Thursday, March 1, 2007

Snobbish or Exacting?


The title of this post refers to me. It's an open question.

A recent event at my institution left me wondering more about the Marcus Ross case. A struggling graduate student that I know recently passed his qualifying exam. Let’s call him Phillip. Phillip failed on his first attempt, and some year later, passed on his second. He's mostly a nice guy, but he's really not scientist material. Phillip comprehends molecular biology on the barest levels, in the na├»ve way that most undergrads do. He's not able to dissect an experiment to determine whether or not he agrees with the discussion of the author. His journal clubs are rote presentation of the paper. In short, Phillip is a disaster. He does not belong in graduate school.

How does this resemble the Marcus Ross case? Marcus Ross is a recently-minted PhD in geology who is a Young Earth Creationist. Many folks in the blogosphere have suggested that he shouldn't have been granted a PhD because he was dishonest, or that he couldn't possibly comprehend his material if he could maintain Young Earth beliefs in the face of all the geological evidence. Many folks have suggested that his degree-granting institution should be mocked for allowing him to use the system.

I'd say both of these cases have one thing in common: the academic system needs graduate students to keep the wheels of science moving. Most of the work in academic labs is done by graduate students and post-docs. There is very little incentive to fail a student after he has gotten into the program. In fact, there is every incentive to keep them there and working, so long as they can get something done. That’s the inherent weakness in the system. And you can’t keep a person in grad school for 7 years and then fail them (or can you?). So people like Marcus Ross and Phillip end up with PhDs.

This is a disservice to everyone but the professor who had a cheap pair of hands for a few years. Society gets another phony authority with some letters after their name. Phillip and Marcus get to work on a career they have little hope of being more than marginally successful (I would argue that Phillip would be better served to be told now he’s a lousy scientist, than to have to spend 10 years in science only to discover that he’d be better off selling jeans at The Gap). It’s the sad truth that as long as institutions aren’t held to any kind of standard, that many of the folks with PhDs after their name will end up being useless at best or quacks at worst. What’s the solution?

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