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Which Grad Students Are the Most Miserable? 332

Hugh Pickens writes writes "Jessica Palmer has an interesting post about the miseries of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] graduate students and makes the case that of all grad programs, those in biology are particularly miserable. One basic problem stems from too many biology Ph.D.s and not enough funding, leading to an immensely cutthroat environment that is psychologically damaging to boot. But the main problem is that most of the skills you learn in biology, especially biomedical sciences are only useful in the biomedical sciences and that most grad students don't learn enough 'generalist' skills, such as high level math or serious programming skills, to have other career alternatives if academia doesn't work out. 'A decade ago, sequencing was a Ph.D. activity, or at least, an activity supervised very closely by a Ph.D.,' writes Mike the Mad Biologist."
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Which Grad Students Are the Most Miserable?

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  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @08:42AM (#35731652)

    Throughout my career (I have a PhD in Chemistry) I found the preparation in maths of Biology majors absolutely abysmal.

    To make it worse, it seems to me that *every* college course today is very weak in computer programming. The college graduates I meet seem to rely entirely on excel spreadsheets, with a very few "hard" sciences majors knowing a little bit of matlab.

    Computers have become the universal tool, but no one is able to explore their capabilities, recent graduates are like illiterate peasants in a library.

    A good analogy is to compare software development with leadership. A leader is someone who gets people to do what cannot be done by a person alone. A programmer is someone who gets computers to do what cannot be done by humans. In an age when automation replaces workers, software developers are the leaders. Too bad university students cannot see this simple analogy.

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @08:54AM (#35731744) Homepage

    The trouble is, right now there's a surplus of top-end-of-genius smart people with PhDs.

    I know you wouldn't think so walking down the street, but the simple fact is that for every tenure-track position there are about 12 PhDs with useful published work capable of doing the job and doing it well, and even more for adjunct and other non-tenure track positions. The same sort of imbalance exists for research positions. The effect of this is that a lot of younger would-be scientists are working as part-time lab techs, or going into other fields, or trying to survive as part-time adjunct faculty, and the wages of those sorts of positions are steadily dropping. Also, many universities have been trying to save cash by avoiding giving anybody any sort of chance at tenure, leaving would-be academics basically no chance of making it.

    And yes, that's a terrible waste of a lot of brilliant minds, but it's totally consistent with what's been going on in the US for the last 30 years.

  • by fantomas ( 94850 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:17AM (#35731958)

    If you believe that people should get a real job instead of an education then you've got a country of predominantly labourers and factory line workers. A dangerous route to take in a time when low skilled jobs can get outsourced to somewhere cheaper very easily. I don't think it's a simple binary get a job/or/get an education. You really want all your graduate students to leave education? you want no graduate level education in your country? Who are your entrepreneurs going to turn to when they need somebody to do the research to develop their new product? (Maybe the French, who came up with the word 'entrepreneur'?)

    I am assuming you like the idea of *some* education for your nation's people as you are posting in words and can read.

