve the quality of scientific communication. In a pre-social-media era, it was certainly easier to just assume a paper would slip by unnoticed. Not so much anymore; via Twitter, for instance, a wide audience can be quickly reached. See Arr Oh wrote that he has notified the two publishers (Wiley and ACS); it will be very interesting to see what action occurs.

Of course, a point could be made that such post-publication watchdog action shouldn't be necessary. Aren't these things peer reviewed? Alas, I think anyone with a healthy dose of realism is aware that a good bulk of reviewers put in the minimum conceivable effort in reviewing (consider the sheer quantity of bad Supplementary Information files). Usually, this is justified by a variety of factors, namely that reviewers are (1) busy and (2) unpaid. (And they aren't held accountable if the article is later retracted).

But hey, you know who are paid? Publisher staff. I'm a bit surprised that more journal editors haven't made a practice of submitting manuscripts to plagiarism detection software. There's many available; universities often have TAs use them to check undergraduate papers. One comment on Chemjobber's blog points out that Elsevier provides access to one such service, iThenticate, to its reviewers. One readily available service, eTBLAST, compares blocks of text to databases of scientific papers using the BLAST algorithms commonly employed in bioinformatics for sequence alignment. In short, many tools exist for plagiarism detection. So what's the deal, journals? A common claim of open-access opponents is that paywall publishers "add value" to papers by the publication process.

So why aren't all papers routinely submitted to these checks after peer review and before publication? Ideally, reviewers should do a thorough job vetting submitted articles and should be supplied with tools to do so. But publishers share that responsibility. If you can Cantrill an article, it shouldn't slip by.

(One caveat: I'm not sure about the journal coverage of many of the anti-plagiarism packages. eTBLAST, for instance, appears to have access to Medline and PMC, but doesn't seem to have many of the synthetic journals in full-text. That's from an initial assessment; I may be wrong. CrossCheck, the service powered by iThenticate, has a very wide list of included content, but interestingly, I don't immediately see ACS on the list). Is it possible that some of these illustrated issues just don't get picked up by the software?

Lastly, something that would be very interesting: how much scientific plagiarism occurred in the pre-software-detection era? That is, how prevalent were issues of plagiarism in the 1960s? If one took journals from the 1960s, for instance, and ran them through this software--what would they find? Is it more prevalent now? Is it less prevalent? When did scientific plagiarism mature? I suspect the issue is a very old one.



Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reading assignments, vol. 7

No weekly link roundup last week due to the #GradMentalHealth discussion, but they resume below. Some pretty interesting stuff!

Perception of science


Science writing

Research highlights

  • From Quintus at Chemistry-Blog comes an account of a synthetic analogue of the ribosome. The authors (see publication in Science) used the technique to produce milligram quantities of a peptide! This was also covered in C&EN and by See Arr Oh.
  • Derek Lowe gives a thoughtful perspective on an article summarizing the state of the field of "virtual screening". Worth a read for anyone interested in med-chem.
  • I'm not usually a fan of reading about or listening to total syntheses, but B.R.S.M. gives a pleasant account of Shair's total synthesis of (+)-hyperforin.
  • Bacterial toxins are interesting things! Check out this write-up on a PLoS Pathogens paper on toxins produced by C. difficile (nasty secondary infection common to those taking heavy loads of antibiotics). Warning to the it's-not-interesting-unless-I-can-column-it-and-solve-the-NMR-spectrum folks: the toxins in question (TcdA and TcdB) are enzymes and not small molecules. 
  • Some intriguing research relating to rapid diagnostic of bacterial infections has been highlighted at Scientific American. The authors used secondary electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (SESI-MIS) to analyze breath samples for volatile organic compounds; they could correlate MS profiles to specific infections. It's an interesting idea; given the ability of bacteria to change their metabolism quite flexibly, I'd like to see how many false positives/negatives show up in actual trials.

Other

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Blog Syn: B.S. to cut through the B.S.

Something I find very exciting happened today: the inaugural post of online synthetic peer-review community Blog Syn. Head over and check it out; remember also to subscribe to it (you'll note no exorbitant subscription fees).

The website is a rapid, international, and open source of peer-review of the synthetic literature focused especially on reproducibility. Essentially, it's a curated set of data: chemists point out interesting or provocative procedures, other chemists try the procedures and document the process and results, and then the efforts are cataloged and published for broader review and comment by the chemically-inclined portion of the internet.

The amount of "junk" in the literature is a well-established problem (if every procedure you've ever tried has worked as advertised, congrats, though). Sometimes you can get difficult literature procedures to work if you discover a variable that wasn't included in the original source (e.g. source of the material, trace impurities, level of rigor in keeping things dry, heating method, etc.) -- but then, since you're merely reproducing a literature procedure, this detail often doesn't make it into your subsequent paper ("Material X was prepared according as described by Author Z."). Moreover, since the publication timescale is slow and synthetic corrections/retractions are rare, lots of money might be wasted on trying to repeat useless procedures (counterpoint: some procedures work really well, and it's in everyone's best interest to hear of those, too!). 

