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Rice University — is a private school worth it?

I worked at Rice for just over a year. But funnily enough, by a coincidence of circumstances, of which coronavirus contributed just 2 months, I was only in Houston for about 7 months during my whole time working there, haha.

I came to Rice (a filthy rich private school) as a committed Tar Heel, and for the most part my only reference point for comparison was my long experience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (a public state school).

SAMSUNG
Fall colors in Chapel Hill
Rice University
February in Rice University, Houston

So how did things compare? Well, I was very under-impressed with Rice when I first got there. Partly because I was robbed as soon as I got to Houston. I was therefore very disposed to being angry at everything to do with Houston and with Rice. This is what I found out at first:

  1. Their library, which everyone seems to be so proud of, and which they all lovingly short-hand refer to as Fondren, is a complete mess. It’s completely disorganized. Oh, for the beauty and peerless symmetry and regularity of UNC’s Davis Library — the tall, austere shelves, all in order, the confirmed pathways through the books, the simple roadmap of getting from point A to B. An order reliably, simply, and flawlessly repeated over 8 stories, so no matter where you are in Davis, you at least KNOW where you are. Forget all that at Rice’s library. That one is only 4 stories; but it is a big bumbling collection of books splayed out lazily and frumpily — you never know where you are, and there’s never anyone around to ask questions — and if you do ask questions, the staff — almost all of which is grumpy men and women — is sure to yell at you. The numbering of the books are out of order. Forget nice straight paths — these books are collected in a series of caves, with no roadmap of how you get from cave A to cave B, so good luck if you need to get from cave A to cave Z. Oh, wait, did I say no roadmap? The library is apparently aware of their mess, so they actually do have roadmaps everywhere to help you figure out which cave of shelves you’re currently traipsing through — and even with those roadmaps, I couldn’t figure things out. I’ve never seen a library organized so badly.
  2. Not just that, but Fondren Library at Rice only has 2 million books, and they can’t manage any order for them. While UNC libraries have like 8 million books. There is no place at Fondren where you get that lovely faraway silent smell of miles of old books all around you — you can get that at almost any corner of Davis. I don’t even know if Fondren should be called a library, it’s such a fraud.
  3. My first impression, furthermore, when I was in the middle of having to do all the new employee paperwork, was that no one knows what’s going on. No one had a clue what’s going on. The benefits enrollment office sent me an email as follows:

“The Rice University benefits portal can be accessed through any computer, tablet, or smart phone by visiting benefits.rice.edu, selecting the “Enroll in Benefits” hyperlink and using your Net ID to access the enrollment platform.”

Did that work? Of course not. You have to call the number provided, and they send you to an entirely different website.

4. They have this pdf about the benefits and what you’d pay for the medical options. When you actually go to enroll, none of those payment numbers are accurate. Everything is more expensive, and not just that, but you pay “twice monthly”. They give you a low-looking number, and unless you’re careful, you don’t even realize that you’re paying this number twice a month. You’d think with all their riches they could update their benefits booklet, but no. I know this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it was a big deal when I’d just arrived in Houston; I’d left everything of comfort behind; I’d just been robbed; and here I was with the expenses not being what Rice had promised. They should have accurate numbers on their material for employees.

5. When you’re at Chapel Hill, whether as a student or grad student or for a special program or as a worker, there is no end to the number of t-shirts, water bottles, umbrellas, and other fine swag that you receive. For my welcome at Rice, I was given absolutely nothing. It made me feel like, so do you actually want me? I didn’t even get a welcome pen. Seriously not even a welcome pen.

6. Chapel Hill’s school-grounds are beautiful. Rice is really fake-looking. Like someone was trying too hard when they designed (and if you look in the school history, this is exactly the case!)

7. I was trying to get my work email set up. They told me I’d get an “email” about setting it up (was the email supposed to get to the work email I still had no access to?) I don’t remember how I finally got access, but it didn’t happen the way they said it would happen.

