The Activated State: An Argument for Involved Scientists




In the past 9 years, something unprecedented has been happening in science. A number of graduate students, postdocs, and young scientists in nearly every field of science have become more active and engaged in issues related to graduate education and employment. Early activism centered around employment and the debunking of the "Myth"--the prediction that a wave of retirements would open up a host of opportunities in science. However, since the early '90s activism has broadened and matured at several levels. Young scientists today are engaged in improving graduate and postdoctoral education, making science more hospitable to women and minorities, and interacting with Congress on issues of funding and professional development.

Yet even today, most graduate students in science tend to shy away from anything that smells like "activism." Many grad students fear being labeled a troublemaker for speaking up about issues that concern them. Other students are genuinely ambivalent about the issues, believing that science is a meritocracy where "if you're the best, you'll get a job." Some are genuinely interested in making their graduate department, university, or institution a better place but don't know where or how to start.

Silence of the Lambs

Graduate school is known to breed a certain degree of paranoia, but it is nevertheless surprising to hear many graduate students express support for improving student policies but refuse to get involved for fear of making their adviser "angry." Although some measure of tact and caution is advisable (chanting "Burn! Baby, Burn!" during Journal Club would not be a good example), I have found that most graduate students and postdocs are overly worried about their adviser's reaction.

Believe it or not, many faculty members and administrators are genuinely receptive to improvements in graduate education and often welcome the suggestions and input of students and postdocs. Most advisers want the same thing for their students and postdocs that the students and postdocs want for themselves: success in their work, professional growth, and a smooth transition to the next step in employment. Young scientists often mistake the narrow focus of their supervisors as an indication that any path other than research or teaching is intolerable. In fact, it is more a symptom of the fact that your advisers simply lack much information about the other rewarding career paths that are out there for science Ph.D.s. Ignorance is a much easier problem to deal with than antipathy.

Serving Science

Professional activities on committees, in scientific and professional societies, and in government have long been laudable aspects of a scientific career. Those scientists who have gotten involved have found that the rewards of their actions have been far greater than they had imagined. Not only have they in some small way improved science and society, but they have gained professional recognition, developed important professional and personal contacts, and have often enjoyed themselves in the process.

Being active as a graduate student or a postdoc is no different from any of these other professional activities. In fact, I have found it a hallmark of the future leaders of science. Let's face it--the process of scientific discovery is not a sport for passive lapdogs. Doing science requires some measure of intellectual leadership, and leadership and activism in other areas should be considered a natural byproduct of a healthy scientific mind. At least that's what I tell my boss!

In this special feature, we will meet several young scientists who have been extremely effective in improving the policies and procedures that govern graduate students and postdocs at their institutions. It may surprise you to learn that, in the vast majority of cases, the reforms these leaders have proposed have been embraced and even lauded by many on the faculty and in the administration. For some of these active graduate students, their work on behalf of others has opened up new opportunities for them as well.

We will also introduce you to THE GRAD SCHOOL SURVEY, a new project that will help graduate students AND their departments develop and adopt "best practices" in graduate education. Already, over 2000 graduate students and former graduates have submitted surveys about their department's education policies and professional development practices.

Remember--you don't have to be a firebrand to make a difference. And YOU have the most to gain or lose.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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