Tag Archives: Career Advice

Paradigm Shifts and “The Scourge of Bibliometrics”

Yesterday, I attended an insightful talk by A.J. Leggett at the APS March Meeting entitled Reflection on the Past, Present and Future of Condensed Matter Physics. The talk was interesting in two regards. Firstly, he referred to specific points in the history of condensed matter physics that resulted in (Kuhn-type) paradigm shifts in our thinking of condensed matter. Of course these paradigm shifts were not as violent as special relativity or quantum mechanics, so he deemed them “velvet” paradigm shifts.

This list, which he acknowledged was personal, consisted of:

  1. Landau’s theory of the Fermi liquid
  2. BCS theory
  3. Renormalization group
  4. Fractional quantum hall effect

Notable absentees from this list were superfluidity in 3He, the integer quanutm hall effect, the discovery of cuprate superconductivity and topological insulators. He argued that these latter advances did not result in major conceptual upheavals.

He went on to elaborate the reasons for these velvet revolutions, which I enumerate to correspond to the list above:

  1. Abandonment of microscopic theory, in particular with the use of Landau parameters; trying to relate experimental properties to one another with the input of experiment
  2. Use of an effective low-energy Hamiltonian to describe phase of matter
  3. Concept of universality and scaling
  4. Discovery of quasiparticles with fractional charge

It is informative to think about condensed matter physics in this way, as it demonstrates the conceptual advances that we almost take for granted in today’s work.

The second aspect of his talk that resonated strongly with the audience was what he dubbed “the scourge of bibliometrics”. He told the tale of his own formative years as a physicist. He published one single-page paper for his PhD work. Furthermore, once appointed as a lecturer at the University of Sussex, his job was to be a lecturer and teach from Monday thru Friday. If he did this job well, it was considered a job well-done. If research was something he wanted to partake in as a side-project, he was encouraged to do so. He discussed how this atmosphere allowed him to develop as a physicist, without the requirement of publishing papers for career advancement.

Furthermore, he claimed, because of the current focus on metrics, burgeoning young scientists are now encouraged to seek out problems that they can solve in a time frame of two to three years. He saw this as a terrible trend. While it is often necessary to complete short-term projects, it is also important to think about problems that one may be able to solve in, say, twenty years, or maybe even never. He claimed that this is what is meant by doing real science — jumping into the unknown. In fact, he asserted that if he were to give any advice to graduate students, postdocs and young faculty in the audience, it would be to try to spend about 20% of one’s time committed to some of these long-term problems.

This raises a number of questions in my mind. It is well-acknowledged within the community and even the blogosphere that the focus on publication number and short term-ism within the condensed matter physics community is detrimental. Both Ross McKenzie and Doug Natelson have expressed such sentiment numerous times on their blogs as well. From speaking to almost every physicist I know, this is a consensus opinion. The natural question to ask then is: if this is the consensus opinion, why is the modern climate as such?

It seems to me like part of this comes from the competition for funding among different research groups and funding agencies needing a way to discriminate between them. This leads to the widespread use of metrics, such as h-indices and publication number, to decide whether or not to allocate funding to a particular group. This doesn’t seem to be the only reason, however. Increasingly, young scientists are judged for hire by their publication output and the journals in which they publish.

Luckily, the situation is not all bad. Because so many people openly discuss this issue, I have noticed that the there is a certain amount of push-back from individual scientists. On my recent postdoc interviews, the principal investigators were most interested in what I was going to bring to the table rather than peruse through my publication list. I appreciated this immensely, as I had spent a large part of my graduate years pursuing instrumentation development. Nonetheless, I still felt a great deal of pressure to publish papers towards the end of graduate school, and it is this feeling of pressure that needs to be alleviated.

Strangely, I often find myself in the situation working despite the forces that be, rather than being encouraged to do so. I highly doubt that I am the only one with this feeling.

