Archive for May, 2012

Women PhDs and the Pipeline

Friday, May 25th, 2012

ChartA report from the UK warns about the declining appeal of academic careers for female scientists. In focus groups and telephone interviews with chemistry doctoral students, the authors found that female scientists are less likely than their male counterparts to pursue a career in academic research.

What’s particularly troubling is that women at the beginning of their studies are more likely than men to declare an interest in pursuing academic careers. By their third year of the PhD, the proportion of men keen on the academic track barely budges, but the percentage of women plummets by half.

The main reasons for this drop-off:

  1. The constant search for funds in academic science is unappealing.
  2. The uncertainty of securing a stable, long-term position turns off women.
  3. The personal sacrifices do not outweigh the rewards.

As dispiriting as the conclusions are, it is even more grim that by the third year, 21% of men and 12% of women view academia as their preferred career path. So, while women may be disproportionately soured on academic research, many men also find it an unattractive career.

The Lost Art of Asking

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

On October 5-6, 2012, the Department of Medicine will celebrate its centennial with a symposium. In planning the agenda of speakers and sessions, the organizing committee left time for questions from the audience. As important as this interaction is, I am reminded of how rare it is to hear a good question after a presentation.

Commonly, the so-called questions are really comments. If forced to abide by the interrogative form, the questioner will add a perfunctory, "Don't you agree?" Other times, the questions are rambling and disconnected from the speaker's main argument. Sometimes I hear very specific methodological questions that interest only specialists.

What all these kinds of questions have in common is that they are more interested in showcasing the asker than eliciting an answer. I was relieved to read that other academics have the same pet peeve. Peter Wood from the National Association of Scholars describes a panel he participated in where none of the questions started with "who," "what," "when," "where," or "how."

In the service of restoring the A and A period to a Q and A, he offers several useful suggestions:

  1. Have a single point.
  2. Don't ask clarifying factual details.
  3. Avoid talking about the question; just ask it.
  4. If someone else asks your question, put your hand down.
  5. Resist speaking for an entire category of people.
  6. At the same time, resist giving your autobiography.
  7. Add value to the conversation.

The burden to be witty may be too heavy, so just focus on being concise and curious.

Flipping the Classroom

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Movie depictions of higher education have not caught up to the way learning happens at universities nowadays. Instead of the authoritative professor in the front of the classroom lecturing to rows of students, college and medical school classes are more likely to resemble chaotic laboratories with students working in teams to solve problems.

Online tools have made this transformation possible. What used to occur in person--the efficient delivery of content via lecture--has now migrated to home viewing. The problem sets and homework that used to take place at home now go on in the classroom with the professor as facilitator.

There's evidence that the active learning approach improves student outcomes in an undergraduate physics course. Stanford Medical School "flipped" its biochemistry course and saw a surge in student attendance. Khan Academy has popularized this model, bringing short video lessons to millions of Internet students.

So, why doesn't every faculty member teach this way? I can think of a few barriers:

  • The effort required to revamp an existing course can be daunting.
  • If assessment measures of student learning rely on memorization of content, lecturing may be most appropriate.
  • Some students resist active learning. They feel they learn best from an expert.
  • Physical classroom space hinders group exercises.

Have you encountered other hurdles to flipping your teaching?