Looking back now, a lot of my complaints seem silly (except for the part about the library and the swag, that is unacceptable, and the pretty campus, too). But the other points were a really big deal and a big stressor when I was new at Rice. And my conclusion is, filthy rich private universities brag all the time about how they have all the money to do everything, so why can’t they even do these simple things?

UNC Chapel Hill, on the other hand, I always found to be very organized. Things like moving into dorms; or paperwork that you fill out for employment; there were always clear instructions and simple forms.

Two more bad things about the city of Houston, and then I’ll say some nice things about Rice.

8. A big selling point of Houston, apparently, is that the rents are cheap. They are not.

9. Also, apparently there’s a campaign out of Houston to try to convince people the air quality isn’t that bad. Hahahahahahaha. I’m pretty sure the air quality sensors in Houston have been perched on the top of the tallest skyscrapers, where they can’t pick up on the exhaust from all the cars and the other mess spewing poison out into the air.

10. Houston is kind of a fun city, anyways, though.

Now for some nice things about Rice.

11. They have some cool classes. Here’s three of them (at the least the subjects and experiences were cool, even if the professors were not the most nurturing).

12. They have a cool place called the Print Palace where they make fabric, or they make pretty prints on paper. Well, in theory it’s a cool place. I went there once to watch them. It was all old people who got super-bent out of shape because someone with black hair had walked in. It was all those artistic, profound types who act like they’re super good, but it doesn’t take much scratching under the surface for all the greedy, nasty sludge to come out.

13. The President of Rice — I liked him. And the administration in general. They are not so tied behind their backs as all the leadership at UNC is. So when terrible, racist things are done in this country, that makes immigrants miserable, for example, the administration at Rice was much quicker to send an email out saying that Rice stood against that sort of thing. I know this might sound like not much — just an email. But “just an email” is sometimes more than what UNC can compass, and if they do send an email, it’s a very weak statement that’s more about not saying something that would offend a Nazi. Rice would issue pretty strong statements, and it does make a difference for them to say something — it makes you feel that it’s not just your own misery, but someone else is recognizing your misery.

14. In Fondren Library — yes, the stupid one — they have these puzzles out by the circulation desk, and you can sit and do them. Big puzzles that have 1000 pieces. That was what I did my first two months at work when I was stressed and sad about being at Rice. But just so you know, the libraries at UNC have puzzles like that, too!

15. The President of Rice invited all the Muslims on campus to his palatial residence for dinner once.  And they had quite a fancy spread! And I think he does that with all the minority groups on campus. And he gave us a nice speech telling us we were valued. You know, when you never hear that, it kind of makes you tear up when someone does say it. I don’t remember any chancellor at UNC ever do that. Not even after the Chapel Hill shooting of three defenseless Muslim students (that the local police department tried to dress up to imply the Muslim students were the evil ones and deserved to be shot.) And for the record, the statement that the UNC leadership put out in the wake of that statement are among those I remember being weak and stupid, with a main goal of not offending Nazis).

16. Rice gives a lot of financial support to students from poverty-stricken backgrounds, as in full rides. But UNC does the same (the Covenant) and I think UNC started the Covenant before Rice started their program. But Rice is now taking it a step further, such that even if you come from a middle-class background, apparently everything will be free for them, too. Well, it is a really rich school.

17. The free food game is quite strong. It’s strong at UNC, but I had no complaints at Rice, either.

18. Rice did something that was very nice — every Friday they had something called a Diversity Dialogue. This was an initiative run out of the top leadership offices. Everyone was invited, but mostly it was only minority students who would actually come, and everyone would get to vent about their problems stemming from lack of money, or immigrant background, or racial problems. They were really amazing conversations. I remember UNC trying to do the same thing, but I never found those conversations to be that great. I think it might have been because UNC is a much bigger school, so you can’t fit everyone in a room. At Rice, it would be about 30-50 people who would gather. Everyone would get lunch. And then they’d talk. Anyone could talk, and anyone could stay silent. It was a very homey and supportive atmosphere.

