Category Archives: Grad school

When not to program

It’s end of the semester time ’round here, and students I’m TAing are frantically trying to get their final projects working. One of the emails I fielded today was basically asking, “Is there a way to get MATLAB to automate this for me”.

The answer to the question, of course, is “yes”, but knowing that student’s comfort with programming, I phrased it more like, “Yes, you could do it by XYZ, but it’s probably just as easy to do it manually for the 6 data points you’re interested in”. What I didn’t write (but really meant) was essentially, “If you have to ask, the answer is no”.

It’s worth pointing out that the course isn’t designed for teaching general programming concepts (unlike other courses I’ve been involved with), and instead uses a very restricted set of MATLAB and programming concepts as a tool to understand biological modeling. It’s so restricted a set of concepts, in fact, that back in week 3 or 4, I wrote up a handout that was essentially a step-by-step recipe for doing the coding for all but one of the rest of the labs.

In grad school, there’s often two modes with somewhat opposing goals. First and foremost, you want to get stuff done. But you also want to leave things in a state where it will be possible to quickly and easily repeat things in the future. Sometimes, that latter goal is achieved by stopping before hand to think about the way to structure code, sometimes you even need to learn more skills which you will apply in the future (either programming or bench techniques or *gasp* math).

So in this student’s case, the answer (given that the final project is due in just a few days) is probably to do it the stupid, manual way that’s less elegant, but also much much faster than taking the time to really grok loops. In the long run of grad school, it won’t always be obvious where to spend more time making things faster, and where to just grind it out. And, of course, one final thought is that sometimes you can take longer to make it faster, and not succeed:

Teaching Programming

This past week I starting to teach lab sections for an “Intro to Systems Biology” class. The class marks a return to Matlab for me, which is the first really dynamic language I learned, but a language I haven’t particularly been missing. We’ll see how it goes, but I’ve already identified some rough spots from the lectures that I think will end up being confusing:
Continue reading Teaching Programming

Keeping Busy

Sometimes, despite all my best planning, I run out of tasks that need to be done. This seems to happen to me most often in the experimental phases of a project, where I first need to do experiment A, and see what A looks like, before deciding whether experiment B or C is the most appropriate direct follow up.

There are, nevertheless, things I can do during this time while I’m waiting for A to finish (other than wasting time on Facebook or the like).

Continue reading Keeping Busy

Grad Students Aren’t Stupid…

…but maybe there should be fewer of them anyways.

I think perhaps I’m late to this game, but there’s been quite a bit of discussion about “Thinning the Ph.D. Herd”, a Slate piece by Rebecca Schuman about Johns Hopkins University’s plan to reduce enrollment in PhD Programs.  Sean Carroll, for instance, says “I’ll believe we should accept fewer grad students when I hear it from actual undergrads applying for grad school.”  There is quite a strong strain of people arguing that people should be allowed to freely choose what to do, and that reducing PhD enrollment is paternalistic on the part of JHU. People seem to think that by downsizing programs, JHU is saying “you only think you want a PhD, but you are mistakenly signing yourself up for a life of penury, so we’re saving you from that”.

Responses to the Slate article

Responses to the Slate article

It’s worth recalling Braess’s Paradox, however.  In essence, it says that people might be making locally optimal choices that lead to globally sub-optimal outcomes for everyone (including themselves), and limiting choice may actually improve results for everyone. Nobody in the hypothetical scenario is acting irrationally or without having considered all the options, but things are worse than if someone stepped in to constrain choices.

There’s two questions we need to ask: is the current PhD system the globally optimal system for the students in it, and if not, would unilaterally reducing the number of grad students improve the results. In the sciences, I’m actually not sure that we’re too far off—most people I know of (in my Tier 1 R1 highly ranked program) live comfortably on our stipends, receive health insurance and various perks, and typically don’t have trouble finding jobs that use their research skills.  I suspect the same is true for the students in Profs Carroll’s, Krugylak’s, and Booty’s departments as well.

The same is not obviously true for the humanities, even from top tier institutions.  My partner is in a highly ranked, unusually well funded humanities program, and the horror stories I hear are chilling.  Her stipend is, in a good year, 75% as much as mine (although $2-5k more than many other programs in the humanities), her program has a shockingly high attrition rate, jobs outside academia are considered outright failure, and a significant number of people end up as adjuncts, earning wages below the poverty line.  Having gotten her PhD in German, I suspect this is much the world that Rebecca Schuman is from as well.  Is this the globally optimal situation for graduate students? I think not.  Would reducing PhD enrollment help, especially if stipends are redirected to the ones that remain? I’m not certain, but I think it’s worth a shot.

Finally, I just want to make clear that reducing PhD enrollment isn’t the only way to improve the lives of grad students, nor even necessarily the best one.  But it is an option in the arsenal, and seems likely to have at least some positive effect.