Blog Syn is a really exciting idea, and I think it fills a niche neglected by the current traditional literature. I'll elaborate.

Blog Syn's closest analog is Org Syn, of course (hence the quasi-tongue-in-cheek name). Org Syn is a great journal if you ignore the clunky online interface. It's based on reproducibility. Proposals that are accepted are checked at least twice in a reviewer's lab using meticulous detail supplied by the authors about reagent quality, purification method, etc. The procedure must be reproducible to within 5% yield as written. A tall order--how many chemical steps in the literature would survive those strict guidelines? Accordingly, Org Syn has a good reputation: if you can't reproduce a procedure, it's likely an issue on your end, not on the literature side.

However, Org Syn isn't a panacea for problematic protocols. Procedures are submitted intentionally by authors; Org Syn doesn't review existing publications. Hence, there's self-selection. Authors choose to send things they know will (likely) work. Sketchy stuff is submitted elsewhere.

That's where Blog Syn has an advantage. It's democratic--any interested chemist with the time and materials can potentially contribute. It's an actual dialogue--those without access to the means to carry out experiments can still suggest techniques and comment on the data. And it's rapid. It's very rapid. Take the first post for example, which was compiled less than a month after the article was made available as an ASAP (many of the experiments were done before the article was even assigned a page number). Hence, before the broader chemical community became aware of the article, it had been vetted, including a discussion with the authors.

That's cool. 

There's been a lot of support from bloggers, including inaugural contributors B.R.S.M., Organometallica, and  Matt Katcher, project starter See Arr Oh, and chemblogging king Derek Lowe. There's been some doubt in the comments of the blogs, as well: chiefly about who verifies that the checking was done correctly, and how the whole thing will operate organizationally. I think these concerns are fairly minor hurdles; with sufficient checkers, the number of trials is way over the standard n = 1 for publication. The idea, as I understand it, is for a small group of volunteers to check a reaction that has sufficient interest and feasibility.

I think it would be helpful and important to get some PIs on board. There's two reasons: (1) a PI might become irate if they discover their student burning time and reagents behind their back (after all, reagents and NMR time cost grant money); however, a PI who gives their blessing to a student to conduct trials can contribute resources; and (2) there's a lot of chemists who still doubt that non-traditional publication venues (read: the Internet) offer anything of value; while I think Blog Syn will prove itself, having some PIs contribute might be quite transformative in shaping the face of peer review--a combination of open access and acknowledgement of social media. Attaching "established" names could mollify the perceived connotation of anonymity/sketchiness that lies with blogging in the eyes of many academics.

Anyhow, it'll be quite fascinating to see how it shapes up. Maybe it won't go much further. Or maybe it'll force authors to be more accountable for the science they preach.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Pseudoscientist calls science dogmatic (surprise)

Bad Religion, to which bad science has been compared.
Source: Flickr (available via CC license)
In a post a couple of weeks ago on the HuffingtonPost blog, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake lamented what he regards as crippling dogmas in science (I'm relieved to see it placed in HuffPost Religion and not HuffingtonPost Science). The piece is titled: Why Bad Science is like Bad Religion. For reference, a photograph of Bad Religion is shown to the right.

The HuffingtonPost piece is a diatribe devoid of evidence. Says Sheldrake:
I have been a scientist for more than 40 years, having studied at Cambridge and Harvard. I researched and taught at Cambridge University, was a research fellow of the Royal Society, and have more than 80 publications in peer-reviewed journals. I am strongly pro-science. But I am more and more convinced that that the spirit of free inquiry is being repressed within the scientific community by fear-based conformity. Institutional science is being crippled by dogmas and taboos. Increasingly expensive research is yielding diminishing returns.
He starts off relatively normal; the argument that research is driven by conformity has been explored recently by writers including John Ioannidis. It's got truth to it. Grant funding is scarce, and grant proposals must draw heavily on literature precedent (putatively to show the money will not be wasted). Though this does select against potentially very innovative projects, some avenues exist to fund "startup" ideas (see NIH Challenge Grants for instance). And conformity has some utility: it would be very, very expensive to fund every single crazy idea--unsustainably so. This is a reason the federally-funded National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has received criticism and proposals for defunding. (NCCAM is part of the NIH! What??).