19. The media office at Rice is very nice. I went to interview them so I could get some tips about how to do my job. They were so nice! Like 4 different people took an hour off from their jobs to talk to pitiful me, and they looked at my work and both gave me feedback and told me all this nice stuff.

Film-making class at Rice University

I took a film-making class while I worked at Rice University. I did not really “take” it, though, I more audited it. But I did a lot of work for it, until I quit with a month left. Here’s why.

First, Rice has some pretty cool creative classes. There’s a class where every student is supposed to write 100 pages for their own fiction book. The class is taught by a cocky (I met him) millionaire author. There’s super high demand for the class. He teaches it every spring semester, and takes about 12 students each time. Cocky or no, I would have really liked to take a class like that.

Second, there’s a class where you make comics. You go to class twice a week, for 3 hours each time! And you draw and learn how to make comics. The professor is kind of stern, though. But seems very committed, and showed us his impressive collection of pens and ink.

And the class I actually took was the film-making class. It was taught by Tish, an American, and Brian, a British guy who kept saying weird racist things all semester long that everyone just ignored. The class is nice because you get access to all this sophisticated camera and sound and lighting equipment — you get to “play” with it. I didn’t actually end up using any of it when I was making my own film, though — it’s all so bulky and heavy. You can’t walk around with that stuff when really, cell phone footage is good enough! But it was still fun to experiment with it.

We got to talk about movie techniques, and we got to learn and practicing using Adobe Premiere.

I didn’t really want to make a fiction film; I wanted to make a sort of documentary film of research in the Earth Sciences department. It was part of my job description to let the public know what sort of research went on. I was able to apply the skills learned in the film class directly to my work. I found a graduate student who was doing some cool experiments, spent a few days recording him; even recorded his advisor. His advisor was female, so I thought it was nice to show a woman professor in a science field. I even recorded the cool thing where you show someone walking into a building, going through the door from the back, and then also recording them from the other side of the door as they walk in. I felt so fancy! I had tons of footage, and I put it all together.

Then coronavirus happened and we all went home. We had the class on Zoom once a week, and on one of these Zoom classes, we all got to watch each other’s films (all the different groups), all the edits people had made since the last time we’d seen each other’s work.

Well, it got to be my turn, and for the next 30 minutes, I felt almost like I was at a firing squad execution (my own). First, Brian and Tish took turns eviscerating my film in front of all the other 12 or 13 students in class … and then, as if that wasn’t enough, each student then had to critique my work. And they, in line with the two professors, finished the work, as if I wasn’t already wounded enough — in case I wasn’t yet dead. I had to sit through each and everyone. Thirty minutes later, when they’d finally run out of bullets, I managed to say, “thanks for the feedback.” And then I waited until they’d pressed play on the next movie. Stealthily, while everyone was distracted by the movie screen, I closed Zoom first, and then flipped my laptop shut with shaking hands. And just never dialed back into that class.

Come to think of it, I never again got any emails from that class, so I must have been removed from the mailing list right away.

I think, by the way, that quitting on the spot like that was the best choice. You don’t always have to stick with things. Seeing as I was dead, I probably wasn’t going to get any more benefit from that class. And the hit to my sense of self was too deep, so that wounded needed to be tended to, rather than demanding myself to continue learning film-making. I have also already “not quit” challenging things often enough, so I didn’t need to prove to myself that I can stick with things if they’re important.

So that’s my story of the Rice film-making class.

 

The most gentle job rejection I ever got

I had applied for a post-doc — the only one I ever applied to — at the University of Pennsylvania, in their center where they study the science of science communication. Yeah, that probably sounds really boring. But I thought it might be kind of cool!

Any case, I got such a nice rejection note from them. They made it sound like: if only some of their pesky current postdocs who kept hanging around would move on, why then, you, my dear, would be our first next choice!

