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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, June 06, 2003

Hungry Like the Five of Wands

The academic-politics posts have generated a surprising amount of interest (surprising to me, anyway), so I probably ought to continue with the general theme, and take up the role and purpose of the academy, or some such. But it's the last week of classes here, so I've got a big stack of papers that need grading right now, so that will have to wait until next week.

In the absence of long posts about academia, I should probably dash off a quick snarky post about something political, but have you looked at the front page of the Post today? It's the last day of classes here, and I'm not up for dealing with anything that damn depressing.

Thus, I leave you with The 80's Tarot:

That big snake painted up the side of your body is smearing in the tropical heat. It's too damn sticky to be wearing a felt fedora. Someone has been smoking your little Egyptian cigarettes without asking. And you've got conjunctivitis, probably from sharing eyeliner. My, my, my, the little day-to-day troubles of being Duran Duran.

(via Long Story, Short Pier).

Posted at 8:50 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Grad School Psychology

Another thing that I found interesting in the recent discussion of the academic job market has been the emphasis on student self-delusion. It pops up in the post I linked below, it came up in the Brad DeLong post that originally led me to the Invisible Adjunct, and it came up again in the comment section. The basic problem is pretty well summed up by a comment from the article linked below, regarding the statistic that only one student in every five entering English grad school will eventually end up in a tenure-track job, and notes that

[E]very bright and overachieving undergraduate tends to think, "I'll be one of the 1s, and not one of the other 4s" (which line of magical thinking is all too often actively encouraged and fostered by undergraduate advisors).

This probably is a real problem-- Lord knows, there are a lot of people who head off to graduate or professional school who shouldn't be there-- but it struck me as mildly surprising because, when student psychology gets discussed here, we usually end up talking about the opposite problem. It's a common enough problem to have acquired a name: the Impostor Syndrome.

The basic idea extends to all manner of situations, but it's easy to understand how it afflicts graduate students. The people who go to grad school, after all, tend to be the big fish in their home ponds-- as noted above, they think of themselves as one of the "1"'s, not one of the "N-1" when it comes time to figure odds of success. They're very bright, generally very motivated people, and often stand out from the crowd. And for many of them, it comes as a shock to find themselves surrounded by people who are every bit as bright and motivated as they are. On top of that, the course work gets much harder, very quickly.

Adding to the problem is that college teaches you, in part, to be good at hiding gaps in your knowledge. If you don't know what in hell an exam question is asking, you learn tricks to sort of talk your way around it, and scam some partial credit. What you absolutely don't do is admit that you have no idea what the question is asking. Admitting that you don't know something becomes extraordinarily difficult.

This creates a situation in which bright, capable people end up thinking of themselves as total frauds. Think about it from the student end: You're faced with difficult material, and you don't fully understand it, but don't want to let on that you don't understand. And what's worse, you're surrounded by other bright, capable people, who aren't admitting any gaps in knowledge, either. It's easy to end up believing that everybody else understands perfectly, and you're the only one who doesn't get it, and you really don't belong. In reality, of course, everybody else is just as confused as you are, and many of them are similarly convinced that they're the impostor in the program. This is something we actually take pains to counsel our grad-school-bound students about, to warn them against feeling completely inferior.

Whenever this topic gets mentioned, it's always fun to watch the heads bobbing in unison, as all the PhD's in the room recall their first year or two of grad school. I know it hit me, hard, especially when I ended up with a horrible score on my qualifying exams, and had to take an oral exam to be allowed to continue. Even passing that didn't convince me-- I continued to think I was a complete fraud for another two or three years.

I can just about put my finger on the exact moment when the Impostor Syndrome broke, for me. I wandered into my immediate supervisor's office to find him engaged in an arcane debate with Bill Phillips about some aspect of photon scattering from a Bose-Einstein Condensate (the details don't really matter). The Nobel was still a year or more in the future, but I didn't need dynamite money to be in awe of Bill, so it was a bit of a shock to have him turn to me, state the problem, and ask what I thought.

Even more surprising was that I actually managed to answer the question. It wasn't a stunningly brilliant insight, or anything, but I caught a point where they had been sweeping an assumption under the rug (it had to do with the number of photons involved in the process), and addressing that wound up clearing up the problem. That was probably the first point when I realized that I had more to offer than a pair of hands to tweak up the lasers in the lab. It didn't dispel the "I'm a great big fraud" feelings overnight, or anything, but it started the process.

