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Is There a Hard Money Future After Graduate School?

Stephen T. Nelson, Woodward Clyde Federal Services, Las Vegas, Nev.

EOS FORUM - Date Unknown
(The Newsleter of the American Geophysical Union, or AGU)

As a relatively junior member of AGU, I wish to express a few opinions that are probably shared by many other junior AGU members. I am sure we are all familiar with the plight of many recent graduates as they struggle with a changing economy and shifting societal requirements on the sciences. I do not wish to merely join the chorus of those who complain that society has educated them only to see them forced to seek a living outside of their training. I hope, rather, to speak primarily to the senior members of AGU. I hope you will listen.

There is a crisis in the Earth and space sciences; namely the loss of talented individuals who are forced out of research positions largely due to a lack of opportunity. We all recognize the problem of the shrinking research and education dollar. I hope to suggest some remedies, or at least some actions, that could be taken by the scientific community's leadership to ameliorate these problems.

I consider myself a member of a "lost generation" - that is, a recent graduate who perceives no opportunities in the academic world. Although I am employed in a career I enjoy, I did not enter graduate school at considerable public and personal expense to obtain the largely nontechnical position I now hold. I never labored under the illusion that I would go to graduate school and be handed an academic/research job; I did feel, however, that if I distinguished myself among my peers, published solid science, and did postdoctoral work that I would have a reasonable chance at an academic position. This is the way things used to be, or so I am told.

Allow me to make two observations regarding the lack of foresight among some of my senior peers. First, in the recent elections for officers, the candidates' statements discussed the Union's leadership role as a preeminent scientific organ. I was sorely disappointed to see only the most oblique references to "ephemeral economic cycles" (Marsh) and "assistance for career development" (Solomon). Ephemeral means short-lived or of only passing interest or value. To a tenured scientist, the present difficulties may so appear. But to many recent Ph.D.s it is a very real and personal crisis - certainly not an ephemeral cycle for us. Senior Union members are the ones who must be the advocates for those who will replace them (with downsizing it is not clear whether they will be replaced) and must stop ignoring the severe lack of opportunity for young scientists.

After careful thought, I will suggest some things that can be done about the problems in academia.

I would like to speak first and directly to faculty advisors. Those of you who recruit new graduate students should examine your motivations. Are you courting students for their benefit? A mutually beneficial academic relationship is desirable, but is it moral to recruit students mainly to further your own career? Ask yourself what your students' employment options are likely to be when they finish. Toward the end of my postdoc, I frequently asked new and prospective graduate students what they planned to do when they finished. I quickly learned that most were not very realistic or forward thinking. Most were caught up in the immediate concerns of getting in a good program and getting a good advisor. They had not really asked themselves what their expectations were upon finishing and if those expectations were realistic.

You can help your students by adapting your research to the current academic and commercial job market. This does not necessarily mean abandoning basic research, but it does mean carefully considering the kind of basic research you do.

It is time to acknowledge that the Ph.D. shortage is a myth. Be willing to downsize if necessary. Some universities, especially those that are economically forced to downsize, should consider eliminating Ph.D. programs. Proposals to develop new programs should not be approved unless they are focused toward graduating the majority of students with relevant training. Some departments refuse to capitulate to the changes in science and in so doing may be making themselves irrelevant. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with basic research in all fields of inquiry, nor am I suggesting that society turn all of its academic institutions into technical schools. However, it is time to recognize that those who graduate need jobs.

Academia needs to restructure itself in several ways. First, it is time to finally do away with the tired and time?worn tenure system. In addition to being elitist and antiquated, those who "intellectually retire" as associate or full professors need to make way for others. In its present form, the quest for tenure is so pressure?filled that it is almost certainly a cause of much intellectual retirement via burnout. Second, it is time to quit basing fulltime equivalents solely on enrollment. I have seen faculty water down introductory courses to lure students into their programs. Finally, we must advocate that some human endeavors (like science departments) have an intrinsic humanistic value worthy of a baseline level of support, while working to make them also relevant to society.

It is time to talk about these problems publicly rather than wringing our hands privately. AGU is strangely silent on these issues, yet could provide a strong, united voice. Talk to the media and lobby government officials about the long?term consequences of failing to nurture science and the careers of those we educate. Society must be taught that living standards and educational/scientific standards are not independent of each other. Our high living standards derive directly from the health of our academic institutions.

Senior scientists are those who have earned the medals, endowed chairs, and secured careers. You are the ones with a voice built upon your reputations and intellect. Use your voice for the sake of science and for those who would dearly love to do it. -

Stephen T. Nelson, Woodward Clyde Federal Services, Las Vegas, Nev.




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