How we construct ‘failure’ and professional communities.

Bethany Brookshire (perhaps better known in the blogosphere as SciCurious) has posted moving personal musings on her experience “failing” as an academic scientist and of being failed by the system that trained her to be one. She notes that grant-writing was the canary in the career coal mine for her. While she loved doing research, and still loves writing (which has become her professional focus in the aftermath of her tenure track faculty aspirations), she found she couldn’t generate new, important, and fundable ideas to drive a research agenda. Indeed, Brookshire’s experience of scientific training was that mentors weren’t teaching her how to generate such ideas, nor even giving her many opportunities to try doing so. It wasn’t until her postdoctoral research that she discovered that what felt like an essential ingredient for success as an academic scientist was not a tool in her toolbox.

And yet, her scientific training seemed to have a singular focus on pointing trainees toward a career as an academic scientist, preferably at a research-focused university. She writes:

I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that “success” looked like a tenure track position. It doesn’t help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I’ve been told that it’s my fault that I didn’t stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my “former life”, I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.

I know now that 80% of PhDs won’t get a TT position. I think I always knew, deep down, that I wasn’t in the top 20%. And I like what I do now! I’m good at it! It’s fun! It’s interesting! I like the people I work with and the things we talk about and the atmosphere. I feel like I am learning and growing every day. I think I can be successful in this. I think I can still make a difference in the world, maybe a really, really powerful one. Possibly a bigger difference than I ever could have made in science. But it’s not academia, and sometimes, it still feels like failure.

Maybe academia failed me in more than one way. Maybe it would have been better had I NOT had that koolaid to drink. If it had been openly acknowledged and “ok” for people to go after non-TT positions (everyone SAYS it’s ok, of course, if asked, they will always SAY it’s ok and encouraged. But what they say, and what they do, are very different things).

As someone who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and then promptly leaked out of the science pipeline myself, I can identify with the feelings Brookshire describes. I recognize the anxiety involved in plotting a career trajectory and then trying to discover or decide whether you’re suited for the form of life of that career. I also remember seeking, but not always finding, the information I would need to make this discovery or decision. Getting that information earlier, rather than later, could make a difference, informing how you invest your time and effort — and whether you cling to your original plans or explore other possible trajectories instead.

I’m using both “discover” and “decide” above because I recognize there are differences of opinion here, and though I have my own hunches, the jury’s still out. “Discovery” suggests to me that there are objective facts about the skills and inclinations required to succeed as an academic scientist, as well as hard limits to what someone lacking them could do to get them. “Decision,” on the other hand, frames things in terms of the ends one sets for oneself (given one’s skills and inclinations, but a whole mess of other factors besides).

The setting of ends as a feat of human agency matters here, since “failure” is always relative to some particular goal. The hard question that those training new scientists (or new members of other disciplines more broadly) really should grapple with is who is setting the goal? Who is judging particular trajectories worth pursuing or not?

For those being trained in a discipline at the Ph.D. level, it is very hard not to internalize the voice of the advisor with respect to what “success” looks like. It is also very common for the definition of “success” against which you are judged — against which you come to judge yourself — to be very narrow indeed.

This is a problem for the people being trained who discover (sometimes quite late in the process) that the odds of “success” after all of their hard work are much lower than they imagined. It creates conditions where social ties forged in the crucible of one’s training become fragile because of the Malthusian competition in conditions of increasing scarcity.

Academic science red in tooth and claw may not have much of an actual body count, but not succeeding in the one approved trajectory (and further, believing that success in that trajectory is a matter of pure merit rather than of non-deterministic factors) can render you someone discounted, dead to your chosen profession, forgotten by those you trained with and those who trained you.

This is a problem for people being trained in these disciplines, but it isn’t just a problem for them. It’s also a problem for their disciplines.

I imagine at this point someone might pipe up and assert that the point of Ph.D. training is precisely to produce additional academic researchers in the field — in other words, that it is nothing more and nothing less than career training for the One True Path.

If that were so, of course, it might surely be humane to train fewer people, or ethical to admit that the cynics are right that Ph.D. programs in the sciences exist largely to recruit throngs of relatively cheap laborers to do research for the scientists advising them. As well, if the whole point of the Ph.D. program were to provide job training for the One True Path, then the training offered is often pretty deficient, missing vital components like serious attention to grant writing, working with the IACUC or the IRB, teaching, mentoring, or being an effective member of a collaborative team or a committee.

