PhD

Do you have an addictive personality?

You’ll have to bear with me if this is a bit of a self-indulgent post, but I have some exciting news, Brain Study-ers: I’ve officially submitted my dissertation for a PhD in psychology!

In light of this – the culmination of three years of blood, sweat, tears and an exorbitant amount of caffeine – I thought I’d write this week on part of my thesis work (I promise to do my best to keep the jargon out of it!)

One of the biggest questions in addiction research is why do some people become dependent on drugs, while others are able to use in moderation? Certainly some of the risk lies in the addictive potential of the substances themselves, but still the vast majority of individuals who have used drugs never become dependent on them. This then leads to the question, is there really such a thing as an “addictive personality”, and what puts someone at a greater risk for addiction if they do choose to try drugs?

Learning from our students

Having just conducted my first round of undergraduate supervisions (similar to an intensive tutoring or teaching assistant session), I have a greater amount of respect for an article published in Science back in June that has been making the rounds in academic discussion forums. In it, researchers conclude from both subjective interviews with students and faculty supervisors, as well as through objective reviews of student research reports, that graduate students who teach or supervise undergraduates come away with better research and analytical skills than those who do not. This finding is at first counter-intuitive and flies in the face of accepted dogma that students who teach are taken away from their own research and laboratory time, and therefore cannot produce as much or as thorough work as those who do not. However the authors of the report, led by Dr. David Feldon at the University of Virginia, have done a thorough job vetting this claim by objectively assessing graduate students' research proposals on the quality of their experimental design, hypothesis testability, and general research skills. Based on an empirical set of criteria, the authors of the study determined that students who pursued teaching as well as research assistantships had better research and study design skills than those who did not.

As my fellow graduate students and I can attest, teaching undergraduates takes a significant amount of time, effort, and brain power, all resources that would more preferably be spent (both according to ourselves and our supervisors) on our groundbreaking and earth shattering research. However, in accordance with Dr. Feldon's report, teaching undergraduates is not without its advantages, though some of the benefits I have experienced are somewhat harder to empirically define.

In a PhD we all too often become absorbed in our own niche research, convinced that it is the most imperative and fascinating topic there is to study. If we did not we would most likely drop out. However, it also means that the articles, discussions, work, patients, and results we see are all geared towards this small facet of our respective subjects, which are at times far away from the more general concerns of the field. Tutoring or supervising undergraduates can bring us back into the larger discussion of our disciplines, reminding us of the history and background that predates our own work. It also provides an opportunity to review some of the seminal papers that we may now take for granted but were groundbreaking at the time of their release. And lastly, it reminds us of information we had learned during our own undergraduate tenures, knowledge and analytical skills that are essential in the wider scope of our fields but that might have been forgotten or discarded in favor of our own passions.

This all happened to me in my first tutoring sessions. I was at first overwhelmed with the information the students were expected to learn and resentful of the distraction from my work. Fortunately, over time I was able to recognize much of the material as familiar and even attempted to provide my own spin on it, combining the fundamentals of the lectures with offshoots from my research. However, it was certainly a humbling reminder of just how much there is I do not know about the brain. I was also impressed by the knowledge and intellect of the students themselves, some of whom I have no doubt are vastly more intelligent than myself. More than anything though, reviewing this material and having to master it all well enough to later disseminate it to others reminded me of just how interesting and exciting some of these topics are, and made me aware of connections in systems pertaining to my own research that I had neglected to make.

While teaching certainly does take up vast quantities of time, it also provides an invaluable medium to refresh us on essential material, to review our field with new eyes, and to make us truly learn the information so that we are later able to provide guidance for others. It is also an important exercise in reminding us of just how little we know, and how seemingly "simple" questions can be far more complex than some of the more nuanced "expert" queries.

What it really means to get a PhD

Being part way through the first year of my own PhD program, I probably shouldn’t open my blog with a summary of critiques of the system. However a series of articles recently published in Nature, as well as the daily struggles, doubts and insecurities my friends and I frequently face and lament, makes me wonder about the shrewdness of this path that we have chosen. Most notably, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of PhD candidates and degrees awarded in the last 15 years, coupled with a simultaneous dearth of jobs available in academia and other markets. According to Cyranoski et al. in the April 21st issue of Nature, there has been a 40% rise in the number of science doctorates earned worldwide since 1998. However, it should be noted that a majority of those have come out of China, which has actively and enthusiastically encouraged the doctorial boom, increasing PhD production by nearly 80% since the mid-90s. Fortunately, the demand and market for these positions in China is still high, fostering this culture of higher learning and expertise. But back in the US, the second highest producer of doctorates next to China, the supply far outreaches the demand for academic positions.

Universities are no longer offering as many tenure track positions (which is a debate and system needing reform all on its own), and older professors are not retiring at the rate that was predicted back in the 1980s and 90s. Now only 15% of PhD graduates are in tenure track positions, compared to 55% in the 1970s. Instead, graduates are turning to industry and the private sector to apply their knowledge and make a living. However, due to the flood of PhDs in the market, even that distinction can no longer distinguish you from the pack, and the system has been saturated with over-qualified individuals looking for fulfilling work in academia, and instead finding low-paying postdoc and research positions. In fact, PhD recipients now have a negligible advantage over their non-PhD counterparts in average annual salary, and are frequently being forced to settle for junior positions in labs or companies for which they are over-qualified. Finally, the initial intellectual curiosity and passion that are promised to lead us to eventual feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction in our careers are also appearing to be much of a farce. Individuals with a PhD are only mildly more satisfied with their lives’ work, and complain that their benefits and salary are inadequate and a source of dissatisfaction.

So with all of this daunting and demoralizing information, why continue? I suppose it’s for that glimmer of hope, the light at the end of the tunnel that you will be one of the lucky ones. That naïve doggedness that got us into this position in the first place, and yes that misplaced passion and fascination with an arcane miniscule facet of the world in which we will (hopefully) one day become experts. And, if we do succeed in reaching those ivory towers, or whatever is left of them, the sense of contribution to society, degree of independence and intellectual challenge do still provide a high incentive and source of satisfaction for those who have paved the way and achieved before us.

On the flip side, there is also the hope that this perseverance and hard work will not be for naught. That even if we do not achieve our dream positions, or anything resembling them, that it cannot be a disadvantage to have this added expertise. That the skills, both personal and professional, industrial and academic, that we have acquired during our own tenures will not fail us and will be able to provide a foray into another field if need be.

And in this current economy, let’s be honest, there’s not really anything else we’d rather be doing. After all, at least we’re not in law school.

(Thanks to Gonzalo Urcelay for the articles and Louise Cosand for the PhD illustration.)