May 27, 2014

College grads earn more, but why?

[They accept] "the doctrine that educational credentials... are required in order to improve labour-market chances. . [but] are not thinking that they should be acquiring knowledge or skills which will make them better at their jobs" -- Fevre, Rees, and Gorard (1999)

A recent article in the New York Times argues that the higher salaries of college grads make college a good investment, despite high tuition. David Autor, writing in Science, reproduces estimates from Avery and Turner that male college grads can expect a lifetime earnings boost of $590,000 (only $370,000 for women!), after subtracting public-university tuition and assuming a 3% interest rate. So if you can live at home, attend a state university, and get a 3% loan, this looks like a no-brainer.

But what if you aren't all that brainy yourself? Maybe smart or hard-working people make more money and are also more likely to complete college. In 1999, Cecilia Rouse compared earnings of identical twins differing in education and found a 10% income gain for each year of education. That would predict 40% higher income from completing 4 years of college, whereas the actual difference is 80%. So maybe half of the difference in income between college grads and high school grads is due to differences (not necessarily genetic) between people and half an effect of the education itself.

But is it really the education, or is it the diploma?

Hungerford and Solon (1987) reasoned that, if knowledge and skills are key to income, then 3 years of college would be 75% as good as 4 years of college. But if the diploma is what matters, the fourth year would give a much bigger income boost. The latter seems to be true, with interesting differences among races and genders.

As a professor, I am not happy about this, especially since we professors can't even claim credit for all of the non-diploma gains. After all, students are making useful contacts in years 1-3, polishing their social skills, etc.

One last question. If much of the income boost for college grads comes from the diploma, rather than anything they learned in or out of class, why do employers pay college grads more? Surely the knowledge and skills acquired in college must count for something, for some employers. Is graduation a reliable indication of a smart or hard-working individual? Is it a reliable indication of potentially profitable contacts? Are personnel responsible for hiring just taking the easiest approach? A review by Bills considers seven different hypotheses, and bemoans the lack of data. Here's a hint, from Dale and Krueger: correcting for differences among individuals, more-selective colleges don't boost income any more than less-selective ones.

If diplomas are used to determine who gets the better jobs, but education doesn't enhance worker productivity, then college would be a good investment for individuals but not necessarily for society.

February 15, 2014

Darwin Day 2014 -- North Dakota State University takes the cake


Wow! I can't decide whether I'm more impressed by:

* the guy in the pickup truck who saw us carrying the cutout photo of young Darwin and asked "Is that [W.D.] Hamilton?"
* the evolution-themed parody of John Lennon's "Revolution", composed and performed by a dean who, like God, may have "an inordinate fondness for Beatles".
* the wildly popular herpetology petting zoo (I should have taken a photo), or
* the "Hall of Biodiversity" (a wide range of interesting materials from campus natural-history collections, showing butterfly mimicry, comparing mammoth with mastodon teeth, using C4 photosynthesis as an example of parallel evolution, etc.) set up in the student center next to the auditorium where I gave my talk on "Darwinian Agriculture: Evolutionary Tradeoffs as Opportunities" and the lobby area (shown) where they sold Darwin-Day tee shirts and served cake.

But the cake I made for Darwin's 200th birthday was better.

August 30, 2013

Charles Darwin and Casuarina

WorldCat, which lists the holdings of libraries all over the world, is now claiming that several hundred libraries have my book, Darwinian Agriculture. Many of these appear to be "electronic access", which won't accelerate the availability of the paperback, but that still seems like a lot.

Among the libraries on the current list are those at Epic Bible College -- what a great name! -- and at Charles Darwin University. Another great name, and it gets better. It's near Darwin, Australia, but actually located in the town of Casuarina, which is named for one of my favorite trees. Casuarina is:

* A nitrogen fixer that isn't a legume.
* A flowering plant that looks like a conifer.
* So salt-tolerant I've seen it growing a few meters from the ocean, on Heron Island.

June 14, 2013

Recent and upcoming talks

Last week I was at Mexico's National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversiity (Langebio), giving a keynote talk on Darwinian Agriculture and learning about the diverse research program there, from microbial communities to manipulation of ant "bodyguards" by Acacia plants to using yeast to answer fundamental evolutionary questions.

