[FUN_Mail] FUN Newsletter - President's Message and Conversation

Michael Loose mloose at oberlin.edu
Sat Jun 28 16:08:02 EDT 2014

Let me add two twists to this interesting discussion.

   1. A small proportion of students who major in neuroscience go on to get
   a PhD in the field and it probably is accurate to suggest that these
   students do have a more competitive road to a tenure-track position than in
   recent decades.  However, I think it worthwhile to consider the possibility
   that it is not that much more difficult now than say 25 years ago.  Yes,
   there may be more post-docs now than before and the typical post-doc tenure
   may be longer now but I remember these same arguments being made 25 years
   ago too.  More to the point, I remember being involved in hiring
   neuroscientists for tenure track positions at Oberlin roughly 20 years ago
   and was involved in several hires over the last 5 years.  My recollection
   is that there were more applicants 20 years ago then recently.  And, while
   we were lucky to have good pools of top candidates in our recent hires, the
   pools of fully acceptable applicants were not particularly deep.  Where
   were these “thousands” of post-docs lusting for a tenure-track job at a
   good school?  Don’t get me wrong, I too emphasize to my students that
   tenure-track positions are much harder to get than it is to, for example,
   get into graduate school.  I also make them aware that the RO1 type of
   tenure-track position is much different now with its emphasis on the need
   to win multiple, high stakes, hyper-competitive grant applications.  I also
   mention that there will be few other times in their lives when they will be
   paid to do what fascinates them while having, very, very few other
   2. A broader issue raised was how FUN might get involved in dealing with
   how to prepare neuroscience majors for their futures.  I would like to
   suggest an action every member of FUN can do this coming semester in one of
   their courses.  I suspect these individual actions would have a profound
   effect not just on neuroscience education but on our colleges and
   universities writ large within a short time span of a few years as our
   colleagues take note.  To wit, we each could decrease (slightly) the amount
   of neuroscience content in our courses in order to increase the amount of
   time and effort we spend teaching scientific thinking, critical thinking,
   and creative thinking skills.  By explicitly adding these 3 objectives to
   our syllabi as well as by discussing the objectives with our students and
   then incorporating homework and in-class activities throughout the semester
   (one could say add one 10 minute, in-class exercise per week or combine
   fewer new in-class exercises with additional online/homework activities)
   the education of our neuroscience students would be drastically changed.
   N.B. It doesn’t matter if we don’t know how to teach these skills very
   well, the act of adding the objectives and creating and running the
   activities would initiate a learning process for us as well as for the
   students.  From my experience in an upper level neurophysiology class many
   students are huge fans of a greater emphasis on scientific, critical, and
   creative thinking and argue passionately that their thinking skills
   improve.  Most of our schools and our departments already include one of
   these skills, critical thinking, as an objective but the teaching of it
   typically receives little more than lip service.  It would be relatively
   easy to change this in our own classes and after a couple semesters of
   experience I predict it would be relatively easy to convince some of your
   departmental colleagues to try it too.  Obviously, there are many ways to
   add a focus on these thinking skills at the department and school levels.
   The above comment was to encourage immediate adoption by interested
   individuals.  Just do it!

Mike Loose
Professor of Neuroscience
Oberlin College

On Sat, Jun 28, 2014 at 12:38 PM, Bob Rosenberg <rosenbo at earlham.edu> wrote:

> From my perspective, having been a professor at a research-intensive
> medical/graduate school (UNC-Chapel Hill) and now a professor at a liberal
> arts college (Earlham College), I have some disagreements with Jeff.
> 1. There are no "alternative" career paths anymore. Graduate students
> understand from very early on, i.e in their first year, that their career
> path is unlikely to lead to a tenure-track position. All career options
> (e.g. research positions in academia or industry, R&D in any commercial
> setting, grants management, clinical research management, science writing
> and editing, working for professional organizations) are considered as
> options from early on in grad school. All of them are considered legitimate
> by most students and their professors. Many professors still hope their
> students will become their clones, but most are realistic that that's
> unlikely. Maybe students at Stanford and Harvard are deluded into thinking
> they can be a tenured professor if they want, but at the grad programs I
> was affiliated with in Chapel Hill, students knew the score. Most of them
> are using their PhD very productively even if a small percentage are
> tenure-track professors.
> 2. Undergraduate education is not vocational education, it's
> life-enriching education. We can hope that neuroscience students will
> pursue neuroscience after they graduate, but we mustn't be disappointed if
> they follow other paths that aren't in science at all, and we mustn't think
> of those paths as failures. Students become neuroscience majors because at
> this point in their lives they're passionate about learning about the brain
> and behavior, and that should be reason enough. Their lives will be better
> for following that passion even if they don't pursue it past the BA or BS.
> If they use the skills that they learn as neuroscience majors -- thinking
> critically, being able to communicate their thoughts, understanding complex
> ideas and data -- in any career, their education was worth the effort. Even
> if they become real estate agents, bartenders, or stay-home parents, their
> college education enriches their lives.
> 3. We must be honest with students who express an interest in graduate
> school about the possible career paths, and we can't be too sanguine about
> their chances getting onto and then surviving the tenure track, but I think
> it would be a mistake to discourage students from following their passion
> for further education. Unless we actively delude students into thinking
> that the tenure track is a likely outcome, we are not part of the problem.
> The problem is when students, both graduate and undergraduate, are deluded
> into having unrealistic goals about academic career paths. As long as we
> don't do that, there is no major problem.
> Bob Rosenberg
> Professor of Biology
> Earlham College
> 801 National Road West, Drawer 142
> Richmond, IN 47374
> office: (765) 983-1464
> fax: (765) 983-1497
> email: rosenbo at earlham.edu
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