Excuses for discounting people.

Nov 20 2008 Published by under Academia, Tribe of Science

In a comment on another post, Alex gently reminds me that what counts as a leak from the science/technology/engineering/math pipeline depends on your point of view:

I don't think of you as a "leak." But I'm in an undergraduate physics department, so unlike the people in the Ph.D.-granting departments where I trained I'm not in the business of training people to go for science faculty jobs. I'm in the business of teaching people some science so they can go out and use their training to pursue whatever opportunities interest them. You study ethical and philosophical issues in science and technology, so I'm assuming you make use of your science training in some significant way, even if you no longer do synthesis or whatever. You teach people. This is important work, it draws on your background, and I would count you as a successful person using your scientific training. ...

[T]he pipeline does have to leak--there simply aren't enough faculty jobs for every person who starts off studying science in college. To act like those who go on to do something other than a science faculty job are "leaks" from our pipeline is a horrible way to view students who decide to do something other than what their professors do. Even leaving aside the numerical issues, what good would my profession be if the only thing I did was train people to be like me, and I never trained anybody to go out and use that knowledge for something else? What would I be contributing to society if none of my students went outside the university? ...

I'm not training anybody to be an assistant professor. I'm just trying to persuade 18 year-olds to think about spending 4 years studying my subject so they can acquire some skills and knowledge that will hopefully serve them well as they go do whatever they do.

Word.

You can forget sometimes how the environment in which you train to be a scientist (typically, a Ph.D. program at a university that does enough research to sustain a Ph.D. program in your field) gives you a very skewed picture of what success looks like.* Being a real, grown-up scientist, can end up looking like having a career very much like that of the academic scientist who trained you. And while the scientist who trains you may pay lip-service to the value of career paths that deviate from this ideal, there are some pretty clear messages communicated about who really counts as a member of your professional or intellectual community and who is Not Quite Our Kind.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of reasons scientists use for not taking other scientists (or people with scientific training comparable to their own) seriously. This is before we even get to issues like how people dress, interests they may have outside science, and the like.

  • You didn't become a professor in the field I trained you in.
  • You didn't become a professor at an Ivy League university.
  • You didn't become a professor at a major research university.
  • You didn't become a professor at a prestigious liberal arts college.
  • You don't have Ph.D. students.
  • You don't have Masters students.
  • Your research is not published in Science, Nature, or Cell.
  • Your research is not highly cited.
  • You don't give research presentations at the important meetings in our field.
  • Your research focuses on a marginal topic like science education.
  • You care more about teaching than research.
  • You didn't become a professor at a four year college.
  • You're an adjunct.
  • You work for industry.
  • You work for the government.
  • You work in the non-profit sector.
  • You don't actually "do science" any more.
  • Despite studying science, you never actually "did science".
  • Your job is only peripherally connected to scientific issues or patterns of thought.
  • Your job is totally unconnected to scientific issues or patterns of thought.
  • Your job is only part-time.
  • You don't have a paying job right now.
  • You haven't had a paying job for a while.

Of course, if the question is whether another scientist might be a potential collaborator in your research, or someone who could give you useful feedback on the institutional politics at a particular kind of university, some of these details will be relevant.

But if the question is who counts as a member of the tribe of science, some of these factors render invisible lots of people whose knowledge, work, and interests look pretty darned scientific.

Does it cost the scientists at the top of the food chain anything to have a somewhat more inclusive view of who's a scientist (or contributes to the well being of the scientific enterprise)? What does it cost them to keep discounting the scientists who don't fit the narrow approved mold?
______
*This doesn't just happen among scientists. Professional philosophers do it too, with a vengeance.

Comments are off for this post

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Brilliant as always Janet! I love the list.
    as to why it cost something to discount Other than ourselves? Basic insecurity? Compensation for imposter syndrome within one's own job category?

  • Does it cost the scientists at the top of the food chain anything to have a somewhat more inclusive view of who's a scientist (or contributes to the well being of the scientific enterprise)? What does it cost them to keep discounting the scientists who don't fit the narrow approved mold?

