Remetaphoring the “academic pipeline”


We need to ditch the “academic pipeline” metaphor. Why?

The professional destinations of people who enter academic science are necessarily varied.

We do not intend or plan for everybody training in science to become academic researchers.

The pipeline metaphor dehumanizes people. Continue reading

A mountain of progress still needed for equity in science


Most senior scientists aren’t from ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences, and don’t train many scientists from these backgrounds either. The day-to-day issues facing black and Latino students in the US might be on the minds of people in charge, but the people in charge don’t face the same day-to-day challenges.

I haven’t experienced those problems myself (as a tenured white dude), though I do I work in a minority-serving and Hispanic-serving institution. So, it’s my job to understand and to do what I can to provide the best opportunities for my students.

Nonetheless, mentoring students from underrepresented groups doesn’t validate one’s ideas about equity and diversity in science. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the recent comments of Michael Rich, the PhD advisor of Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is arguably the most famous living scientist, and definitely the most famous living black scientist):

I think my colleagues would agree that no overt barriers based on race, gender, etc. remain. (In fact, incoming graduate classes tend to be 50-50 in terms of gender and there are many special programs to help under represented minorities.)

Now, before we decry Dr. Rich for being horribly wrong, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he might have been on crack, or stoned, or taking psychotropic mediation when he wrote that. It’s also possible that he was jet lagged from space-time travel from an alternate universe and he hadn’t gotten his bearings settled back to our own dimension.

But if he wasn’t on drugs or returning from another reality, then he’s bearing a massive anchor of delusion and seclusion. I guess he hasn’t asked any black men, any women or Latinos about how they feel about overt barriers. I guess he hasn’t chatted much with his famous former PhD student.

Dr. Rich observes a 50:50 ratio of men to women in graduate classes, but he’s not bothering to look at the proportion of women in permanent academic positions. Or how many women are selected to win awards.

Dr. Rich sees special programs for minorities, but he is ignoring the conditions that necessitate these programs. Black Americans comprise more than 12% of our population. So, I’m guessing that the proportion of black students in his program is at least ten percent, right? Are 10% of senior scientists black?

Oh, there’s a helluva lot of work to do. We are nowhere near equity. This is so damn obvious that I feel stupid even writing it.

But I have to write it, because Michael Rich, and those who share his views, aren’t just failing to fix the problem. They are part of the problem we need to fix. Those of us who are pushing up from the grassroots for equity and access need those senior faculty to validate the need for change. Those of us who are training students at the K-12 and undergraduate levels need people in graduate programs to not only recognize, but take concrete steps, to support and recruit minority students starting their science careers.

A lot of senior scientists feel just like Dr. Rich. I’ve heard it far too often. We need to inoculate the current generation of scientists in training against these toxic views of Dr. Rich. It’s probably too late to change Dr. Rich’s mind, as there’s nothing we can say that his famous former graduate student hasn’t already said or embodied. But we can keep pushing to move this mountain shovel by shovel. And we can advocate for heavy equipment that can really move the mountain.

In my undergrad years, my college president was a unicorn. Or, something almost as unique as a unicorn: A black electrical engineer. From Kansas. The story of John Slaughter is mighty amazing. When he recounted his path, from childhood, to grad school, to professor, to university president, I was both inspired and amazed by his tenacity in an environment that was unrelentingly opposed towards his progress in the direction of his choice.

Dr. Slaughter has long been retired. In the emerging generation of STEM leaders, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is yet another unicorn.

If one of my black students ends up being a global ambassador for her discipline, will she be a unicorn?

According to Dr. Rich, those problems have already been fixed. Of course, he’s flat out wrong, though I wish he wasn’t.

A rationale for existence


I’ve started this blog because I have so much free time on my hands.

Over the last couple years, a few blogs of scientists have become a part of my routine, even though I lurk on all of them. Reading blogs has been a way for me to learn from others.

Nevertheless, there is a huge disconnect between these scientists and my daily experience. Some of my biggest challenges and triumphs are endemic to my work at a teaching institution. We have a lot in common, but my experience is different in some fundamental ways. There are so many of us at teaching schools that do (or aspire to do) big-league research, even if it’s on a smaller scale. The strategies we use to build and maintain a research agenda are often different than our colleagues at research institution. I think we all prioritize our students and student training, but it’s really different when your students are all or mostly undergrads, and you teach a lot, and your school cares way more about your teaching than your research.

Many of my junior colleagues – whose work I greatly admire – are now taking jobs very similar to the one that I’m in. I am often asked about how I go about my job, get funded, manage my teaching load, maintain a research program. How I do what I do. This leads me to suspect that this blog will be useful.

I’ve read enough blogs to be able to identify, at least in my view, what makes a good one. That list includes:

  • a clear focus with a useful perspective that comes from experience
  • frequent entries, at least a couple times a week if not more often
  • a community of people who contribute their views
  • a greater number of lurkers who never contribute but regularly visit
  • high quality writing

If you’ve discovered this early on, input is particularly welcome. My plan is to do this for a little while before I attempt to let people know it exists. I’ve decided against anonymity. This is not common, but I’m tenured and don’t have dirty secrets to hide, and this will keep me from worrying about the attempt to hide details. (When I’m annoyed by something at my institution, which is more often then I could ever mention, I’d be glad if my administration read about it and know that it is from me). I will be able to showcase my research and field more openly, not to mention be openly proud of my students and institution. By being known, I just need to worry about being polite, which is a good habit to be in.