Is it OK to be a person?

I read ScienceCareers regularly even though it upsets me almost every time and leaves me feeling completely abject about the future. In his Tooling Up column this week, David Jensen writes about the disconnect between the Ph.Ds and postdocs academia produces and that the things they learn there don’t line up with the very specific and technical jobs companies have. In other words, they hire a set of skills, not really a person (though, of course, you have to ace the interview(s) too- since every company seems to conduct multiple interviews with a candidate these days). I suppose it’s natural that a company does not want an employee who has to learn anything new and can be productive straight away.

The thing that academia focuses on cultivating are much more general though. Grad programs want to teach people to learn how to learn, obtain critical thinking skills and be creative thinkers- coming up with new experiments to run, solving problems and generating new human knowledge. So if you happen to work in one of those hot fields in demand in industry, that’s good for you. Otherwise, if you’re someone in a field where you just followed things you were interested in, you’re kind of screwed. The message of Jensen’s column seems to be ‘learning is not a good thing’, ‘critical thinking does not matter’, ‘stretching yourself beyond what your current job is is not a good thing to do’ and ‘creativity and ‘curiosity are not required in an industry job’. Basically, the things valued in an academic lab are truly not valued by the private sector any more. That’s kind of a shame, and sort of suggests that Ph.D.’s in industry are the new blue collar workers in the US- jobs with very specific skills that can be interchanged if a specific training program for it exists. I know in business money is all that matters (that’s kind of sad as well), but it seems that crushing what makes a human a human being and not a robot is lost in this view of employees at a company. Jensen makes it sound as if being a human being with interests and motivation and curiosity as well as critical thinking skills is anathema to many companies.

This is one more message to me that I don’t know anything useful, and that we should all just follow what’s hot currently since that will lead to a job now. I thought companies liked to view themselves as innovators, but this column makes it sound as if imagination is dead- at least when it comes to hiring an ‘out of the box’ person who might be a bust, or who might, after a few months observing and learning bring in new ideas about how to do something that will lead to a new revenue stream. Taking a chance on someone obviously is not affordable to a company- even one with billions in profits every year. This TED Talk, by Edward Tenner, makes a fascinating point; during the Great Depression, people desperate for work found jobs in new career fields and this spread new ideas and helped fuel the United State’s Economic engine after World War II til now. So hiring exactly who you want, pinpointing, may not always be the best thing for a company, though it certainly is the safe thing.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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