On Sunday, June 23, I'll be giving a talk on Darwinian Agriculture, as part of the "Evolution Out of Bounds" symposium at the Evolution 2013 meeting, in Snowbird, Utah. These annual evolution meetings are usually really interesting, as I've discussed previously, and other talks in the symposium range from evolution of disease to evolving robots. Those interested in our evolution-of-multicellularity research should look for the talk by Kristin Jacobsen on Sunday afternoon and the poster presentation by Jenn Pentz Monday evening.

May 24, 2013

Put MOOCs to the test

With all the hoopla about whether universities should give academic credit for what students learn in online courses (MOOCs), people seem to be missing the point that we already have a widely-accepted mechanism by which students can get credit for material learned elsewhere: the Advanced Placement (AP) tests. If MOOCs are doing such a great job, why aren't they publicizing AP-test success rates for their students?

No, seriously. I'm open to the hypothesis that a student could learn as much or more in a well-produced MOOC than in a typical large-lecture/computer-graded introductory course. But let's see the data.

Professor Char Weise writes:

"I am also a parent who is going to be paying college tuition for his oldest child in a couple of years. I am being made keenly aware of the cost-quality tradeoff, and I'm seeing a product that sacrifices only a little on the quality end while having major benefits on the cost end. As a parent, I'm intrigued. As a professor at a liberal arts college, I am terrified."
...and suggests...

"Another approach would be to outsource the introductory courses in economics and other disciplines [to MOOCs]. We already do this to some extent by accepting credit for our introductory courses for courses taught at high schools or other institutions including community colleges. A student who gets a score of 5 on the AP economics test gets credit for Econ 103 and 104... I can imagine a time when the standard program of higher education involves a student spending a year (maybe less) accumulating a year's worth of college credit for introductory courses by taking MOOCs and then enrolling in Gettysburg's (or a similar institution's) excellent and prestigious three-year bachelors' program."
Outsourcing introductory classes, which few professors enjoy teaching, would free us to teach more-interesting, advanced classes. Offering credit for MOOCs on advanced topics without a widely-accepted standard test is more problematic than continuing to offer credit for high AP-test scores. If we had data showing that grades in introductory MOOCs were highly predictive of AP-test scores, that would give me some confidence in their grading, but advanced classes typically call for reasoning and analysis skills that are harder to test. Also, advanced classes are more likely to benefit from small-group interactions with the professor. Take Bill Hamilton, for example. (You knew there had to be an evolution angle here somewhere!) According to this excellent biography by Ullica Segerstrale, he was a terrible lecturer in introductory classes, but did a great job on smaller advanced classes.

December 4, 2012

Grad school without an undergrad degree?

It may also be possible to get an undergrad degree through some combination of on-line classes, proctored tests, and evaluation of knowledge and skills gained through nonacademic experience. Thomas Edison College is an example of a college that awards such degrees, as discussed in the NY Times. Some grad schools might have specific requirements for GPA etc. that could create problems for students who are primarily self-taught, though. And you still need to convince a prospective major professor that your unconventional education has prepared you well for research in her lab.

Interesting discussion this week in NY Times, Slashdot, and about alternatives to a spending an expensive 4 years in college, now that free courses and lots of other educational content are so widely available on the web.

College grads tend to make more money, with some well-known individual exceptions, though the reasons aren't clear:
1) knowledge and skills learned in classes are a good match for high-skill jobs?
2) contacts met while getting drunk?
3) employers assume that people with degrees are smarter or work harder, even if most skills needed will actually be learned on the job?
Note that reasons #2 and #3 would make individuals with college degrees more competitive for the best jobs but wouldn't necessarily imply any benefit to society from greater investment in education, as I've discussed before. But that's not today's topic.

What if your goal isn't to get rich from writing an ap, but to do science? Depending on what kind of science you want to do, you might need access to an electron microscope, a gene sequencer, and dozens or hundreds of journals costing hundreds or thousands of dollars each per year. Having a wide range of experts to talk with would help, too. In other words, you need access to a major research university.

