8 Ways to Improve the Academic System for Science and Scientists

I’ve enjoyed most of my time working in academic science in the U.S. and Germany as a graduate student, a postdoctoral researcher, a research scientist and a lecturer. I’ve benefited from supportive mentors, talented colleagues and wonderful friends. I think I’ve accomplished a lot in terms of research, teaching, political advocacy and public outreach. Based on my experience and on anecdotal evidence, the system works well in some ways but is flawed in many others, especially involve the job market and career advancement.

Reflecting on the past fifteen years, here are my current thoughts on problems with the system and ways it could be improved, with a focus on the U.S. and on the physical sciences, though the social sciences and life sciences face similar problems.

1. Let’s be honest: the academic job market is horrible. It was already pretty bad before the recession, and it is worse now. Many scientists move from institution to institution, working on many postdocs, fellowships, and other short-term jobs while seeking permanent positions or more secure funding, but these turn out to be increasingly elusive and competitive. (I worked at three positions over nine years since earning my Ph.D.) I’ve seen some tenure-track faculty positions receive well over 400 applications—I don’t envy the hiring committees there—and I’ve seen some grant proposal success rates drop well below 10%.

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D's are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

Note the trends: more and more people with Ph.D’s are going into postdocs or are unemployed. (Credit: NSF, The Atlantic)

This system causes people a lot of stress; from a societal perspective, in this situation, how well can people work under such pressure and job insecurity, and how much can they accomplish when they must perennially focus on job applications and grant proposals rather than on the things that drew them to their profession? If the scientific community wants to attract the best scientists, then shouldn’t we strive to make their jobs more desirable than they are now, with better pay and security? As Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote in the Pacific Standard, “unless the nation stops…’burning its intellectual capital’ by heedlessly using talented young people as cheap labor, the possibility of drawing the best of them back into careers as scientists will become increasingly remote.” In much the same way, the inadequate job prospects of adjunct faculty renders the possibility of drawing the best teachers and retaining them similarly small.

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

For doctorate recipients who care primarily about salary, their choice is obvious. (Credit: National Science Foundation)

People have been diagnosing these problems for years, but no clear solutions have emerged. In my opinion, the job market situation could be gradually ameliorated if many institutions simultaneously sought to improve it. In particular, I think scientists should have longer-term postdoctoral positions, such as five years rather than one, two or three. I also think faculty should hire fewer graduate students, such as one or two at a time rather than, say, five of them, regardless of how much funding they happen to have at the time.

I also think that colleges, universities, and national labs should allocate funding for more staff positions, though of course that funding has to come from somewhere, and tuition and student debt are already too high. On the other hand, some people argue that university administrations have ballooned too much over the past few decades; others argue that some universities spend too much money on their sports programs. In addition, federal funding for “basic research” (as opposed to applied research) in science should be increased, as such grants often supplement university funding.

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for "sequestration." (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

Federal funding for non-defense research & development has been pretty flat since the 1980s, except for “sequestration.” (Credit: AAAS, NSF)

2. We can considerably improve the graduate student experience as well. Many university departments and professional societies now give more information about academic career prospects to students than before, and it should be their official policy to do so. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to explore as many of their interests as possible, not just those focused on their narrow field of research. If they want to learn to teach well, or learn about computer programming, software, statistics, policy-making, or the history or philosophy or sociology of their science, or if they want to investigate interdisciplinary connections, or if they want to develop other skills, they should have the time and space to do that. Universities have many excellent resources, and students should have the opportunity to utilize them.

We know that only a fraction of graduate students will continue in academia, and the best scientists will be well-rounded and have a wide range of experience; if they move on to something else, they should be prepared and have the tools and expertise they need.

