Sunday, March 29, 2015

Geosonnet 27

Selenium is sulfur’s sober mate,
Not lost to vapor bubbles of the mind
In rock or water, should one saturate
They stay together, besties of a kind.
Se cannot be photosynthesized
To form selenate in anoxic seas
From fractionation, we hypothesize
an oxic whiff in late Archean breeze.
The isotopic signal is preserved
when anions are partially reduced.
Complete reduction, ratios are conserved
No atmospheric signal’d be produced.
   But choose your sample wisely, and you’ll see
   The right technique reveals its history

Geology 43 259

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64  65 66

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Taking a PhD into the real world

Here in Canberra, the “Science meets Parliament” event is running.  I am not attending- the luminaries and power players can do their thing, but out on the wrong side of the tracks, our factory needs to keep putting lasers on sharks for the good of the economy.  Luckily, some of the scientists there have taken to twitter, so snippets and thoughts are able to escape.  Given that engagement is one of the things on their agenda, I thought I would chime in.

One of the topics mentioned was non-academic careers for recently graduated science PhD holders.  As someone who has worked in academia, industry, and government since graduating a long long time ago, I figured I’d take the opportunity to chime in with my two cents.  Note, however, that this is only 0.000022% of the attendance fee for the event, so discount this advice accordingly.

As a result of the deprofessionalization of science, there are no longer copious private sector basic research jobs for scientists to graduate into.  They do still exist, but not nearly in the numbers required to take all the PhD students who are excess to the requirements of the academic machine. 

The other problem with this retreat by science into the ivory towers of academia is that people in the real world- including employers- are less likely to really understand what scientists do, and what specifically a PhD graduate has to offer.

When a person leaves university with their PhD in hand, they generally have three things:  A tacky outfit (gown, hat, etc), a body of in-depth knowledge that makes them the world expert in a very small field of study, and the ability to do research.  Only the third of these is a salable skill, except in extraordinary conditions. This puts students leaving academia in a very different boat than those continuing on to a post-doc, where expanding or leveraging your field of PhD study (the second thing) is standard practice.

As a result, PhD-holding job seekers can be a bit disoriented.  This leads to all sorts of sad situations, including those where graduates leave their degrees off of their CV’s in hopes that this makes them more employable.  However, this is a suboptimal solution.

Furthermore, being able to figure things out which aren’t known is a really useful skill in a variety of situations.  Even with Wikipedia in our phones, understanding basic derivations lets us estimate things faster than fingers can tap screens. It lets us solve problems that may not have ready solutions published in a publically available place; it lets us adapt to changing circumstances where the underlying issues are constant, but the specific combinations of problems is changing in a way that makes simply looking up a solution impossible.  Being able to figure out how the world works is a useful, marketable skill, but to be valuable to us we need to make sure that we don’t devalue it.

There are a few things that scientists entering the normal workforce need to remember.  Firstly, in private enterprise, time is money.  There is a bad habit in poorly supervised PhD programs to devalue a student’s time- basically tell them to take however long it takes them to do some particular task.  In private enterprise, where the accountants will be tracking your billable hours and balancing project budgets, it is very important to use time effectively.  Ask for help, communicate with your colleagues, copy what your predecessor did; all of these things are preferable to spending a week proving that you can independently derive shit. 

The corollary to this point is that you need to value your time, and make your employer and clients value it as well.  Earning a PhD takes years of study and effort- an outlay similar to becoming a doctor or a lawyer as a postgraduate course of study. Business people generally assume that things are- to some extent- worth what they cost; a person who charges himself out at marginally more than grad school rates will give the impression that he has little to offer.

Of course, the academic meatgrinder doesn’t want any of this to happen.  As long as academia thinks of PhD programs as molds for the next generation of instructors to be injected into, it will try to make them as cheap as possible.  This is why PhD graduate supply is high, demand is low, and employment tactics like adjuncting place downward pressure on wages and conditions.  Universities don’t want PhD’s to succeed; that will cost them money down the road.

Luckily, those of us in the Earth Sciences are in a position where, at least in Australia, there are plenty of other opportunities around.  Impoverishing your students only makes sense if you plan on eventually hiring them; if most of them are destined for careers outside of academia, then an academic institution gets the most benefit by having graduates get rich enough that they want to give money back to their schools. If enough scientists become professionals of some description or another, then the schools will eventually think of use as being more like lawyers than English majors, catch on, and put some effort into professional development of research students.  Until then, though, it is up to us to help each other.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Adventures in Open Access publishing

 There is not a lot of diversity in the journals geochemists, geochronologists and hard-rock petrologists traditionally publish in.  Precambrian Research, Geochimica, Chemical Geology, Gondwana Research, and EPSL are all run by Elsevier, while the Journal of Petrology and Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology are also published by large, for-profit corporations.  American Mineralogist is one of the few society journals still published and operated independently. And although member subscriptions and not too dear, the journal is by no means open access.

Other fields of geoscience have been making more progress in the open access revolution.  Planetary and astronomy related geophysics often finds its way into arXiv, biogeosciences can sometimes access PLOS or PeerJ, and the EGU have a variety of open access society journals which span a range of geophysical topics.

One of these journals is Geoscientific Instrumentation,Methods, and Data Systems (GI). While most of their published work appeares to relate to home-made data acquisition systems for geophysical experiments, a colleague and I decided to approach them and see if they were interested in a manuscript relating to ICP-MS, one of the mainstay bread-and-butter methods of geochemical analyses these days. So we sent in the manuscript, and, to make a long story short, it is published online here.  

Anyone reading this who is interested in new, community-based alternatives to the big scientific publishing houses should check it out- the process and handling was similar to any other journal, the timescale was similar to traditional publishing in our field (about 5 months submit to published, including Christmas, and at least 1 month of delay which was entirely my fault), and I have to say that I found the editors to be as professional and helpful as anywhere else I have submitted.

 And the work I originally blogged about here a long, long time ago is finally in print.

C. W. Magee Jr. and C. A. Norris (2015) Alkali element background reduction in laser ICP-MS Geosci. Instrum. Method. Data Syst., 4, 75-80.