Next the punches at scientists begin to come out:
Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle the answers are known.
Ah, the classic "science is as based on faith as religion is" argument. That's simplistic and shallow, of course, and many authors (including, obviously, Richard Dawkins) have countered this stale line of thought. Sheldrake seems to suggest that religious fundamentalists are more self-aware than scientists are--that they're more aware of their own limitations.
Since the 19th century, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, nature is purposeless, and minds are nothing but brain activity. Believers are sustained by the implicit faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance "promissory materialism" because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Many promises have been issued, but few redeemed. Materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century.
Here Sheldrake assumes that by following the scientific method, you remit yourself to cold nihilism, to blank materialism devoid of any joy or meaning. That's also ridiculous. As Douglas Adams has said: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

And there is no such "credibility crunch". Scientific tools are cheaper and faster than ever before, and advances are rapid. Genome sequencing, for instance, is increasingly quick and affordable. Biology, "materialistic" as it may be, has grown from a descriptive endeavor to a broad arena utilizing information science, chemistry, systematics, physics, and more to rationalize life processes. If there is a credibility crunch, I'm missing what it is: science seems to be doing quite well.

The following is, however, the shakiest part of Sheldrake's argument:
Despite the confident claim in the late 20th century that genes and molecular biology would soon explain the nature of life, the problems of biological development remain unsolved. No one knows how plants and animals develop from fertilized eggs. Many details have been discovered, hundreds of genomes have been sequenced, but there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone. 
The technical triumph of the Human Genome Project led to big surprises. There are far fewer human genes than anticipated, a mere 23,000 instead of 100,000. Sea urchins have about 26,000 and rice plants 38,000. Attempts to predict characteristics such as height have shown that genes account for only about 5 percent of the variation from person to person, instead of the 80 percent expected. Unbounded confidence has given way to the "missing heritability problem." Meanwhile, investors in genomics and biotechnology have lost many billions of dollars. A recent report by the Harvard Business School on the biotechnology industry revealed that "only a tiny fraction of companies had ever made a profit" and showed how promises of breakthroughs have failed over and over again. 
Despite the brilliant technical achievements of neuroscience, like brain scanning, there is still no proof that consciousness is merely brain activity. Leading journals such as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep problems with the materialist doctrine. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the "hard problem." It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.
Here Sheldrake commits one of the biggest anti-science sins: worship of gaps. This is what anti-evolutionists say, too: "There are unexplained gaps in the fossil record!" "We don't have records of every fossil!" "Why aren't there transitional forms?" Science hasn't failed to explain biological development. We know a lot about it. And there aren't any big insurmountable walls. The picture keeps getting filled in. And the extension of heritable biology beyond simple genetics is illustrative of life's complexity: it isn't a case for adoption of magic and psychic nonsense.

Sheldrake says "there's no proof that consciousness is merely brain activity": but importantly, he neglects that there's no proof for anything supernatural.

I admit I'd never heard of Sheldrake before reading this piece, which I learned of when it was shared by a nutritionist I follow on some social media website. Who is this guy? I wondered. Should I know of him? Is this a Harvard biologist I hadn't heard of? Maybe a tenured professor at a smaller school who's big in the education field, or in science writing? The bottom of the article made him sound reputable: (but yes, they spelled it "resaerch")
Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D., is a biologist and author of Science Set Free. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University, where he was Director of Studies in cell biology, and was Principal Plant Physiologist at the International Crops Resaerch Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad, India. From 2005-2010 he was Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge. His web site is www.sheldrake.org.
The problem is, Huffington Post made him sound like an actual real-live scientist. I guess he is indisputably an author. But his credentials, as outlined on his website, are spotty (not that non-traditional career paths are bad); it's interesting that he is crying out against dogma, yet he lists his most traditional posts in the article to establish his identity.

Sheldrake did indeed get his PhD from Cambridge and was initially regarded as a promising student. But he has, for all intents and purposes, parted ways with the scientific community. His career started out well (he was a Crick student and a fellow at Cambridge), but he ventured into the realm of magic with his 1981 publication of the book A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Causative Formation. Scientists quickly recognized the work as unscientific, but Sheldrake held onto his ideas and has for the last 31 years been in conflict with, you know, real biologists.

For a more thorough analysis of his career, read this account.

Is his work really that far out? Is it really unscientific? Is he being unfairly pilloried by dogma-loving, chauvinistic power-hungry capitalist traditional hegemonically dominating scientists? Is his critique of science as prejudiced and fear-driven justified?

Nah, he's way off base. His "science" consists of self-promoting, mystic, pseudoscientific nonsense that preys on the superstitions of the uninformed. From his own website, his research areas include: unexplained powers of animals; experimenter effects; morphic fields; the sense of being stared at; telepathy.

My personal favorite: "Can you wake a sleeping animal by staring at it?"

Before someone yells "continental drift!" at me: there's a big difference between someone being shunned for crazy theories without evidence and someone being shunned for theories with evidence. Science is self-correcting, and the dogmas shift over time. If there are facts and analysis to back it up. Sheldrake has not provided the extraordinary evidence (or any evidence) that extraordinary claims require.

