Scout, Woo and Recruit Underrepresented STEM PhDs

July 17, 2016

 

I think it's only fair to warn you this piece will be filled with the requisite level of hubris, frank reality and even dashes of humor.  Hopefully you will continue to read after I have succeeded in alienating or annoying you sufficiently.

 

Let me start by saying that I am a bonafide holder of a Ph.D. in Theoretical Nuclear Physics from an accredited university in the United States.  Additionally, I am female and African American.  Now I will also say that I usually find it condescending when people respond to those cumulative descriptors with shock and awe.  I know that most of the time the intentions are well-meaning but really?  Any how, recently the National Society of Black Physicists (yes there are enough of us to have a conference at a hotel) held a conference and I had the opportunity to participate in several candid discussions on various topics.  The one that I found most enlightening was with a group of male Ph.D. candidates after a workshop that I moderated.  The topic was geared toward careers outside of the traditional faculty or R&D tracks.

 

After the session, my guest speakers, the student attendees and myself followed up with an eye-opening, yet rational debate regarding the financial worth of the students' respective future Ph.Ds.  A projector was in the room of course, and one of the students expressed his disdain for the fact that the manufacturer of said projector was making a boatload of money from the sale of said projector, but the individuals that do the research to develop the actual components and final product are usually not as fortunate to reap financial rewards commensurate to those of the manufacturer.  In plain English, why is the intellectual talent not compensated accordingly?  I thought about it and I get it.  Completely.  If we take a look back in history, we will discover that many of the pioneers of scientific discovery died penniless, were ridiculed, and/or were just taken advantage of, and they were white!  Meanwhile, their work was eventually deemed not only valid, but commercially lucrative.  A caveat I would be remiss not to mention is that curiosity and the joy of discovery was the primary motivator for many of the pioneers of science.  Fast forward to now where curiosity, joy, etc. are factors, but the scientists that look like me aren't as likely to have the leeway to ignore or minimize the financial value of the work they pursue.  Furthermore, supply and demand in today's market undoubtedly demonstrates the demand for the skill sets that these young scholars possess.

 

So what is my point?  My point is two-fold:  1) the NBA showed a yearly profit in 2013-14 of 4.79 billion dollars.  Apple, Inc. showed a fourth quarter profit in 2014 of 8.5 billion dollars, 2) If the same template for recruiting and securing talent was applied to STEM scholars as it was for athletes, there would be scouts tracking students' progress through graduate school; research focus, publications, presentations, expected date of graduation, etc.  There would be an academic draft-like process where interested employers would provide offer packages and signing bonuses.  And of course there would be endorsement deals.  If the demand is so high for this elite group, why aren't they treated like they're elite?  Certainly their career span is likely to be longer than an athlete's.  They are also less likely to create high-profile legal problems.  

 

My hypothetical hiring package would lead with a six-figure salary that starts with a number not less than 5.  It would also include an endorsement contract with EXPO, the maker of dry erase markers, and last but not least, a shoe deal.  Nike is fine if they are willing to make a nerd-friendly stylish shoe that looks good with my elbow patch blazers; but Sperry is probably a better fit for the lifestyle of an elite scientist. Sperry makes shoes that will distinctively make a statement:  I'm going straight to the yacht when I leave the lab.

 

In summary, the academic elite are being financially trampled upon.  Everybody knows we don't run or jump very well, so what's a scholar without a trust fund to do? We marry well or hit the lottery I suppose. 

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