3. The scientific community can take this an important step further by acknowledging the many roles and variety of activities scientists engage in in addition to research: teaching courses, participating in outreach programs, advancing efforts to improve diversity, becoming involved in political advocacy, developing software and instrumentation that don’t necessarily result in publications, etc. Many scientists agree that we do not sufficiently value these kinds of activities even though they are necessary for the vitality and sustainability of the scientific enterprise itself. For example, in a new paper submitted to the Communicating Astronomy with the Public journal, the authors find that many astronomers think a larger fraction of their grant-funded work (up to 10%) should be allocated to education and public outreach (EPO). EPO are included among the “broader impacts” of National Science Foundation grants, but much more can be done in this regard. All of these activities should be explicitly recognized by the relevant federal agencies during the evaluation of grant proposals and by departmental hiring committees when assessing candidates for jobs and promotions.

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Distribution of percentage of research grant astronomers currently invest (blue) and suggest (yellow) to allocate into public outreach engagement. (Credit: Lisa Dang, Pedro Russo)

Therefore, a corollary follows: if the community appreciates a wider scope of activities as important components of a scientist’s job, then it is not necessary to relentlessly pursue published research papers all of the time. Perhaps this could alleviate the “publish or perish” problem, in which some scientists rush the publication of insufficiently vetted results or make provocative claims that go far beyond what their analysis actually shows. That is, endeavoring for a more open-minded view of scientists’ work could improve the quality and reliability of scientific research.

In practice, how would this be done? Scientists could organize more conferences and meetings specifically devoted to education research, outreach programs, policy developments, etc., and the proceedings should be published online. Another way a scientist’s peers could be aware of the wider scope of her non-research work would be to have different levels of publication involving them, from informal social media and blog posts to possibly peer-reviewed statements and articles that could be posted on online archives or wiki pages. For example, if she participated in an outreach project with local high school students or in Congressional visit days, she could speak or write about the experience and about what worked well with the program and then publish that presentation or statement.

Furthermore, since research projects can take years and many grueling steps to complete, often by graduate students toiling away in their offices and labs, why not reduce the pressure and recognize the interim work at intermediate stages? Some people are considering publishing a wider scope of research-related work, even including the initial idea phase. A new open-access journal, Research Ideas and Outcomes, aims to do just that. I’m not sure whether it will work, but it’s worth trying, and I hope that scientists will be honorable and cooperative and avoid scooping each other’s ideas.

On that note, as some of you know, I will make it official that I am leaving academic science. (In my next post, I will write about what I am shifting my career toward.) As a result, I will be unable to complete many of my scientific project ideas and papers, and for the few astrophysicist readers of this blog, I will not be annoyed if you run with them (but please give me proper credit). My next four projects probably would have been the following: modeling galaxy catalogs including realistic dynamics within galaxy groups and clusters within dark matter clumps of the “cosmic web”; assessing observational and theoretical problems in the relation between galaxy stellar mass and dark matter halo mass; modeling the mass-morphology relation of galaxies using constraints I previously obtained with the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project; and modeling and analyzing the star formation rate dependence of the spatial distribution of galaxies in the distant cosmic past. I am happy to give more details about any of these ideas.

4. We should also address the problem of academic status inequality. If a person makes it to an elite university or has the opportunity to work with a big-name faculty member or manages to win a prestigious award, grant or fellowship, that is an excellent achievement of which they should be proud. Nevertheless, such a person is essentially endorsed by the establishment and is much more likely to be considered part of an in-crowd, with everyone else struggling in the periphery. In-crowd scientists then often have an easier time obtaining future opportunities, and like an academic capitalism, wealth and capital flow toward this in-crowd at the expense of the periphery scientists. On the one hand, the in-crowd scientists have accomplished something and the community should encourage them to continue their work. On the other hand, scientists are busy people, but they can also be lazy; it’s too easy to give an award to someone who as already received one or to hire someone from another elite institution rather than to assess the merits of the many people with whom they may be less familiar.