How can you get such access, without running up a lot of debt? Easy. Go to grad school. Grad students in science don't usually need to take on much additional debt, unless they have kids or an expensive life-style. 20 hours a week as a teaching assistant and your tuition is covered, plus (barely) enough to live on. Or, if you're lucky, you get a fellowship or a research assistantship that pays you to work on your thesis research.

But can you go to grad school without getting an undergrad degree first? It's not easy, but is it impossible? Suppose you spent 2-3 years reading lots of scientific papers, working part-time in a lab, and asking interesting questions in department seminars. Then you ace the GRE and get a great letter from your boss. Is that enough to get into a good grad school?

Absolutely, if you did the above while also getting an undergrad degree from the least-expensive accredited school you can find. (Later in life, nobody will care that your undergrad degree is from Southern Nowhere State, if your PhD is from Big-Name University.) Without any undergrad degree, alternative credentials like great GRE scores and a published paper would convince many professors to take you as a grad student. (That's how I got into Cornell, on probation. I did have a degree from Evergreen, but they weren't accredited yet and didn't give grades.) But would the professor's grad school agree? Most would not, at least today. But could that change, if there were significant numbers of such nontraditional students applying?

I think it would be very risky to assume that you can skip college and still go to grad school, even if you can manage to learn more science "on your own" than you would have in college. But on-line learning is starting to shake things up. Who knows what might be possible in the future?

August 24, 2011

Education as a tragedy of the commons

The New York Times is discussing whether we spend too much on education, or not enough. It might help to phrase the question more explicitly, either as:

1) Would individual families benefit from investing more in their own education?

2) Would society as a whole benefit from investing more in education?

Two commentators point out that individuals with more education have substantially higher salaries, on average. Maybe those individuals would have had higher salaries even if they hadn't gone to college, of course, or even if they'd gone to a less-expensive college. That question has been debated elsewhere, and I don't have anything to add.

But even if college is a good investment for individuals, it isn't necessarily true that we would be better off, collectively, if we spent more, collectively, on education. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the number of high-paid jobs is fixed at 10% of the working-age population. If those with more education are more likely to get those jobs, then investing in education makes sense for individuals and their families.

Education could be a sound individual investment even if the education itself was worthless and incomes were determined only by credentials relative to others. But, if producing more people who are qualified to be medical doctors doesn't increase the number of jobs for doctors, then the higher pay of college-educated doctors relative to less-educated nondoctors doesn't make educating more people a good investment for society as a whole. Individual benefits from investing in education don't necessarily translate into societal benefits from investing in education.

How might society benefit if more people were more educated? My guess is that, if more people were better educated, we would have less crime, a stronger economy, and better political decision-making. My guess is that these societal benefits would outweigh the societal costs of investing more in education. But you can't estimate the total return on these societal investments from the economic return to individuals from investing in their own education. Societal benefit:cost ratios could be lower or higher than those for individuals.

Here's another important point. The return on investments in one kind of education for one group doesn't necessarily predict the return on investments in other kinds of education for other groups. Years ago I saw a comparison of countries that started with similar economies and invested similar amounts of public money either in universities or in primary education. Investing in primary education led to lower birth rates, so the education budget was spread among fewer kids. They developed educated workforces and their economies grew, so that eventually they could afford universities as well. (Until then, citizens wanting more education got it in other countries, thereby making contacts that improved trade.) In contrast, the countries that focused on universities only educated -- "credentialed" might be a better word -- the children of the ruling kleptocracy. The overall population stayed ignorant, birth rates stayed high, and economies stagnated.

Fortunately, I live in a rich country that can afford both great universities and great primary and secondary schools. An honest cost:benefit analysis would be a good place to start.

November 1, 2010

Carnival of Evolution

Lots of people are blogging about evolution now. Byte-size Biology has a good selection of recent posts.

May 19, 2010

Tenure, seniority, and the benefits of incumbency

Retention based on seniority is, in effect, a conspiracy between teachers' unions and people for whom lower taxes are more important than quality education for the kids in their community.

This post is inspired by two recent New York Times stories. One reports the battle between teachers' unions (favoring pay and job retention based on seniority) and educational reformers who want pay and retention to be based on other criteria, such as student test scores (Brill 2010). The other story reports that some incumbent politicians in the US lost primary battles to challengers in their own party (Zeleny and Hulse 2010). This is news because it hardly ever happens.