He touts his publication record: early on he had some high-profile papers doing actual science (such as a 1968 paper in Nature) but his last few decades have been dominated by fringe-science journals like the Journal of Scientific Exploration and the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake
Source: Wikipedia/Public domain.
So is Sheldrake taken seriously by non-biologists? The problem is: he seems to be. We live in a society that loves Dr. Oz and thinks alternative medicine is an equally valid alternative to evidence-based therapy. So not suprisingly, there are a variety of fawning articles, reviews, and interviews. One piece proposes that Sheldrake may be a modern-day Isaac Newton. And several of his books have sold very well, according to Amazon stats.

As I previously mentioned, the article grossly misrepresents Sheldrake's credentials and area of "expertise". He calls himself a biologist, but that's a bit of a stretch. Sheldrake is more well-known for his parapsychology research and doesn't appear to have recently held a job that we would consider being a "biologist" for any appreciable amount of time.

Shrouding pseudoscience in science's clothing is a common tactic; shame on Huffington Post for not being clearer about who Sheldrake really is. When pseudoscience and actual science are blurred (especially by those who claim to be scientific experts), a great harm is done to the public good and the advancement of scientific thinking.

In final response to Sheldrake's points: of course there is dogma in science.* Of course there's resistance to change. But it's not in the things he's suggesting (he confuses how science works with what science says). And science, unlike religion, is self-correcting; views change over time, and they change broadly across the field. We don't have a thousand subsciences that conflict with each other, insisting the others are doomed to burn for eternity in Tetrahedron Letters.

* One such dogma is that n = 1 is sufficient for comparing the yields of two reactions. "Putting in LiCl raised the yield from 89% to 92% and the ee from 91% to 96%". Yeah, no it didn't.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health? Part 5 (finale)

This is a bit of a late post, but make sure to check out part 5 of our graduate school mental health dialogue over at Chemjobber for some comments and final thoughts. I hope this was a helpful and/or eye-opening dialogue to readers, and I thank Chemjobber for the opportunity to discuss this topic!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health? Part 4


Note: this post is the second in a series of five in a dialogue between Vinylogous (Not the Lab) and Chemjobber. This dialogue seeks to facilitate a discussion around the question: “‘Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” Part 1 (CJ), part 2 (NTL), and part3 (CJ) are located as linked. The final post (part 5) will appear tomorrow at Chemjobber’s blog.


Dear Chemjobber,

Your last post brought some apt parallels between high-stress environments and graduate school, as well as some entirely important recommendations. A human support system is valuable: I’d echo the notion that it should include other chemists, non-chemist scientists, and non-scientists. It’s good to get a dose of reality every once in a while.

It’s been great to see engagement in the comments as well as by numerous Twitter users (too many to efficiently name; it’d look like a J. Med. Chem. author list) and bloggers, including the very personal contributions of Derek Lowe and See Arr Oh (as you noted), but also since then some perspectives from UK-based JessTheChemist at her blog The Organic Solution as well as Glen Ernst at Just Another Electron Pusher (CENtral Science).

I would be very interested to get the perspective of some PIs on the matter (surely some read your blog). I know of at least a few PIs with particularly fearsome reputations who nevertheless believe they have their students’ best interests at heart. Some may indeed be genuine sociopaths, but I suspect others are just unaware or ill-equipped. [Edit: after I wrote this, Professor Chris Cramer of The University of Minnesota wrote his thoughts in this honest account]

This post is pretty long (so were the others, I guess), so I’ve employed subheadings.

Mental health benefits?

You asked the question: Do you think grad school could be good for your mental health? That’s certainly worth addressing. While it’s obvious that the field has many elephants in many rooms that need dealt with, there’s certainly some good things to be said. A stressful program that doesn’t break you down can make you stronger; it can make you emotionally tougher (the counterpoint is: does it make you tougher than you realistically need to be for real-world work?). It can teach independence and self-reliance. And it can show (i.e. force) you how to deal with failure (imagine a world where PhDs took 2 years, composed only of handle-turning projects that were extremely low risk—what would happen to science on a broad scale?). And for those whose projects actually work: it can instill pride and confidence.

But I don’t know that I’m quite qualified to speak on the benefits yet. Were there aspects of your grad and post-grad career that you attribute to improving your mental health? Besides just getting out of there?

At this point I’d like to draw attention to a couple examples of happy folks in grad school. From “Ken”, yesterday on your blog:

I was extremely lucky to work for a PI who understood the value of encouragement, frequent but not overbearing collaboration, work-life balance, and setting time-bound yet achievable goals. He fully realized that if you were actually planning your work appropriately, managing your time well, and concentrating on executing while you were in lab (for example, not succumbing to distractions like the internet) that you should be able to work a 50 - 60 hour week and be extremely productive.

