Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sixteen Columns

Vittorio over at Labsolutely has a very clever and amusing post up re-imagining the X-Men as chemists.

So what other media genres share cross-over with our field?

The modern art form deemed the "chick flick" shares key features with tactics used to recruit students into graduate school in chemistry. Namely: (1) hopelessly romantic view of the content; (2) focus on idolizing the celebrities of the subfield (e.g. Tom Hanks, Phil Baran); and (3) careful shielding of the subject from reality of life/lab. And of course, both chick flicks and science place an emphasis on diaries.

In a salute to both, here are some chick flicks in the context of science:*

  1. How to Lose a Grant in 10 Days
  2. Unemployed Going on 30
  3. The Proposal
  4. Never Been Published
  5. 27 Postdocs
  6. What's Reproducibility Got to Do with It
  7. The Devil Wears PPE
  8. Sixteen Columns
  9. My Best Friend's Defense
  10. What PIs Want
  11. Save the Last Authorship
  12. Bridget Jones's Lab Notebook
  13. When Harry Met Sally at an ACS Regional Meeting
  14. The Lab Notebook
  15. Out of Academia
  16. Sleepless in Grant Season
  17. The English Postdoc
  18. Gloves Actually
  19. How Stella Got Her Glassware Back
  20. 10 Things I Hate About U...niversities
  21. Pride & PNAS
  22. Crazy, Stupid, Reaction Mechanisms
  23. Peggy Sue Got Funded
  24. P.S. I Love the Combiflash
  25. Flashcolumn

* Note: these are in no particular order; the author claims no expertship on relative merits of chick flicks.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why Steve Strauss should stop hiring English majors and hire some scientists instead

Recently, a few people I know shared this column on Facebook. Written by Steve Strauss, a lawyer/author and self-described "small business expert", the short piece from the Huffington Post makes the case that English majors are pretty much the bee's knees. Strauss prefers to hire English majors for a variety of roles, as he explains:
I love English majors. I love how smart they are. I love their intellectual curiosity. And I love their bold choice for a major. Most of all, I love to hire them. 
A recent article by the great David Brooks in the New York Times about the changing nature of the Humanities in higher education just reinforced why, when given my druthers, English majors are my employee of choice. 
And the reason is not that I am a writer; I more consider myself an entrepreneur than anything else. I run a small business and the people I hire do a variety of tasks -- SEO, project management, social media, and so forth. 
For my money (literally and figuratively), for my needs, and I suggest the needs of most small businesses, English majors are easily the top choice when it comes to getting the type of teammate who can make us all better, as they say in basketball.
Strauss goes on specify some key traits apparently endemic to the English major population. These are: (1) English majors are smart and creative independent thinkers, more so than business majors; (2) English majors are bolder risk-takers than others; (3) English majors are always better writers; and (4) English majors are easy to work with.

I suspect many scientists will disagree. I take issue with the broadness of Strauss's assertions--though he never claims to have broadly surveyed skillsets of humanities scholars, his descriptors read like mere feel-good fluff. Yes, there are English majors who have those characteristics, and many English majors are successful. But "rigor" and "difficult assignments" are not essential traits of the undergraduate English experience.  While English may allow deep thinking, it doesn't absolutely require it, and it's certainly easier to skate through an English degree than, say, one in chemical physics or organic chemistry.

You see more chemists who also know literature than you see literary analysts who know molecular orbital theory. But isn't that just because science is more specialized? Well, yes and no. Individual fields of science certainly have their own jargon, methodology, and bodies of knowledge. But the scientific process is fairly universal, and you see people switch fields in their BS/PhD and PhD/postdoc transitions.

That all sounds harsh, of course, and borders on the increasingly-prevalent-but-misguided attitude of "cut the humanities, boost only employable fields". So to clarify: I like the humanities. I really do. I've always enjoyed literature and music (both production and consumption), and I think their study is vital for making a person more culturally aware and well-rounded. I have opinions on writers and composers. I was one of those people who didn't whine about general-education requirements interfering with "real" coursework. But assigning top general employability status to English majors overlooks a key group of students who, when successful, possess all the abovementioned skills and more: science majors.

