Two Research Careers: A Fable For Grad Students
    By Fred Phillips | November 5th 2009 05:18 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Let me describe two very different academic careers.


    Dr. X chose a Ph.D. advisor with a reputation for being not very demanding. Now Dr. X’s every effort is aimed at maximizing his publication record. He and his friends from grad school conspired to become junior editorial board members at good journals, and to recommend each other’s papers for publication. He chats up and proposes co-authorships to senior journal editors. His papers make for marginal advances in knowledge (for example, a new statistical test that, in certain situations, provides 1% more power than earlier tests) or no advance at all (e.g., using an opportunity sample of unknown quality to test a proposition that is already blindingly obvious to industry practitioners. Of course, Dr. X calls it a “hypothesis.”)

    Indeed, a really big or good research idea could rock the departmental boat, and Dr. X would never do that; he is an organization man. He also understands that it’s easier to publish a paper in a currently popular research stream. Pioneering a new problem area might mean struggling to get a paper published; it fails Dr. X’s cost-benefit test.

    On the contrary, he did his graduate work in a particular methodology, and all his papers are applications or minor extensions of this methodology. He knows the limitations of this approach – if your only tool is a hammer, then all problems look like a nail – but he also knows that if you pound down enough nails, you become known as The Hammer Guy, and then no one will ever write an article about hammers (or mallets or gavels, for that matter) without citing your earlier papers.

    By pandering to students rather than challenging them, Dr. X compiles a file of good teaching evaluations. Using the momentum of his publication and teaching record, he jumps from university to university – some of them prestigious institutions – before any of the schools notices that Dr. X is neither creating nor transmitting very much knowledge. In the same way, X builds some industry consulting income. His clients benefit from the reflected prestige of Dr. X’s university’s name, and from the people Dr. X can introduce them to. Not surprisingly, they receive no substantial or incisive advice from Dr. X himself.

    His network of co-authors and alumni act as enablers in this charade.

    X would never dream of working outside academe.  His goal is a comfortable life with a good income.  He has mastered the academic game, he plays it consistently, and he achieves his goal.

    His real success factors were his people skills and salesmanship. He would have done very well selling computers. He chose academe, instead, because it seemed easier, and probably less cyclical economically.


    <!--[if !supportLists]-->1.     <!--[endif]-->What adjectives would you use to describe Dr. X?

    <!--[if !supportLists]-->2.     <!--[endif]-->Dr. X has enjoyed certain career satisfactions.  Do you hope for rewards in your own career that go beyond Dr. X’s?  If so, list/mention some of them.

    <!--[if !supportLists]-->3.     <!--[endif]-->Is a career like Dr. X’s achievable in today’s environment of unstable government funding for education and research?  If so, in what kinds of universities?

    <!--[if !supportLists]-->4.     <!--[endif]-->What would be some features of an alternative kind of academic career, i.e., one that is more adventurous and less self-serving, but still rewarding?


    Like Dr. X, Dr. Y enjoys people and never needlessly antagonizes them. Unlike X, though, Y marches to his own drummer. He loves to learn of industrial and social problems that are real, costly, and interesting. He attacks them with multiple methodologies. Once or twice he has even invented a new methodology for dealing with novel problems – or with old, heretofore intractable problems.

    Dr. Y’s quirky and original research creates conflicts with some journal editors, but its rigor and unarguable acceptance by industry means that ultimately it gets published. If it’s not always in “A” journals, Dr. Y is not bothered overmuch. Dr. Y’s colleagues seek him out as co-author because of his creativity and his orientation to practical and real-world issues. For his part, Dr. Y seeks out collaborators on the basis of their complementary research talents and what they can bring to bear on the problem at hand.

    He once asked Dr. X for access to a data set used in one of X’s papers, and was refused, to his bewilderment. Y trusts and values intellectual diversity; he knows he will not see quite the same truths in a given data set that his colleagues will. There’s plenty of grist for everybody’s publication mill, he believes. Furthermore, he thinks that a person who has one good idea in his life will surely have two or more good ideas; there’s no need to jealously guard data to prevent others from publishing analyses of it. “Trust your creativity!” is his motto. Dr. Y is a careful analyst. However, if a colleague, using Y’s data, finds an error in Y’s analysis, that’s wonderful! It advances science the way it’s supposed to be advanced, and it opens new opportunities for investigation, for Y and for others.