At Derek’s blog, Curious Wavefunction had a similar remark:

Both my advisors were wonderful mentors; easy going yet rigorous, whip smart yet respectful and always generous in assigning credit and empathizing with your problems. Vacation was liberally granted (upto 4 weeks) and nobody was expected to work more than 40 hours every week unless work demanded it. Basically they did a fantastic job in teaching us how to be both first-rate scientists and decent human beings worth emulating. I would go back to being a grad student with them in a heartbeat.

A number of other comments run along those lines too. It seems that there are a couple hallmarks of lab groups/PIs/grad programs that lead to overall happiness: (1) projects that work; (2) advisors who are flexible with hours; (3) work-life balance; (4) good time management skills; (5) advisors who care about good time management skills and don’t simply demand more work in the ‘saved’ time. Are there other factors I’ve missed?

Work-hour tradeoffs

A counterpoint to the ‘happy labs’ concept pops up immediately, though. Is it really green pastures? Or by working fewer hours and maintaining healthier lives do you lose your edge and competitiveness in the field? Do you get as much out of working for an ‘easy’ advisor as you do from a ‘slavedriver’? Does fear of mediocrity keep students from joining the labs of friendly PIs? There’s a definite mentality among some that working 60 hours will do more for your career than 50. And 70 is better than 60. And 80 better than 70. So the PI whose students work 55 hours can’t possibly be as good as the other one whose students work 75.

To some degree I would argue that more work equals more success (especially in gruntwork-laden organic synthesis). But there’s also got to be a point of diminishing returns. Where is that? (There are some 55-hour-weekers who can be exceptionally productive; there’s some 80-hour-weekers who get fired).

And moreover: we are younger when we join grad school than when we leave it. As such, a nascent chemistry student is, I’d wager, less likely to regard long work hours and monotony as a significant downside. Newcomers can’t accurately know what working for 5 years for 80 hours a week is like (obviously). They’re more likely to assume that, abundant with youthful energy, they can work harder than the next guy and simply tough it out. By the time reality kicks in (3rd year?), it’s too late to switch groups and still graduate on time.

How many people would change groups if they could go back in time?

On a related note, some people have commented that work hours in the UK and Europe tend to be fewer, resulting in happier grad students (some also posit that UK grad students are less skilled, but that tenet is beyond the scope of this manuscript). For one eye-opening (and hilarious) account, see scientist/comedian Adam Ruben’s story of speaking to a group in Belgium and noting the un-grad-school-like atmosphere there.

Another story comes from JessTheChemist (mentioned earlier), who wrote of her relatively less-stressful, 45-50-ish hour weeks (with free weekends) in the UK. She speculates on the productivity/enthusiasm balance, and notes that she probably left with more of a love for the subject than someone who was constantly browbeaten. I think that’s important to consider.

Advisors as aggravators

A lot of the comments, and some of our previous posts, have mentioned the role of the PI as a stressor. As one anonymous comment noted today at your blog:

I can remember a discussion of mental health with my PI and other members of the group at one point. The response to the discussion of mental health from the PI was "that's a bunch of touchy/feely crap".
That comment made it extremely difficult for me to openly come to my PI to discuss mental health issues that I was having.

The blind eye than professors often turn to this problem is a source of frustration. There's a bunch of comments about professors who ignore some obviously inflammatory social situations within their groups: this is consistent with some things I've seen. 

I think it’s worth mentioning again that PI choice needs to be done carefully. Advice on PI choice typically emphasizes the science being done in the group as well as the skills to be learned and the connections in industry/academia that the investigator has. Group culture should be an important consideration, too.

So: about PIs. There’s an abundance of evidence in the comments that many people regard PIs as the source of their stress. It’s probably pertinent to look at the pressures that cause PIs to exhibit this behavior (presumably they were human at one point).

The recent stir over an article at Forbes is probably relevant. Remember how Susan Adams of Forbes last week proposed University Professor as the least stressful job of 2013? And the furor that it provoked? Clearly, people are aware that being a PI is itself a very high-stress job (especially pre-tenure—it seems every teddy-bear PI has a dark pre-tenure story).

Many PIs I know work hours consistent with their graduate students; even those who go home at the promised-land time of 5 pm work late into the evening on grants, literature, etc. One PI here puts in probably 90 hours a week in the department alone (long-past tenured). Meanwhile, grants are hard to get; salaries are increasingly in dispute as collective bargaining rights are stripped and the tenure system is threatened with overhaul; pay is lower then industry; futures are dependent on the caprice of reviewers and tenure committees; time is stretched thin. Demands like this of people not formally trained in leadership or management inevitably lead to stress (or at the very least, high-octane conditioning). The stress is passed down to students. So part of the problem with PIs, as posters have posited, can be placed primarily on the broader system of grants, promotion, and “the institution.”

