Wednesday, April 21, 2010

You have a Ph.D.?? Who doesn't!

I just finished reading Peter Feibelman's fantastic book, "A Ph.D. is not enough", about career advice for fresh (and also slightly staler) Ph.D.s. I very highly recommend this 100 page slim little volume. There's a blurb from the great Carl "Papa" Djerassi on the cover saying that you will get from this book in one hour what it took Djerassi 40 years to learn. Djerassi may be exaggerating, but he is close. Feibelman himself was a physics professor at SUNY Buffalo and was then a member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, so he has seen the world and tasted its ugly side.

The book was written in 1993 but its contents are as relevant as ever, and probably even more relevant in this age of tight funding and layoffs. It's got the whole works; from applying for postdoc positions (be realistic, pick a project which you think you can actually finish) to picking a postdoc advisor (don't pick a flashy young professor who would be loathe to share credit), job interviews (don't be a dilettante), writing grants (be modest in your goals even as you emphasize the big picture), giving a talk (OMG he talks about slides and projectors!), to choosing between academia and industry.

The last part is particularly intriguing and Feibelman has some novel advice for wannabe professors. Unless you are hell-bent on an academic position and wouldn't want to even think of anything else, Feibelman quite emphatically discourages plunging into academia as an assistant professor. The pay is low, respect is lacking, it's one hell of a rope trick to secure funding without any significant past background, there's basically no vacation, tenure is always uncertain, and you keep wondering when you will get publishable results even as you spend most of your time explaining to pre-meds why they deserved a D on their last exam. In short, you have no life and there's lots of necessary conditions that you have to satisfy to stay afloat, none of which is sufficient.

Better than this, says Feibelman, is to start working in a goverment or industrial lab where you (hopefully) have plenty of time for research, establish a solid reputation with financial security, and then apply to a university at the tenured professor level. Of course this is easier said than done. These days it's hard to do basic research in industry and you are afraid of losing your job every day. But I think Feibelman's point is well taken; unless you have absolutely no interest in anything other than an academic position, it's definitely worthwhile considering a more indirect path to academia where you actually have a life. My old PhD advisor actually did that and it worked out well for him.

In any case, read this little book if you are a fresh, red faced, scared little new PhD. Which many of us are at some point.


Thursday, April 08, 2010

New hominid fossil has a 9-year old discoverer

A boy in South Africa has stumbled upon Australopithecus sediba, a possible Homo erectus ancestor who demonstrated both upright walking traits as well as the ability to swing with apelike arms among trees. In the hunt for transitional forms in human evolution, this is clearly an important touchstone. The report will be published in Science this Friday. The 9-year old boy named Matthew Berger accidentally came across the remarkably well preserved fossil, situated close to the site where his father Lee Berger has been excavating for years. The site also contains fossils of carnivores and is at the bottom of a cliff, indicating that both humans and animals might have lost their footing and fallen to their deaths, either when the humans were chasing the animals or vice versa.

Just one question. Since the boy discovered the fossil, shouldn't the paper bear his name as co-author? Or are 9-year olds safely ignored for authorship on Science papers? Although he is mentioned in the paper as the discoverer, it seems a little unfair especially for a field like paleontology, where the initial discovery is the most important event.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Obama should be much more like George H W Bush

Yes, the comparison would probably make him cringe, but Freeman Dyson makes an interesting and accurate observation in an interview. He notes that the two presidents most responsible for dramatic arms reductions were both Republican; Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush.

HW especially reduced nuclear weapons stockpiles by a greater percentage than any other president. He was responsible for negotiating the START treaty with the Soviet Union which remains the largest and most complex arms control treaty in history; its final implementation in late 2001 resulted in the removal of about 80 percent of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence.

As Dyson notes, for all the enthusiasm on the left, Obama is actually doing much less than both Reagan and Bush and needs to do much more to reduce nukes. Maybe, as Dyson wryly says, one needs to be a right wing Republican to get rid of nuclear weapons.
"Dyson: Well he should be doing much more. I mean this is… I like Obama and I like what he is doing, but this is not at all impressive. George Bush, Sr., did far more. I mean George Bush, Sr., got rid of more than half of our nuclear weapons just like that. He was the one who really got rid of nuclear weapons on a big scale, but George Bush, Sr., was careful because he was a Republican. He did it very quietly. He didn’t want to have his name associated with that, but he got it done. Of course with Obama it’s sort of the opposite that he would like to get the credit for it, but he is not really doing it, and so it’s, I think he should be doing far more and I hope he will, but he is in a much more difficult position. It helps to be a right-wing Republican if you want to disarm..."

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