Academia

Have conferences become a giant racket?

What has happened to a bunch of nerds getting together in a big room, eating some sandwiches and talking about ideas?

Why are people so willing to pay big money to meet other people in their respective fields at conferences, when they just could have done what I have referred to in the paragraph above?

We now have a conference ‘industry’.  Take Ted talks for example.  Come to our conference!  Our speakers have all the big ideas!  These people will save the world!  The conference industry is booming!

Seems to me there is a lot of talk-ie and not enough do-ie.

Take this conference for example, which is only 5 years young:

International Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference

Fancy website!  There is money for that and the nice conference, yet, there is little to no money for research in this field.

If you happen to be one of the lucky folks to have a steady job in industry, government or academia, someone may foot the bill for you to go – $470 for members and $550 for non-members, but only if you register early.  Of course that doesn’t include travel and hotel costs.

But wait!  If you can’t get your costs covered, for the low low cost of $150, you can still pay the organizers AND work for nothing at the conference.  This is referred to as ‘volunteering’ on the conference website.  So there is always that.

Sorry to pick on you, International Fire Behavior and Fuel Conference, but you are following the modern conference ‘industry’ trend.  You folks could instead spend your time figuring out how the dollars would be better spent actually funding climate research, or figuring out a way to actually use the internet to communicate at your conference (the internet — what’s that?) so as to minimize the carbon footprint of the large number of people travelling to your conference.

I’ll leave it to my readers to answer the rhetorical question that serves as the title of this article.

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The $550 conference meal — if you register early (Sandwich by whologwhy)

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This article just about sums up my first semester of law school

Since I don’t have time lately to post anything of my own, I thought I might provide a link to the blog “The War on Bullshit” which has, in my humble opinion, posted an accurate and eloquently written article summing up how I feel about law school grading.  Law school is an engine powered by a large amount of arbitrariness and subjectivity along with massive egos of academics (easily developed when one has only had to live in one’s own head for the majority of one’s life).  Couple this with a professor’s inability to teach law in a coherent and logical manner, and voila, you have a recipe for a law student’s living nightmare.

Some profs and some administrators* will say things like, “law is a self-regulating profession so self-teaching is critical” or, “law professors are not trained as teachers” or, “you should spend more time learning from your classmates”.  Well, sorry, but that doesn’t give a law school a valid defense for providing sub-par service (let’s not forget that legal education has become prohibitively expensive).  These are only thinly veiled tu quoque arguments: “your marks stink, student A, because you’re not working hard enough / you didn’t learn the concepts thoroughly on your own.” (but these profs and university administrators know this argument all too well). If I’m learning on my own, then why don’t I just attend law school online?

I will also argue that there is a great deal of special pleading, or goal post shifting, occurring on a regular basis:  “We don’t want the smart students to transfer out of our law school, else we’ll lose our jobs.  Let’s make our marking extra arbitrary and our exams beyond difficult, so we’ll be sure to remove as many marks as possible, and while we’re at it, we’ll lower our grading curve average.”

Thanks.  Make sure that I can’t have good enough marks to transfer out so I can float tuition at your institution for another two years.  But this is all just speculation without evidence.  I wouldn’t want to be accused of making a false cause argument.  My bad. It’s my fault for not understanding the highly sophisticated legal concepts being taught to me.

Despite all of this, we are still left wondering why law students have high rates of depression and substance abuse problems.  Hmm, I wonder why.  But again, that’s just causal speculation.

* I say some, because I don’t want to be accountable for making the composition/division fallacy, where I think ALL profs and administrators are the same.  They’re not, but I often hear similar messages from them.

 

Evolution of Popular Music

I gotta get back to slogging through contract law, but I came across this really interesting paper, which has been covered in the media. Some scientists have determined that there have been three major branches of popular American music involving early 60s rock, early 80s new wave and early 90s rap.  According to the paper also, the British Invasion was not necessarily responsible for the 60s evolution of rock because it had already started, but the Invasion possibly helped to increase this genre’s popularity.

Having been a biologist before and more than a bit of a music fan – this paper is pretty cool, and it’s an open source paper, which I like.

Here is the link: The evolution of popular music: USA 1960–2010.  Have fun.

Ethics, advice and bros

It’s orientation/beginning of law school time for North American law students (Can./U.S. at least) and things are ramping up to get nuts.  I’ve barely started school and I’ve already had to deal with one ethical issue which I won’t get into and there will be many more to deal with I’m sure.  Dealing with ethical problems isn’t just special to law students and lawyers of course, but so far my legal training certainly makes me think about ethics already and I appreciate it.  I know I’m going to be suffering a lot with all the detailed readings of my core courses soon, so it will help me to think about the big picture: what are the purposes of our laws and what do they say about us as a society?

