So the Twitter is all a twitter over evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson’s latest op-ed in which he offers this dreadful advice (boldface mine):
Over the years, I have co-written many papers with mathematicians and statisticians, so I can offer the following principle with confidence. Call it Wilson’s Principle No. 1: It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.
This imbalance is especially the case in biology, where factors in a real-life phenomenon are often misunderstood or never noticed in the first place. The annals of theoretical biology are clogged with mathematical models that either can be safely ignored or, when tested, fail. Possibly no more than 10% have any lasting value. Only those linked solidly to knowledge of real living systems have much chance of being used.
If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan to raise it, but meanwhile, know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have. Think twice, though, about specializing in fields that require a close alternation of experiment and quantitative analysis. These include most of physics and chemistry, as well as a few specialties in molecular biology.
For the life of me, as a trained evolutionary biologist, I fail to see how evolutionary biology doesn’t require quantitative analysis. But I digress. Because the real issue that this advice could only be offered by an 83 year-old BSD scientist from Harvard:
BREAKING!! Senior tenured faculty member at Harvard and leader in his field can find others to do the technical bits while he thinks Huge Fucking Thoughts. Guess what role you’ll play?
Now back to our regularly scheduled post. First, most PhDs won’t wind up in tenure track jobs. Like mothers used to tell daughters in days past, learn how to type. In other words, have options. If you can do some math or statistics, you have a skill that could allow you to do science–even if it’s outside of academia (AAAIEEE!!!!). Second, employers will be interested in you doing certain things–the Big Thought stuff, at least initially, is their purview (even if they suck at it). They’re not interested in hiring thinkers.
Of course, scientists need think conceptually and broadly, and the overemphasis on models can be harmful (economists are the worst about this, where they attempt to convince politicians to change reality when reality violates the assumptions of their models). But in an era of declining funding, having a well developed set of technical skills can keep you gainfully employed as a scientist (it’s like he doesn’t read my blog or something….).
Wilson’s column appears to be part of the long tradition of very successful people giving the rest of us really bad advice.