Math, Shop Class, and Home Brewing: How Credentialism Is Killing Science

2. March 2012

by Danny Rogers

A few weeks ago, Mike Lazaridis, the founder of the Blackberry-maker Research in Motion and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, delivered a plenary speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled “The Power of Ideas.” In it, he described his experiences as a 10th grader taking honors classes in math and science along with shop class—a curriculum you would rarely see nowadays.

He recalled reading a manual for a dual-channel oscilloscope in his school's electronics shop and connecting “...the abstract math and science concepts I was learning upstairs with the devices I could touch and do cool things with downstairs.” He pointed out that this was before any distinction was made between science courses and shop classes—a separation that he describes as an “...upstairs-downstairs mentality.” Mike's words are prescient, and they say a lot about the current state of science and education.

What’s a degree worth?
At its core, a modern university is a place where young people go to obtain a a certificate stating that they have obtained a certain proficiency in a given topic. Twenty years ago, when most young people didn't go to college, meeting the standards of an accredited university carried significant weight with employers.

However, in today’s environment of legacy admissions and for-profit colleges, the value of the degree has weakened. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds from the Washington Examiner, overpriced degrees and cheap student loans have inflated the value of higher education in much the same way that cut-rate mortgages blew up the U.S. housing market, leading to a bubble.

As Joseph Cronin and Howard Horton argue in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a 440 percent increase in the average tuition over the past 25 years supports this idea. Peter Thiel, renowned Silicon Valley entrepreneur and PayPal founder, argues in a recent interview that the bubble is about to burst. He posits that credentialism—the pursuit of degrees in lieu of a determined, practical, hands-on career path—creates a false sense of accomplishment and ultimately stifles innovation. In fact, he blames the higher education bubble in part for what he observes to be a stall in technology development over the past 50 years:

“...There is something like $1 trillion in student debt. A cynical view is that that represents $1 trillion worth of lies told about the value of higher education... Bubbles end when people stop believing the false narrative and start thinking for themselves. So many students are not getting the jobs they need to repay their debts, are moving back in with their parents, and the contract both parties signed up for is being revealed as false.”

Of bubbles and brews
How did this bubble come about in the first place? Oddly enough, I think beer can shed some perspective (as it does on so many issues!). In a recent article for Slate Magazine, Dave Conz, a professor at Arizona State University, discussed his love for home brewing—a passion I happen to share. It is a hobby that has permeated science and engineering communities everywhere. (If you are an OSA member, chances are that you know someone who home brews.) He points out that home brewing not only illustrates the creativity and industriousness it takes to be truly innovative, but also demonstrates the shortcomings of credentialism.

He cites Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, who “...argues that the elimination of industrial arts and home economics classes from public school curricula has left us dependent on machines that we don’t understand and frustrated by the outsourcing and off-shoring of production.”

While many of today's science and engineering students can comprehend how machines work, most of that understanding is likely theoretical—simply because that is how it is taught. And why is it taught that way? Because it is generally cheaper and easier to present facts and work out problems on paper than it is to actually play around with things in the lab.

A matter of taste
However, there are holdouts. Dan Meyer, a visionary math teacher from California, teaches his students to compute volumes using drawings and formulae, but then he gives them a bucket, a tape measure and hose and tells them to check their work. He admits that this type of hands-on teaching is more difficult (and probably more expensive), but his students come away with a true appreciation for the math they learned in class and might even go on to become the next Mike Lazaridis.

Conz points out that DIY brewers make beer using anything from their kitchen stove to an “...arduino-controlled, fully automatic, trailer-mounted 'brew sculpture.'” However, to most homebrewers, one’s “rig,” as it is often called, does not matter. The key concern is how the beer tastes.

A post-credentialist future
This is the ultimate counterargument to credentialism. Budweiser—America's largest brewery—has state-of-the-art facilities across the country. They culture their own yeast, and their teams of enthusiastic scientists perform exhaustive quality control. And yet, despite these indisputable credentials, their beer just doesn’t taste very good. I'll take the smaller, lesser-known microbrews from Baltimore or the beautifully complex sour from a Belgian abbey any day.

The same should go for science. The solution to the education bubble is valuation based on technical merit, work product and quality, not credentials. I have often advocated for a double-blind review process for journal articles. Reviewing would be more difficult since referees would be forced to judge work only on its own merit, but a double-blind process would eliminate the inflated value of credentials over work quality.

In a post-credentialist world, hiring would be based on ability rather than transcripts, and students would be encouraged to take shop class and honors math. Good mechanics or plumbers would be widely venerated as the talented craftsmen they are.

Ultimately, the value and quality of what we create should be our key determinant of worth in the workplace. In the end, it really is the taste that matters.

Danny Rogers (danny@dannyrogers.net) is a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of OPN or OSA.

 

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Viewpoint: The Death of the Ph.D. Is Not So Greatly Exaggerated

18. April 2011

By Danny Rogers

You are a young, enthusiastic student who loves the rigor of science, the excitement of discovery, and the creativity of piecing together new knowledge about the world. You go to grad school to get your Ph.D., but you find that your advisor is aloof and the work is irrelevant.

You wait, wallowing in self-doubt as your peers go on to productive careers, hoping that one day your hard-earned credentials might mean something in the world.