Because the program is moving into a second year of work on a multi-wave panel on communication about vaccination, and we did not know until recently which of our current postdoctoral fellows would be carrying over for the coming year, the process of matching the aptitudes of our applicants with our changing needs has been complicated by the fluidity of our situation.

Although the fit between our needs and your aptitudes and interests was not sufficiently exact to offer you a postdoctoral appointment, we are grateful for the opportunity to read your work and look forward to applauding your future successes in the field.

 

 

“Yes, we’ll keep your resume on file”

I’m curious, was there ever a time during which the promise to keep the resume of the rejected job applicant ‘on file’ was actually honored, and something came of it?

It never did for me. I soon learned to see this ploy for the base basket of false hopes that it was. When I read it in those curt rejection emails, I always could it hear said in a simpering tone.

I got an email like that from Descartes Lab — that was bogus. I got another email like that from a place called EAT Forum in Stockholm — another lie. And I’m sure there’s been others, I just can’t remember them right now.

Job racism in Sweden and Europe

1. I applied for a job as a “Data scientist and GIS specialist” in Sweden. The job was located in a “peace and development” department. So the job title, and the job focus, were pretty much the summary of my PhD, which I had just finished. I sent my application in to SIPRI (Swedish International Peace Research Institute) and … never heard back. At all, ever. About six months after that, I discovered something interesting. In Sweden, you can email the person you sent your application to, and you can demand that they tell you the prior experience and education level of the person they did pick for the job. Interestingly, the reason for this avenue of information is to clamp down on job discrimination based on race, religion, gender, or how un-Swedish your name is. Well, buddies, nice try, but it ain’t working. Like, if I knew that the job applicants I reject can ask for that information, I would make sure to treat all the applications equally. SIPRI did not. I sent them an email demanding the information. And this is what I found out. That among their top 4 applicants (these were the ones who landed an in-person interview) was someone with two years of experience and a master’s degree. To reiterate, in my application, I had 10 years of experience and a PhD. But they chose this other person for the interview, who I imagine was little miss blondie, all eager to do good in the world, and they thought she was all super cute and everything, and that she would fit in really well. So they interviewed her, in-person, and they had three other applicants they also interviewed in-person, none of whom had as much experience as me. The person they chose for the job had a PhD and 8 years of experience. Again, I had 10. And what made me even more mad was that they pulled those 4 people for in-person interviews out of a larger group of 11 candidates. Those 11 candidates all had Skype interviews. So if little miss blondie with the masters degree and two puny years of experience made it all the way to the in-person interview, I just want to know (I didn’t get this information) what were the worthless qualifications of all 11 candidates who got a Skype interview? Upon finding all this out, that was the last time I ever applied to a job in Sweden. And I’m the one who wrote this, and made this video, and this video, and wished desperately for this. And do you know what hurts even more? There’s this old man who was friends with my childhood hero, Kofi Annan, who is the head of SIPRI. Or he is somewhere in the top leadership. I think this is a situation of the buck stops at the top, so I had this experience at the hands of someone I’ve looked up to for almost two decades. By the way, no Swedish language skills were wanted for the job, they just wanted someone with superior English skills. I don’t care how good the Swedes think they are at English, I’m still better than them.

2. Now, what I described above might just be one situation, but now look at this study which involved 200 000 applications. The professor running the study would send out two fake resumes to employers. The resumes were very similar, but one was fronted by a “White” name, the other with a name that indicated a non-White immigrant, or a Black person. Then, despite the resumes being similar, was the employer still more likely to contact the “White” candidate? Well, of course. But what’s even sadder is they did this experiment in 9 countries, and Sweden was one of the two worst in terms of throwing out non-White applicants automatically. I had seen studies like this before, but I always tried to turn a blind eye to them … and I was always making excuses for Sweden … and I always thought when it came to Sweden, there must be a good explanation. And then it happened to me.

