Friday, May 31, 2013

Science as Hustle and Bustle (5)

She said, "You know, honey, it's such a shame
You'll never be any good at this game
You bruise too easily", so said Mary

-- Billy Bragg

A seemingly minor incident while I was a PhD student appears to have made a big impression on me. A friend of a friend had just completed his master's degree and was looking into opportunities to do a PhD. After he explained his project to me, I thought that one of the professors at my department might find it interesting so I arranged a meeting between them. The idea was to get some input on the shape of the project and, of course, to see if the professor might want to supervise the thesis.

It ended up being a very informal and very short meeting. The prospective student explained a bit about his background, the content of his master's thesis and what he wanted to do as a PhD student. The professor then said plainly that the only thing that mattered was finding some funding. Until that was in place (and he expected the student to solve this problem by some "external" means), there wasn't really anything to talk about. At the time, I was shocked and embarrassed on behalf of my institution, but in the months that followed I began to notice that this professor had decided that the university reforms that were going on back then (I guess about ten years ago) had changed what he called "the game" (shades of The Wire!). He had, apparently, decided to become an honest cynic. He would no longer play the part of the fool who actually takes ideas seriously. The sooner he could disabuse a budding scholar of the notion that his ideas mattered, the better he now felt he was doing his job. He was not going to pretend an interest in anything but money.

I suppose the air was thick with "incisiveness" that day. Instead of cultivating an air of erudition and a genuine interest in the developing intelligence of a young scholar, this professor was challenging the prospective academic to become a "man of a different stamp". Get used to hustling yourself into the social and material conditions under which your research might get done, he was in effect saying. The "game" of simply demonstrating your ability to make a contribution to a serious intellectual community that is driven by its own collective curiosity about how the world works no longer exists. First you must validate yourself externally. You do this by arriving at the department you want to work at (and in the office of the professor you want to work with) with, at the very least, a plan for how you will attract resources to pay your way.

Industrial PhDs in particular are expected to play this game. They create the conditions under which to do three years of research by negotiating with industry sponsors on the one hand and research institutions on the other. They become intermediaries that bring a bag of money to the department that gives them a position, and intellectual credibility to the company that funds them. The student gets a change of pace and an extra qualification at the end. Everybody wins.

The problem is just that an assessment of the mind of the PhD candidate is not really very relevant. Just as happened with that professor many years ago, other issues force themselves into the foreground. The ambitious, driven young go-getter who wants to add an intellectual edge to their profile (and do some interesting work) is much better suited for this kind of thing than the reflective, troubled intellectual who wants to get to the bottom of things. Indeed, for reasons that a writing coach like me can only find tragic, it's altogether likely that from the point of view of ensuring "completion", the go-getter is usually the safer bet. There's a broad range of quality that will ultimately yield a degree. Those who are likely to produce exceptional work are, perhaps, also more likely to be undermined by their perfectionism and somewhat, ahem, "intuitive", work habits. This is the problem that increasingly (if only metaphorically) keeps me up nights. The curious, deep-thinking type is in danger of being crowded out by the ambitious, hard-working type.

Both of these figures are of course caricatures. But we need to think seriously about what sorts of characters we are attracting to and repelling from the university on the new conditions. It's probably not yet impossible to get job if you are obviously a genius but just unable or unwilling to hustle; nor is it yet possible, I hope, to get yourself one if you lack all scholarly abilities but own a winning smile and have mastered one of the arts of influence. Still, we're getting there, I sometimes fear. And the tragedy is that both types are indisputably virtuous. This isn't about good people and bad people, nor about who deserves to be rewarded and who doesn't. It's about what types of minds are likely to dominate in our universities in the generations to come.

Academies and corporations both carry out valuable functions in society. But academic values and corporate values are simply not the same thing, even if they are of equal value. (If it is possible to not understand it too quickly, let's say that they are of "equal and opposite" value.) To assume that if two things are both of value then they are of value in the same way is, well, totalitarian. It would be no better if our corporations began to valorize academic attitudes.


Andrew Gelman said...

Selection aside, I doubt that the "successful" prof in this game is winning much. Recall the retired sociology professor who blew the whistle on himself a couple years ago: after a decades-long successful career of being paid for a minimum expenditure of work (the traditional goal of many an academic), he woke up and realized he'd wasted his professional life.

Thomas said...

Yes, I remember that guy. The real problem here I guess is that "everybody wins" in the short term, and nobody does in the long term. Academia is not the only place where that's true.

In any case, I hope we don't let our sense of poetic justice obscure the damage that is being done to the institution. While the moral accounts (in terms of personal happiness) might "balance" in the end, we will be collectively, culturally poorer if people like that dominate.