I want to make two points. First, US teachers and US politicians are in similar situations. Once they've been in the job for awhile, they can be hard to get rid of, even if their performance falls well below average. This is also true of university professors, medical doctors, and business executives, although pay in those occupations may depend more on current or past performance than it does for politicians or teachers.

Second, random changes to the current system could make things worse rather than better, for an economic reason I haven't seen discussed. More-thoughtful changes are another story.

Continue reading "Tenure, seniority, and the benefits of incumbency" »

October 12, 2009

Darwin at the Smithsonian

I recently had two or three hours to spend at the Smithsonian, en route to the airport. I hadn't been to the natural history museum for awhile, and was interested to see how they were celebrating Darwin's anniversaries this year. Pretty well, it turns out. Banners outside advertised a Darwin exhibit and "Plants and butterflies: partners in evolution." Inside, there was apparently an organized "Evolution Trail", which I didn't have time to follow.

The Darwin exhibit is off the entrance hall with the elephant and has a mix of biographical and scientific exhibits. My main criticism was their definition of "co-evolution" as being limited to evolution for mutual benefit. Evolutionary arms races (e.g., between hosts and parasites) are also coevolution. The entrance hall on the other side, where I came in, has two display cases of Darwiniana.

The butterfly exhibit was dominated by a live butterfly room inside a larger room with displays on the coevolution of plants and butterflies, with fossils labeled "examine the evidence." I was happy to pay $6 admission to the butterfly room since I wanted to make a donation anyway and enjoyed having a frittilary land on my nose.

Near the Oceans exhibit was a display of Burgess Shale fossils I hadn't seen before, including Pikaia, a tiny 500-million-year-old chordate. We chordates have evolved a lot since then. Nearby were some fossil stomatolites.

The mammal room was great, focusing on adaptations in everything from bats to giraffes (splaying front legs to drink, with an explanation of adaptations to limit blood flow to head) to pangolins with termite mounds. Right in the middle of the floor was a window down to fossil hominid footprints.

I wish I could have stayed longer. One problem with a quick visit to the Smithsonian is that post9/11 hysteria has closed most of the bag-check rooms. You can't bring your luggage into the museum and if you leave it somewhere, they'll try to detonate it. (Luggage made of sapient pearwood can defend itself, but I wouldn't recommend bringing it to Washington!) But here's a secret tip for my regular readers only: the 4th St. entrance to the National Gallery still has a check room, complete with x-ray machine. Don't tell too many people, or they'll probably close it.

Coming up in March: the Hall of Human Ancestors!

July 31, 2009


Just as I was starting to dip into retirement savings to keep my lab going, we got word that both of the grant proposals we sent to the NSF in the latest round were funded, one of them with money from Obama's stimulus funding. We won't be paying ourselves any billion-dollar bonuses, but I may be able to get two months salary this year after all. Both proposals are resubmissions, significantly improved based on suggestions and criticisms from past reviewers. Both projects will use rhizobia, bacteria best known for providing legume plants with nitrogen, but the second project may have eventual applications in medicine (e.g., curing persistent infections) rather than agriculture. The summaries below are intended for a nonscientific audience, such as members of Congress.

"Suppression of rhizobial reproduction by legumes:
implications for mutualism"

(with Prof. Michael Sadowsky, largely based on ideas and preliminary results from grad student Ryoko Oono -- see this recent review article we wrote with Toby Kiers)

Rhizobia are bacteria that can live in soil, but also symbiotically, inside root nodules on plants like soybean or alfalfa. Although many rhizobia provide their host plants with nitrogen, saving farmers billions in fertilizer costs, less beneficial strains cause problems in some areas. Some hosts, including alfalfa and pea, make rhizobia swell up as they start to provide nitrogen. Unlike the nonswollen rhizobia from soybean or cowpea nodules, swollen rhizobia apparently lose the ability to reproduce, but does rhizobial swelling somehow benefit the plant?

