Strange Trajectory

Yesterday I had a rather strange path to follow. About a week ago I got sucked into this FaceScroll subwebiary ‘Shulefeed’ that seems to be primarily oriented towards serving as an accumulation point – La Brea Tar Pit – for folks you knew in high shule. It is excruciatingly extrovertish and extremely stupid. The news articles are written, as one of my colleagues, Magnetic Inductance Force, put it “at the third grade level.” I think he was being charitable. So far as the journalism goes it is among the most excruciating;y slime moldish that I have ever encountered. It doesn’t even come up to the level of the articles in the Science News magazines we used to read in elementary shule that were written for elementary shule students. I became more enamored of my hypothesis that Gooey and FaceScroll are in a competition to be the slavemaster of the internet in the same way that Apple is slavemaster of internet appliances.

Anyway, I got called upon yesterday to vote for the ‘Webby’ awards. I do not vote for all categories, mostly because I do not understand what most of them are although they all seem to be boggish, extrovertish, and artsy-flatulent. I do vote for the science award and that is how I entered this strange path. Seven ‘web sites’ are nominated (????????) for each award, and I found that four of the science nominees could be eliminated on the basis of zero measure, including an ‘institut’ at fair Hahvahd. That left three: Gooey science fair; Wired; and Scientific Amerikan. Speak of a nightmare to select among. I almost closed the browser tab then and there in emulation of the expected presidential election. But I was a bit sagging that time of day and persevered in a moment of weakness.

I shortly eliminated Gooey. Their science fair is a Potemkin village of publicity hacking, part of their aforementioned competition with FaceScroll to be the brainwashing machine of the internet. I was then left with a choice between Wired and Scientific Amerikan, between a flagrantly extrovertish bog rag and a decomposing manure pile of classical format. Again my pointer hoovered over thee tab ‘x’. But then in a moment of weakness, firmly believing in the attempts to resurrect the once stalwart giant of Amerikan science reportage I voted for Scientific Amerikan. While Wired is flashier, it actually has a lower signal-to-noise ratio by a factor of over 2! Again, I am reminded of the upcoming chief executive election.

Then, by happenstance, I chanced upon a Scientific Amerikan article [Link] entitled “What does a Ph.D. in chemistry get you?” Admittedly, there are great differences between a Ph. D. in physics and a Ph. D. in chemistry, but generally less than almost every other discipline except possibly maths. The article is one of the roaring torrent that has begun to appear now that someone else bothered to calculate the probability of getting a faculty position given a Ph. D. To remind the bogs this probability is ~ 0.03. The author’s credentials are compromised upon discovering she (not the relevancy) is a chemist turned philosopher in a faculty position. And of course, philospohy is the exception in all this since it graduates the fewest Ph. D. per year, probably due to the dearth of research grants and demand for philosophy research.

But I was most taken with one paragraph,

“In fact, the thinning of the herd wherever it happens seems to put a weird spin on the process of graduate-level education. Education, after all, tends to aim for something bigger, deeper, and broader than a particular set of job skills. This is not to say that developing skills is not an important part of an education — it is! But in addition to these skills, one might want an understanding of the field in which one is being educated and its workings.”

that led me down a convergent trajectory in phase space. The question emerged almost immediately of whether the making of a PH. D. in this day and age is indeed an education.  I regret to report that the current hypothesis of the answer to this question is a resounding “NO!” I fear this is upheld by the paragon of modern PhuDery, Jorge Chaim, who now draws cartoons of the Ph.D. process.

I should comment that with few exceptions, obtaining a graduate education is a matter of exception rather than intent, at least in the non-Capellan disciplines. Clearly engineers, medicalists, and justicers are not educated. They are trained. In reflection the same goes for those in disciplined research.

To convey this, I have to go back to those hoary days when I was a graduate student. In those days, as now, the graduate student had to write a degree proposal that had to be accepted by adviser and department. When I started out in graduate shule I wanted to do some computational physics work on solids that would extend the Curie construction, which is named after Pierre Curie and has to do with the shape and form of ‘holes’ in solids. These are what bogs think of as holes, not absences of electrons as is usually thought of in solid state physics. To cur a long story short, I never finished the preliminary research nor the proposal because computers in those days were inadequate for the task.

I then sat down with my advisor and came up with a program that meshed with his funded projects and interests. This is the mode of things. Today graduate students look around at the professors, and bid to work for one based on a number of factors, including but not limited to existing research. Then they work on what is assigned to them and this tends to become their degree project. In essence, it is like being employed and indeed that is the metaphor used. So what is missing is the self-appointed exploration and it is this that compromises education into mere training.

This is the basis of the hypothesis. Absent the need to proceed on one’s own with only occasional mentoring from an adviser, the graduate student ceases to being educated and is now only trained in the tools and practices of the specific research project. The exception that led to the education has now been almost entirely eliminated. And we are the less for it. In fact, it is probably a major contribution to our lemming rush into third world status.

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