According to a recent study in Science Advances, the top ten elite universities produce three times as many future professors as the next ten in the rankings. However, the authors find plenty of evidence that this system does not resemble a meritocracy; in addition, female graduates slip 15% further down the academic hierarchy than men from the same institutions. According to a Slate piece by Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset, a co-author of the paper, the findings suggest that upward career mobility in the world of professors is mostly a myth. Many scientists coming from academic outsiders—not from the elite universities—have made important discoveries in the past, but their peers only slowly noticed them. “Thanks to the restrictive nature of the academic system there may be many more innovations that are languishing in obscurity, and they will continue to do so until our universities find a way to apply the principles of diversity they espouse in building student bodies to their hiring practices as well.”

5. As I’ve written before, much more work can be done to improve gender, race, class and other forms of diversity when hiring students, postdocs and faculty and promoting them at universities. Furthermore, when organizing conferences, workshops, meetings and speaker series, diverse committees should explicitly take these principles into consideration. Even the most thorough and attentive committees must also beware of “unconscious bias,” which affects everyone but can be reduced.

6. In a related point, colleges and universities can implement many family-friendly (or more generally, life-friendly) policies to improve and promote work-life balance of academic workers. These include flexible schedules, parental leave, tenure-clock extensions and many others. However, this is not sufficient: scientists who happen to lack the benefits and privileges of white, male, straight people from elite universities seem to have to work that much harder to have a chance of drawing the attention of hiring committees. One should not need to work 100 hours a week to be a successful scientist. Shouldn’t we want more balanced scientists with lives and interests beyond their narrow research field? This means that committees should recognize that sometimes excellent scientists may have fewer yet very high-quality accomplishments and may be under the radar waiting to be “discovered.”

7. The scientific community would also benefit from more opportunities for videoconferencing, in which people remotely present talks and field questions about them. As I’ve written for the American Astronomical Society Sustainability Committee, our biggest source of carbon emissions comes from frequent travel, and we should try to reduce our carbon “footprint.” Moreover, people at small colleges with small travel budgets and people with families who have a harder time traveling would appreciate this, as it would level the playing field a bit. Of course, there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions, but people continue to improve video tools with Skype, Google and many others, which could be utilized much more extensively.

8. Finally, I argue that everyone would benefit from more and better interactions between scientists, public affairs representatives and government affairs officials at universities. Such interactions would help scientists to present their accomplishments to a wider community, help universities to publicize their scientists’ work, and help political officials to understand the important science being done in their districts, often benefiting from federal and state investment.

These are my current thoughts, and I hope they spark discussions and debates.

Struggling Against Gender Bias in STEM Fields

In spite of wishful thinking, sexism and gender bias persist in science, tech, engineering and math. (Image: Getty, New Scientist)

In spite of wishful thinking, sexism and gender bias persist in science, tech, engineering and math. (Image: Getty, New Scientist)

[Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of American Astronomical Society (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) Status newsletter (p. 15-17). If you quote this article in any way, please cite the version in Status. Many thanks to Nancy Morrison and Joannah Hinz for editing assistance.]

Suppose that two astrophysicists with similar education, experience, and accomplishments—let’s call them Dr. X and Dr. Y—apply for a tenure-track faculty position. If Dr. X is female and Dr. Y is male, and if the selection committee members have conscious or unconscious gender bias, then, unfortunately, one might expect it to be more likely that Dr. Y would be offered the position.

But a controversial and influential new paper argues the opposite. In the title of their April 2015 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, both psychologists and full professors at Cornell University, claim, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track.” [1]

The authors base their conclusions on five randomized, controlled experiments at 371 U.S. colleges and universities in biology, engineering, economics, and psychology. In these experiments, tenure-track faculty members evaluated the biographical summaries or the curricula vitae of fictitious faculty candidates—including one “foil” candidate—mostly with impressive qualifications but with different genders and different life situations, such as being a single parent or having taken parental leave.

Their analysis reveals an unexpected result: faculty reviewers strongly preferred female candidates to male ones by a highly significant 2:1 advantage. Williams and Ceci conclude, “Efforts to combat formerly wide-spread sexism in hiring appear to have succeeded. After decades of overt and covert discrimination against women in academic hiring, our results indicate a surprisingly welcoming atmosphere today for female job candidates in STEM disciplines, by faculty of both genders.”

