I would have been the ideal STEM candidate.
As a young kid, I was fascinated with numbers and patterns. My favorite show, long after I should have outgrown it, was Mathnet. In elementary and middle school, I swept up ribbons at the regional Math Contests, and in high school, I was a Mathlete — for one year.
What happened after that year, of course, changed everything.
My rural school, which boasted 500 students from grades K-12 and fit them all into one building, was great at teaching arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and anything that you could do with pen and paper. Our science classes were fantastic at instructing us in the parts of a cell, the phylums and species, and anything that, again, could be solved with pen and paper.
Once the TI-89 calculator got involved, or the microscope, or any instrument more sophisticated than a mechanical pencil, everything fell apart. We just didn’t have the resources.
So STEM careers, right? The solution to all of our educational and economic problems?
Well, yesterday, io9 ran a piece titled Meet the New Underclass: People With Ph.D.s in Science. To wit:
Once upon a time, newly-minted science Ph.D.s would get research jobs at a senior scientist’s laboratory, to train and hone the ideas they would explore at their own labs. But now the supply of post-doctoral students is outpacing demand, creating a new, hyper-educated underclass.
It gets better. (Or worse, if you’re currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the sciences.) When you read the sources io9 cites, you get this lovely research paper published in PNAS, aka the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, titled Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. I will quote the abstract:
The long-held but erroneous assumption of never-ending rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system that is discouraging even the most outstanding prospective students from entering our profession—and making it difficult for seasoned investigators to produce their best work. This is a recipe for long-term decline, and the problems cannot be solved with simplistic approaches. Instead, it is time to confront the dangers at hand and rethink some fundamental features of the US biomedical research ecosystem.
Yeah, well, that’s just in the abstract, right? That’s like, you know, a scientific theory. Got any more proof?
Last month, I spoke to an audience of about a hundred postdocs at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Wondering whether I was alone in my fraudulence, I decided to finally go ahead and ask.
“How many of you,” I polled the audience, “actually enjoy doing lab work?” Remember that these are people who’ve performed laboratory research for a decade or more, who would spend that very afternoon at the lab bench, and who are actively and fervently pursuing careers doing more lab work. Here’s how many hands went up: Three.
I can’t be the only scientist who feels like a fraud. But we don’t talk about it. No one volunteers to proclaim their inadequacies. In fact, scientists go to great lengths to disguise how little we know, how uncertain we feel, and how much we worry that everyone deserves to be here but us. The result is a laboratory full of colleagues who look so impossibly darn confident. They’re the real scientists, we tell ourselves. They can follow the entire seminar. They read journals for pleasure. Their mistakes only lead them in more interesting directions. They remember all of organic chemistry.
Do we allow our humanities majors to articulate — or even just feel — more ambivalence than our #STEM majors? Are scientists and doctors and engineers fronting all the time because they sense laypeople need them to? Is it because when you wear a white coat, you have to project authority? It’s the white coat, isn’t it? What if the coat were plaid, or came with elbow patches?
Yesterday’s piece, Why I Didn’t Study STEM, was true but, as you all noted, incomplete. Fair enough. Here are seven more reasons why I didn’t go from Mathlete to math major.
7. I lived in a small town, so I didn’t have any real ideas of what STEM careers were besides “crime-solving math detective.”
6. When I taught myself how to program in BASIC, I was much more interested in the nodes of the massive text adventure game I was building than the actual programming language.
5. When I signed up to take a programming course at the local college, I dropped it after the first session because the lab section would have conflicted with community theater rehearsals.
4. Also, community theater gave me actual jobs where I was paid money. Clearly, theater was where the jobs were.
3. I was also getting work as a church organist and choral accompanist. Nobody was interested in paying me to do science to things.
2. I never understood trigonometry (even though I probably could have learned it eventually) and have only the vaguest idea of what calculus actually is.
1. I spent most of high school writing a novel titled The Red Book of Cordia. The minute that was finished, I started writing a musical.