3. I applied to an internship — yes, an internship — in the summer after I graduated with my PhD. Yes, it’s a crazy world. You’d think that by the time you have a PhD you’d be beyond internships, but no. It was an internship in Sweden (here we go again!) and actually, I applied right at the time I was applying to SIPRI (first bullet above). This second application was to a place called EAT Forum which does research on environmental impacts of growing food. The internship I applied to was in science communication. I got an interview — so that was good — except they knew I was in the US, and totally ignored the time zones, and set the Skype interview at a time that was comfortable for them, but where I had to get up at 4 am in order to get ready. And I didn’t want to say anything to them about rescheduling, because, you know, I didn’t want to seem difficult. Even though, after the pre-sunrise interview, due to my disrupted sleep, I was neither awake nor asleep — neither dead nor alive — for the rest of the day. I couldn’t do a thing, so I just lay in bed all afternoon and stared at the ceiling, with a headache, unable to get up, and unable to fall asleep. On top of all that, of course I didn’t get the internship — which in my crazy stupidity was all I wanted, yes, please, an internship to go with my PhD degree, just as long as it gets me to Sweden. Now, I am not accusing anyone of discrimination here — I didn’t do that great during the interview (since I was half ASLEEP) and I do believe that another candidate had the better set of skills specific to what they wanted. But what does make me mad is stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. I know a girl who’s half Swedish, half American — and all nice and blonde, and she has the right name and everything — and she got an internship with one of these science organizations in Stockholm upon graduating … with her undergraduate degree. Yeah, that was all it took for her. An undergraduate degree. But I had a PhD, and I didn’t get anything.

5. Now let’s look at clues from the general environment of things. There’s an organization in Sweden called FORSKOM, that’s short for Forskning and Kommunication, or something like that — that means research and communication. In short, it’s like a professional group of science communicators, all supporting each other. Just you look at the names of the group leadership … as if someone like me, with my name, and with my experiences of being pushed away from Sweden, would ever, ever see my name fit in with the ones there. They’ve made room, as is typical, for the one British guy to give a regal touch, and that’s it. I’ve met some of the people of this group at conferences. They’re all super unreliable.

6. Now let’s look at some other organizations in the rest of Europe, for example, a place called EJR-Quartz. I applied for a job here, and I still don’t know what the EJR is supposed to stand for. But this organization works closely with the European Space Agency, satellites and all that my PhD research dealt with. My job application process with EJR-Quartz was totally fine — I didn’t end up getting the job, but it was probably my fault, and I did at least advance to an interview. This was a few years ago now and I have no complaints when I remember back. But what did give me a little pause was when I went to investigate their Twitter account to prepare for my interview. It was all White people, top to bottom, back then (and it still is today!) Please, how much would they really want me around? And when I do and think and say things a little differently from what they’re used to, what would they say? I especially remember, that main Twitter account led me to some Twitter accounts of the people working there, so I clicked around here and there. And I found a photo — from a work event, mind you, like at some sort of satellite conference — of an old man — the head of the organization, or something — standing with a young female employee right in front of him. She was tiny, her face only coming up to his collar, and they both had huge smiles on their faces, and his arm was stretched forward and embracing her from behind, going right across her chest. It was a weird photo from the gender perspective, for sure — but you know, maybe they’re both fine with it, so whatever. But I saw that and thought — yeah, there’s no way all that hugging and smiling and camaraderie would extend to me if I got the job and ended up working there. Like, you get to a point where you have too many experiences, and you know at a glance where you’ll be the odd one out.

7. At the very beginning of this year — pre-COVID, so ancient times — I saw a message that a European Union project called Food Unfolded was “looking to expand its editorial and contributor team”. I thought, sure, I could use some extra money and write about science stuff for them, why not. And it was about food waste, so there’s lots of environmental themes. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time preparing my material, but I did put together a portfolio and CV and sent it to them. But the thing was, by that time, I’d already had so many mysterious silences when sending job applications to Europe, I already knew to expect my material to be thrown out at the first glance. And I was right — I never heard back. I suppose the sight of my name had them clutching their pearls.

