An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

August 18, 2010

Grad School Applications, Recommendations, and Mentoring

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Radical Scientist @ 4:38 pm

This post is part of 49 Percent’s zomg grad school!!!1 carnival. Go check out all the other lovely posts over there.

There is one part of the grad school application process that scares me shitless. I’ll stare down the GRE with gritty determination, and I can swallow my pride and lay claim to my lackluster GPA. But even thinking about having to ask for letters of recommendation makes me consider food service related career options instead.

I got my BS on the installment plan, over 8 years. Along the way, I worked more than I studied (out of necessity), and had a couple mental health flare ups, eventually culminating in a hella-awkward-at-the-time gender transition. I didn’t handle any of those issues as well as I should have. None of which is my professor’s fault (ok, maybe that one asshole who taught intro to calc), but let’s just say my best work was spread out across the years. Add in one mentor who retired and decided to move to a remote island with no phone, and a lot of giant lecture hall classes where the professors struggle to recognize more than a few of their students on sight, and, well, it’s a less than ideal situation.

I get that LOR’s serve a specific purpose in graduate admissions. Grad programs want students who work well with faculty, who have made a positive impression on at least a couple of their instructors, and they need some perspective other than the numbers on a transcript and the student’s own self-praise. And now that I’ve spent a couple years working in labs, I understand that any worthwhile professor or PI considers handing out recommendations for their protégées to be a standard part of the job. But no one told me that, at least not until I was…oh, 25 or so.

Some students can feel comfortable asking their professors or mentors to take the time to send out a half dozen recommendations for grad programs or internships. There are some academic environment factors–smaller classes and smaller departments breed familiarity. And some students will be outgoing no matter what barriers are thrown up in front of them, and some will always be shy.But at the broad generalities level, asking for recommendations is even more fucking terrifying for students who have grown up being told that the old guard of professors–white, male, straight, cis, and middle to upper-middle class–are their social betters.

Sometimes those fears are founded, often they’re not. But so long as they exist, they are one hurdle to the sciences (or any other discipline) becoming more welcoming and diverse. I know I, for one, am not looking forward to tracking down professors from several years ago, trying to get them to remember me, coming out to them (lest I get the wrong name on my rec letter), and then asking them to take the time to write letters to a number of schools and federal programs.

Meanwhile, my frat boy classmates have nothing to fear. They’re unafraid to ask, to send deadline reminders, to specify which of their most charming attributes they’d like highlighted. Even those who are, shall we say, on close terms with the gentleman’s C. They’ve spent their lives learning to navigate Old boy’s Networks; they seem to know what’s expected, and feel that they deserve to succeed.

I had a small honors class once where the professor did a wonderful job of pulling everyone in, and driving us to excel. Before handing out the final exams, he gave us a short speech about how lovely a class we’d been, that it had been a pleasure to  teach us, etc etc, but he ended by saying he’d be glad to write a recommendation or be a reference for any of us whenever we began applying to jobs or graduate programs. It was a revelation to me.

I understand that it’s unusual to have an entire class full of students you’d be willing to vouch for. But in my brief time in the science blogosphere thus far, I’ve seen a lot of great discussions on the value of mentoring, the importance of making science more ‘diverse’ in various ways, how to mentor, and so on. One thing that I haven’t heard (and I freely admit I may have just missed), is the value of offering recommendations. To student workers and interns, to students who excel in your classes, and to advisees. Look at each one, and think ‘would I be comfortable writing this student a warm recommendation, if they asked me to?’ If the answer is yes, for god’s sakes, tell them. Make sure they know you are willing to help them advance, and that that is part of what you do.

Sure, assertiveness and self confidence are good characteristics to develop. Ideally, students would have the self-confidence to a gruff senior professor for professional help based on their performance, rather than the professor’s friendliness or whether they feel inferior to their instructor.  But being unapproachable doesn’t weed out people who are bad at science, it weeds out people who are afraid to ask old white guys for favors. And that’s one more little thing that gives us a new generation of scientists no less homogeneous than the last.

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August 15, 2010

Oh, We Were Supposed to Follow The Whole Law? Whoops.

Filed under: Government and Policy,Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Radical Scientist @ 12:35 pm

You know how when you go to the DMV, they also ask you if you want to register to vote? That’s because the 1993 National Voter Registration Act compelled states to make it easier to register to vote, by offering voter registration to people seeking other government services. simply having DMV employees ask people if they want to register while their at it has added millions of people to the voter registration rolls.

Except that’s not the entirety of the law. It also mandates that states offer registration to people when they sign up for welfare programs, including foodstamps, disability services, Medicaid, and S-CHIP (health coverage for children whose families are just above the Medicaid income cap). And if a state doesn’t comply, the justice department can sue to force them to comply. Which they’ve started doing, 17 years after the law was passed. Thanks Bush. And Clinton.

