Monday, January 23, 2012

From the PhD Files: The death of science?

So 2012 has gotten off the ripping start. I hit the lab with great energy, I completed a draft and generally things are getting there. But the mountain remains just that, a mountain. When faced with nothing but an uphill climb, one feels like running, like pulling the quilt back up over one’s eyes and going back to sleep. Except you will wake up, and you can’t run away from this mountain.


This is the year I face the end, and it’s coming like a steam train. Whilst climbing the mountain is gradual, and I admit feels pretty good, it really is never ending. So I get all my experimental work done, I write it up, and I compile it into a nice little thesis. For a PhD candidate, submitting is a git of a nightmare. You finish and with it comes hope of an awesome position. But there’s a period of uncertainty, between submission and conferral. You don’t have the qualifications to take a post-doctoral position, but you don’t want to take a permanent position, only to have your dream research job come up and an angry boss demanding why you took a job only to be leaving a few months later. Some are lucky, they score a casual position in their lab while they write up. But then, inevitably, writing up gets pushed further and further back, and the submission date gets moved and moved again, as writing makes way for the need to pay the bills.


So one might ask, where is the university in all of this? Well, the university expects you will dot the i’s and cross the t’s but that’s about it. In fact, the pressure to take a safe option, to do the most basic of what is needed to pass a PhD is what is being put forward as the ideal model. Finish in as little time, hand in and then there is the door. At the university I attend, there is barely any support for PhD candidates in their final throws - no help with job searches, no assistance with stress and the icing on the cake really comes when you finish – often you will get emails within days of submission to clear out your desk and make way for the next number. Yes, you are a number, and yes, it seems the university really only does see dollar signs, which is a sad sign of what is becoming of once what was an honourable undertaking. The undertaking of a PhD was a process of becoming a an enlightened thinker, and someone capable of being able to synthesise ideas and then turn them into scientific results, addressing all the spectrum of challenges which arise along the way. Now, its seems it is all just a fancy exercise resulting in a few more letters after one’s name.


If it is just a case of churning out people with the correct piece of paper, what happens to the skills of the scientist? Science is about the ability to think, being creative, being able to look at things critically, and to ultimately think outside the box. Research isn't about being able to recall facts, it's about being able to use them. Simply filling out the correct forms, and doing the bare minimum to get the thesis does not make a scientist. In fact, this checkbox type approach discourages all the things that make scientists good at science. Treating a PhD like a simple exercise in producing the bare minimum without developing those necessary skills will result in many scientists who just won’t have the skills to do science. And this begs the question, with scientists who can’t live up to their namesake, what future does research have?