The article received considerable media attention from a variety of outlets. In particular, Nature, The Washington Post, The Economist, and Inside Higher Ed reviewed the article without much skepticism. Presumably, the authors’ claim that sexism no longer exists and gender bias is a thing of the past is a message that many people want to hear. On 31 October 2014, Williams and Ceci published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” in which they presented a shorter version of the same argument. [2]

On the other hand, Lisa Grossman in New Scientist [3] and Matthew Francis in Slate [4] analyzed the study in more detail and expressed more criticism. Both authors outlined the flaws in the analysis by Williams and Ceci. The experimental evaluations in their study involved only reviews of candidates’ biographies, without all the other activities that normally enter into faculty hiring and that may be affected by gender bias: personal interviews, presentation of talks, social events with potential colleagues, and determination of a short list by a selection committee. These simplified experiments do not accurately represent a real hiring process.

Many other studies and and a wealth of anecdotal evidence contradict the conclusions of Williams and Ceci. For example, Viviane Callier, Ph. D., contractor at the National Cancer Institute, told us [5] that recent surveys [6,7] found evidence of pervasive sexism in letters of recommendation—a domain in which the assumption of a level playing field does not apply and which is out of the woman applicant’s control. Moreover, faculty hiring is dominated by graduates of a few prestigious institutions and labs that are disproportionately headed by men, who are more likely to hire other men. “To imply, like Williams and Ceci, that ‘we are done,’ or that ‘the problem is solved,’ does a great disservice to the scientific community,” Callier said.

In any case, analysts agree that the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is an ongoing problem. According to a National Science Foundation study in 2008, 31% of full-time science and engineering faculty are women. This fraction varies among different fields, however. In an American Institute of Physics survey [8], the representation of women among physics faculty members reached 14% in 2010, and for astronomy-only departments, it was 19%. Similarly, a 2013 CSWA survey of gender demographics [10] found that 23% of faculty at universities and national research centers are women. These fractions demonstrate improvement in recent decades, but clearly much more work needs to be done.

Furthermore, although women outnumber men among college and university graduates, men continue to dominate the physical sciences, math, and engineering. At higher levels of academic careers, the gender demographics worsen, in what is often described as a “leaky pipeline.” Women constitute only one third of astronomy graduate students and less than 30% of astronomy postdoctoral researchers. In addition to the underrepresentation of women, gender inequality persists in other areas as well: according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research [9], although women now pursue graduate degrees at the same levels as men, women with such degrees earn no more than 70% of their male colleagues, a larger divide than the overall pay gap.

“Unconscious bias” against women in science and math is not unique to men. In a 2012 PNAS study [11], Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and her Yale University colleagues found that female faculty are just as biased as men against female scientists. When people assess students, hire postdocs, award fellowships, and hire and promote faculty, biases propagate through the pipeline. Contrary to the conclusions of Williams and Ceci, the problem is on both the supply side and the demand side.

What can be done to address such biases? As difficult as it may be, if scientists simply acknowledge that we all carry some inner biases, those biases may be reduced. Meg Urry argued in the January 2014 issue of Status [12] that people who are aware of bias tend be more careful about how they make hiring decisions. In addition, increasing the fraction of women in hiring pools and in search committees helps to reduce unconscious bias as well.

Some institutions have National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCE Programs to increase the representation and advancement of women in STEM careers. The University of Michigan’s program [13], for example, includes efforts to develop equitable faculty recruitment practices, increase the retention of valued faculty, improve the departmental climate and work environment, and develop encouraging leadership skills of faculty, staff and students. Their program could be emulated at other institutions.

Finally, other important issues relate to gender bias and underrepresentation of women, including improving maternal and paternal leave policies, increasing access to child care, developing dual-career policies, promoting work-life balance, and reducing gender inequality of housework. Furthermore, other forms of underrepresentation are also important, and workers in STEM fields continue to strive to improve diversity in race, class, and sexual orientation, as well as gender.