    It is human nature for people to consider themselves and their own paths in life to be TEH S00PER XTRA SPESHULZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Becca says:

    *specific to biosciences, to add to the list: you aren't serious because you aren't funded by NIH (actually, there's a reverse-utility-snobbism in some of the NSF funded folks too)
    Much of academic science is paid in the currency of prestige. Science is not particularly lucrative and the working conditions (while there are definitely some perks) are not really anything to write home about.
    But "scientific research" does sound like an impressive pursuit to the bulk of the population.
    We seldom emphasize it, but we often have no idea which actions of scientists go furtherest toward making other people healthier, more fufilled, happier, or more knowledgable... or however else you define utilty. Those things are really hard to measure. So we accept proxies, like the things on your list. And those proxies are employed to carry the prestige.
    The less exclusive the club, the more devalued the currency of "prestige" becomes. So there is a cost to broader uses of the tribe of science.

  • One thing that I find scientists often discount others for is taking time off to raise kids. While that is mostly women, it can also apply to men who do that while their wife continues her career.

  • Alex says:

    The less exclusive the club, the more devalued the currency of "prestige" becomes. So there is a cost to broader uses of the tribe of science.
    True, but I'm in an undergraduate physics department. Being a physics department, we have very few majors, so it's hard to justify offering the more interesting classes if there aren't a lot of students to take them, and hard to justify time for research projects if there aren't a lot of students to participate in those projects. So, basically, justifying time spent on anything other than freshman courses for non-majors means that we have to expand the club a bit. Despite that situation, the profession is resistant to widening the definition of the club.

  • Barn Owl says:

    From my own experiences of being "discounted" or not taken seriously, I would add the following specifics to your list:
    - Your faculty position is at a historically black university, or other type of minority-serving institution
    - Your faculty position is at an institution located in the southern or southwestern US
    - Your teaching responsibilities are predominantly in professional school (medical, dental, nursing, allied health) courses
    - Your research is applicable to dentistry, food science/nutrition, or agriculture and animal husbandry
    I think that all of these biases are wrong, of course, but they exist in some academic circles nonetheless.

  • Pat Cahalan says:

    You should try going after a Ph.D. in Information Science.
    The entire IS community is in a dither over its status within the greater science community. Does design science count as science? How legitimate are case studies as a research methodology when the results don't generalize? Tenured positions are often included in the "business school" - the horror!

  • Rebecca says:

    Yes. All of this.

    (The tl:dr: I believe this harm also has implications that begin in the freshman lecture hall where large swaths of impressionable students are deemed unworthy because they don't intend to pursue a life in academia).

    The long version: Undergrads pick up on this - even when they don't care about a life in academia, they sense that they're being judged & found inferior by faculty. Or they understand that some of their grad student TA's are accorded higher status than others by the faculty for the same reason.

    I taught (as an adjunct) in a program where students earned a BS in Physics with a concentration in Audio Tech. They usually pursued careers in audio engineering or sound design, or went to grad school to study audiology, acoustics, programming, etc. They loved the application of science & the ways it made them better musicians, designers, or sound engineers. Within our department, that was respected & understood for the most part.

    At conferences, however, this was a difficult concept for many academics to grasp . Being asked what it was like to teach such un-ambitious students never stopped being shocking to me. To continuously have to justify their abilities or intellects or list the major concert halls they helped design, the wildly popular TV shows or movies they work on (or run!), to list the emmy, oscar, & grammy awards won, or convey intangible concepts such as (gasp) loving work outside academia was absurd.

    Students would tell me they felt like they were being written off in their coursework outside the department - they're aware when they aren't getting the same attention or encouragement as their fellow students who are tracking into "the life of the mind." It sours them on education to feel that they're viewed as sub-standard & merely tolerated & graded & moved along, which is a very sad state of affairs IMO. It's not as visible as the impact on those who earn a PhD & then opt for the non-academic track, but it's closely related.

  • […] To me, this is just so so sad. Because ultimately, this feeling of failure is not just bad for Sci, but it is bad for science. The more exclusive we make the tent of “Real Scientists,” the more we shrink the respect that the public has for science in general. As Janet Stemwedel aptly points out,  […]

  • […] that trajectory is a matter of pure merit rather than of non-deterministic factors) can render you someone discounted, dead to your chosen profession, forgotten by those you trained with and those who trained […]

  • […] that trajectory is a matter of pure merit rather than of non-deterministic factors) can render you someone discounted, dead to your chosen profession, forgotten by those you trained with and those who trained […]