On a somewhat related note (this is a terrible segue, but I’m going with it), law orientation is great, but I am already tired of hearing unsolicited advice from upper year law students and some professors about how I should operate my life while in law school.  I know most people mean well, care about our success and, hearing the advice once or twice is probably sufficient, but this week alone I had at least 10 people discuss the importance of eating well and exercising, even about regular personal grooming.  I get it – stressed out students probably don’t always prioritize taking care of themselves, mentally or physically. But this week I felt a little bit like I was in a day camp for seven-year-olds, who themselves understand the importance of personal grooming.  Come on guys, it’s law school.  People didn’t bust their butts to get to law school so they could to hear these things over and over.

That said, do not worry upper year students!  Pretty sure soon enough you’ll be able to give advice all the time and hopefully get paid for it, but remember, all of your future clients aren’t likely to be children (not that we should be condescending to them either!).

Also, I notice some ‘broism’ at law school.  Law school has probably always been like that, since the concept of law school as we know it was born. Law still remains a white male dominated profession and is still primarily taught with the so-called Socratic Method (the pros and cons of which I won’t discuss here).  And I get the bro thing to some extent.  Men want to make man-friends. Or as they call each other “bro”, or “bruh”, as in, “Hey bruh, did you see ‘Straight Outta Compton’ yet?…No bruh, gonna check it out this weekend”.  Men should have man-friends, and women should have woman-friends.  But men should also make female friends, and stop ignoring women as if they’re invisible while they are doing their special bro-handshakes to each other.  There is probably some evolutionary-bonding-hunter-gatherer-cooperation explanation for the broism thing. But most people as far as I know, don’t need to coordinate hunting woolly mammoths anymore.

Not all men with male friends do this and I’m not suggesting that.  But for the ones that are making women feel excluded: grow up, because most of your class is female and these women aren’t just there as potential dating material (besides, if you date them, you might get a sexually transmitted infection anyway).  There are also those from the LGBT community, or maybe other cultures, who don’t get what you’re doing. You will have a lot of female and other colleagues who don’t look or act like you, and it is increasingly likely that you will have a female boss.  Excluding women and others just ain’t cool anymore, and remember that the women you’re in class with probably studied and will study harder than you.  And also, one day they just might wipe the floor with you in the courtroom.

Now there’s some unsolicited advice for all of you “brahs” out there.  One day maybe I’ll get paid to give it.

I made it to law school

Well folks, I haven’t posted anything of note at all for a number of months at this point because I was studying for my LSAT and attempting to gain acceptance to law school.  I have managed to do that.  Classes are going to start and I’m getting (dis)oriented with the law school experience.

If there’s anything I’ve always thought about lawyers, it is that they are totally weird.  I’ve met plenty of weird people generally, and in every profession, but some lawyers just have a very strange way of thinking and behaving.  If I become a lawyer, which I hope will happen (I should say ‘when I become a lawyer’, but it’s still a long road ahead), I will still probably think that lawyers are very weird.  Then again, I’m going to law school so I must be weird too!  I have a background in science and engineering; however, so I will probably always think along those lines — I have a feeling that this background will serve me well during my studies and in my career.

I find it funny when students reply that they want to be lawyers “because their parents and/or grandparents are lawyers”. This isn’t a good “main” reason to go law school at all!  This isn’t to say there may not be an influence from a close family member to pursue law, but one goes to law school to think for his or herself, not because mom or dad suggested you do so.  One needs more compelling reasons than that.

I am older than the average student, so I am finding my class to be full of generally nice people, but detecting some sense entitlement from some law students.  Perhaps it’s generational and/or just nervous students posturing, but I find the arrogance unusual considering these folks are not yet lawyers, nor do they have much life or employment experience!  Even as a lawyer, arrogance is likely quite off putting to folks who already find accessing legal representation/justice to be a challenge, if not downright impossible.

Luckily though there are also students who seem to understand this and my instructors have spent enough time in the real world to demonstrate humility.  I don’t think that law schools are helping the cause of access to justice either, by putting a high price on legal education, in particular in the United States.  There are plenty of law school “scam” blogs on the web too, but maybe I’ll talk about that on another day.

Either way so far I am excited to be embarking on a new career path through the appreciative eyes of someone with some life experience, after being caught up in a career that wasn’t really doing it for me for a lot of reasons.

I’ll try to post more regularly, but things are already starting to get nuts with my schedule.

Bring on the weirdness, lawyers!

