Obsolence in Scientific Subdisciplines

Proflikesubstance notes the following (boldface mine):

The question of reducing the number of PhDs produced is a complex one and there’s simply no chance that the overall numbers will be reduced evenly across the board. It seems inevitable that certain fields are going to dry up and blow away and I think this has direct bearing on how we consider training students.

In my own lab we do several things that can more or less be divided into two camps, one of which is more “classical” and the other more cutting edge. Importantly, I have NSF funding for both, so each can be considered a viable enterprise from a funding perspective. However, there is a wild skew in the job prospects for students with training in one vs. the other.

This leads to a significant dilemma. Obviously I feel that both types of work are important and both contribute significantly, but there are just no jobs to do the classical work. And I don’t just mean no academic jobs. I mean that training in this particular field leaves you few options outside of an academic job, of which there are none. There is funding out there for this type of work, but it is not accessible if one can not find a faculty job to exploit it.

In my limited experience, most subdisciplines go through similar lifecycles. First, there’s the wilderness phase, where the technology and other needs are so underdeveloped, the field can’t accomplish much. Then a field becomes ‘hot’, with lots of jobs available. After five to ten years, the field becomes saturated, and departments say, “We already have one of those.” Typically, the successful PIs (junior and senior) are able to reinvent themselves, either by applying new approaches to their systems (“now we will do the genomics”) or by parlaying their previous success into an entree into a new subdiscipline (there was some of this surrounding the microbiome). Of course, the line between these two strategies is often blurry.

To answer proflikesubstance’s question, the real issue has two answers:

1) Are your students are able to be successful out of the gate?

2) Do they have the ability to reinvent themselves if needs be?

If not, then maybe the system needs to fail them earlier.

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2 Responses to Obsolence in Scientific Subdisciplines

  1. Robert L Bell says:

    This kind of thing has been going on since before the Allegory of the Cave: becoming educated renders you stupid in the eyes of the vulgar world.

    So as much as I believe Science and the veneration of Truth to be the highest calling in this world, I don’t think we do our students any favors by introducing them into the tradition. A few will succeed spectacularly, a few more will eke out satisfactory lives, but the rest are doomed to lives as bitter failures.

    Better instead that we funnel them into business school, which at least is valued by the larger society. In case you haven’t been paying attention, law school enrollments collapsing as well.

  2. I’ve seen this reflected in my own department. We all started out excited about science and ready to follow the path to academia. Then reality sets in and we all become disillusioned about the reality of science. Now, all but a few are pursuing “alternative” careers, which are useful but may be limiting scientific progress. And I’ve seen the issue of classical vs cutting-edge play out when my mentor was trying to renew his grant.

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