References Cited
[1] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. 2015, “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track,” PNAS, 112, 5360n
[2] Williams, W. M., & Ceci, S. J. 2014 October 31, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist,” New York Times
[3] Grossman, L. 2015 April 17, “Claiming sexism in science is over is just wishful thinking,”
New Scientist
[4] Francis, M. R. 2015 April 20, “A Surprisingly Welcome Atmosphere,” Slate
[5] Callier, V. 2015, personal communication by email
[6] McNutt, M. 2015, “Give women an even chance,” Science, 348, 611
[7] Madera, J. M., Hebl, M. R., and Martin, R. C. 2009, “Gender and Letters of Recommendation for Academia: Agentic and Communal Differences,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1591
[8] Ivie, R., White, S., Garrett, A., & Anderson, G. 2013, “Women Among Physics & Astronomy Faculty: Results from the 2010 Survey of Physics Degree-Granting Departments,” American Institute of Physics
[9] Institute for Women’s Policy Research 2015, “The Status of Women in the States: 2015 Employment and Earnings”
[10] Hughes, A. M. 2014 January, “The 2013 CSWA Demographics Survey: Portrait of a Generation of Women in Astronomy,” Status, p. 1
[11] Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoli, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. 2012, “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students,” PNAS, 109, 16474
[12] Urry, C. M. 2014 January, “Why We Resist Unconscious Bias,” Status, p. 10
[13] University of Michigan, ADVANCE Program

How the Worsening Two-Tier Higher Education System Affects Students and Teachers

Two years ago, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor who had worked for decades at Duquesne University, passed away at the age of 83. According to Daniel Kovalik, a lawyer for her and the United Steelworkers, “unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits, and with a salary of $3,000 to $3,500 [or less] per three-credit course.” But then in a matter of months, her cancer returned, she became nearly homeless as she could not afford the maintenance of her home or even the cost of heating it during the cold Pittsburgh winter, and Duquesne, which did not recognize the adjuncts’ union, let her go. She died as the result of cardiac arrest a couple weeks later.

Vojtko’s struggle and tragic story is a moving reminder about the plight of adjunct professors throughout the United States. Adjuncts strive to get by under immense stress on the lower rung of a widening two-tier academic system while educating the majority of students in colleges and universities. Over the past year, I have worked as a research scientist, a freelance science writer, and recently, a lecturer in physics at the University of California, San Diego. The latter position exposed me to only a fraction of the heavy workload of adjuncts, many of whom teach multiple courses simultaneously at different institutions and with little support, not knowing where or whether they might find work next.

According to a report by the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts now constitute more than 76 percent of U.S. faculty. In a report titled “The Just-in-Time Professor,” the House Education and the Workforce Committee finds that the majority of adjuncts live below the poverty line. Many universities, especially public ones, experience perennial budget pressures over the years and have been reducing their numbers of tenured and tenure-track faculty, resulting in a rapid shift of the teaching load to much lower paid “contingent faculty.” Incoming students expect to be taught by full professors and may be surprised to find adjuncts teaching their classes. In spite of their working conditions, the adjuncts are just as good, but “the problem is not the people who are in the part-time or nontenure positions, it’s the lack of support they get from their institutions,” said John Curtis, the director of research and policy at the AAUP.

Like freelance workers and those in the sharing economy, adjunct professors have become part of a growing “reserve army of labor.” After many years navigating academia, which can be viewed as “path dependence and sunk costs,” many people see teaching and educating the next generation of students as their calling. Adjunct jobs give them the opportunities they seek along with flexible careers that outsiders romanticize. But make no mistake: many adjuncts cannot make a living from their work and have become increasingly unhappy about their working conditions.

The craze about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, further increases pressure on adjunct professors. Many universities, including UC San Diego, have jumped on the bandwagon behind Coursera and other online-education companies. These companies’ MOOCs and technologies may have some utility, but they have not (yet?) delivered on their potential and they are not the wave of the future. MOOCs still have poor completion rates, and nothing beats interacting and engaging with a real teacher in real time.