Still Unemployed But Not Hopeless

As discussed previously, my most recent attempt at finding employment within the industry in which I was previously working did not pan out.  It is as if the universe is telling me to just stay away from that career path and move on to something else (if I was to believe in fate as the only factor at work of course).  Today it is difficult to change careers without returning to school in some capacity.  Unfortunately, pursuing higher education demands forking out money for standardized testing, and one cannot really avoid this, particularly if one would like to have the option to attend school in the U.S. or Canada.

My partner’s recent experiences at a large, well-funded U.S. university has been an eye-opener in terms of the current state of the academic system.  The employment prospects and practices at colleges and universities for today’s up and coming academics appear to be dismal at best.  There is not a lack of funding for research in the United States, but there is a lack of publicly sourced funding, in comparison to what was available in the past.  Despite these facts, the number of PhDs granted by institutions is on the rise, and it seems that the culture of academia appears to favor a more corporate mentality than ever before, where instead of profit in dollars, growth in terms of number of PhDs granted is academia’s currency.  It would not be in the interest of a college or university to dissuade potential graduate students away from graduate school, now would it?  Besides, there are so many foreign students willing to come to the U.S. for a PhD or postdoc, so why turn away cheap research labor?

Knowing this, I wrote the GRE* anyway because I want to have different career options, one of which would involve research, despite the crappy state of academic jobs these days.  Knowing what I know, I would prepare myself to be able to do research outside the world of academia if I ever did decide to take on doctoral work.

Since we know life is uncertain, and given my continued state of unemployment, I am considering law school also as part of my future career leveraging strategy**. I also know that there has been a decline in those sitting for the LSAT in the last few years, especially in the U.S.  I’ve read that the lower numbers have been attributed to outrageous law school tuition rates, fewer jobs available, etc.  Recently, though, the number of people writing the LSAT has picked up again.  With an improved economy I am sure more work will be available in the future.

All career options have their pros and cons.  Being a Gen Xer coming out of the Great Recession, I have to keep an open mind about the future.  I have to consider what I am passionate about, while at the same time I have to think about what’s practical for me, too.   If I spent my time focusing on the cons of every career option, then I’d probably become a complete nihilist***, but like Rustin Cohle in “True Detective” – I am programmed to survive….

* supposedly ETS, the group that administers the GRE, is a nonprofit organization, but given the rise in graduate students and costs to take the exam, I am sure it cannot be an organization which is hurting for money, nor is it likely that other standardized test administration organizations are either, or the test prep companies for that matter….

** these are not my only motives for considering a career in law.  If they were I would not survive law school, I’m sure.

*** not that there is anything wrong with being a nihilist, but I heard it’s difficult to make a living as one these days…

 

Underemployed with the Government

I am writing this post on my partner’s behalf.

My partner is a very well educated and accomplished person.   He was able to speak two languages and knew some English before immigrating here fifteen years ago; however, he wouldn’t have considered himself fluent in English at that time.  He carries out research on topics in which, for many reasons, our government should be very interested.

He completed a doctorate and post-doc with the government, and due to a lack of funding for jobs, he wasn’t able to secure full time employment.  As a result, he continued to work on post-doc funding for far too long.  After two years into his post-doc, his supervisor was scrambling to fund it ($20K-$30/year).  He was asked by management to become a citizen under the pretext that it would make the process of obtaining full-time employment “faster”.  At one point, he was told by a director, that it would take less time to hire him if he was “Chinese”.

Managers talked a lot about creating a position for him, but no one ever got around to actually doing it.  The best he could do was to start a consulting business and work on contract.  Managers were happy to keep renewing his contracts, since he was doing good work. He was even putting their names on his research publications.

Also, during his time on contract, he was overlooked for full-time employment in another federal agency; he watched other people with the same qualifications and less experience obtain full time employment within newly created positions, and he completed tasks, including translation of government communications, for free.

A few years ago, my partner wrote a four-hour exam and completed a two-hour interview (with another test) to qualify himself to be in a group of people who may later be called upon to work for the government.  If he was ever called to work (this obviously still has not happened), the position he would fill would still be far below his level of qualification.

The reason that I am writing this post, is that, just this week, the government decided to post an ad for an even lower-tiered position than the one for which he is pre-qualified.  He is waiting to see whether he will have to write another exam for it.

I read a lot about college graduates becoming disillusioned with their job prospects; however, when you spend many years completing a doctorate and post-doc, and spend many more years experiencing underemployment, that’s much worse.  Funding for scientific research (and subsequently research positions, especially in our country) continues to  be sorely limited.  I suppose it’s best for everyone to become computer programmers or MBAs.

It’s why we’re screwed.

Okay, we’re not completely screwed.  The world is a big place, and when the right opportunity comes up elsewhere, we will jump on it.  The waiting is the hard part.