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Brief programming note

2009/04/28

So the alien cupcakes seem to be a big hit. I’m thinking I’ll include a gratuitous image of baked goods in every post from now on. I have no problems bribing you folks with frosting.

But for now, I’ll just comment on the NY Times column about the current PhD situation. I haven’t been tempted by the siren call of extra letters before or after my name much since my first few years of college. Part of that is simply not really wanting to get so focused in on one tiny little aspect of something and being stuck with that for a large part of my professional life. At twenty whatever that just seems like an enormous collection of doors closing to go “I’m going to research the reaction of an 18th century family to a bedbug infestation” for the next 3-5 years. Yarg. Also, I don’t think a PhD is necessary for some fields, especially if you’re not interested in going for tenure or in turning into the typical “old white guy with an attitude”. A PhD shouldn’t be used to bludgeon everyone around you with misguided management ideas or proclamations of “This is how it works” in fields COMPLETELY UNRELATED TO THE PHD. It’s like all those extra letters are somehow crammed in your ears and over your eyes, leaving you completely oblivious to the world around you. It should be a sign to the world that you are willing to go out into the world and search for answers, search for questions; not the zenith (or close to it) where it’s all just a downward spiral to complacency and mind-numbing committee meetings. 

The piece touched on a lot of things that I’ve noticed over the last few years of my time at major land grant universities. I’m not quite convinced about the problem areas instead of departments — you still have to be able to get the core knowledge for a field. But mostly, universities should teach you to think and to learn. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the university experience is for everyone and that it should be for everyone. The race for the bottom just leaves us with garbage like Hole in the Wall. There needs to be a shift in the culture to value technical skills as well as academics. And a second shift to avoid situations like this:

Alternatively, I think that I would try the Heisenberg faculty principle, meaning that you cannot know both whether the faculty member can meet with you and how soon they will come up with a conflict for an already-scheduled meeting.

from Neurotopia (although I do appreciate the application of scientific principles to the wackaloonery of professors). And a third shift to handle the changes in the culture from guy supported by spouse at home so he’s free to pursue tenure to a system that can handle child care and elder care and the understanding that not everyone aspires to be an old white guy. That’s really very difficult to do for a lot of us. 

Here’s hoping Obama’s promise to spend 3% of the GDP on research holds up. And that someday, that percentage goes up.

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