Adjuncts have been exploited by the “Walmart-ization” of higher education, according to Keith Hoeller, author of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System. This system neither benefits the universities nor the teachers, who have little job security and support, nor the students themselves, who need to develop relationships with teachers with sufficient resources, office space, and career-development tools. Many resist the adjunct crisis by joining unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers (of which I have been a member), Service Employees International Union, and others, and by protesting, such as in the National Adjunct Walkout Day in February. Adjunct unions have advocated for more tenured positions and longer-term salaried contracts with benefits. Some also campaign for an aspirational $15K per course, connecting their struggle to that of workers calling for a $15/hour minimum wage.

Nevertheless, universities need more funding to significantly improve this situation. Increasing student tuition is not the solution, of course, as ballooning student debt levels are already far too high. Tuition costs have rapidly increased over the past few decades because of declining state and federal funding, growing administrations and bureaucracy, and the large costs of sports facilities and coach salaries. If efforts were made along each of these directions, student tuition could be reduced while improving teaching positions. In any case, universities and governments have an important opportunity and responsibility now to improve the conditions in which teachers teach and students learn. In the future, we can hope that other teachers will not have to experience what Margaret Mary Vojtko went through.

Thoughts on the Academic Job Market in the Physical Sciences

I decided to add “Thoughts on…” at the beginning of the title to emphasize that, although I’ll present some facts, I’ll be expressing my personal opinions on the academic job market. These are my “2 cents”, and some people may disagree with them. And though there are some similar issues and concerns in the social sciences and humanities, most of my experience comes from the physical sciences, especially physics and astronomy, and I’ll focus on that. If you don’t have the time to read the whole post, my main (and obvious) point is this: for a number of reasons, the job market has been getting worse over the past decade or more, with detrimental effects to scientific research and education (and to scientists, educators, and students). This is just a brief intro to the issues involved, and I’m not sure what the best solutions might look like, but I’ll try to write about that more in another post.

Soft Money

For people with Ph.D.’s, in the past, they’d decide upon earning their degree (or earlier) whether to proceed with the “traditional” academic career or shift to another kind of career. Those who continue would consider moving to a tenure-track faculty or other long-term position at a college, university, or other institution. With the growth of “soft money, a euphemism for uncertain funding from external federal (e.g., National Science Foundation) or occasionally private sources, short-term postdoctoral positions and fellowships have proliferated. For various reasons, soft money has become a very important part of the funding landscape (see this article in Science in 2000 and this more recent article).

One consequence of this is that most people in astrophysics now need to work at two or three or even more postdoc/fellowship positions before potentially having a shot at a long-term or more secure position. In my case, I’ve already done two postdocs myself, at the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy in Heidelberg and at the University of Arizona, and now I’m a research scientist at UC San Diego and this and my previous position were funded by soft money. The job market for the tenure-track faculty positions has become increasingly worse, and it has worsened with the financial crisis. Note that there are other career options as well, such as those associated with particular projects or programs.

Another consequence is that every couple years people need to spend a considerable amount of time and effort applying for the next round of jobs. In addition, people spend a lot of time writing and submitting research grants—to try to obtain more soft money. As a result, grant acceptance rates are now very low (sometimes less than 10%) and senior positions are very competitive. All of these applications also take time away from research, outreach, and other activities, so one could argue that a lot of scientists’ time is thereby wasted in the current system.

Moreover, this system perpetuates inequalities in science, which I’ll describe more below. It also reinforces a workforce imbalance (as pointed out in this article by Casadevall & Fang) where the senior people are mostly well-known males and the larger number of people at the bottom of the hierarchy are more diverse. In addition, although it can be fun to travel and live in different places, for people in couples or with families, it becomes difficult to sustain an academic career. (See these posts for more on diversity and work-life balance issues.)