    When Dr. Y is working for a state university, or on a government grant, he is aware that he owes his livelihood to the taxpayers. For this reason, and due to his native idealism, he wants to work on important problems that are in the national interest or that alleviate human suffering. His expertise on some of these “big problem” areas have led to invitations to serve on NSF review panels, and even to some Washington job offers which he is considering.

    Due to his practical interests, Dr. Y has, earlier, taken breaks from academic life to work in industry. (This has slowed his “career advancement” in both sectors. However, that kind of advancement has not been central to Dr. Y’s values, so he doesn’t mind.) He is now bemused to find that the world has come to see the value of cross-sectoral dialog; university president searches, for example, now favor candidates who have worked in at least two of industry, government and academe. “Marching to his own drummer,” it seems, may really have been a subconscious prescience about the future of education and research.


    <!--[if !supportLists]-->1.     <!--[endif]-->Dr. Y’s approach seems appropriate for the educational environment of the future.  Is it too extreme for the present moment?  If so, how would you, as a new doctoral graduate, strategize your career for these transitional times?

    <!--[if !supportLists]-->2.     <!--[endif]-->Dr. Y’s career seems to show a theme, but not much of a plan.  Can you suggest a way to add structure to a “Type Y” career to increase its effectiveness and reward?


    Gerhard Adam
    This is really just a thinly disguised "Tortoise and the Hare", right? :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Dude, that is like asking to have a joke's punchline explained just to make sure that you are laughing for the right reasons.
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm just trying to understand.  According to the story Dr. Y is in constant motion and even accelerating which according to Einstein's "Fear of Relatives" means that he warps the space and those around him.  If this warping becomes severe enough he will tend to suck Dr. X into his sphere of influence, until they all collapse into a singularity from which all the knowledge will eventually explode with a big bang.  Does that about sum it up?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Fred Phillips
    X is not equal to Y is not equal to Hawking. The tip-off was the "industry consulting" part. Hawking doesn't do industry consulting, far as I know. Nor did Einstein. Oh wait, that new Silicon Valley start-up that's going to compete with wind power by tapping the cosmic background radiation, maybe they'll hire Hawking to consult.

    Geez, guys, I tried to give this story a higher ambiguity coefficient than the tortoise&hare tale, but do you mean to say...?

    Apropos, though, Gerhard, former star General Electric CEO Jack Welch has just started his own graduate business school. This is the guy whose nickname is "Neutron Jack." No, really, look him up. Neutron star, black hole, singularity - close relatives, right?
    For me Dr X+Y would be the way to go.  It would be best to not only know how to play the game, but be good at playing it through strength.  Dr. Y has real talent, whereas Dr X is good at making people think they have talent.  What good is being good at what you do, if no one knows you are doing it?  I mean no one, to the point where you have no job.   Dr X knows how to promote themself, Dr y does not need promotion as much, but could still benefit from it.  
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    I would say both careers are self-serving, "X"'s to his career wishes and "Y"'s to his inner scientist.  Most "Y"'s don't choose their path as a conscious act of bucking the system, but because that's just how they're wired.

    I love your eminantly quotable bit here:
    if your only tool is a hammer, then all problems look like a nail – but
    he also knows that if you pound down enough nails, you become known as
    The Hammer Guy, and then no one will ever write an article about
    hammers (or mallets or gavels, for that matter) without citing your
    earlier papers.
    Unfortunately, I'm not seeing Tortoise and Hare.  Perhaps Ant and Grasshopper... the ant has down the method for long, continual progression in the field, while the grasshopper is taking the route they find more fulfilling, only to find that as winter comes (or grants get scarce and academia positions become fewer), they are left in the cold.

    I know too many "Y"s that have left the field because they don't want to settle into path X, but you know, you can't eat values.

    Alex, the starving Daytime Astronomer
    Becky Jungbauer
    Re: tortoise and hare, and ant and grasshopper... I'm not seeing any animals here. I see two possible extremes of the academic world, although I knew more Xs than Ys. I think your placement on the spectrum depends on where you are in your career, among other factors. Besides, there are plenty of examples of douchebags like X that are self-serving but unlike X contribute real advances - Watson, for example.
    X and Y?  You get the whole Alphabet in PETIT POINT — A Candid Portrait on the Aberrations of Science by Pierre-Gilles de Gennes (Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1991).  It has a series of characters, most with wonderful names such as # Smirnoff # Pluvieux # Béziers # Kuba # ... there's even a Robert, but I won't tell you what he's like.

