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Not Good Enough.

14 April 2014

Ed Yong is one of the English language’s better science writers. He often weighs in on issues facing academia, in addition to reporting science. One of the biggest issues facing academia right now is the pipeline problem: too many PhDs are graduating compared with the number of professorships that will ever be available for them. This has led to the creation of intermediate steps like “post-doctoral scholar”, and in some places “instructor” or “assistant researcher”, which each have their own bars to hurdle, and their own attrition mechanisms. At each level some people leave. Too often, those who leave are considered, and called, failures by those who advance. Especially those who advanced long ago, before the pipeline narrowed as much as it does today.

This has resulted in people being considered “junior” investigators for nearly half their careers, usually. Because universities and funding agencies are so risk-averse, they expect scientists to be mentored and coached and coddled until “young” can be used only in jest. Or sarcastically. In many ways, it’s degrading and infantilizing to tell a scholar, trained for decades and published many times over, that they must still be buttressed against failure by crouching obsequiously beneath the umbrella of a grey-haired magister. Failure is incredibly useful. A topic for another day.

But on the other side of it, perverse incentives lead to the graduation of so many PhDs. Grant money is scarce. It’s much less expensive to pay a graduate student or a postdoc to do lab work than it is to hire full-time accomplished technicians or full-time researchers to collaborate. So more and more cheap labor is hired. More PhDs are trained. And the wide end of the pipe gets wider. Meanwhile, universities continue to divest themselves of tenure-track and equivalent positions. The narrow end gets narrower. I’ve read (but don’t recall the source – treat as speculative) that fewer than 10% of graduating PhDs can expect to end up in tenure-track positions. There are massive structural reasons that people cannot and do not advance.

And people write about it. Many people, when they leave, describe these structural reasons. Or family reasons. Or any number of reasons that they don’t advance. But something it seems we rarely read is, some people surely must not advance because they just aren’t good enough. Ed Yong put it this way:

Well, I haven’t exactly left academia. But I trained to be a professor of systems engineering. I have a Doctor of Science in Electrical and Systems Engineering from one of those fancy, elite universities. I had good connections and a prominent advisor. But I am not, and I will never be, a professor of systems engineering. And the reason is, I’m not good enough.

Studying systems engineering at the graduate level means doing a lot of theoretical mathematics. I spent five years doing proofs. Mostly, systems engineering revolves around being able to model and control how large numbers of objects interact with one another in complicated ways with respect to time. Usually, this means doing vast systems of nonlinear, time-varying, partial differential equations. Now, a lot is known about this field. In fact, it is provable that most such systems cannot be solved with what we call “closed form solutions”. Meaning, it is impossible to simply solve the equations and use them to calculate how the future state of a system will unfold. We have to manipulate. Approximate. Linearize.

I took an entire class on control systems on free-floating locally-Euclidean manifolds. So, imagine being on the surface of a doughnut, and you want to negotiate a spiral and end up where you started. That kind of thing. Your point-mass vehicle weighs X and has control functions Y and Z. You want to get from A to B in minimum time. What do your controls need to be and for how long? How do you stitch together locally-Euclidean reference frames that allow you to numerically solve the equations of motion for the brief period you’re located in each one? Before the non-linear effects overwhelm the linear approximations. This is the kind of work that put Curiosity on Mars. I got a B+ in that class.

I got a lot of B+’s in graduate school. B+’s are just a step above failing in graduate school. I even got a C in my class on Linear Dynamic Systems. Once we added in stochastic noise that needed to be filtered out, I got very confused. I needed to take the class a second time to understand it. The second time I got an A. And I deserved it. I worked hard for it.

Now, a real theoretical mathematician will read the above things and say, “that’s not theoretical math”! And they’d be right. It’s not. It’s applied math. Very, very difficult applied math. And I could do it. At least, I could follow along while the professor did the math on the chalkboard. Remember chalkboards? God I miss them. I could do that math well enough to understand the proofs and do most of my homework. But doing that applied math isn’t the real job of a professor of systems engineering. Sure, they do a lot of it, and solve problems and consult for NASA and other such organizations who need people who are really good at applied math.

The real job of a professor of systems engineering is to invent new math. That lets us solve new engineering problems. Or solve problems that we can’t currently solve because they’re too big, or too non-linear, or happen too quickly. A professor of systems engineering, a good one, isn’t so much dedicated to solving problems. They’re dedicated to building tools. That allow us to dream new problems to solve. A professor of systems engineering is a theoretical mathematician.

I am not. I’m not good enough. And I learned that pretty rapidly. Today, I use fairly simple math, and reasonably cool computer science, to solve huge, interesting, and relevant problems. I am a practicing engineer, not a theoretical engineer. I publish. I teach sometimes. I am an adjunct professor in a department of emergency medicine. I am a principal investigator at a hospital. But I’m not really an academic. I’m not a full-time professor. I’m not a full-time researcher. Mostly, I solve the problems my hospital asks me to solve. I’m good at it. And I’m happy at it.

I didn’t fail at academia. And the academy didn’t fail me. I’m a success story. While training to be a professor, I discovered I wasn’t very good at doing the things a professor in my field is expected to do. So, like the engineer I am, I built something. I built a career that didn’t exist when I started: a professional simulator of health care systems. I can’t do the theoretical math of a systems engineer. I can’t do the theoretical computer science of computer scientist. But I can use these tools to solve problems in healthcare delivery that no one has looked at in this way before. And that’s of interest to both the practical world, and to the academy. Just, not the same academy as the one I trained in.