 

 

Job rejection: “never got through”

(Back in February 2019)

I applied for a job in October at an environmental research center at UNC Chapel Hill. One of those jobs through a university application system where you get the feeling you’re tossing your information into a black hole.

But for a wonder, this black hole chucked something back out, because they actually did respond, within like a week, and wanted an interview. Now, I had to travel 2 hours to get there for the interview, and they were “unable” to provide compensation — and there’s nothing I hate so much as putting time and energy into other people, all at their whim, knowing by that same whim they can choose someone else.

However, I went for the interview, it went really well, and so I wasn’t as gloomy coming out as in.

Then they told me, it’s going to be a while until we get back to you.

I sent them a follow-up email thanks; they answered, okay, okay, but you know what, it’s going to be a while! But with an assurance I’d hear back.

The supposed start date for the job was December 1. But they implied during the interview that this was flexible, because they didn’t even except to have made the final decision by then. So December rolled around, and I didn’t worry I still hadn’t heard. Then it was Christmas soon enough, so I still didn’t worry. They had to do all these background checks on applicants.

But on the other side of the New Year, it suddenly seemed a lot less likely they would still be selecting their pick. I thought, maybe they they just canceled the job altogether? I mean, they told me multiple times in the interview that I’d hear back eventually, even with a delay, and then in an email they again reiterated: “We will be sure to let you know as soon as a final decision has been made.”

I emailed them today, finally, in February, and lo and behold: “it appears the reply we sent you never got through.”

Wait – are they serious? Or is that a straight-up lie? How does an email reply never go through, unless you just never wrote the email or never bothered to press send?

People are honestly so annoying. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

How does it make me feel? Like I don’t want to try to do anything.

 

 

More wildflowers in the Piedmont

A continuation from this post.

First, I found this really nice website that has pictures of flowers. I was able to identify some that weren’t in my book using it.

Partridge pea — this made me really excited. It’s a very beautiful yellow flower, and it has taken over the area where the yellow whorled-leaf coreopsis was earlier blooming. It was so pretty and so profuse that I feared it was invasive; and also it wasn’t in my book. But then I found it online. It is native to this area.

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partridge pea

Asiastic dayflower — from the name, you can kind of tell this flower is really from Asia. So it’s not native. It was nestled in with the partridge pea. The flower blooms for one single day. I didn’t know I was looking at something so fleeting until later. It was not in my book, but it only has two blue petals atop a yellow fuzz, so it was easy to search for.

IMG_20200804_094756

I found this string of light purple flowers … and they kind of look like the ‘everlasting pea’, but I don’t think that’s actually it. I saw them two days ago, nestled in among the partridge pea; and today it’s gone!

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Same with these small white flowers spreading out of a bell shape: so pretty, but I’m not sure what they’re called either.

IMG_20200807_153706

A cautious online presence for a PhD student?

When I was a Ph.D. student, I got “the talk” quite often from family members, telling me that my online presence was going to be “problematic”. Not because there were pictures of me doing drugs or anything. But because I was writing an opinion column for the Daily Tar Heel (the nation’s finest university paper), and apparently I was saying things I ought not to say. What will my fellow grad students, professors, future employers think if they see some of those articles, I was cautioned?

So I held back a little bit — just a very tiny little, mind you. I thought: as soon as I’m done with school, and I don’t have to worry about what the department chair thinks of me, then I can be totally uncensored. As soon as I don’t have to worry whether if something I wrote online affects whether my dissertation is accepted, whether I get a slot speaking at a conference.

But … that’s not the case! Because as soon as you get your degree, then you want a job … if you’re worried about how your online presence affects your dissertation, then won’t you worry about the impact on your job search? And once you have a job … maybe you’ll eventually want a better job. And on and on. At each stage, there will be people evaluating you and snooping around your online life. When I was in the PhD bubble, I seemed to think that if I could just finish up, I’d be free from all such concerns. But no … they stick around indefinitely. So are you going to stay quiet about things you care about forever? What if other people can learn by the things you write about, or identify with the same experiences? Especially if those experiences have to do with racism or injustice of some type … or just how to navigate a difficult process … are you really going to keep all that bottled up inside you because you fear what future employers and your PhD committee will think? Cause if that’s the case, you’re have to keep it bottled up forever — or at least until retirement — although I’m sure in retirement we can find yet someone else whose disapproval censors what we write online.

