I find it beneficial to find someone in my tribe who is just a little bit further along in their journey than I am. These tribe members act like pathfinders by looking back on their own path and, with a certain amount of introspection, let me know about pitfalls or advice that can help me on my journey.
I have gathered a virtual group of recently graduated (graduate) students to act as our pathfinders. In this series of posts, you will hear their thoughts on questions that either graduate students have asked me or I have even wondered myself.
How can you participate in the conversation?
- Post your thoughts in the comments. If you’ve recently graduated, make sure to include that in your response.
- Email me directly.
- Share this post using the social media buttons to expand its reach.
I have read quite a bit about what academia thinks is its biggest challenge. The articles I’ve found are very much focused on the undergraduate arena. Albeit, many topics such as inclusion and diversity impact everyone on a college campus. Because our pathfinders are former graduate students, I asked them their perspective:
What do you see as academia’s biggest challenge from the grad student perspective?
Training graduate students on what the next steps can be. Academia, industry, and entrepreneurship are some of the options.
Too much weight is given to the figure of the advisor. For some people that works well because their advisors are mentors in the real sense, not just research-focused. For most people this is not true, so professional development in the broad sense (job applications, documents preparation, scientific writing, grant writing, etc.) should be available, accessible, and encouraged through the university for everyone regardless of who their advisor is.
Stress from the unpredictable timeline of graduation due to the nature of research and pressure of looking for a job as an international in the US.
I think the biggest challenge is to keep an open mind and a big vision. It is especially challenging since for doctoral research, we are exploring a very specific topic in great depth.
There are many challenges, and the biggest one depends on the person. I would like to name a few:
- High uncertainty and unpredictableness.
- Small (academic) job market after graduation.
- Harsh lab environment: some PI’s treat the graduate students like slaves.
- Some PI’s are not really good at research or development, but their marketing skills are exceptional.
Rising above the noise. It seems there is such an emphasis on publishing, but there is so much that gets published, even in very good journals, that is just not good–from poorly written, to poor science, to science that is either not novel or so specific it is worthless. It makes finding quality work frustrating.
I also have received and heard of quite critical and unnecessarily acrimonious reviews, which in addition to preventing or delaying the publication of potentially useful research can discourage graduate students and early career researchers, not by making them question the value of their work, but by causing them to question whether it is worth trying to do good work when the peer review process is so variable.
I have known multiple talented graduate students who were dissuaded from an academic career because they were frustrated with the peer review process they experienced publishing papers and didn’t want to enter a career where publishing, funding, promotion, and tenure were based on a peer review process. In my opinion, this significant loss of talent in academia is unfortunate, and I mourn the research they will now never do and the students whose lives they will never change because the judged the uncertainty of an academic career too great a risk.
Recognizing that there is more to a person than their research output or their time in the lab.
There’s a lot to unpack here and there will be future posts that devote more time to these ideas. Here are some of my thoughts after compiling all of this together:
According to our pathfinders, the PIs you work with have a lot of control over your academic environment. Make sure to spend time finding a research group/PI that fits with the environment you need to flourish. I’m hopeful that in time, the survival of the fittest model will filter out PIs that create toxic environments.
Funding and the Job Market
The law of supply and demand seems to not apply to academia (or hasn’t yet). Schools generate more and more graduates with advanced degrees but the number of (academic) jobs is not increasing at the same rate. Since the Great Recession, university research funding, as well as university funding of faculty positions, has yet to recover. The result is a lot of people advanced degrees with minimal academic job prospects.
When I visit college campuses (as a mom of a high school senior, I’ve done many college visits within the last year), I hear a lot about the resources and training available for undergraduates to step into the job market. Our pathfinders have highlighted the need for these services for graduate students. (Or increased visibility of the ones that exist).
I had an interesting conversation with a non-academic about the peer-review process. Their position was that the “peer-review process provides constructive feedback on work so that the final product is its best”. After wiping up the coffee I spit out, I patiently explained that the gap between the “expectations” and “reality” of the peer-review process feels like the Grand Canyon, or maybe distance to the moon.
The process is overwhelmed by the number of papers submitted for publication and ripe for abuse by some with less altruistic leanings. When you factor in that careers are decided by publication record, an anonymous individual has enormous power over another. Follow the #AcademicTwitter hashtag for even a few days and you’ll see how the peer-review process is one of academia’s biggest challenges.
Chris Cloney graduated in April 2018 with a
Francesca Bernardi is a Dean’s Post-Doctoral Scholar in the Department of Mathematics at Florida State University. Her research focuses on wastewater filtering and porous media. She received a Ph.D. in Mathematics and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018. She is the co-founder of Girls Talk Math – a free day camp for female and gender non-conforming high school students interested in Mathematics and Media. She is part of the Leadership Board at 500 Women Scientists – a non-profit grassroots organization aimed at making science more open, inclusive, and accessible. @fra_berni
Shahrouz Mohaghe earned a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State
Kimberly Stevens graduated with a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Brigham Young University in December of 2018. She is now a Lillian Gilbreth Postdoctoral Fellow in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University.
Taylor Killian graduated from Harvard with a Masters in Computational Science in 2017 and worked for at MIT Lincoln Laboratory for two years as part of his fellowship program. He is now in a Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto where he’ll work at the intersection of Machine Learning and Healthcare. @tw_killian Linkedin Github