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It’s all skills, ctd.

July 16, 2014

To continue the skills debate, let me try to show why the phrase “knowing how to think” isn’t very helpful and why concrete skills matter more. Here’s Jordan Weissman at Slate discussing the fact that STEM PhDs tend to work outside their field:

Ultimately, the private sector does a good job of absorbing most of the extra science talent that our universities produce. (Again, the unemployment rate among Ph.D.s is enviably low.) But unlike the computer geniuses, many doctorate holders end up working a bit outside of their fields. Among biomedical science grads, only 59 percent landed in a job “closely related” to their fields of study, down from more than 70 percent in 1997. Among chemists, the percentage was 52 percent, down from 55 percent a decade earlier.

I am one of those PhDs who now work a “a bit outside my field.” Making the transition from space plasma physics to enterprise software wasn’t easy. I was unemployed for 4.5 months while I searched for a job. As I navigated the market, I realized that every single position required a skillset that I (mostly) didn’t have. It was a pretty painful experience.

Of course my situation isn’t generalizable. Many physics grad students do research where they acquire specific skills. Maybe they become top-notch software developers. Or they learn statistics and machine learning to take advantage of the big data craze. Perhaps they pick up experimental techniques that could be applied at a place like Intel.

Not so in my case. I knew coding very well. But definitely not well enough to be a software engineer. Ditto for statistics and quantitative methods. I read the job descriptions for data science positions and I simply wasn’t qualified. I didn’t work in an experimental lab and so I couldn’t work in chip design. I knew space plasma physics really well and that’s it. As awesome as space plasma physics is, it’s just not that valuable in the job market.

I’m confident I could have learned some of those skills. But it’s telling that after six years in an applied physics PhD program at a top university, I couldn’t easily translate my experience to the private sector. And it wasn’t because I didn’t know how to think or learn. Almost by definition, PhDs can think critically and scientifically. We are experts in learning. Yet so many of us have difficult job searches. The reason is that while learning and thinking are great, it’s skills that count.

Which is why as far back as 1995 the National Academies noted the need to rethink PhD education. And why there’s a veritable cottage industry around helping PhDs take command of their careers. This industry wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a need.

A couple final points. First, on the PhD issue we need to move away from aggregate statistics and, as the National Academies report suggested, focus on process. Forgive my arrogance as I quote myself from a post at my old blog:

Yes, statistics show that PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate among all demographics. But those stats don’t capture the insecurity, the pain, the self-doubt, the “how can it be so hard to get a job when I’m so smart and have a PhD” feeling that so many of us go through. The upshot of this is that national data-sets can miss a lot of nuance in this issue. And regardless of the final outcome, we can do a lot to make a PhD “more worth it” for grad students. Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful.

A big part of making a PhD worth it is to ensure grad students leave with concrete skills. Or at the very least, they learn how to translate their PhD experience into skills (itself a skill).

Finally, to bring this back to creationists, I would say many creationists are in the opposite camp of PhDs. They may not know how to think scientifically (a meaningless term IMHO, but whatever). But oftentimes they do have skills that make them productive, useful members of society. And that’s all we should be concerned with. A pluralistic, diverse society cannot regulate too much what and how people think. It’s what they do that matters.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    July 26, 2014 9:59 am

    I’m not sure if you replied to an earlier comment. The blog requires me to go through a process on another page to be notified of the response, so I rarely do it.

    I won’t go through what I was saying again, but I can say that PhDs know how to learn (I’m not sure what think means) and there are many creationists that know how to learn. However, in education around the world, there are many children who go through the system without learning how to learn so that even if they don’t have a certain skill set they can learn to acquire it. Learning itself is a skill and there is a huge, recognisable problem in education, today, that many students drop out, leave, fail, and some graduate without it.

    I’m not sure what knowing how to think means, but knowing how to learn or having the skill of learning is so important especially when much of what we do involves unlearning and relearning.

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