Returning to Practice
I’ve been interviewing Millennials for work.
In one sense, that is no surprise at all. Many of the students applying for graduate programs stay in the same age range. I have, by contrast, gotten older. Incoming students who were approximately my age (or older) are now the age of my children (or younger). This is the nature of the cycle of life (cue the music from “The Lion King,” which is now considered “Classic Disney”). So, why was this experience different?
First, and most important, was that I was not interviewing people for work in the Lab. These were postdoctoral fellows applicants for Department of State positions. The vast majority of them are still just a few years from their PhD dissertation, experiencing a very different world and context than I did when I was interviewing for my first faculty position. Well, that suggests another difference: I interviewed for a faculty position, and never seriously considered a postdoc. I have spent months engaged with discussions of the role of scientists and engineers engaged in Science Diplomacy, and the interplay of innovation and policy—quite frankly, the education I had come to Washington to have in this very interesting and challenging period. These folks aren’t being recruited to work on my favorite projects, or to have exactly the sort of background I would like a GROUPER to have… but there was still a request from my unit chief for what sorts of people to identify in the stack of resumes and personal statements.
Signs of life.
I was starting to wonder about what that would look like in this context, and in fact, I was starting to question if my time away from the university had left me cynical or unable to see beyond my own narrow daily priorities. Maybe it was a broader sense of unease with the sudden transition from a snowstorm in late March to 90 degree days in late April. Where and how and when was I operating? (I had come to feel a certain sense of stress and negative anticipation regarding my transition back to Purdue, starting in late March when I was requested to provide new course syllabi for my Fall classes. There are new opportunities for next academic year, but after eight months here in Washington, I am neither ready to start right back in on the academic world, nor think in terms of another full annual cycle of activity here.)
And yet, my unit chief wanted me to not only be involved in the interviews, but to craft a few questions for them. It was, as I have said before, a bit different to operate in support of others, instead of being my own “Principal,” but that is part of my learning these days. I’ve also been learning a lot about the differences in cultures of science, and hearing about the distinct experiences of what I have come to call, “Millennial Scholars” (those who may be part of the generation born in 1985 or later, but also have completed their advanced STEM degree programs since 2010). I’ve even produced a few of those people myself, but I already knew enough not to look for people just like Ashley or Karim or Marissa or Jeff (or those who are in the lab now). The discussions in the AAAS meetings in Boston and Washington still had an immediacy and curiosity to me: I was meeting so many people interested in a concept, science policy, that I had long thought was an oxymoron. Why were they interested in this? What new was going on?
What are the challenges and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, of these Millennial Scholars?
This is, in my experience with the lab, a “signs of life” question. Signs of life it had become a part of my thinking at a time where spring is definitely upon us in Washington. I’m walking much more around the city again, and over the past few weeks, I have been able to enjoy the cherry blossoms and new plants and warm weather. In other words, “signs of life returning” was part of my daily experience.
Figure 1. Signs of life: Tulips at the bus stop
The answers were also informative, as well as reminders of an earlier age. There were those who seemed to have trouble thinking about themselves, and their colleagues, in such a comparative context. However, this compared to several who actually commented about the relative lack of a sense of historical comparison as a weakness of Millennials. What was another weakness? There were several comments about the ease with which new information and new activities and experiences were available, leading to a sense of being dabblers in a variety of skills (“jacks / jills of all trades, masters of none”). In fact, that ease of collecting and novelty even extended to the strengths and weaknesses of networking. Although the world of embassies and interagency discussions and think tank receptions clearly indicates a value to the work of engaging with others… there is a difference between engaging in an effective, distributed knowledge network, and collecting friends and likes as a way of keeping score.
I found myself curiously replaying one conversation in my mind, about the concept that Millennials were more interested in finding ways to align their actions and employment with their passions. Now remember, I lived in Cambridge, MA and California during the 1980s startup crazes, where people were all about passion. I heard the Flower Children talking about living a life of meaning and service. And, most importantly, I have learned how much my career as a professor is actually well aligned with my passion for exploration and sharing what I found.
Figure 2. Albert sharing a sense of passion. Maybe science diplomacy was never so far from my thinking after all. (At the National Academies Keck Center, 500 E St NW)
Was this really different? And then I heard an interesting alternative take on this thought. “Well, if I can’t rely on a pension or Social Security to be around, there is no reason for me to trade boredom for security.” From that discussion, I was transported back to the first few times I taught the course Sociotechnical Systems at Wisconsin. I had known about two different models of work and income as “covenants”: income and status as a way of demonstrating success and favor, or work as a demonstration of one’s passion and artisan’s skills. It took discussion and debate in class for me to learn that there was a large population with a third approach: work was something one does to get enough income to spend the rest of one’s time doing what one really preferred to do. Apparently, lots of people live that way, whether they’re working second shift at the auto parts store, or vice president of global distribution for the auto parts company. I have not chosen to live that way, and I can’t really imagine doing something I hate just to have the income to do what I love, later. Is that what others were assuming we were all doing? Or were others doing this a lot more than I was ever aware?
I felt like I had come full circle in the discussion, and my awareness of my own experience as a young scholar. I am convinced that there are confusions in each generation, not sensing the range or intensity of experience from when prior generations were young and emerging, like new plants bursting into the sunlight and struggling against snow and wind and dangerous frost. I can appreciate it much more now, because I have been in both places, and I have come to feel them both. I am not yet done with the intensity of feeling and learning. And yes, I am still pleased to take a moment on a Spring day and feel the sensual joy of lamb’s ear as I walk from meeting to office or home. Because, even after a great enlightenment, a return to practice and repeat of small things still has value.