Of course, the working assumption here is that people who receive public assistance, being low income (by definition) and generally not stupid, will mostly vote for Democrats. And enforcement of the non-DMV parts of the law went completely enforced throughout the Bush years, as the Justice Department tried instead to whip up a dubious panic panic about voter fraud. As the NYT put it:

The Bush administration devoted its attention to seeking out tiny examples of voter fraud and purging people from the rolls in swing states. It did little to enforce the motor-voter law despite years of complaints from civic groups and Democratic lawmakers.

I do agree with Ed that registering people is not a guarantee of massively improved turnout–plenty of people will say ‘yeah, sure’ and forget it. But, in my very limited experience with Get Out the Vote campaigns, it’s a lot more work to get people registered and then get them to vote than to focus on voter turnout. In states (unlike mine) that have party registration, this is even more true–each party can turn to their own voter roles for targeted GOTV/ride to the polls/etc campaigns. Hopefully this will do some noticeable work toward undoing the Bush era purges.

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July 16, 2010

Libertarians: Overt Douchbags

Today’s post is brought to you, belatedly, by this lovely post over (link should work now) at Gin and Tacos and my thoughts thereon. Long story short: the post is an, er, scathing critique of James Sherk’s (of the Heritage Foundation*) recent appearance on Hardball. (note: much of the audio on the latter half of the video is ruined by Matthews laughing his ass off the soundstage) Sherk asserts that, basically, the Science of Economics Proves having unemployment insurance discourages people from sucking it up and getting a job, any job, ASAP–even if that means moving to where the jobs are, or taking something out of your field and way below your former pay grade. Or all three. And, we are to believe, that’s a Bad Thing, because unemployed people are using Your Tax Dollars to hold out for jobs like their old ones, rather than accepting that the invisible hand of the marketplace has booger-flicked them out of the middle class.

One thing I’ve always wondered: Isn’t it maybe better, long term national economic policy-wise, for the abruptly unemployed to have a chance to hold out for whatever their definition of a ‘good job’ is? Having someone who’s highly trained–whether they have a Ph.D or 20 years experience as an underwater welder–take work way out of their field puts their skills to waste. I’m guessing Sherk would say they’re welcome to keep looking for another teaching or welding job while they flip burgers, but taking that minimum wage job is bound to slow down their job search waaaay down–it’s not like their new boss has any incentive to let a newly-trained employee leave, and they’re not under any mandate to give employees time off to go to interviews. I’m not just speculating, this was been a problem for me when I was in food service and looking to get out. The longer you’re out of a profession, the harder it gets to get back in. At 6 months, you’re an unemployed welder. At 2 years, you’re a former welder.

And for people who don’t have the education or experience to get out of shitty jobs, a sudden influx of formerly-white collar workers is bad, bad news. To take this to a bit of an extreme, consider this: when the last 5 people a McDonald’s hired have a BA or an MBA, there’s a good chance HR will start skipping over applicants sporting a GED. You can see this in places with chronic over education and high employment–isolated college towns and Portland, OR come to mind.

The percentage of Americans with college degrees has meandered ever-upward over the last few decades, and with it, the minimum qualifications for many jobs have gone up incrementally too. Office drone & secretarial type listings often demand a bachelor’s degree rather than a HS or associate’s degree, unskilled workers are expected to have graduated high school, and skilled labor has slowly swung from on-the-job training toward a tech school first, employment later model. I think this downturn will push that trend a little further, as the unemployed people with MBAs settle into office jobs a tier or two below their last position, the people with undergrad degrees go down another notch or two, and so on. People who are highly educated aren’t going to be unemployed forever, they’ll just wind up pushing everyone below them down a notch.

Human-interest stories about the crappy economy always focus on the former banker who now works as a gas station attendant. But what about the guy who can’t get a job as a gas station attendant because all those jobs are now going to college graduates?

I’m guessing Sherk hasn’t had much experience being unemployed without good prospects. So he sat down and thought real hard about it, read some intro economics texts that say things will all work out so long as everyone makes ‘rational’ choices and people have perfect information. And using his Rational Power, he deducted people should go where there are jobs.

But he obviously didn’t talk to anyone in the ‘real world,’ (or even in the rural poverty hot zones of Real America (TM)) or he’d have noticed that he’s full of shit. For starters, there’s no where in the US right now where business is booming and jobs are plentiful. And if he’d talked to anyone actually dealing with unemployment,* he’d know that the whole ‘rational decision’ model isn’t what’s actually sensible for people to do. In a model, moving for a crappy job is better than staying put with no job. But in practice, there are all kinds of costs–the cost of moving, of giving up your friends, family, professional network, etc. If only one person in a couple is unemployed, moving just to see if a state with 7% unemployment is better than one with 10% unemployment is especially stupid. I could go on, but I’m sure everyone gets the point.

*Yeah, I know, the Heritage Foundation fancies itself more conservative than libertarian, but in this case, the economic argument is pure free-market freebasing, which both teams support but libertarians do so with less social finesse. Sherk’s fuck-you-and-your-kids attitude is a stellar example of that kind of malicious social cluelessness. So there.

**At one point he cites his well-off unemployed friends, who he doesn’t seem to have talked to at all, and who are exempt from his admonitions to take jobs they currently consider beneath them.