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What THE WIRE Taught Me About Science

The famous HBO series, The Wire, which many have called the greatest television show of all time (e.g. here and here), has a lot to say about urban decay, race relations, and the structure of power and organizations . There is one theme that is particularly relevant to us in the sciences that The Wire profoundly addresses: the competition between careerism and good work.

In the series, many that get promoted in the hierarchical structure of the police department are not the best policemen, but the ones that are the most career-oriented. In one of the more memorable quotes on the show (even though there are so many!), Lt. Daniels says to Detective Carver, who is about to be promoted:

Couple weeks from now, you’re gonna be in some district somewhere with 11 or 12 uniforms looking to you for everything. And some of them are gonna be good police. Some of them are gonna be young and stupid. A few are gonna be pieces of shit. But all of them will take their cue from you. You show loyalty, they learn loyalty. You show them it’s about the work, it’ll be about the work. You show them some other kinda game, then that’s the game they’ll play. I came on in the Eastern, and there was a piece-of-shit lieutenant hoping to be a captain, piece-of-shit sergeants hoping to be lieutenants. Pretty soon we had piece-of-shit patrolmen trying to figure the job for themselves. And some of what happens then is hard as hell to live down. Comes a day you’re gonna have to decide whether it’s about you or about the work.

There is advice there for both advisers and students alike.

Advisers: (1) Pick students whose motivations lie in doing good work. (2) Show your students that what you do is about the work, about producing good science and not about publishing x hurried papers. (3) Help your students careers (honestly and without too much hype) when they aren’t looking (e.g. nominate them for awards, talk them up when you get the chance, etc.).

Students: (1) The adviser you pick will ultimately have a strong influence on where you end up and how you think about science in general; choose wisely. (2) Ask older graduate students, postdocs and professors questions; a large part of scientific development is figuring how/where to find interesting problems. (3) Do good work: Do not cut corners, do not hurriedly publish, be thorough and do not be dishonest.

In The Wire, there is a constant battle between the higher-ranked officials in the police department (who want to bring in low-level drug dealers under pressure from even higher-ranked officials and politicians), and the lower-ranked officials (who want to work a case until the entire case is solved so that they can bring in the drug kingpin and not just low-level middlemen). Fight the pressure to publish (to the best of your ability), and publish well when you do (sorry if you can’t see the analogy here!)

Alright, I’ll get off the soapbox now and just make one last comment: I have tried my best to follow these principles in graduate school (and have not always succeeded), but I do still think The Wire outlines a simple code to follow.

In the end, even in a show as pessimistic as The Wire, often good police got promoted and did their jobs better than the career-oriented ones. It is possible to do good work and survive even in this academic climate.

Also, if you’re a fan of The Wire, I recommend reading this: http://aaronhuertas.com/2011/11/what-i-learned-from-watching-the-wire-three-times/

The Value of “Wasting Time”

Science magazine this week published an article entitled Advice to a Young Scientist. There were some encouraging words from the Pedro Miguel Echenique in this regard. A lot of career advice nowadays is really geared towards what I often refer to as “careerism”. This is the kind of advice that emphasizes ones career, but is not directly related to improving oneself scientifically.

This article highlights five points that are infrequently discussed when it comes to scientific career advice. I point out the two that are the most rarely stressed:

1) Learn Broadly: Many times, a student of science gets pigeonholed in one particular aspect of a field and cannot see the broader picture. Studying different aspects of one’s scientific discipline (or even outside that) can help open one’s eyes to other avenues of interest and also help frame one’s own work within a larger scientific context.

2) Allow Yourself to Waste Time: The point is made in the article that one should chat with one’s colleagues, enjoy a tea or coffee break, and attend seminars to stimulate one’s mind. In my own experience, talking to other scientists has been a large part of my personal scientific development and has also taught me where there are gaps in my knowledge that need to be filled.

I appreciate Echenique’s sentiment on these points, as this kind of career advice is rarely given out. Sometimes, aspects of careerism can be important, but few things can replace good scientific development and curiosity.