Of course, there's no reason to believe that the impostor effect and the sort of delusions of grandeur mentioned elsewhere are mutually exclusive phenomena. College students are a mass of conflicting and contradictory neuroses, and some of the people feeling like impostors are bound to be right-- even a blind paranoid will find the occasional real conspiracy. Or something.

I just find it sort of interesting that we're putting time into building our students up to avoid crushing feelings of inferiority, while elsewhere people are lamenting the impossibility of convincing students that they aren't among the lucky few who will make good in the end. As noted previously, the stakes aren't quite as high in my corner of the academy (if nothing else, the employment options for a physics PhD extend outside the academy), but in a lame chemistry joke sense, I suppose we're part of the precipitate...

I also wonder how much this has to do with the grad student attrition problem the folks over at the Invisible Adjunct are so concerned about. Though addressing the impostor problem would only make the PhD glut worse, so maybe we shouldn't go there...

Posted at 10:41 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

There But For the Grace of God...

On a sort of vaguely related note (read the above post first), I have another reason for being leery of steering people away from grad school. Yes, it's true that only one in every N students entering graduate school will end up with good jobs (only a fraction will even finish the program they start in), but I'm not entirely convinced that we as faculty can really predict which students will end up being 1's, and which will end up in the N-1's.

My reasons for doubting this are largely personal. I'm one of the lucky few, at this point-- I have a tenure-track job at a respectable liberal arts college (not in the very top rank of schools, but in the upper reaches of the US News rankings). I got here without having to go the visiting faculty route, let alone having to suffer through adjunct teaching positions.

I'm not at all convinced, though, that any of my professors would've believed I'd end up with a good tenure-track job, back in the day. I know for a fact that one of them thought I was a complete idiot.

And you know, presented with an identical transcript from one of my current students, I'm not sure I'd believe it, either. I wasn't a stellar performer in college, and ran basically a B+ average over four years (slightly above the median, thanks to grade inflation), with some fairly dubious grades early on (rugby took a certain toll...). I didn't really apply myself very much until junior year (roughly), and even after that I was (and remain) easily distracted. I wound up with horrible scores on the Physics GRE, and didn't even come close to having the grades to get into one of the very top graduate programs.

I caught a bunch of lucky breaks after that. My undergrad advisor had worked with the Laser Cooling Group at NIST, and I ended up getting a fellowship from the Chemical Physics Program at Maryland. I ended up with a simply fantastic group at NIST, and got put on a project that worked out well for me. I got a good postdoc because AMO physics is a small world, and I got an interview for my current position (despite not having much teaching experience) in part because the then chair of the department had done a sabbatical at NIST, and knew me. I got the job because I gave one of the two or three best research talks of my life during my interview visit, and that overrode my lack of experience in the minds of the rest of the faculty.

So here I sit, a former B+ student who was better known for drunken loutishness than scholarly accomplishments as an undergrad (on learning my nickname, one of the students I TA'ed exclaimed "You're him>?!?"), but now the holder a tenure-track faculty position. God knows, I still have my share of impostor moments.

The whole thing has left me with a fine sense of the absurd, but also a certain reluctance to write off hard-partying B students. After all, a few breaks down the line, and come 2013, they could be sitting where I'm sitting...

Posted at 10:38 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

So, You Want to Go to Graduate School?

The Invisible Adjunct has a new post on graduate school, specifically talking about a recent "Thomas H. Benton" column which opens:

"Don't go to graduate school."

"But ... I burn with an intense, gemlike flame for Victorian poetry."

"Don't go."

"But ... I'm sure I'd love teaching."

"Why are you really considering graduate school?"

"Well, to be perfectly honest, I majored in English, and I can't find a job -- at least not one that pays anything or has health benefits. I'm thinking I can hide out in grad school until the economy gets better, and, hey, if I really like it, I can just become a professor, right?"

Hmm. Should I repress a long, low, bitter laugh? Or do I give this misguided youth the facts I wish I had when I was in the same predicament in 1990?

You can pretty much guess where it's going from there.

This is a topic that's been much on my mind recently, partly from reading the Invisible Adjunct, but mostly because I've had to think a lot about what advice to give to the students who've been working for me recently. I have a colleague who enthusiastically urges every student coming through the department to go immediately on to graduate school, but personally, I'm sort of torn.