To call what I did a failure, either of me, or of the system, is absurd! I’m doing interesting work, publishing it. I’m employed and my employer is happy with my work. But it is completely fair to say that I am not a professor of systems engineering because I am simply not very good at it. I confess.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Ed Yong permalink
    14 April 2014 06:40

    Thanks for this gracious, well-written response to a frankly douchey tweet. FWIW, my own story has parallels to this: I flunked out of a PhD because I simply wasn’t good enough at being a bench scientist, and found a gainful path elsewhere.

  2. 14 April 2014 06:57

    If I leave academia somewhere in the future it’s cause I’m not good enough at grant writing to stay in this business…

  3. 14 April 2014 09:28

    Well… from an economist perspective, there isn’t “not good enough”… there’s going to be a huge number of factors, ability only being one of them. If you’re a Nobel prize winner, you *might* be able to write your own ticket, but for the rest of us… I’m not good enough to be at Stanford, but I’m good enough for an R1. Of course, if I’d been lucky enough to start out at Stanford in some of the departments there, my publication and grant record about matches some folks who they’ve tenured (not in the economics department by any stretch, but in other schools that hire economists). But I wasn’t good enough or maybe I wasn’t lucky enough etc. to end up there. And who knows, with less teaching and better RAs, and some luck…(very likely my healthy ego is part of what has driven my success so far).

    Some of us are good enough to stay in academia, but not good enough to have every part of our life maximized. Some of us will leave because we want to live someplace else. And sure, if we were better we’d be able to get that tenured Stanford job (maybe), but that doesn’t mean we’re not good enough to be at our R1 or R2 or R3 or SLAC. And when leaving, not being good enough is not what we’re going to stress.

    Also, I think among TT and tenured women at least, there’s a lot of imposter syndrome, and it’s easy to get into a non-academic track with all the external forces of sexism and having to be better etc., especially when society is pushing the trailing spouse and mother narrative so hard. It’s ok to leave academia for the babies, for someone who feels like if they stay they’ll end up failing, so they lean out until they’re no longer “good enough”. Though if they’d started with confidence, that might not be the situation. It’s easier to stop trying than to be told no. At least you feel like it was your choice, even though with the patriarchy it’s often really just the path of least resistance and not true agency at all.

    • 14 April 2014 09:49

      This is important and insightful. And I knew that there would be issues relating to gender, and to URM status, for example. But I didn’t address them because first, I feel like I’m not the best person to do that, and second, because I was trying only to tell my own story, and not speculate about others. So I’m glad you brought it up.

    • astroprofhoff permalink
      14 April 2014 22:39

      I think this is a really good point by nicoleandmaggie. When we talk about being “good enough,” we need to specify “good enough for what?” There are lots of answers to that question (even within academia), and they’ll surely be different from person to person.

  4. 14 April 2014 20:06

    Great post, and I cannot add anything about my experience, other than at many points in my progression I felt the same. I just couldn’t find anything else I wanted to do differently.

    However, in my current position, I mentor and advise students all the time. In many cases they are trying to choose between say med school or Ph.D. I try my very best to illustrate the struggles that people with Ph.D. face in finding tenure track jobs. But I do tell them, getting a Ph.D., means that they are very good at solving problems. That doesn’t mean people without Ph.D.s are bad at it, but that by getting a Ph.D. you’ve demonstrated the ability to solve a large, meaningful problem, and very likely solved several practical problems along the way.

    And then I tell them, there is not a job in this world that doesn’t want problem solvers. Short-term, long-term, whatever, that is a skill that is in demand. It sounds like that’s exactly what you do with your degree, and I think its a fantastic success.

  5. Syd permalink
    15 April 2014 10:35

    I would look at a lot of colleagues in academia and see those who contributed little towards making the world a better place. Sure, they could publish on the obscure behavior of a cleaning shrimp or tell me how many antennal flicks an amphipod made, but the answering of real life problems surrounding fisheries and sustainability were not done by most academics. I see no shame in applied science. I see no shame in not wanting to be in academia. I see no stigma with any of the fields of inquiry. What I think is shameful is belittling those who seek answers to problems in other ways than through the academic structure.

    Many scientists are seeing academia for what it has become; an industry of cheap labor and false hopes. Many choose to stick it out because of a love for science, learning and teaching. Others will find work in government or industry, making more money and will feel liberated and free from the constant stress of graduate work and research. I believe most students come in to graduate school because of a love for science, but it has become so disheartening and scary over the last decade or so. I think it is important for current students to know and understand that there are other things to do in life that are more fruitful, less stressful and just as intellectually stimulating and rewarding. Being a professor, in the current funding climate, requires a level of sacrifice for science that fewer and fewer of the most talented and brightest scientists will make. A PhD isn’t just a means to create professors; it teaches people a crucial skill that is useful in many different careers and ventures–how to think scientifically. That is a valuable thing, even outside of the domain knowledge you will learn.

  6. 15 April 2014 15:19

    I responded to Ed Yong’s tweet saying that I don’t feel good enough to be an academic either (though I am one). The thing is, it sounds like by creating your own career path (it sounds very impressive, btw), I could see in the future Dr. 24hours Professor of integrated health systems engineering or Ed Yong, Professor of Science communication at institution xyz. Those positions might not exist yet, but they could. Really good post!

  7. j2bryson permalink
    17 April 2014 01:06

    I’ve got tenure, but I’m increasingly thinking I’m not good enough, or at least not doing well enough, to justify the high number of hours for the low salary and the long term (8 years!) separation from my partner.


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