To find out, the investigators will map this trait on the family tree for crops and wild plants that host rhizobia, to see if causing swelling evolved more than once, suggesting a positive benefit to the plants. Three dual-host rhizobia (plus mutants that differ in their ability to hoard resources) will be used to measure effects of rhizobial swelling on costs and benefits to the plants. Plant defenses against rhizobia that provide little or no nitrogen, already demonstrated in soybean, will be tested in species that impose bacterial swelling.

This research will increase understanding of a symbiosis that supplies nitrogen to agricultural and natural ecosystems, with implications for other important symbioses. Results could guide the development of crops that selectively enrich soils with the best rhizobia, decreasing future fertilizer requirements. Educational opportunities will be provided for undergraduates, at least one graduate student, and a postdoctoral researcher. Two female high school students have already won trips to the International Science Fair for research done in the principal investigator's laboratory, where such mentoring will continue to be a priority.

Evolution of persistence in the model bacterium, Sinorhizobium
(with Prof. Michael Travisano, largely based on ideas, preliminary data, and writing by grad student Will Ratcliff, with some ideas from Andy Gardner and colleagues -- see the second paper discussed in this post -- and possible relevance to our work on evolution of aging.)

Some bacteria can enter a nongrowing "persister" state that allows them to survive antibiotics and other treatments that normally kill them. By suspending growth, they may also free resources for their genetically identical clonemates.

Most species form only a few persisters. This makes persisters hard to study, despite their importance in long-term infections. However, certain harmless bacteria from plant roots can form up to 40% persisters. These will be used to determine whether persisters benefit mainly from enhanced stress resistance or by increasing the growth of their clonemates.

Successful completion of this research will provide two main benefits: First, this research will determine the conditions that favor the spread of persister-forming bacterial strains over nonpersister strains, and the genetic basis of persistence. This can provide direct medical benefits by aiding the development of novel management strategies, drug targets, and eventually treatments for patients infected with persister-forming bacteria. Second, some conclusions may apply to other species that are difficult to eradicate because they, too, form dormant, stress-resistant stages. These include many agricultural weeds and some species of mosquito. One key advantage of the proposed approach is speed: experiments that would take decades with weeds or mosquitoes can be conducted in months with bacteria. This research will provide training opportunities and jobs for undergraduates, high school students, and a post doctoral researcher.

I am planning to accept another grad student for autumn 2010.

July 20, 2009

Join my lab?

I hope to welcome one or possibly two new graduate students in autumn 2010.

As I noted on the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior web page, much of my research can be seen as following up on ideas first discussed by W.D. Hamilton. This includes our work on the evolution of cooperation (Nature 425:78-81) and on longevity-versus-reproduction tradeoffs as a possible explanation for the health benefits of eating low doses of plant toxins (PLoS One 4:e6055). Often, my grad students use crop plants and/or noncharismatic microfauna (bacteria, yeast, etc.), so if aesthetics is more important to you than science, choose a different major professor. I am also interested in agricultural implications of past and ongoing natural selection (Q. Rev. Biol. 2003 and forthcoming book), although I don't currently have any grant funding for this work.

I also accept students in the Plant Biology grad program, which has been unusually generous in financial support for grad students, providing first-year and summer stipends, paying for meeting travel, etc. (Budget cuts could change this.) Also, unlike most Plant Biology programs, their vision extends beyond molecular biology of Arabidopsis, with significant strength in evolution and in legume (especially Medicago) symbiosis. So students interested in plants should consider both programs.

January 19, 2009

Liberal education, basic research, and Neal Stephenson's "Anathem"

In today's NYT, Stanley Fish laments the demise of liberal education, which, he says

"is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world..."
This could perhaps also be a criterion by which basic research is distinguished from applied research. Another characteristic that basic research shares with liberal education is that each offers fewer career opportunities than there are people who want to pursue it as a career. This led me to suggest, in a previous post, that the only people who should consider grad school in science are:

Continue reading "Liberal education, basic research, and Neal Stephenson's "Anathem"" »

October 4, 2008

Book review: Uneasy relations

Selective forces in the environment change, and we, or any other organisms, respond to those forces, not to some long-range design or some supposed future condition. If we – oh, heck, you know all that. -- "Skeleton Detective" Gideon Oliver in Aaron Elkins' Uneasy Relations
If you like mysteries and haven't discovered Aaron Elkins yet, his latest novel is a reasonable place to start. Enjoy it yourself, then lend it to someone who might benefit from the passing references to evolution. The "you" who knows all that is Gideon's park-ranger wife, Julie. One or the other of them is always getting invited to a meeting somewhere interesting, with the other usually tagging along. His technical expertise and her clear thinking come in handy when, inevitably, someone gets murdered. This time, the meeting is in Gibraltar and revolves around Neanderthal remains found there. If you want to compare fact with fiction, head on over to John Hawkes' weblog and then read the book.

