Tidbits about learning less

One thing I have heard on more than one occasion from industry folks that have PhDs is that they feel like they’ve gotten dumber since entering industry. This is a reflection I had at more than one point in my industry career and something I can offer some sage wisdom about. This is just my experience, so I’m hoping it will be useful.

Big industry is built for one singular purpose: make money. While they might say that they have altruistic behaviors, I’ve been in many an upper management meeting and money is the most commonly discussed topic. This is why the EPA or FDA have to step in – while I believe that corporations might sometimes be too regulated, it’s because they have to be. They can’t be trusted when their sole motivation is money. Again, I’ve been there and the other nice stuff are byproducts of the profit-motive. This brings about my first point: your company is only interested in your science if you can turn it into a profit. And once you show some interesting science they will want to squeeze all the money from your inventions that they can. Because of this, you begin to overly focus on one small thing and you aren’t picking up other knowledge. What I did about this was switch groups. If you find that you’re not challenged intellectually then move.

In academia there are seminars all the time in all kinds of random topics. Down the hall from you there were people in a variety of fields that are usually down with chatting science. Likewise, you’re free to talk as much science as you want to. In industry I didn’t really have that much freedom to talk about what I was working on. It was usually secret (again, because of money) and most people were really out to do their best to climb that ladder and cash in. So I had to play it close to the vest, which meant a lack of scholarly feedback. The feedback was market-driven. Now, I did have a crazy research budget and I trusted in my own abilities, but without my peers to give me scientific feedback I could see having the feeling of getting dumber. I set up key collaborations to get this level of interaction. In this case I learned a lot, but after five years of doing this, I still felt like I wasn’t learning enough and that’s what I dipped.

Do you remember just reading paper after paper to get the handle of something? Just absorbing the information like a sponge. I never had time for that in industry. I would read a publication here or there to get a general idea of something I was trying to understand, but then I had to apply it immediately. If you want to learn new stuff, then talk to you old PI and see if you can become a journal reviewer. This will force you to read and stay involved in the community.

Ultimately, I think it doesn’t come down to getting dumber, but just not learning as much. The academic environment was built for scholarly activity so it makes sense that the greatest acquisition of information happens here. But there are skills that I had to learn in industry like what doctors actually want to use (I’m in the medical field) and how to build tangible things. My professors would all teach me how to build stuff, but there really is nothing like ‘real-life’ experience. Honestly, if we had faculty from industry that taught us industry-related things then I probably wouldn’t have learned as much from industry and left sooner. That being said, I loved my time there, but I’m incredibly happy that I left. And if you feel like you’re not intellectually challenged then find something else or just be happy being overpaid in industry to not learn.

A rant about reviewing manuscripts

I’ve reviewed two papers in the last few weeks from relatively respectable journals. One is a second revision after the first major revision, and one is new to me. But both are unsuitable for anything submitted to any journal. For the revision, the first review I had nine pages of comments, reviewer 1 had 2 pages, and reviewer 3 opted to accept with no revisions. I found a myriad of spelling and grammar errors. The science was okay, but there was no viable discussion about the usefulness or comparisons to other work, weaknesses of the study, or even properly labeled figures. This is a paper that would have gotten a failing grade in any class taught by anyone. How did the other reviewers not pick things up? Were they intending on someone else picking this shit up? Then now on the second review I realized that I even missed a glaring mistake in an equation they used resulting in invalid results. They will have to redo a lot of their analysis and I’m certain the other reviewers will not pick this up.

These kind of lackluster reviews and horrible science that some PI thought suitable to submit to a major journal make me weep for academic science. We need to start actively calling out this shit and editors need to realize when reviewers are phoning it in. We have enough people questioning our science, why give them more reasons? We are all busy, and we are all stretched thin. If you can’t give a thorough review, then don’t offer to review a paper. That’s it for this rant.

Open note tests

Since the day I started teaching I decided I would make tests completely open-note. I try and design my exams and quizzes to test how you can apply knowledge rather than how many equations you can pack into your brain. Or sometimes I would straight-up leave the equations on an extra sheet. I have nothing against profs requiring memorization since in the field they will sometimes have to apply their knowledge without access to Google, but for me I learned the equations fluidically: they just committed to memory after I used them enough. This is kind of the same reason I’m against multiple choice tests. Multiple choice doesn’t test knowledge. I know not everyone thinks like me, but I do prefer prioritizing comprehension over memorization. With the university deciding now on split classrooms between online and in-person (the students are having split shifts), students will treat them like open note tests anyway. Tests will be 100% administered at home.

The university wants me to use some software that allegedly uses AI to determine if students are cheating by looking at eyes darting around or something and records their screen. I really don’t like this invasion of privacy for my students. So I’m actively fighting against using it and I’ve been told now twice that I’ve been speaking out of turn. I know that if I were a student I wouldn’t want my screen being recorded and my camera on and tracking my face movements. I don’t know who this company is paying off in my administration, but it always bewilders me when these admins or some teachers can’t think of what the students might think. Why are we treating these students like they’re all just not cheating because they’re being watched? I trust that the students I’ve trained personally are ethical students and researchers because I instill these principles. And rather than watching them all the time and letting ‘AI’ determine if they’re cheating, why don’t we make the tests uncheatable? And this can work in non-math-based courses: I’ve made exams that test biological principles that require a thorough understanding of the topics. Or make the tests so dense that the students don’t have time to look things up. Watching them take a test in their personal home doesn’t seem like the answer to me.

Departed faculty

In the past few months I’ve had four close collaborators leave. Three went to industry to get fat paychecks and the last went to a different teaching hospital. So I will still be working with the last one, but without being able to walk to the next building, our partnership will slow down by a good bit. Of the other three, two are replaceable and the last will be tough to replace because they made me physical objects that I combined with my research. I will be missing a big swath of devices necessary to complete one of the three aims I’m preparing for the next big NIH deadline. So I’m scrambling to find another researcher somewhere in the country that can set me up because I’m definitely not in-the-know enough to make these microdevices myself. I found a sort-of foundry that can make these, but they’re relatively unproven and I don’t want to throw grant money their way and get them on my grants unless they can prove themselves. I have one month to get their stuff working with my stuff, and considering the pace of research right now that is going to be a tall order.

I understand people leaving: industry pays very well, research funding has been at very low levels, and our teaching loads have gone up. I just wish I would get a little more of a heads-up. The researcher I need the most let us know two months ago: right before the semester started. On top of this sudden shortage of faculty for research, we’ve had a big influx of students in the push of our department to get larger. So a few us of have an extra class. The department has put a call out for some lecturers for next semester since we won’t be able to fill these openings in time.

I can’t blame these folks for making this move and also for the timing, but it would have been nice to at least have an off-the-record heads-up that they would be gone with maybe some transfer of protocol. I maybe should have seen the writing on the wall because the three that all went to industry didn’t have any grad students or post-docs and just did bits of research when they could since their funding had dried up a couple years ago. That’s always been a fear of mine: losing funding then becoming irrelevant and having to scoot back over to industry. But right now I just need to focus on developing course material for a class I’ve never taught before.