Also, as far as I know, those Daily Tar Heel articles never became an issue for anything I ever applied to. I even have some of my favorites posted on this website, and I never ever during a job application process had a lot of people clicking on those links (WordPress tells me if people do). Even if you went onto the page with all my articles on the Daily Tar Heel website … see, I wrote 24 articles in total and a lot of them were very trusting and humble and begging. You’d have to go through all of them to find the angry, vindictive one, and a busy hiring manager doesn’t have time for that.

Also, at this point, I have even more writings online! I have this website and blog; then I have the articles I wrote for WIRED magazine; plus the articles I wrote for the Daily Tar Heel, plus other miscellaneous webpages about this and that and the other. Buried in all this, you’d really need to search to sensitive topics I’ve written about. Most people don’t have time to do that, and I guess they see the nice surface veneer of everything, and would never think anything else is lurking underneath!

So the doomsday predictions never came true. And just to be clear — I was definitely not throwing around racial slurs or anything disgusting in what I was writing about. I was mostly writing about Islamaphobia. And people told me that would cause a problem. Well, you know what? My soul might have died and the respect I have for myself would have died had I not written those things. I’m not saying I was 100% right in everything I wrote. In some cases, I realize that I even think a little differently now. But the idea of having censored myself for fear of what future employers or my PhD colleagues would have thought — it just smacks too much of mercenarial overtones and lack of integrity.

Also, and here I rest my case: Once upon a time a woman at UNC Chapel Hill was enrolled in the Ph.D. program for epidemiology. While writing her dissertation or something, she took a short absence and went on the Bachelor TV show as a contestant! Like, she was wearing pretty and skimpy dresses, and talking about her boyfriend and dating status, in front of the entire nation. She got lots and lots of press. But now she has graduated and is a professor at Duke and has published tons of epidemiological articles and shows up in videos saying very complicated epidemiological things. So if she could go on the Bachelor as a PhD student and still pull through, why should the rest of us be worried?

 

Should you take time off after your PhD?

I took time off after my PhD, and here’s my thoughts on the matter:

1. I was very tired after my PhD concluded. I really wanted to rest. And this felt like a more important consideration than needing to find a job right away for the sake of being able to have a ready, assured answer when people asked, “so … what are you going to do next?”

2. People say that you can’t have gaps in your employment/educational history … but people parroting the conventional wisdom are often wrong, so this seemed pretty safe to ignore. (Except more on this below, avoid this if possible.)

3. I did not want to go into academia (still don’t) so for my personal circumstances, I didn’t need to get on the post-doc job search interview campaign.

4. I could move back in with my parents. The whole “take time off” thing sort of hinges on being able to live rent-free somewhere, I’m afraid. I really am so grateful that I could do that.

5. I got on Obamacare for health insurance. When your income is 0 (or fine, I had the PhD stipend from the first half of the year, but still), then Obamacare is free — at least, here in North Carolina, and as long as you get a Gold Plan. If you have lots of serious health problems, the Gold Plan might not cut it. The next step up, the Silver Plan, would have cost me maybe around a hundred dollars or more a month, I don’t quite remember. Also, I’m not entirely sure, but possibly the prices go up as you get older (Shouldn’t that be illegal?) So yes, this whole take-time-off experiment of mine also hinged on being relatively healthy. And hopefully on not getting in a car wreck or anything like that.