June 11, 2008

Evolution 2008 in Minnesota

This year, the Evolution meetings are here in the Twin Cities. Evolution 2008 is a joint meeting of the American Society of Naturalists (not the nudist organization), the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Society of Systematic Biologists.

A quick search of the program found no references to atheism* or child pornography, but there will be plenty of talks about sex. You could spend all Saturday morning listening to lectures on Plant Mating Systems and all afternoon learning about Sexual Selection. On Sunday morning, if you don't have other plans, there will be talks on the Evolution of Sex from 8-12, among other choices. You have to pay the registration fee that covers the cost of the meeting to attend these talks, but Olivia Judson (author of Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation) will be giving a public lecture:

The Art of Seduction: Evolution, Sex, and the Public
4-5 PM on Sunday June 22
Ted Mann Concert Hall
My students and I will give talks in the Species Interactions and Life History Evolution sessions. I will discuss some of the talks at the meeting in a future post. Before then, I may be a bit sporadic, getting ready for the meeting. Also, both of our latest grant proposals were rejected by NSF -- depending on how you look at it, there are either too many good proposals or not enough money -- leaving us with essentially no funding for our research. So I'll be working on revised proposals due in early July.

*Note to those not in the US or Turkey: religious extremists claim that understanding evolution leads to atheism which then leads to crime. Comparisons among countries appear to support the evolution<=>atheism link but not the atheism=>crime link.

May 7, 2008

Real vs. fake controversy

I liked this essay comparing areas in evolutionary biology where there is genuine controversy -- i.e., where people who are actually collecting data and publishing on a topic disagree -- vs. the phony controversies imagined by creationists. Group selection may still almost qualify as a controversy, a question I may address in a later post, but age of the earth, common ancestry of all species (at least those studied so far!), and the power of natural selection to solve difficult problems are not at all controversial among those actively publishing on related topics.

The question of how much exposure high school students should have to genuine scientific controversies seems a bit more complex to me. I agree that helping students get enough of the basics to understand active controversies in any depth is a big challenge. On the other hand, I've been amazed how many high school students (and their parents) think that the only definition of "research" is looking up information in a library or on the web. If we want students to understand that scientific research is an exciting, ongoing activity, some kind of exposure to areas where scientists disagree seems essential. Areas of research that are easier to understand, like the mindless screening of drugs, don't convey the intellectual excitement of real science.

Here's a seminar class I've thought about for either high school seniors or first-year college students. First, let's set the minimum standard for a scientific controversy as: at least two conflicting points of view, each represented by data-containing papers from at least two nonoverlapping groups, in journals with an impact factor of at least 1.0. Each week we consider one question, such as:
1) What causes AIDS?
2) What is killing amphibians around the world?
3) How old is the earth (within 10%, say)?
4) What living species is the closest relative of chimpanzees?
Students get points for showing that each topic was controversial, at least at one time, with a big bonus for whoever shows controversy most recently. Then we could make a time-line, showing when each question was settled (pending new data, of course!).

October 2, 2007

Grad school as an epic quest

I thought this analogy between grad school and Lord of the Rings was pretty funny, but what about Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I'm really tempted to start my next oral exam with:

What is your name?
What is your quest?
What is the long-range dispersal mechanism of Cocos nucifera?

Continue reading "Grad school as an epic quest" »

July 9, 2007

Gifted education and science fairs

I have linked to Terence Tao's blog for some time, because a surprising number of people come here from there. But, although I am more comfortable with math than some biologists, I don't have any idea what most of his posts are about. On the other hand, his career advice seems good and widely applicable. A recent post on gifted education seems like good advice both for parents and for any gifted students who might be reading this.

