Thursday, April 20, 2017

An Academic Journey: Musings on the Academic Profession



Scientists have the benefit of being a group comprised of essentially every other subgroup of humanity. Their backgrounds, experiences, and lives are diverse... that sort of perspective difference has a lot to offer finding a good way to approach questions. Many pairs of eyes is good; many pairs of trained eyes with different perspectives is better. 

To speak to this diversity among academics would be to ramble on endlessly. There is too much variation, and they're only really tied together by one common thread: passion for a field of knowledge. The fields may be different, the approaches may be widely varied, and the reasons their passion developed and why they followed it are as diverse as the people involved in academia. Outside of academia, it can be easy to fall into this trap of perhaps expecting more from what some may see as the (over?)educated elite. It is easy to forget that they are people too, subject to the same flaws, faults, and failures as anyone else. In some senses, many academics don't seem to quite have caught on that they aren't infallible paragons of pure truth. Knowledge can easily lead to arrogance, and I'll admit that even my limited scope has given me an inflated ego a time or two when areas of my interest and knowledge come up around people who haven't spent years studying it. I can see how easy it could be for professional academics to retroactively smooth over their struggles when they were in the shoes of their graduate and undergraduate students, because these folks are sort of in a special place, even within their fields. 

The thing is, from the student perspective, you can see where the system of hiring academics for academic positions ignores many facets of their responsibilities as educators and mentors. Every STEM student has had professors (maybe the majority of their professors) who are likely very good at what they do in their lab, and not so great at pedigogy. It's unfortunate, because the universities sees these folks as money machines, rather than educators. They hire for exemplary research backgrounds, and just assume that mentoring and educating come easy to people who can design complex experiments to answer even more complex questions. In my experience, this is hardly ever the case. There is something to be said for people who understand that part of their job is to educate and mentor students. I've had enough good professors to know that there are some who take their role as educator, mentor, and trainer just as seriously as they take their role as a research scientist. However, these are too few and too far between. These highly educated, ostensibly highly intelligent and capable people, can be blinded by that success to the fact that they can be insufferably bad at other facets of the job they are supposed to be doing. 

Teaching is hard. Teaching is probably the hardest thing I've ever done, and I don't envy people who do it for a living at any educational level. In a perfect world you could recognize your own biases, and get constant feedback both from students, colleagues, and your supervisors / department chairs/ etc. about your performance, and integrate that into your approaches. In this perfect educational utopia, frustration with a student being slow on the uptake, or working at their own pace, shouldn't factor into your response. As a student, I'm already frustrated when i make mistakes. I'm already frustrated at the things I don't know... more so as a graduate student because I'm beginning to see the scope of all of the things that I don't know. The last thing I need, when I'm already in that state, is to be treated like an idiot because my mentor has knowledge garnered for 2 decades of experience and training which they take for granted as common knowledge. Nothing we do in science is exactly "common knowledge" in the sense that I can walk in here and be able to lecture on the subtleties and nuances of whatever weird niche you work on. In practice, often it is merely a sink or swim mentality, and things that could be turned into teachable moments are overshadowed by the frustration of a professional who seems to forget that mistakes are part of learning, and helping students learn from their mistakes is part of being a teacher. It's almost as if they are denying their own past mistakes when they were in similar circumstances.

We get it, nobody is perfect. That includes lofty academics with their PhDs and years of experience. The thing is, you don't train the next generation (and your future colleagues) by belittling, browbeating, shaming, or otherwise doing everything a teacher isn't supposed to do. Part of being a professor is sharing your knowledge. Part of training graduate students is helping them to not make mistakes twice. While it certainly sticks in our heads when we're berated for small errors or inconsequential things, it also tends to undermine our self-esteem and self-efficacy. The reasoning that there are things we should know is almost laughably over-simplified given the diversity of backgrounds. For example, in my cohort, there are students who had never taken a molecular biology course. Two of us have masters degrees in related fields already. I've never taken a developmental biology or cell physiology course. There are things we were never taught, and things we've probably forgotten. In no sense does it help us learn (or want to learn) to tell us that we're stupid for not knowing things that we were never taught or told were important, especially if they pertain to things we've never done before, or fields we have little experience in. This is compounded by the tendency for academics to take their work so seriously that they take errors as personal slights. I'm not trying to derail a decade of work; I'm trying to find my own way as a budding scientist who must, through necessity, rely on the training and mentoring of academics in order to succeed. When that support is minimal, non-existent, or takes the form of unnecessary bullying (for any reason) it does not help anyone involved. 

Having said this, I understand that students are just as much a part of this system. You have to want it. You have to make it clear that you're involved, and you have to keep your head in the game as much as you possibly can. You're not just a student, you're also an employee of sorts, and your success or failure is a direct reflection of the work your mentors and trainers put into you. We're all diamonds in the rough, and mentoring, educating, and training are there to polish us to a high sheen so that they can brag about how effective they are.

...I understand that the diamond analogy falls apart when we examine it further, because stones get polished by coarse, abrasive materials. This would suggest that coarse, abrasive training would be equally adept at polishing humans. It isn't. Academics need to know how to teach. They needed to know how to mentor. Not so many of them seem to be motivated to develop those skills on their own, because they are not things which are strongly emphasized in hiring or training. I get it: a competitive CV is more about the work you've done than the work you've helped others do. The thing is, system that persists isn't necessarily good because it has persisted. Not having the skills to handle the educational requirements of the academic profession doesn't reflect poorly on students who are unable or unwilling to tolerate negligence, verbal and emotional abuse, or whatever obtuse, unpersonable nonsense gets thrown at them. The best scientists shouldn't be the people who can get the most work done while also being treated like garbage. We shouldn't be forcing people who are intelligent, capable, and passionate to give up on their dreams because we don't care if they get treated well or taught properly so long as they get results. Graduate students are already underpaid, under-appreciated, and looking at shriveling future job prospects. There is no reason to add shitty mentoring to the list of things that can make grad school suck. The hardest part of graduate school should be immersing yourself entirely into something; the hardest part should be doing and designing your research. It shouldn't be all the stupid bullshit that comes with volunteering to follow your dreams. 

Of course, this is written at the most tense moment of my first year, trying to finalize a permanent position (which seems unlikely given the rotations I've done) and preparing for my qualifying exams (which will be the topic of another blog, I'm sure). I'm already stressed, and frustrated. I'm probably more frustrated than the professors seem to be these days. I don't know if I will stay in here; or if I'll even be able to stay. It's hard to be treated poorly and keep your mouth shut because you're replaceable and have no real avenue for recourse. It's hard to have to feign complacency because your other option is walking away from a year of your life spent already being miserable and working hard. It's bad enough that coming in every day makes me feel the kind of anxiety I haven't felt in a long time. My base assumption is that I'm going to be treated like crap, and so my motivation has suffered. Shit rolls down hill, sure, but that is kind of a bad excuse for being treated like crap, because there are plenty of graduate students who have and have had positive experiences with PIs and rotations. Maybe I really am just kind of shitty. Maybe I just was really unfortunate with my rotation selections. It may be somewhere in between, with a healthy dose of it being a stressful time of year for everyone involved.

I can say this, though: my experiences here, regardless of whether or not I stay to finish my PhD, have entirely soured any thoughts of becoming an academic. The road leading to it, the lifestyle, and the way I see interactions occurring here aren't enough to sell it as an attractive goal. The numbers are already against an academic career, and the reality is that my experiences are already starting to ruin science for me... that is enough of a reason to avoid it. I get that people are the same everywhere... maybe I'm guilty of wearing rose-colored glasses when examining how I think academics would want to approach teaching, training, and mentoring. You'd think that they'd want to treat the people they're responsible for well enough to maintain productivity and be able to recruit students, but the joke is on me because there will always be people willing to get treated like shit to follow their dreams. 

Personally, I'm not sure yet if I'm that kind of person, or if that would really be worth it.