Contrarian perspectives

Interestingly, I’m sure you noticed some contrarian views popping up: most notably, the string of comments by pseudonym “Lyle Langley” on yesterday’s (part 3) post. He had prefaced with this point:

Here is an honest question to these posts about graduate school being bad for one's mental health. Is it really graduate school causing the issues, or are the people having the issues predisposed and would have had the same issues in any stressful job.

I think we had mentioned this idea before, in a cursory discussion. It’s blunt, but a valid point: Does grad school cause these issues? Or does it just exacerbate them? As someone uninformed in any clinical aspects of mental health commenting on a pseudonymous posting from someone who probably doesn’t have any training in mental health as part of a discussion with another blogger without any formal qualifications in mental health, my professional opinion would be that it’s a little of column A and a little of column B. Not all stress is the same, and people doing some high-stress jobs (say, grad school) might be miserable in other jobs (say, financial analysis, emergency room medicine, etc) and vice-versa. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make the case that grad school does cause stress in most of these cases. But for people pre-disposed to imbalance, it’s probably much, much worse.

I guess it’s fair to say that some people can handle the stress, even in the toughest programs. But just because some people don’t get lung cancer from smoking doesn’t mean that everyone should smoke a pack a day.

In any case, I strongly invite comment on the above (bolded) question.

Field choice and conclusions

As I wind down, I want to share a comment by “OrganicLOL” over at Derek Lowe’s blog that is pertinent to the question of subfield (i.e. are these mental health aspects localized to organic chemistry?):

If your PI is a dick, then you have the wrong PI. If all PIs at your institution are terrible, then you are at the wrong institution. If most PIs in your field are terrible (organic chem), then you are in the wrong field. I left a PhD program in organic for a PhD program in materials science and engineering. I now feel like my life has a purpose.

When you combine that perspective with the glut of organic chemists on the market, some of this makes more sense. Certainly there is work still to be done in organic. But maybe expectations and reality of the field don’t coincide. Should more people consider switching fields (or subfields—i.e. to chemical biology or materials)? Organic is probably the biggest chemistry subfield; is that justified anymore? It seems that so many organic post-docs are spent doing very similar work, conceptually, to doctoral work, which can’t help but contribute to the stone-of-Sisyphus feeling of indeterminate grad school length.

A few questions remain: Do you think that a sustained poor job outlook might lead to a relaxation of grad school culture? Or will the harsher grant culture lead to increased pressure on students instead? There are apparently many labs that don’t suffer from a depression culture: but are students from these labs as competitive in the job market as the high-octane labs? (Of course, that’s a very complex question). What high-stress aspects of the system are maybe really just necessary in order to impart chemists with the skills and breadth/depth of knowledge to competently practice in the field?

If you had the power to change a few specific things (i.e. not vague things like “more happiness” or “better projects”) about graduate education in chemistry, what would you change? Time limits? Coursework to include non-science skills? Mandatory phys. ed.? Or is it, to quote Candide, “the best of all possible worlds” ? (Readers are invited to comment on this, too!)

And finally: what have we learned from all this?

Regards,

Vinylogous



Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Grad school and mental health, part 3

Part three of the continued dialogue "Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?" is available over at Chemjobber's blog. Read through for discussions on grad school vs professional programs, habits of successful scientists, and military training.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health? Part 2

Note: this post is the second in a series of five in a dialogue between Vinylogous (Not the Lab) and Chemjobber. This dialogue seeks to facilitate a discussion around the question: “‘Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” For the first post, click here. Tomorrow’s post (part 3) will appear at Chemjobber’s blog. 

Dear Chemjobber,

This dialogue has been really illustrative so far, despite only beginning today. I have to admit that I’m surprised by how largely one-sided the responses have been: overwhelmingly it seems clear that chemistry grad school, as it is run in the US, is frequently very, very bad for mental health. It’s good that these issues are coming to light, and it seems that there are many chemists who share a common experience.

I admit that I expected more people to jump up in defense of the current system—maybe we’ll see more of that this week. From what I’ve seen, many synthesis labs are stocked with advocates of the old-school style of management: I consider this a scientific Stockholm syndrome. These people brag about the sheer amount of grunt work they can accomplish and the late hours they routinely work, scoff at those having out-of-lab hobbies, and deride physical/analytical/biological chemists as a matter of principle.

It seems that many, many (most!) comments on your first post are written from the “other side” – the promised land beyond the degree. I don’t see many remarks so far from current grad students, though at least one grad-school-bound undergrad has expressed how frightening it all seems. Derek Lowe’s thoughts on the matter have generated a healthy stream of comments themselves.