The case for hiring science majors

As previously mentioned, Strauss touted the creativity of English majors and their ability to think analytically. Creativity is essential to good science as well; skilled researchers tend to be creative people who see alternate ways to solve problems. Moreover, scientists find solutions that work, based on reality and reproducibility. This clarification is important, because "analysis" means very different things in scientific and non-scientific circles. However, scientists are quite good at two things: (1) finding information; and (2) evaluating information.

Strauss also claims English majors are superior risk-takers. But scientists are too. They have to be. Good research is always at the edge of knowledge--which means it might not work. Bench time might be wasted. A six-year PhD might produce no results and lead to no job. Ideas might get defunded and banished to obscurity. Going to grad school is a tremendous risk. So is working for an untenured professor, or starting a brand-new project. So the advantage here again goes to scientists. Additionally, scientific risk-taking is grounded in reality--helpful for businesses.

What other employable traits do scientists tend to have? Work ethic: long hours are the norm and determination over long periods of time (ca. 5 years) is required. Versatility: the scientific method is employable between variant research areas but also to management and business decisions. Technical skills: this probably goes without saying, but intimate knowledge of scientific theory and technique isn't easily gleaned from Google. Even in non-bench roles, this can be quite important. Teamwork: whereas writing English papers is a solitary venture, lab research is done in groups, and collaboration between students and labs on the experiment or project scale is commonplace. Objectivity: whereas the humanities stress the voice and identity of the individual (subjectivity), science emphasizes minimization of bias. This is useful in risk assessment, evaluation, project design, etc.

All in all, I think science majors sound pretty employable.

What we can learn from our English-wrangling colleagues

The claim about English majors being superior writers is also worth examining. Do English majors write? Yes. Do they write a lot? Most of them. Do they write well? The good ones write academic papers well, but an increased vocabulary and flowery verbiage doesn't mean good communication. Of course, many English majors are good communicators, but the degree doesn't guarantee that. And not having an English degree doesn't mean you can't write just as well as someone who has one.

It's worth noting that significant differences exist between scientific/technical and academic (non-scientific) writing. In another life, I worked closely with undergraduate writing tutors. Most were English majors, and as a lot they were very intelligent. But all of them were horrid at actually helping science students improve their communication skills. The result was a continuous stream of frustrated chemistry students with half-mangled lab reports. The writing process is fundamentally different across the humanities/science divide, which makes me skeptical that the garden-variety English major would be good at writing in a technical or scientific context (where content is highly specific, highly technical, and verbal economy is vital). Some are good at it, but it's not because of Chaucer.

That being said, scientists themselves are very commonly awful writers. Those who deny this or think it's not important are simply either ignorant or delusional. Then again, scientists are perhaps more likely to be blunt and direct, which has its appeal. Regardless, it's probably good for budding scientists to take all the writing experience they can get and to pay attention not only to the facts of what they write but the organization and presentation. Clear communication makes ideas easier to sell, cuts down on wasted time, and improves work efficiency. The ability to write well (more than just JACS communications) can be a huge selling-point when building an employment skillset, as it extends to grants, business proposals, technical reports, and intellectual property claims.

A final anecdote.

A friend of mine switched from pre-med to business during undergrad and found himself in a business database systems class. The class entailed a team-based project wherein each group of students needed to create a database system for a local business. Several of the born-and-bred business majors insisted that the class was probably the most difficult in the university. Having taken two years of pre-med coursework, my friend pointed out the difficulty and rigor in the hard sciences, especially in independent research. Oh, no way, the business majors insisted, scientific research is just following recipes.

The piece is short, so it's worth reading.  Do also peruse the comment section, which is rife with people praising Strauss's words and/or correcting each others' grammar/diction.