It's important to note up front, however, that graduate school in the sciences is vastly different than graduate school in the humanities. For one thing, nobody in physics pays to go to graduate school-- in fact, one of the concrete bits of advice I do feel secure in giving on the subject is "If they won't waive tuition for you, don't go." Tuition waivers are granted almost as a matter of course.

The other big difference is in the area of support. As with the humanities, teaching assistantships are plentiful in physics (somebody has to run the labs for the hundreds of pre-meds that big universities pump out), and most grad students in physics support themselves for the first couple of years with TA positions. After that, though, the funding generally switches over to a research assistantship (RA) format. Some senior graduate students will continue to TA, for extra money, or for experience, but particularly in experimental physics, most senior grad students are paid for doing research.

It's hard to overstate the significance of this difference-- in the humanities, as I understand things, RA jobs are extremely rare. Humanities students have to do research to produce a thesis, but they have to teach classes in order to support themselves, which, in many cases, pushes the thesis work aside. In physics (and most other hard sciences, as I understand it), you're generally paid to do research in a professor's laboratory-- research that will eventually be part of your thesis. You're paid to be a student, and not forced into the low-wage grind of doing the job of the faculty for lower wages and no benefits.

(This is largely why the graduate-student unionization movement has significant trouble making inroads in the sciences. When I was a post-doc at Yale, a couple of union members came around trying to recruit the student who was working on my project, and we discovered that the base salary the union was demanding would've been a $1,500 pay cut for the students in our lab...)

So, graduate school in the hard sciences is intrinsically different than graduate school in the humanities. It's not entirely idyllic-- the hours are still very long, and the pay still sucks-- but my memories of grad school don't look a whole lot like what Benton and the Adjunct describe.

On the other hand, though, some of what they say still holds true. Graduate school, even when you're getting paid to be there, isn't for everyone. In particular, you should only go to graduate school if you really, truly, deeply want to be a professional researcher. Science grad school isn't a hellish experience, but it's not a path to great riches, either, and it's not that great as a fall-back plan for those who don't know what to do with their lives. Quoting Benton again:

Also, remember that most grad students start out as dilettantes, thinking they'll just hang out for a few years on a stipend. But eventually they become completely invested in the profession, unable to envision themselves doing anything else. A few years can become a decade or more. Meanwhile, everyone else is beginning their adult lives while you remain trapped in permanent adolescence.

This isn't any rosier a scenario in physics than in English Literature, and we do have our share of eternal adolescents.

The academic job market is another major area of concern-- indeed, it's the focus of the original pieces, which point out the alarming statistic that only 20% of students who enter a graduate program in the humanities will eventually end up in a tenure-track academic job. The same problem faces science students-- another article cited by the Adjunct provides the factoid that only 24% of recent science PhD's at the University of Washington have landed tenure-track jobs-- but there are more jobs in industry and other non-academic sectors for those whose PhD's are in the sciences than those in the humanities. (Indeed, in the specific case of physics, it's actually quite difficult to land a job without going to graduate school.)

Having laid out the difference between the field, of course, I still need to address the question of what to say to a student who's considering grad school. A lot of the arguments made regarding the humanities still apply, albeit in a somewhat weaker form (conditions not being nearly so miserable in the sciences).

On yet another hand, though, I'm not entirely happy with the idea of telling people not to go to grad school. For one thing, it's really hard to get a job working in physics without at least some grad school. For another, there is something to the argument made by my grad-school pushing colleague, namely that if students don't go right out of college, they're not likely to ever do it. If you get a Real Job and spend a few years making Real Money, it can be really hard to go back to subsistence-level wages and long hours in the lab. Particularly if you have acquire a family to support along the way.

On some level, the advice I'd really like to be able to give is best summed up by a commenter at the Invisible Adjunct, who writes:

I cannot recommend highly enough that anyone considering humanities graduate school straight out of college work abandon this notion. Instead, the aspiring academic should work for two years and then apply.

A lot of students would really benefit from a little time off, and gain a bit of perspective that will prove useful down the road. And a couple of years of earning a respectable salary can make graduate school a lot more tolerable. The best option would be to get a one or two-year position in a research lab someplace, and use that experience to determine whether you really want to spend your life doing that sort of work, before committing to graduate school for five or six years. The problem is that , a few notable exceptions aside, those positions are hard to come by.