My own perspective is a little different, as you anticipated. I obtained my (thesis) M.S. in organic synthesis at one university and at the moment I’m relatively early in my path toward a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at a different institution, where I’m pre-candidacy. As such, my “grad-school crazies” haven’t had a chance to set in here yet. We’ll see, I guess, but I don’t plan on completely sacrificing my twenties on the altar of Science.

Getting an M.S. deliberately before a Ph.D., as I did, is unusual (since a master’s is typically considered a ‘quitting’ degree). But I think it was useful.

At one point during my previous degree, when I was doing research, taking classes, and teaching, my advisor told me frankly that my productivity needed to increase. It needed to double. At that point I already felt that I was at my absolutely limit in what I could accomplish in a week. At that point, I had nowhere near enough data for a paper and barely enough for a mediocre conference poster. Weekends had been given up, as had hobbies. When I mentioned to my advisor the many demands on my time, his response was short: “Sometimes you need to prioritize what’s important to you.” (The subtext: stop caring about class and teaching and hobbies). It was an existential moment. I managed somehow to increase my productivity and my efficiency, and within a year or so I had three first-author manuscripts. I defended my M.S. and graduated, moving to another (higher tier) school for a Ph.D. But I left with a pre-conditioned bitterness towards graduate work.

The experience wasn’t terrible, in retrospect: I learned a lot of techniques, gained facility with the literature, developed writing skills, did a little mentoring, etc. But crucially, my time there observing advisors and Ph.D. students showed me the dark aspects of the system. This was a mid-tier grad program, where JACS articles were few and far between. But 7-day workweeks were expected; dinner was eaten hurriedly at one’s desk; stealing was frequent and hoarding of reagents and glassware was necessary. Multiple students wallowed about for seven to ten (!!!) years, probably with undiagnosed depression, and without proper pushing from advisors, they left with (useless) non-thesis master’s degrees. One didn't want anything to do with science upon leaving. Another claims on LinkedIn to have a Ph.D. from the department anyway. A Ph.D. candidate in one lab would, on multiple occasions, suffer rapid bouts of anger (on one occasion, he realized after putting a purified column fraction on the rotary evaporator that he had not pre-weighed the flask—in frustration, he took the glassware and hurled it at the wall).

Importantly, it gave me an idea of what to look for on recruiting weekends when applying to Ph.D. institutions. And awareness of the stress and mental trials of graduate work. I think awareness is vital in preventing emotional collapse; if you can see a problem on the horizon, you can plan and maybe circumvent it.

I think a question worth exploring is this: what aspects of the system contribute to the inordinate amount of stress and threaten mental health? I’m going to spend some time discussing my observations, and I invite comment on them.

Work/life balance. I think this is THE biggest thing wrong with organic chemistry that contributes to stress. Professors usually don’t want to discuss work-life balance, because it means fewer hours from their students (I must add here that some do; a few that I know recognize that happier students are more productive and encourage their grads to pursue outside interests. These labs have the most funding in our department).

Some examples are in order.

I talked to another grad student who has a passion for a certain extramural sport. He plays it weekly during the warm and leukwarm months. He’s been productive, has several good publications, and is personable and helpful, despite frequently leaving at 5 pm. I asked him why he chose his current lab over another that does very similar work. His reply: “My advisor lets me play [identifying sport]. I don’t think [the other professor] would.”

In my previous degree work, I found myself at situation where I “worked” even when at home: I’d speculate on my project over dinner, and I’d read manuscripts rather than read books (reverse procrastination). What I hadn't done was compartmentalize or set limits. As it is now, I avoid reading manuscripts or planning tasks after I go home for the day if I can. It’s not realistic all the time, but I try to adhere to “work smarter, not harder.” That is, I strive for efficiency at work and minimal overlap of work and not-work. Realistically, not everyone is allowed to do this, as bosses have very different demands on time.

One organic professor at my previous institution had a reputation for being candid. He also had a fairly solid research record to his name. One day in seminar, a friend and I were discussing installing our university’s VPN client so we could access journal articles off-campus. The professor overheard and snorted. “I don’t have the VPN on my computer,” he said. “I don’t want to read this s#*@ when I go home.”

An important perspective also came from a friend of mine who we were giving a hard time for owning a fancy set of kitchen knives. “You don’t need knives for Ramen noodles,” we insisted. He countered honestly: “I like cooking. If there gets to be a time when I can’t use my fancy knives, then what’s the point? I’ll just quit.” Since then, I myself have resumed cooking.

I think an important thing is: you need at least one hobby. One non-science hobby. Mine right now is writing (last year I wrote a bad but time-consuming novel). If you don’t that kind of time, I think your work and health suffer.

