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The Black Hole

BY BETH | JAN 31 2010

While looking at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s (CIHR) funding opportunities ((despite the fact that I’m out of academia, I don’t seem to have entirely escaped the world of grants, as the organization that I work for is interested in getting more involved in research)) the other day, I came across this interesting opportunity: […]


When asked to identify the most important issues affecting their country, Canadians often list three items: economy, healthcare, and environment. Though often underappreciated, the advancement of science and technology is a common thread that underpins and indeed is inextricably tied to these three major issues. We live in a world where the economy is driven by innovation, medicine requires further advances each day to save and improve lives, and an environmental crisis is upon us as our climate changes as a direct consequence of our modern lifestyle.

BY BETH | JAN 17 2010

I can honestly say that I never truly experienced science until I was a graduate student. Sure, I had a fair chunk of labs in my undergraduate degree – first year involved a full year of biology, chemistry and physics lab sections, and upper years included labs sections in analytical chemistry and organic chem and an entire course that consisted of a biochemistry lab. But each of these labs was what we like to call “cookbook labs” – we weren’t generating and then testing any hypotheses; rather, we were following a recipe that we were given to try to find a predetermined answer – the person with the answer closest to the one the prof has already determined gets the best grade. We were learning the technical skills – how to use a pipette, run a DNA fingerprint, or perform a titration, but that was all…


In 2002, I was one day away from selling knives for an entire summer in the heat of Southwestern Ontario, then I got a letter reading “someone has turned down their summer NSERC … you are on the waiting list – want it?”
First things first… as an academic your entire career will probably depend on continually getting funding. It is no surprise that when a hiring squad looks at potential tenure track applicants, a key question is: “How fundable is this person?”


So, in the wake of a very busy December, I realize that we only registered two blog entries this month – a noticeable drop from November’s eleven. But this is the realistic way forward if we want to tackle these issues with the time and energy they deserve, as these “issues affecting trainees” underpin many of the important decisions that are made in an academic career and give decision makers a sense of what trainees are thinking. It’s a lot of information though and in recognition of everyone else being busy as well, I thought a quarterly summary of highlights would be a good idea.


It’s already clear that the BSc is the new high school diploma (soon to be overtaken by a Masters), and undergraduate students are being told that they can do whatever they want and should leave as many doors open as possible . So, it seems a reasonable course of action to stay in school and get that extra degree that will allow you to not close doors. This line of thinking, however, also leads to a problem of too many degrees being sought and obtained for the wrong reasons. There is a lot to be said for the value of getting out there and gaining work experience and Beth continues to probe the different types of careers available… but that’s not what concerns me in this entry… (and I’m definitely not playing the “over-qualified card” because that is a load of nonsense… you can never be over-qualified)… What concerns me here is “Why do we sign up for the next degree?”


The PDF pool is growing because more are entering, fewer are exiting and the average length of stay is longer… is this a bad thing? In our current system I don’t think it is so bad, because there is demand for the research to get done and PDFs can do it… but, the way we handle/define/support this class of workers needs to change.

BY BETH | NOV 26 2009

Shortly after I got my new job, I was out for dinner with some friends of mine with whom I had gone to grad school.  I was telling them about my new position and one of them said, “How did you convince them that you are an ‘Evaluation Specialist’?  You didn’t do your education in […]


The intention behind this particular blog entry is to focus on how our elected representatives and the bureaucratic machinery that operates alongside them filter through the thousands of scientific papers and reports to make policy and political decisions. First of all, our original group tried to figure out how government gets scientific information, then asked was the science and the delivery process rigorous, and finally we proposed (or borrowed) some possible solution

BY BETH | NOV 18 2009

So what does a PhD do when they decide to leave academics? The prospect of figuring out what to do for a living when you decide that you don’t want to be a “principal investigator” (PI) is daunting.  As Basalla & Debelius put it in their book “So What Are You Going To Do With […]


In medical science, many of the protocols we use for bench work feel like recipes. To nobody’s surprise, it is often compared to baking – add component X, spin, add component Y, mix, “cook” in a gel, etc, etc – and I say fair enough. Many will argue, however, that such protocols are not the bread and butter of an academic scientist’s career which certainly relies on designing the experiments to answer novel questions about the particular system or situation being studied and interpreting an often confused picture to help make sense of that system.
This blog entry contends that we are putting less emphasis on the latter and more on the former and our nation is going to pay a hefty price if we don’t turn the boat around – the PhD is becoming less focused on learning how to think, and more focused on learning how to do. This is a trend that I am labelling the rise of the cookie cutter PhD.


After an undergraduate and doctorate, medical science trainees need to undertake post doctoral training before being granted a faculty position. After this round of training, however, many are going on to a second and even a third round of “post-doc’ing” … this blog entry asks why we do this and encourages science trainees to stop after the first PDF and do a major evaluation…


Peer Review and Publishing – the best of the worst?
A look at the peer review system and the idea that anonymity of reviewers is an idea of the past.

BY BETH | NOV 12 2009

As I mentioned in my first blog posting on this site, after finishing my PhD, I left academics.  And I know I’m not the only one – I can think of a few recent PhDs grads that I know that left academics, either voluntarily or because they couldn’t find postdoc or faculty positions. At first […]

BY BETH | NOV 09 2009

As Dave mentioned in his previous post, part of the job of a scientist is to create interest in, and awareness of, the sciences, as well as to promote “science literacy” (i.e., the ability to understand and use scientific information). This is beneficial for a number of reasons, including: People use science in their everyday […]


*** First two quick hits… The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars just released a position paper that covers many issues that will be brought up on this blog in one form or another. Please read it, use it, and offer feedback to the CAPS folks (heck, maybe even join there committees!) The first annual Canadian […]


Canary in the Coal Mine #1 This past year, I came across a set of statistics that made me cringe. They underscore a dramatic shift in the human resources in academia, specifically in the medical sciences. 2006 median length of PhD = 7.9 years Average age at which a PhD is obtained = 32.7 (31.3 […]

BY BETH | NOV 01 2009

Science is integral to many, many of the decisions we make every day.  But where do people get the scientific information on which they base their decisions? The current H1N1 vaccine campaign is a good illustration of this.  It seems you can’t turn on the television or read a news website (or even a Facebook […]


Scholarships, Fellowships and Taxes – what are the rules?

BY BETH | OCT 16 2009

Like Dave, I spent 5+ years completing a PhD at UBC. In fact, I’m one of the “very bright and motivated people who first sat down [with Dave] at a bar about 4 years ago and posed the question “What’s wrong with the science enterprise?”“, who he mentioned in his intro posting. (So modest of […]