  • by cinnamon colbert ( 732724 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:23AM (#35732036) Journal
    As it is currently practiced, biology science at the phd level is a ponzi scheme.
    Research is $, and mostly - almost entirely- paid for by the Fed Gov't either directly thru the NIH/NSF/DARPA, or indirectly via tax welfare for the wealthy (aka tax code, such as the koch brothers giving MIT 100 million for a cancer center.
    Most funding is via the "principal investigator" route: the funding agency identifies an *individual* who gets the money and is responsible for it; normally this is a faculty member at a university
    Biology is also labor intensive; experiments take a lot of hands on time.
    the way it works, professors have slave labor - graduate students, who , relative to their hours and training, are paid peanuts (they are also totally dependent on their professors letter of recomendation for a job)
    The carrot is that after you graduate, you get your own faculty position.
    anyone on /. should easily see this is an exponential growth type of situation: you start with x professors, they graduate y students/year, who in turn become most exp growth situations, the crash comes suddenly.
    the clearest evidence of this is that every 20 years or so, the leading PhD nobel laureates go to congress and say, OMG, we have a crisis in funding: there are more PhDs then grant money. And congress, not wanting to see re elections ads with "voted against funding for cancer", obligingly ponies up more money. the last cycle was under clinton; the budget for the NIH, which is the bulk of funding, was doubled
    when this happens, all of the Universitys go out and build huge new research buildings, and hire lots of new profs, cause NIH funding is a profit center for the university (or at least the CEO of the university, since university presidents are now paid like ceos, their salary is tied to total university budgets, so simply to hike their own salary, a univ pres will get a huge new RnD building built to increase unive revenues by 100 MM a year....)
    call me cynical, but that is life
    for those of you who have some familiarity with the system, the postdoc was invented in the 60s, to deal with the 1st glut of phds, and it was for 2 years.... think about that
  • by Edge00 ( 880722 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:24AM (#35732042)
    I have my B.A in biology and my M.S. in microbiology. I see a lot of people here saying biology majors don't understand enough math, but from my perspective I can't figure out where it would fit into the curriculum. For my bachelor's I had a semester of calculus and a semester of statistics. What many people don't realize is a biology major is typically 1 or 2 courses away from a minor in chemistry, I personally had 5 semesters of chemistry. A couple of semesters of physics are typically required also. This is all before you even start to add in general studies courses and then core course work which covers everything from ecology, evolution, microbiology, cell biology, molecular biology, anatomy and physiology, and biochemistry just to name a few. From my experience many biologists are weak in microbiology and ecology because those course are often skipped. How can you argue for more math when the breadth of the biological disciplines aren't even covered.
  • by bberens ( 965711 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @09:25AM (#35732066)
    While I agree that people from other walks of life should get a good introduction to mathematical programming I don't think it's very important that they get good at it so much as they get a basic understanding of what types of things are possible. The defense contractors (I only use them because I'm familiar with them) seem to have found a nice balance. They hire mechanical, aeronautical, etc. engineers who know just enough about programming to *get by* and then hire some pure computer scientist types to really help them make sure their code is good quality and to help tighten up their algorithms and such.
  • by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @10:05AM (#35732548) Homepage Journal
    Of course the truth is the current budget cuts have absolutely 0 to do with the actual budget and everything to do with Republicans trying to cut funding to their political opponents while raining money on their political supporters. Critical thinking skills and being a Republican don't exactly go hand-in-hand and the Republicans will do anything to stay in power, even if that means sacrificing the future of our very nation just so they can score a cheap political victory. Lovely people.
  • by Antisyzygy ( 1495469 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @10:12AM (#35732638)
    I totally disagree. If we are talking about liberal studies, its the biggest joke degree on the planet. Thinking outside the box requires you actually bothered to take science and math courses along with your art and others. Scientific research is where the majority of outside-the-box thinking is even occurring right now.
  • by SQLGuru ( 980662 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @11:00AM (#35733252) Journal

    First off, Computer Science is not a "programming" degree. In fact good programming skill doesn't come from a class, but from real practical experience (hopefully with a good mentor).

    That being said, I agree. I think there a large number of CS majors (and even MIS majors which is the "applied physisist" to the CS "theoretical physisist") who graduate with no clue as to how to actually develop a software system (developing includes a lot more than programming).

  • by Antisyzygy ( 1495469 ) on Wednesday April 06, 2011 @11:45AM (#35733844)
    Said like a person that does not understand science. Spend some time actually understanding it, read some cutting edge scientific articles, and prepare to have your mind blown. Its amazing what people propose to solve problems. Just the depths of math that exist are completely outside the box, completely abstract, and beyond the realm of most human being's understanding. If I want to have some leisure time, I read literature. There's nothing wrong with even majoring in it, but any time you focus on metaphysical or philosophical things and forget about reality and logic you begin to form your own box. Thinking inside the box is just as easy if not easier for art majors that think "art is life".

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling