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July 01, 2010

Life as a young scholar

A few months ago, I ran a mini-workshop with some of the other postdocs here at SFI [1] on getting into the habit of tracking your professional activities as a young scholar. My own experience, and my impression from talking with other young scientists, is that this is a delicate time in our careers (that is, the postdoc and early pre-tenure years) [2]. And, getting into the habit of keeping track of our professional lives is one way, I think, to help make all this work pay off down the road, for example, when we apply for faculty jobs or go up for tenure or otherwise need to show that we've been actually productive scientists. [3]

The basic point of the mini-workshop was for me to give them a template I've developed for tracking my own professional activities (here as tex and pdf). This helps me keep track of things like the papers I write and publish, talks I give, manuscripts I referee, interactions with the press, interactions with funding agencies, teaching and mentoring, "synergistic" activities like blogging, and the various opportunities I've declined. A side benefit for being mildly compulsive about this is that at the end of the year, when I'm questioning whether I've accomplished anything at all over the past year, I can look back and see just how much (or little) I did.


[1] Incidentally, for those of you thinking of applying to SFI for the Omidyar Fellowship this year, be forewarned that the application deadline will almost surely be earlier this year than last year. It may be as early as mid-September.

[2] Delicate because many of us are no longer primarily publishing with our famous, or at least relatively well-known advisors. Just because a paper is good or even truly ground breaking doesn't mean it will be widely read, even among its primary audience. To be read, it needs to be noticed and recognized as being potentially valuable. Academics, being short on time and having only a local view of an ever-expanding literature, naturally resort to a variety of proxies for importance. Things like what journal it appeared in, whether they recognize any of the authors' names, how many citations it has, etc. A consequence is that many papers that are utter rubbish in fact are widely read and cited perhaps mainly because they scored highly on these proxies. For instance, they might have appeared in a vanity journal like Nature, Science or PNAS, or they might have had a famous person's name on them. (There are even some scientists who have made an entire career on gaming these kinds of proxies.) And, there's some evidence that this perception is not mere academic jealousy or sour grapes, but rather a measurable sociological effect.

The point here is that young scholars face a brutal competition to distinguish themselves and join the ranks of respected, recognized scientists. The upside of this struggle is learning more about how to get papers published, how to write for certain kinds of journals, how to play the grants game, and, hopefully, increased name recognition. Is it even controversial to argue that academia is a reputation-based system? The downside of this struggle is that many talented young scholars give up before gaining that recognition. [4]

[3] There are other tools out there for tracking your activities at a more fine-grained level (like Onlife for the Mac), but I don't use them. I tried one a while back, but found that it didn't really help me understand anything and was a mild distraction to getting real work done.

[4] If you'd like another explanation of why the process of becoming a respected scientist is so brutal, you might try the Miller-McCune cover story from few weeks ago titled "The Real Science Gap". The basic argument is that, contrary to what we hear in the media, there's a huge surplus of young scholars in the system. But, these budding scientists face a huge shortfall in opportunities for professional advancement, are faced with institutional mechanisms that underpay and undervalue them, and these cause most to drop out of science. The author seems to think a good solution would be to reduce the number of PhDs being produced, back to pre-WW2 levels, which would thus increase the likelihood that a newly minted PhD ends up with as a professor. But, this misses the point, I think, and would return science to its elitist roots. A better solution would be to give young scholars at all levels in science better pay, more opportunities for advancement that don't end in a tenure-track faculty job, and more respect for their contributions to science. And, critically, do a better job of explaining what the true academic job market is like.

posted July 1, 2010 04:40 PM in Simply Academic | permalink