    The link is to a summary by the publisher, World Scientific.  But for those who want to go straight to their favourite bookseller, the ISBNs are 9812560114(paperback)  9812563067(ebook).

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    It all depends on what you want.

    Playing the game is financially more sound. If you care about money, then I would suggest taking this route. Note, once people catch on, chances are you will have no respect in your field.

    Danna Staaf
    Great food for thought--this little grad student thanks you! Before I could start thinking about your questions, though, I was captivated by the curious concept that both men* demonstrated ample people skills:
    [Dr. X's] real success factors were his people skills and salesmanship . . . Like Dr. X, Dr. Y enjoys people and never needlessly antagonizes them.
    The stereotypical research scientist does not enjoy people, and needlessly (perhaps unintentionally) antagonizes them all the time. Whether one considers this stereotype to have any basis in reality probably depends on one's personal experience. However, the view presented in the fable, that people skills are a fundamental aspect of success, flies in the face of at least some academic experience.

    I realize this was written to illustrate a particular dichotomy (which it does very nicely), not to represent the entirety of academe. But if I were to answer honestly the final question: "How would you, as a new doctoral graduate, strategize your career for these transitional times?" I would have to say: "By ditching academia."

    *That they are both men didn't jump out at me at all, until I typed the word. It's just an accurate representation of academia.
    Fred Phillips

    My models here (though both X and Y are composites) were management professors, who are as a class perhaps less congenitally introverted than other academics.

    There’s a big however, however. As one becomes a senior academic in any field, it’s necessary to become a sales(wo)man, pitching projects to NSF, NIH, and John and Jane Q. Donor. It’s what gets one promoted to full professor, and it pays the salaries of RAs and postdocs. So eventually we all need to develop sales and people skills.

    And those of us who hang around ScientificBlogging obviously crave some human contact, even of the vicarious, online kind.

    Speaking for myself, I was a total quant jock when I entered the workforce. Working with our clients – brand management and advertising people, and even salespeople – opened my “right brain.” It was a new challenge. I enjoyed it and understood it was a needed kind of maturation.

    When I re-entered academe, I was naively shocked that business faculty distrusted anyone who had actually been in business (!) and had the temerity to try to join their ranks, even though I had been publishing steadily as a corporate research manager. I had to fight for acceptance, over the course of many years, mostly through publishing like mad and being a good research collaborator. This was a chance to exercise those people skills!

    If there’s anything different now than then, it’s that younger people’s career experience will be “multiple everything.” You will deal with research in multiple disciplines, perhaps work in multiple sectors, perhaps change careers entirely several times over the course of your working life. Go ahead and ditch academics for now, if you want, but there’s a good chance you’ll come back later. Maybe two or three times.

    BTW, the academic job market, at least in my fields, seems to be bouncing back for fall, 2010 after a miserable 2009, so don’t ditch academics just because 2009 was discouraging.

    Yes, both X and Y are portrayed as men, but they are composites of my male and female acquaintances, and I didn’t want readers (as a statistician would say) to confound gender effects with the character effects I was trying to delineate.
    Danna Staaf
    You're probably right! After a year or five, I'll miss all the good bits of academia, and start poking my nose back in, looking for post-docs. Right now, though, I've found I have so much more fun communicating science than wrestling with research. So after graduation, I'm going to try my hand at science writing.

    The story I've heard about re-entry is that faculty distrust anyone who hasn't stayed in academia continuously since grad school, no matter what they did with their "time off"--work in business, raise a family, volunteer in Peace Corps. I hope that's changing now, but I don't really know what the data look like?

    It does make sense that all senior academics would need to develop people skills to get their projects off the ground. But they could theoretically choose to apply these skills exclusively to funding situations, while continuing to ignore and/or abuse their underlings, free of consequence.

    Probably happens only infrequently, but it would be nice if infrequent were never.
    Fred Phillips
    p.s. Have you read Manifold Time, by Stephen Baxter? Interesting sci fi novel, the heroine is a Caribbean reef squid. -fp

    Danna Staaf
    Oh, and! This is now on my wish-list. Sounds awesome. =)