I've always been annoyed by the competitive aspect of science fairs. I worry that students who do a really good project are going to feel like they wasted their time if they don't win a particular prize. In Oregon, where I went to high school, there was an annual scientific meeting for high school students. It was considered an honor to have your talk or poster accepted for presentation, but it was an honor within the reach of any reasonably smart student who worked for it. It was great talking to other students about their projects, without worrying about winning or losing. Sure, a student thinking about grad school needs to know that competition for research faculty positions and grants is intense, but why kill the joy of science at an early age?

June 21, 2007

Opportunity cost of grad school, etc.

Rob Knop liked my previous post. The comments on his post are well worth reading. For example, someone pointed out that, even if you don't go into debt to finance grad school, there's still usually an economic opportunity cost. During the years you spent in grad school and as a postdoc, you might otherwise be paying down a home mortgage, saving for retirement, etc., not to mention nonfinancial opportunities, like starting a family.

Terence Tao also has some good career advice,. It's aimed mainly at mathematicians, but much of it is relevant to science in general.

Continue reading "Opportunity cost of grad school, etc." »

June 20, 2007

Choosing a major professor

Advice sent to an aspiring grad student, without identifying particulars.

1) Don't use a generic subject line when contacting a prospective major professor. I almost didn't open your email, thinking it was probably spam. Snail mail with a stamp and handwritten address really stands out, but email with "reprint request" will probably be opened. Ask for a PDF of a paper or two whose abstract looks interesting, but you don't have full-text access.
2) Read the papers, plus others you can find on-line or in your nearest university library. You might also consider going to a relevant scientific meeting in addition to, but not instead of, reading scientific papers. The nice thing about a meeting is that you can ask questions and talk to people from lots of different labs all in one place. The problem with talks is that if something isn't clear, it's gone, whereas with a paper you can read it twice, think about it, look up relevant definitions, etc.
3) Do the papers (including the part about weighing 5000 seeds or chasing lizards in the rain) make you think "I wish I'd done that?" If not, look for another lab, that does make you react that way.

Continue reading "Choosing a major professor" »

June 19, 2007

Who should consider grad school in science?

This entry is inspired by "Why I got out of research" at and Rob Knop's blog entry Get out; you're not good enough , and is addressed to readers considering grad school in science.

There are more people qualified for faculty positions at research universities than there are openings. By "qualified" I mean having earned a PhD, done a postdoc, and published at least one senior-authored peer-reviewed journal article from each. By this definition, one can be qualified without necessarily being competitive in today's academic job market.

Those of us lucky enough to get such a research university position find that (as vwxynot put it):

"Even if you do make it big and get your own lab, you're suddenly responsible for your whole team's job security as well as your own. Grants depend on the quality of the researcher and their work, yes, but also on trends, fads, luck, nepotism, reputation, political interference and geography."

The importance of nepotism, politics, and geography probably varies among countries, but there's no doubt that only a fraction of good proposals get funded. And yet, getting grants is often an expectation for tenure.

So, if most PhD's won't get a research university faculty position (RUFP), then who should consider going to grad school in science?

Continue reading "Who should consider grad school in science?" »

April 9, 2007

Evolutionary sound bites

There's an interesting discussion at Pharyngula and The Loom about the challenges of communicating science to nonscientists.

When I suspect an interviewer's only going to use a sound-bite, I decide in advance on a few I wouldn't mind them using. This doesn't always work, though. NBC interviewed me about transgenic crops a few years ago. They kept asking "can consumers tell if food is transgenic?" They already knew the answer and apparently had a script calling for a scientist to say "no" on camera. You might think they would want to talk to experts before deciding what the important questions are, but apparently not. So I kept saying, "that's not the issue; the question is how growing these crops will affect the evolution of weeds and insect pests." Not a bad sound bite, in my opinion, but it wasn't in their script. So they ended up just using visuals from my research fields, and adding their own stupid narration. Maybe if I'd said, "no, and labeling won't help" I would have had a chance to explain about gene flow, but I doubt it.

In contrast to my NBC experience, here's a nice example of telling a complex science story in 90 seconds. It's about our research on the evolution of cooperation between rhizobium bacteria and plants.
Download MP3 file

Continue reading "Evolutionary sound bites" »