Maybe we should recognize that another reason for engaging in Ph.D.-level training is to learn how new knowledge is built in a discipline by actually participating in building some.

Further, we could acknowledge that, while the skills developed in learning how to build new knowledge in your field are essential in pursuing the One True Path (in which you would devote your career to building new knowledge in your field), these skills also have the potential to be applicable in a wide range of other situations and careers. We could notice that people might have an interest in seeing the knowledge-building from the inside without wanting to make a lifetime commitment to building more knowledge.

Recognizing broader value and utility of the lessons learned from being immersed in knowledge-building is the kind of thing that could change both the experience of being a Ph.D. trainee and of being part of a professional community.

If there is One True Path that defines success, that makes it harder to explore other trajectories or to seek the training, experiences, or information one might want to evaluate them. Doing so is viewed as defeatist thinking or a distraction from preparation for the One True Path (not to mention from generating results from your advisor’s research projects).

If there is One True Path, advisors and graduate programs can convince themselves that they have no individual or collective responsibility for providing any of the training, experiences, or information relevant to other career trajectories. Why would you need any of that in a program focused on preparing you for the One True Path? Indeed, the people training you, those who have succeeded on the One True Path, may say, “What know I of other paths? Information about requirements of those paths I have not. Train you for them I cannot.” (Like Yoda, advisors sometimes speak with syntax that is challenging for trainees to follow.)

If we embrace the One True Path as defining both what counts as professional success for trainees and who even counts as properly in our professional community, we doom large proportions of those trained to failure and professional death. In so doing, those charged with the task of training new members of the profession squander the potentially rich network they might be building of people trained in their discipline who have succeeded in other paths — people who could, among other things, share training, experiences, or information with those in the process of learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline, with those still in the process of deciding their own trajectories.

Recognizing that some of the people engaged in learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline may end up choosing other trajectories for themselves doesn’t lessen the value of your discipline. Recognizing that the skills developed during Ph.D. trainings have broader applicability doesn’t lessen the value of Ph.D. training. Indeed, noticing the utility of those skills in a wide array of situations would argue for greater value. Sending the tentacles of your disciplinary community further into the world would speak to the relevance of your discipline.

Cedar Riener explains this quite nicely:

The gatekeeping scientists that have told Sci she is a failure, or not a real scientist, think the currency of science should be creating new knowledge (and new, expensive, fundable knowledge, at that). What they don’t realize is that by denying the multiplicity of ways of being a scientist, in seeking to carefully guard the prestige they have so carefully amassed, they are diminishing their own status. In chipping away at their own exclusive island, they are ignoring the public sea levels of discontent with science that continue to rise. The biologist might snicker, as political science gets its entire NSF funding cut, thinking “Well, it wasn’t a real science after all.” But the biologist ignores that just because he is standing on higher ground, doesn’t mean that the logic of people like Tom Coburn will spare basic biological science. Too many legislators are happy to call biology science, but really what they want is immediately applicable medical research. Which results in idiotic statements like Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research and real harm to basic science funding.

So here’s my challenge to Sci (and hearty defense of my own work): You ARE a scientist. Stand on that island and say “I am Science, hear me roar!” and do the things you love to do, promote science, explain science, call out shady science, etc. This too is science. If it is not we are all lost. Science will not regain public trust through careful exclusivity and identity policing.

Defining success for those training in a discipline in terms of One True Path — even if we only do it implicitly (say, by describing everything else as an “alternate” career path and professing our helplessness to prepare trainees for those) — means setting up most trainees for failure. It means recognizing a much smaller and less diverse professional community, one that is less well-positioned and less able to interact with the larger society than it might be if success were defined more broadly.

It means disrespecting trainees’ abilities to set their own ends. It means undervaluing their happiness.

Why on earth would anyone want to join a professional community that did that?

(Crossposted at Adventures in Ethics and Science)

2 thoughts on “How we construct ‘failure’ and professional communities.

  1. Pingback: How we construct ‘failure’ and professional communities. | Adventures in Ethics and Science

  2. Pingback: 2014 Through the Academe Blog: January | The Academe Blog

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