The Adjunct Crisis

The job market and economic situation at US colleges and universities has spawned the “adjunct crisis” in teaching and education. Much has been written about this subject—though maybe not enough, as it’s still a major problem. (There’s even a blog called “The Adjunct Crisis.”) The number and fraction of adjunctions continues to grow: the NY Times reported last year that 76% (and rising) of US university faculty are adjunct professors.

The problem is that adjuncts are like second-class faculty. Employers are able to exploit the “reserve army of labor” and create potentially temporary positions, but now adjuncts are relied upon much more heavily than before to serve as the majority of college instructors. According to this opinion piece on Al-Jazeera, most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some adjuncts even depend on food stamps to get by. The plight of adjuncts received more media attention when Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct who taught French for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, died broke and nearly homeless. Adjuncts clearly need better working conditions, rights, and a living wage.

Inequalities in Science

As I mentioned above, the current job market situation reinforces and exacerbates inequalities in science. The current issue of Science magazine has a special section on the “science of inequality,” which includes this very relevant article. The author writes that one source of inequality is what Robert Merton called the “Matthew effect,” such that the rich get richer: well-known scientists receive disproportionately greater recognition and rewards than lesser-known scientists for comparable contributions. As a result, a talented few can parlay early successes into resources for future successes, accumulating advantages over time. (If you’re interested, Robert Merton was a sociologist of science whose work is relevant to this post.) From the other side of things, we’re all busy, and it’s easy to hire, cite the work of, award funding to, etc. people who know are successful scientists, even though many lesser known scientists may be able to accomplish the same thing with that grant or position or may have published equally important work; but then more time needs to be spent to research all of the lesser known people, who can publish and still perish.

The author, Yu Xie, also points out that the inequality in academics’ salaries has intensified, some academic labor is being outsourced, and one can be effected down the road by one’s location in global collaborative networks. If one does not obtain a degree at a top-tier university, then this can be detrimental in the future regardless of how impressive one’s work and accomplishments are. We can attempt to get around this last point by spending the time to recognize those who aren’t the most well-known in a field or at the most well-known institutions but who have considerable achievements and produced important work.

“Love What You Do”

Finally, I’ll end by talking about the “Do what you love. Love what you do” (DWYL) nonsense. While this seems like good advice, since it’s great to try to follow your passions if you can, nonetheless it’s both elitist and denigrates work. (I recommend checking out this recent article in Jacobin magazine.) People are encouraged to identify with the work that they love, even if the working conditions and job insecurity shouldn’t be tolerated. The author argues that there are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. The DWYL ideology hides the fact that if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time. These are things that every worker, including workers in academia, deserve.

International Collaborations

(I actually wrote this post a week ago while I was in China, but many social media sites are blocked in China. Sites for books, beer, and boardgames weren’t blocked though—so they must be less subversive?)

Since I’m having fun on a trip to Nanjing and Xi’an now, seeing old friends and colleagues and attending a conference (From Dark Matter to Galaxies), I figured I’d write a lighter post about international collaborations. By the way, for you Star Trek fans, this month it’s been twenty years since the end of The Next Generation, which had the ultimate interplanetary collaboration. (And this image is from the “The Chase” episode.)


In physics and astrophysics, and maybe in other fields as well, scientific collaborations are becoming increasingly larger and international. (The international aspect sometimes poses difficulties for conference calls over many timezones.) These trends are partly due to e-mail, wiki pages, Dropbox, SVN repositories, Github, remote observing, and online data sets (simulations and observations). Also, due to the increasing number of scientists, especially graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, many groups of people work on related subjects and can mutually benefit from collaborating.

On a related note, the number of authors on published papers is increasing (see this paper, for example). Single-author papers are less common than they used to be, and long author lists for large collaborations, such as Planck and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, are increasingly common. Theory papers still have fewer authors than observational ones, but they too have longer author lists than before. (I’ll probably write more about scientific publishing in more detail in another post.)