Figure 3. Lamb’s ear on 19th St NW. A good reminder of small lessons.
June 7, 2017
Fishes and Ponds
Among academic metaphors, it is one of the more popular, even among people who don’t have a pervasive aquatic metaphor infusing their entire lab. This time of year, it’s considered often, among new grad students, new faculty, and established faculty considering a new position:
Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?
Figure 1. Koi experiencing a bit of Japan in Washington, DC
(Let me not leap to “big fish, big pond” territory right away.) In essence, this is a question about “fit”. Some places are major research institutions, where annual expenditures for the college of engineering or science may be measured in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Some places want to be such research institutions, but may have additional emphasis on teaching, or lesser resources available, or just aren’t as committed to the task. And other places are not research focused at all. Maybe it’s the lovely undergraduate-only institution where the entire student body and faculty and staff can fit in the lower bowl of the basketball arena of Enormous State University (which may or may not be a major research institution).
Unfortunately, this is also a question about ego, and aspiration, and social desirability. What’s a big fish? Apparently, someone who is successful at “the game” of having a large research portfolio, lots of publications, lots of students. If there’s a competition, that’s okay with them, since they’ll probably win. Maybe they thrive on competition. Maybe they like the acknowledgement of winning the award, or touting their h-index, or their success in amassing whatever it is that counts (as my friend reminded me recently) as the coin of that realm. As Depeche Mode would sing (as I was first learning that I liked this research thing), “Everything Counts in Large Amounts”.
But, let’s be clear. Not everyone wants that life, or that world, or that type of competition. That does not make them lesser creatures. I am considering the story I just heard about a successful research faculty who decided to shift to a small, undergraduate teaching institution. I am learning about the cultures of university departments where, for whatever reason, tenure is extremely difficult, or moderately straightforward, to achieve. On the other hand, some folks are learning that the constant pressure to compete for funding, for publications, for attention, is not something that feeds their soul or enhances their quality of life: the extra dollars and accolades are just not worth it.
I continue to be amazed, and a little disappointed, at how frequently this issue comes up in questions to me and to my students. Will I be upset if one of the GROUPERs goes into industry, or to a regional or teaching university, or ***shudder*** has to take a job in government? For lots of faculty at research institutions, there is only one valid career path… and it just so happens to look like the path they took, to be faculty at a research institution. I don’t believe in that assumption, and I have said so in some fairly public settings. Why? Well, it’s not sour grapes. I have come to realize, I sit in a fairly unique spot: I have spent my entire academic career at leading research institutions. But what do we mean by big, or small, and why does it count?
A pond, or a lake, or an ocean may be big or small only in comparison to other scales of reference. If you’re plankton or a piece of algae, does it really matter if you’re part of the water bloom in a tiny county park, or a county-sized bloom in an ocean? It may not influence much of your daily life in any significant way. More importantly, one of those may be outside of your range of survival conditions. If I’m a thermophile animal, what I care about is the hot spring vent, not how big the body of water is. And this leads me to the second dimension: the ways that different bodies of water differ on not just what are the components for survival, but the sorts of creatures that you might find yourself sharing the body of water with that would make one’s life better or worse.
Figure 2. Where are you, and what do you reflect?
One of the unexpected lessons of this year in Washington is that the question of fish and ponds is wrong on several major dimensions. I’m very well known in my professional society, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, or so I’m told; it’s hard for me to spend a day at a conference without seeing 25 people I know from long experience. But we’re a “small society”. Obviously, the electrical engineers or the mechanical engineers really have it going. Except… maybe not. Most undergraduate-only teaching institutions don’t have any engineering departments at all… but if they have any STEM disciplines, it’s more likely to be physics or biology or chemistry. But, even then, and even in aggregate, that may not be the ecosystem that everyone wants to swim in.
I have spent a fair amount of time this week thinking about function allocation and expertise coordination and human-machine teaming… as I have done for much of my career. And I am in Washington. For many people, there is no bigger single pond. To paraphrase a colleague from this afternoon: I am swimming in the pond of the oldest Cabinet agency of the greatest superpower on the planet, so we should be able to have some resources at our disposal. But how much of those resources are actually from an ecosystem I recognize: folks who thrive on STEM food like I do? Several people I’ve met have pointed out the same thing: actually, there is relatively little science and technology expertise within the major “halls of power” in Washington. This is not a new thing. A recent article describes the general feeling for scientists and engineers from both Congress and the White House, at their respective locales on Pennsylvania Avenue, in these terms: “Officials in Washington don’t have a real taste for hard science, and only hire scientists when they must. ‘It’s like eating your spinach before your ice cream.’” (Note: this description doesn’t even distinguish science and engineering.) I would say that this is not very flattering, or very appealing. In one sense, most of what I spend my days thinking about, and most of the people I know of as famous, are not even at the level of side conversations for perhaps 85-90% of the people in my office building. Not great feeding, in other words.
So, am I a big fish, or a small one? In this pond, my level and type of expertise is fairly unique, and others would be hard pressed to duplicate it. In fact, this pond doesn’t even know what an h-index is, and doesn’t care to. Does that make it a small pond? If the documents we write and review this month affect the policies of 70% of the world’s economy over the next 10-15 years, I wouldn’t say that is a small pond (or an exaggeration of the impact of some of these emerging technologies on the world). I’m having an effect where I am, in ways that suit me. Overall, isn’t that the most we should ask of anyone, and the most we can hope to achieve for ourselves?