Andrew Gelman said...


I agree completely. I wasn't thinking so much of poetic justice as that it's not always clear what the goals are of these players. We typically think of someone playing the game for some external reason, but often it seems that "winning" is the goal in itself (abetted, I agree, with some material benefits).

Regarding your point, one way to frame it is that we should want to align larger social goals to the individual incentive to "win." Sometimes this works (for example, a scientist gets fame and fortune for making a discovery that leads to some social benefit, an instructor gets rewarded for great teaching, etc). Other times, not so much.

Thomas said...

Hmmm. Lots here to discuss. My point is not that universities should have social benefits. In fact, that kind of thinking is part of the problem. After all, one person's social benefit is another's injustice. As I said in a previous post, a truth that is inconvenient for one faction is likely to be convenient for another. The important thing in the university has to be simply: is it true?

Even great teaching, it seems to me, is rewarding something that is not essential to the university. A university staffed by great teachers who aren't very good researchers would have a the same sort of problem as a university staffed by people who can secure funding but not discover the truth about things.

I'm talking about the intrinsic values of the university. And the only way I can put it is that we need a place where extremely curious, extremely intelligent people have chance simply to satisfy that curiosity, for no other reason than, well, that satisfaction.

That is, I'd like it to be a game that requires no incentive to win. Now that I hear myself saying it, I realize that's pretty naive. Still, I think it's an important point.

Thomas said...

"The economics question is whether it’s worth paying [moderate slackers] (in salary, retirement benefits, job security, and working conditions) in order to attract the dedicated scholars and teachers that make the system work." you say.

I completely agree that that's the question. And I think my inclination is to say, yes, the conditions have to be favorable to slackers in order to be favorable to genuine scholars. (There's probably a deep truth in that. Let's remember that the root meaning of "school" is "leisure".)

Andrew Gelman said...


You write, "My point is not that universities should have social benefits. In fact, that kind of thinking is part of the problem. After all, one person's social benefit is another's injustice."

Really? I think scientific discoveries, and scholarship more generally (musicology, history, whatever) has social benefits. Also I think we'd agree that there is a social benefit for there to be a place where such things are studied, no?

Thomas said...

[Sorry about the post-length reply, Andrew. I'm going to have to keep writing about this to find out what I really mean, I guess.]

I don't deny that there is a social benefit to science and scholarship. A society that has such things is (all else being equal) better than one that doesn't.

The problem arises when the social benefits of knowledge are used to justify the academic enterprise. There is a short slide from this to forcing individual research projects to justify themselves in terms of the specific benefits to society they may yield. Next, the process becomes competitive, so that the projects that are deemed most likely to benefit society get resources.

This puts individual scientists and scholars in the position of having to frame whatever they are curious about in terms of the societal benefits that happen to be the focus of science-policy makers at a particular time.

And that's where you have the situation of people chasing after some external sense of "value", rather than satisfying their own curiosity.

The social value of a university is that it is a site where people get to satisfy their curiosity, whether as students (who thereby also learn how to achieve that kind of satisfaction) or as faculty members (who are obliged to teach that skill).

I worry that we will soon live in a society full people whose curiosity about the world is forever piqued (by media), never satisfied (by schools).

Andrew Gelman said...


No apology needed. Writing is a way of figuring things out.

*eevs said...

"...the reflective, troubled intellectual who wants to get to the bottom of things." Check, I'm in trouble! Seriously, thank you for naming the issue I have been thinking lately. I'm already "in" meaning I'm working on my PhD project. Yet, I sometimes (well quite often) feel I'm quite "out" due to the fact that I want to get to the bottom of things. In the long run it is of course good for myself and for research in general when I get my ideas communicated. However, in the short run this seems like a lousy strategy as (almost) everyone emphasizes publishing. And what to publish when I'm still working on things, i.e. getting to t he bottom of it. Thus, thanks for you blog.

Thomas said...

Glad to be able to help, *eevs. The right attitude probably begins with the realization that there is no "bottom" to things. But the deeper you go, it is true, the darker it gets. Try not to cultivate the literary attitude of Joyce and Woolf: the affectation that true insight is always in "exile", "lonely". Scholarship seeks the truth that can be talked about, the truth that brings us together.

My worry in this series of posts, however, has been that we're starting to value togetherness and conversation over truth. Instead of the truth that is a conversation, we're heading towards conversation for its own sake, on the one hand, and the loneliness that is the truth about (the bottom of) things of things, on the other.

What we need is the "middle run" of a sustained conversation about things that matter.