I know a graduate student in this situation. She is among countless silent, disenfranchised young researchers. As she prepares to graduate, she is finding the supposedly rock-solid science job market to be softer than ever. She asks herself every day, “Was this worth it?”

A recent article in The Economist argues that it isn’t. The subtitle reads “Why doing a Ph.D. is often a waste of time.” On the surface, it’s difficult to argue with the author. Why do we sacrifice our late twenties, when we are often at our most energetic and creative, to do academic research for a third of the minimum wage while our business school friends are pulling down six figure salaries?

It’s a good question, especially when research dollars are waning and state budgets are in shambles. Tuition is outpacing inflation even as unemployment remains high. Many tenured researchers who contribute little to their field may be living on borrowed time. There may come a point when schools simply won’t be able to pay them all, and their Ph.D. students will have to look elsewhere for gainful employment.

Does all that mean that the Ph.D. was a waste of time? Despite these concerning forecasts and statistics, I argue that it is not. Here’s why:

• Graduating with a Ph.D. demonstrates that you have tackled at least one objectively difficult problem early in your career.
• Finishing your doctoral degree shows that you have the intelligence and flexibility to gain an independent level of expertise in a field that was new to you only a few years ago.
• Having a Ph.D. means you may not be quite as intimidated as the next person when presented with complex challenges.

If you are a graduate student looking for a job, these are important assets to highlight as you approach employers. The experience of doing Ph.D.-level research still carries significant weight in the professional world.

But that doesn’t let academia off the hook. Schools must adapt in order to prepare their students with more diverse skills as academic jobs dwindle and alternative careers dominate. Professional degree programs have been doing this for years; medical and law degrees routinely come with courses in ethics, communications, and finance. Science education needs to catch up or risk becoming irrelevant.

We already see innovative schools offering graduate programs tailored toward industrial careers or curricula that include communications skills such as writing or delivering effective presentations. Georgetown University offers a Ph.D. in industrial physics that includes an internship at an industrial firm. Cooper Union requires its students take winter-term courses in presentation skills.

These innovations will be the future of academia. Schools that embrace them will survive; those that don’t may not.

Yes, the death of the Ph.D. is exaggerated, but not by as much as you might expect. If we want the degree to remain relevant, academic science must come down from the ivory tower and start teaching the skills that the world demands.

Danny Rogers (danny@dannyrogers.net) graduated with his Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Maryland in 2008. He is currently a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of OPN or OSA.

 

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Think Beyond Academia in Your Job Search

30. August 2010

By Danny Rogers

When I was a grad student about to enter the job market a couple years ago, I attended a panel session at an American Physical Society meeting about non-traditional careers for physicists. The first speaker, Don Engel, described a realization he had had while he was a grad student. One day he looked around at his lab mates and counted seven other students and four post-docs, all working for one relatively senior professor. In all, he counted 12 people being trained to take over one job.

The math didn’t work out. The job ads seem to indicate that academic positions outnumber industrial ones 3 to 1. And yet, with all of these students and post-docs competing for one professor’s job, where were the other 11 going to go?

If they aren’t entering academia after graduation, where are all of these other jobs to which they’re flocking? We don’t hear about a lot of unemployed physicists, even in these challenging economic times. It is a legitimate question that should dawn on every student as they near the end of grad school.

What is the lesson for new job seekers?

Be creative. Most of us begin our searches in the same place—with our advisers. However, more often than not, our advisers’ advice simply reflects their own career paths, which always have the same ending: an academic professorship. To fully consider your options, think more broadly and creatively. What kinds of jobs outside of academic science would benefit from someone with your unique skill set? What other interests of yours, whether food or fashion or finance, have a strong scientific or mathematical component that you may not have considered?

Be open-minded. Try searching mainstream job boards like Monster.com or SimplyHired.com for science-related positions, and be open to opportunities that may not be what you initially had in mind. I recently had lunch with a senior scientist for Tropicana. You know, the juice company? Turns out there is a lot more science to producing fresh-tasting orange juice year-round than simply building a giant factory full of squeezing machines. 

Market yourself. Bill yourself as a scientist who can do math. Point out that what you really learned in grad school was not just your thesis topic, but the ability to deeply analyze and excel in challenging new subjects.

Be persistent. Even through you may apply for literally dozens of jobs, and you may be rejected from many, you only need one. Check your ego and keep trying.

Match who you are with what you do. Academia is about scholarship and teaching, so before simply being herded in that direction, think carefully about whether it would be a good fit for your personality. Are you willing to put up with the lower pay and long, uncertain track to tenure? Do you like teaching young people? If not, industry may be more suitable. However, industry often requires a faster pace, longer hours, and broader communications and management skills than we typically learn in graduate school. Other options might include public policy, science communications, and entrepreneurship. Which options plays best to your strengths?

Network, network, network. Instead of limiting your search to the back pages of Physics Today, look around and, more important, ask around. What are the “other 11” you know doing after graduate school?

Don’t try to write the story of your career before it has happened, and don’t be afraid to become one of the other 11—I did, and I have never looked back.

Danny Rogers (danny@dannyrogers.net) graduated with his Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Maryland in 2008. He is currently a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A. For more advice from Danny, read his related column in the Career Focus column of Optics & Photonics News this October.

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