Overall, discussions of work/life balance are absent from chemistry programs; frankly, a student and PI should establish a mutual understanding of what this means, and it should be open to re-negotiation later on. In our departmental orientation, we were handed a list of university counseling centers in an almost embarrassed manner. But no discussion of how to step beyond the lab. Instead, our area head told us: “You should always have something running in your hood.”

Nebulosity. The fact that grad school is a weird, highly variable purgatory is a major contributor, I think. There’s no end in sight, usually, until less than a year from graduation. Some people take 4 years; some take more than 7. The record here might be 13, with an average of 5.5. Moreover, time-to-graduation keeps increasing. It’s a giant chunk of uncertainty. And hours can be uncertain, too. How much is enough? Will 5 more hours a week be useful? Will 5 less be too unproductive? How many papers do I need to get a good degree?

The economy. Because of the down chemistry job market, employment is tougher to find (of course you, Chemjobber, know this). Thus, there’s more competition between students. And as grad students grasp the reality of the employment situation, that dangling carrot of a med-chem job they’d been trodding after starts to shrivel and rot. It’s one thing to put in 10 years of work for a great, stable, high-paying career. It’s another to put in that time for an uncertain future where a career you don’t want or care about is a stark possibility.

Advisors and power structure. I mentioned previously a fifth-year grad student who plays a sport. One of his friends, another fifth-year student, plays on the same league. He’s a member of a different lab, however. He has to hide his activity from his advisor, who already banned the lab from their routine Thursday-night trip to a local restaurant for dinner (they “weren’t being productive enough.”).

I think it’s fairly obvious that advisors are in a power to be abusive, and though many aren’t, a large number are. And oblivious advisors can be as hurtful as malicious advisors. If a student has undiagnosed depression, it may show in their recommendation letters in the form of descriptions of laziness or lack of enthusiasm. Advisors have huge career-altering power. A set of nasty letters from a former boss can sink your chances at good jobs, and there’s really no system to avoid this if you happen to accidentally piss someone off. 

On the other hand, some professors are very keen on their students' happiness and treat them with respect. I've seen professors who go by their first name and invite their lab to gatherings at their house as well as professors who want formalities (including scheduling appointments with a secretary to even have a ten minute talk) and aren't interested in their students beyond a working capacity.

Grad students. As at least one person mentioned in comments, a certain kind of person goes for graduate school work. We’re usually perfectionists or close to it. And quite often workaholics. This leads to long hours and a roller coaster of emotions dependent intimately on each day’s reaction’s success or failure. No one discourages this line of thought: professors want long hours and high yields.

Another thing: I think grad students are likely to exacerbate each other’s poor mental states. This is one reason you see some labs with uniformly high happiness and others with endemic surliness. Generally, your social circle in grad school is confined to your labmates. People swap complaints. These things build, so one person’s problems became another’s. Bad moods are contagious.

The field itself. Also called the “low-hanging fruit problem.” It’s frequently argued that a lot of innovation in synthetic organic chemistry is dead; we’re in the post-Woodwardian era, where advances take more time and are increasingly incremental rather than truly innovative. This leads to a demand for longer hours in order to get results considered worthy. Plus, organic work involves a high amount of “grunt work”—quasi-thoughtless, repetitive tasks such as setting up the same reaction thirty times to complete a table, running columns, distilling solvents, etc. Some subfields are fresher and more varied in their day-to-day, and I’d suspect these have lower rates of stress and depression. I started (M.S. program) in a synthetic lab; I’m currently (Ph.D. program) in a lab where a minority of the work is synthetic. The chemical biologists here are, in large, much more socially well-adjusted and happy than the methodology-driven synthetic chemists are.

So I guess it’s complicated.

I think I had a much clearer picture of the state of organic research going into grad school than do a lot of students, who frequently leap into high-profile labs under the seduction of wedges and dashes without a hard look at what they’re really getting into. I started as one of those chemists.

When discussing these aspects of grad school with organic chemist colleagues, I hear a frequent reply: “Yes, it’s tough, but everyone knows what they’re getting into.” “No one goes into Professor Schmorey B. Deathflask’s lab without expecting that.” “It’s what you have to do to get good work done.”

I don’t know that that’s true. And even if it were, I don’t think that that absolves those in power of responsibility or justifies the system as it is currently run.

So what do you think? I’ve got loads of questions on my mind. What aspects contribute to it? What can be done about it, realistically? And interestingly, how does chemistry grad school compare to other high-demand fields: say, getting a DVM or an MD? How does it compare to graduate programs in business (where compensation upon completion is much higher) or the humanities? Is the stress and mental health worth it—does it pay off to stick it out? I look forward to your thoughts!

Regards,

Vinylogous

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Reading assignments, vol. 6

First week of 2013 has rolled in. Some news from the week:

Public health

Social media and science

Public perception of science

Academia

Other