So, since I had the optimal circumstances, I decided that I would indeed take time off. I didn’t want to run around with my head cut off trying desperately to find a job, any job. I luckily was able to delay that stage by a few months (unfortunately, it eventually found me). And I guess I should also add, I applied to about 30 jobs during the last year of my PhD and the summer after. If I’d gotten any of them, I would have taken them. But the point is, I didn’t get any of them, and also, I didn’t really apply for all that many. It was not a super serious job search that demanded I find a job. I was more or less fine not having found a job.

But … I did realize that it wasn’t an option to do absolutely nothing. Also, I didn’t want to do nothing. I wanted, since nothing else was in the offing, to run my Animations with Kids program. I wanted very, very desperately to do it in Sweden, but everyone knows how that turned out. But as long as I was living rent free in rural North Carolina, I could just do it here! So I did. I worked with 170 kids and they made seven animated films about science, and it was great. It was nice, because programs like this usually are exclusive to big cities with the resources, or rich schools. But this was all in rural North Carolina with many poorer neighborhoods among the school catchment areas. It was really, truly doing something that wouldn’t have been done otherwise, and that is a super-great way to take time off after your PhD. See, you’re doing a fun project … and it’s not full time, it’s all very flexible, so you still get to rest … but it still is a lot of work and it is something definite that you’re doing, so now you can write about it on your resume and you don’t have that pesky unemployment gap everyone is always howling about.

Exploitative western scientists in foreign countries

I am still trying to get the last chapter of my PhD published, two years after graduating, and I have no idea if this is an average or super-long delay.

I like the paper, though, at least the form it’s finally taking. It’s about the marshes in southern Iraq. Back in 2003, these marshes were in the news a lot connected to the invasion of Iraq by the US. There’s a lot of ethnic cleansing-related destruction of these marshes, and when the Iraqi government fell in 2003, they were able to be studied again in full force.

At least some foreign scientists went to Iraq. I don’t know the backstory, but a professor named Curtis Richardson at Duke University was one of them. Duke University is right here in North Carolina. I followed their studies of the marshes as far back as 2006, I think, which was when they were publishing all their papers, and I always thought — oh, wow, North Carolina got in on the act all the way in Iraq.

And when I became a PhD student, with a focus on water resources and wetlands in Iraq, I ended up reading these research papers written by Richardson. One of them was published in Science, which along with Nature, is the most prestigious science journal out there (they also have the most original name!)

But I really think there is something icky and wrong about this whole process. For example, Curtis Richardson had co-authors on these papers — in particular, someone named Najah Hussain, a researcher in Iraq. I don’t understand why Najah Hussain was not the lead author on these papers — why was it Richardson? Like, did the lead name have to be a western scientist, otherwise Science and all the other journals wouldn’t have bothered? Or maybe the name didn’t have to be a western name, but the scientist had to be at a western institution, like Duke University, and not at the University of Basra in Iraq (where Najah Hussain worked).

Between me and you, there’s nothing all that much new in the papers that Richardson took lead authorship for. They pretty much just summarized the history of the marshes, and then looked at how the marshes had recovered after the war (which really is just a matter of looking at satellite images). I can go back and check the careful notes I took about these papers, but there was really nothing groundbreaking in them. But still, Richardson got to swoop in and take the lead authorship for them.

Well, that’s great, he got tons of citations and prestige from his work. But, is this not entirely one of those smoke and mirrors exercise? What did Richardson really do? Now, 17 years later, it’s still the scientists in Iraq who are focused on this issue, while Richardson has moved on to other prestigious works. Did he really help them in anyway? And if he did help, then that’s that — he helped. So why was he the lead author? (Not to mention all the media interviews and conference speeches he probably got to give about it, too).

It’s not all that different from Trump and his billions, that do or don’t exist, and the whole applause for success based on really on nothing at all. Is there any real good that a lot of these western scientists do when they go to foreign countries, and if there is, is the praise and prestige they get in proportion to what they actually do? I’m sure that sometimes it is — but I think way more often, these scientists are puffed up for very little at all.

Which just goes to show scientists, for all they often try to pretend to be loftier and above the illogical impulses of the lower-class, non-scientist masses, are just the same as everyone else.