Of course, conferences, workshops, collaboration meetings and the like are important for discussing and debating scientific results. They’re also great for learning about and exposing people to new developments, ideas, methods, and perspectives. Sometimes, someone may present a critical result or make a provocative argument that happens to catch on. Furthermore, conferences are helpful for advancing the career of graduate students and young scientists, since they can advertise their own work and meet experts in their field. When looking for their next academic position (such as a postdoctoral one or fellowship), it helps to have personally met potential employers. Working hard and producing research is not enough; everyone needs to do some networking.

Also, note that for international conferences and meetings, English has become the lingua franca, and this language barrier likely puts some non-native English speakers at a disadvantage, unfortunately. I’m not sure how this problem could be solved. I’m multilingual but I only know how to talk about science in English, and I’d have no confidence trying to talk about my research in Farsi or German. We’ve talked about privilege before, and certainly we should consider this a form of privilege as well.

Finally, I’ll make a brief point about the carbon footprint of scientists and the impact of (especially overseas) travel. For astrophysicists, the environmental impact of large telescopes and observatories in Hawaii and Chile, for example, is relatively small; it’s the frequent travel that takes a toll. I enjoy traveling, but we should work more on “sustainability” and reducing our carbon footprint. There are doubts about the effectiveness of carbon-offset programs (see the book Green Gone Wrong), so what needs to be done is to reduce travel. Since conferences and workshops are very important, we should attempt to organize video conferences more often. In order for video conferences and other such organized events to be useful though, I think more technological advances need to be made, and people need to be willing to adapt to them. Another advantage to these is that they’re beneficial for people who have family, children, or other concerns and for people from outside the top-tier institutions who have smaller budgets. In other words, video conferences could potentially help to “level the playing field,” as they say.

Publish or Perish?

I’d like to add a short post about writing and publishing papers. The phrase “publish or perish” is commonly heard because there is some truth to it. According to Wikipedia, the phrase dates back to the 1930s and 1940s.

There are some advantages to having pressure to publish. By encouraging scientists to write and publish their research, they and their work become more widely known, including among their peers. As scientists, we enjoy and are excited about working on research and publishing the interesting and new results, and putting the papers out helps to advance the field.

When considering scientists for academic posts (or for research grants), it can be a difficult and time-consuming process. That’s unavoidable, especially when numerous people will apply for small numbers of jobs and grants. One clearly quantifiable metric by which academics are judged is the number of papers they’ve published (and another is the size of grants they draw in). As pointed out by this recent New Yorker blog, both the amount and style of writing are related to the constant pressure to publish and the tough academic job market. In addition, the job market now appears two-tiered, with part-time and adjunct faculty working long hours for lower pay (see these NY Times and Salon articles). I plan to talk about this issue further in another post.

There are some major disadvantages to the publish-or-perish culture. One problem is that it doesn’t leave time for long-term or risky research on controversial topics. It also doesn’t allow for exploring new ideas, issues, or collaborations that might not pan out and result in something publishable. Nonetheless, these things are good for scientists and they are good for science, and when they are successful, there are huge rewards or discoveries. For example, Peter Higgs, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who was one of the discoverers of the Higgs boson, says that no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough. The publish-or-perish culture is not just dominant in the physical sciences, but also in the social sciences, humanities, and law.

A related issue is that of “luxury” journals like Nature, Science, and Cell. According to the Guardian, Randy Schekman, the Nobel prize-winning biologist is now no longer publishing in these journals because they distort the scientific process. He writes: “A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong.” These journals have become brand names, and they prioritize publishing provocative results–perhaps before they’ve been sufficiently tested and vetted by editors, peer reviewers, or the authors themselves. The result is that the journals have a reputation for publishing results that are often wrong. Scientists know this, yet publishing in these journals still carries prestige.

In addition to publishing papers and books, scientists work on other important things that should be valued too. Key among them is teaching, of course, as well as participating in outreach programs, mentoring students, communicating with journalists and policy-makers, and other academic service to the community. These activities are not as easily quantifiable as scientists’ publications, but we should make the effort to recognize this work.