I don't know. This is a topic I've been wrestling with, inconclusively, for a good while now, and I see no signs of an impending resolution. It's remarkably easy to get obsessed with this sort of thing, and remarkably difficult to reach any kind of conclusion, which means that you'll probably be subjected to several more rambling and inconclusive blog posts on the topic before I give it up.

Posted at 3:40 PM | link | follow-ups | 32 comments

Monday, June 02, 2003

John Hiatt in Concert

Friday afternoon, I came back from a meeting and found a message from Kate on my voice mail. "John Hiatt is playing a solo show in Troy tonight. Do we want to get tickets?" (Well, OK, she didn't actually speak the hyperlink...)

The answer was obviously yes, so a few hours later, we were at the Troy Music Hall, which, oddly, sits atop a savings bank in downtown Troy. It's apparently famous for having great acoustics (not that I had heard of it, other than the occasional tv spot), and they get a decent variety of acts there. It's not a large venue-- the posted seating capacity is 1,253-- but it's a nice spot for a small show.

Hiatt has a new album out (Beneath This Gruff Exterior) with The Goners (one of many bands he's used over the years), but he's playing a handful of solo acoustic shows before setting off on tour with the band. Hence, the Troy Music Hall-- John Hiatt's been in the music business for something close to thirty years, but he's not a name that will fill a stadium. As a solo act in an intimate setting, though, he's a good draw-- the hall was pretty well full.

The opening act was an Earnest Young Folksinger from Australia, also doing an acoustic set, but accompanied, weirdly enough, by his father on harmonica (bet that's a wild tour bus...). His songs were a competent if uninspired attempt to do some sort of Bob Dylan/ David Gray/ Ryan Adams thing, and were basically inoffensive. He had a thing for dramatic... pauses in the middle of his lyrics that bugged Kate, but other than that, he was a fine opening act.

At shows featuring opening acts, it's always interesting to note the contrast between the headliner and the Very Special Guest, and I don't think I've seen a stronger contrast at any of the shows I've been to. Not in terms of competence (though Hiatt is a much more accomplished guitarist, and it was impressive to hear what a range of sound he could get with just an acoustic guitar and a pickup arrangement to amplify stomps on the floor), but in attitude. The Earnest Young Australian was clearly very nervous-- he barely managed to introduce his songs, and laughed nervously at his own attempts at stage patter. You got the feeling that, if he were to flub a line, his head might explode.

John Hiatt, on the other hand, was all relaxed confidence. He admitted that he was "pretty much winging it" for the solo acoustic shows, and seemed utterly unfazed by anything that happened. He took a couple of requests from the audience, bantered cheerfully with people who shouted things up to the stage, and flubbed the lyrics to a couple of songs-- most notably, forgetting the opening to "Georgia Rae," a song written about his daughter, which he decided to play in honor of her fifteenth birthday. Happily, somebody in the audience knew the opening, and got him started, whereupon he proceeded to modify the lyrics on the fly to account for the fact that she's no longer an infant. This is what comes of thirty years in the business (and with the number of songs he's written, he's allowed to forget a few lyrics here and there...). He played and talked for close to two hours, doing twenty-odd songs (making this one of the best shows I've ever been to, on a "cost per song" basis), and was completely at ease for the whole thing.

Another side effect of thirty years in the music business is that, despite owning most of the man's albums, I didn't immediately recognize a bunch of the songs in the set list. This was partly due to the fact that it was tilted heavily toward stuff from the new album (which we bought at the show), but mostly just because it was a solo acoustic show, and that's what you expect from a solo acoustic show. He played new songs, re-worked old songs, threw in the odd album track, and told long funny stories about the meaning of the songs, and how all the troubles of the world can be traced to good coffee and bad pastry. He even included one as-yet-unrecorded song, which is probably called "Meet Me in the Morning," unless he decides that's too much of a Dylan reference.

Having heard the new record, it's also clearer to me why he's doing solo shows now, after releasing a record with, you know, electric guitars and stuff. The "winging it" tone of the show actually fits pretty well with the tone of the album. It's a very... casual sort of record, with songs that don't try too hard to be anything in particular. There's one track about the joy of walking his dog, another singing the praises of diner food, and some just generally goofy material. But it sounds like they had fun recording it, and he sure seemed to be having fun playing it.

The new record is good, and the show was excellent. If you see either in your neighborhood, you could do much worse that to buy it.

Posted at 8:03 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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