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July 15, 2010

Trans Job Discrimination: Now With Numbers!

Two trans members of Make the Road/New York’s LGBTQ Justice Program were turned down for fast-food jobs in 2008, six years after the city banned gender identity based job discrimination. Which is hardly news, in and of itself–job discrimination against transgender, transsexual and gender-nonconforming people is tremendously common, and looking at the statistics for POC or women, it’s not hard to figure out that simply outlawing employment discrimination doesn’t end it.

But anything resembling hard facts about anti-trans discrimination are hard to come by. When their members got passed over for jobs, Make the Road decided to work on that. The end result is this recent 22 page report, aptly titled Transgender Need Not Apply, which details their DIY trial of a sociological technique–matched pair studies–to get some numbers to show the rational-fetishist crowd. You can guess how that turned out.

How it Worked

They picked two pairs of their members who were similar in as many ways as they could control for–one team was composed of Asian-American women in their late 20′s, the other of white men in their mid 20′s. The experimental difference was that one member of each pair was cis and the other was trans, and the the trans applicants disclosed their status on applications and in interviews.  They were outfitted with made-up resumes that gave them similar backgrounds and experience, with a slight advantage to the trans team members. And they underwent serious training to match their demeanors and interview behavior as much as possible.

The pairs then set out to apply for jobs at high-end retail stores–J. Crew, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Brookstone, etc. 24 different stores in all, for a total of 42 applications for each experimental group.* The cis testers got 14 job offers. The trans testers got 2. The way the numbers shake out, that totals to a discrimination rate of 42% against trans applicants, which is, well, pretty freaking high as discrimination stats go. How does 14:2 equal only 42%? The employers were saved some by that fact that many stores didn’t offer anyone a job, and a single store (the Virgin Megastore) picked the trans applicant over their cis counterpart. Once.

What Does it All Mean?

In their report, MtR were careful to point out that their study is too small to tease out intersectional discriminations, which they assure us they’ d like to do in a larger study that could measure the degree to which race and class factors interact with transphobic discrimination (I’d put my money on ‘multiplicatively’ or ‘exponentially,’ if anyone at the Radical Scientist Gambling Parlor were dumb enough to take the other side of that bet)

Personally, I’d be curious to see how trans men fare vs trans women, as there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that transmisogyny (that is, the particular cocktail of misogyny and transphobia aimed at trans women & other male-assigned trans people) is a huge, huge magnet for job discrimination, even compared to the transphobia-served-neat (and often with a chaser of male passing privilege)** faced by trans men. Unfortunately, with only 2 freaking job offers going to the trans testers, this particular study isn’t going to help there. You can’t study intra-community differences in hiring until someone hires some more freaking trans people. Like, a statistically significant number of trans people. Sheesh. We may be waiting a while for that one.

Thanks to Questioning Transphobia for picking up this story before me.

*Note that an experimental group is made up of the all subjects sharing a variable. So, the two cis testers are one experimental group and the trans testers are the other. Meanwhile, we also have two teams, one of a trans woman and a cis woman, and another with a trans guy and a cis guy. I know it’s a mess, but obviously, it matters how you divvy up the data.

**No more liquor metaphors, I promise. Not till we get farther into the weekend, at least.

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June 14, 2010

The Free Market Comes to Academe

Not too long ago, I finished my BS at a Huge Public University. For various reasons (partner working on a master’s, looming student debt, wanting to test-drive some research interests before grad school, needing to get some distance between myself and my GPA), I’ll be staying put and working for a couple of years.

Which should be fine–I worked my way through school doing science-themed drudgery, the Dept of Labor assures me my degree is in high demand, my needs are modest, and there’s an enormous land-grant university right down the street. So landing an entry-level lab tech job should keep me fed, housed and entertained for the foreseeable future, right?

Well, not so much. There are jobs out there for me, which is better than how most of America is doing right now. If and when I get one of those jobs, I will be making much more than I am now, by sheer dent of putting in more hours at a slightly-to-much higher paygrade.

But positions that used to be full time are now hourly. Nearly half the listings are for temps, but they’re not temporary jobs–at an interview recently, the PI told me they have funding and work to do for years to come, but it’s just too hard to get the administration to approve a ‘permanent’ position. They don’t want to pay for benefits. They don’t want to offer job security. And while that PI’s research sounds fascinating, and the people I met there would be great colleagues, I’m not sure I can get by making less than I did last time I was in food service.

Which isn’t a coincidence. Landgrant U is far and away the largest employer in an otherwise poverty-riddled small city. They set the tone for wages in all sectors. It’s easy to see the connection with geeky jobs like mine, but they also hire an army of custodians, cooks, welders, mechanics, office workers and so on. Budget cuts from the statehouse (and oh, how there are budget cuts) don’t just affect those employed by the school, they make sure other employers don’t have to compete. Hell, to the hypercapitalist Republicans running the state, that’s a feature, not a bug.

I’m lucky. I’m an able bodied white guy without any kids or family relying on my paycheck. I’ll be ok. But what the hell will become of my hometown if $10/hr temp work is the best thing out there?

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