Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Paper tigers in academia

Yesterday, while flying back from a workshop in the east coast to Los Angeles, I came across a well-written, provocative (and already quite controversial) article in New York Magazine, titled "Paper Tigers", by Wesley Yang. The subtitle is a good summary of the main question the author concerns himself with: "What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?"

There are certainly shortcomings in this essay.  For instance, Wesley Yang doesn't adequately cover the female perspective. And any such broad cultural commentary cannot avoid making sweeping generalizations that do not apply to many Asians in America (though he does acknowledge this himself). 

However, I also found myself in agreement with some key observations that Wesley makes. He talks about something called the "Bamboo Ceiling" that he describes as 

an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership. 
The failure of Asian-Americans to become leaders in the white-collar workplace does not qualify as one of the burning social issues of our time. But it is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that so many Asian graduates of elite universities find that meritocracy as they have understood it comes to an abrupt end after graduation. If between 15 and 20 percent of every Ivy League class is Asian, and if the Ivy Leagues are incubators for the country’s leaders, it would stand to reason that Asians would make up some corresponding portion of the leadership class.
And yet the numbers tell a different story. According to a recent study, Asian-­Americans represent roughly 5 percent of the population but only 0.3 percent of corporate officers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and around 2 percent of college presidents. There are nine Asian-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. In specific fields where Asian-Americans are heavily represented, there is a similar asymmetry. A third of all software engineers in Silicon Valley are Asian, and yet they make up only 6 percent of board members and about 10 percent of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. At the National Institutes of Health, where 21.5 percent of tenure-track scientists are Asians, only 4.7 percent of the lab or branch directors are, according to a study conducted in 2005. 
Analyzing the situation, Wesley notes that it's not primarily an issue of overt bias, but of unconscious bias due to perceptions.  His view is that these perceptions are shaped by Asian family values.  He argues, provocatively, that the very values that many Asian parents drill into their children: being humble, self-effacing, rule-obeying, trouble-avoiding, and hard-working, which are helpful for getting them in large numbers into top schools and getting excellent grades, may actually create a barrier to entering leadership positions in America: 
Maybe it is simply the case that a traditionally Asian upbringing is the problem. As Allyn points out, in order to be a leader, you must have followers. Associates at Pricewaterhouse­Coopers are initially judged on how well they do the work they are assigned. “You have to be a doer,” as she puts it. They are expected to distinguish themselves with their diligence, at which point they become “super-doers.” But being a leader requires different skill sets. “The traits that got you to where you are won’t necessarily take you to the next level,” says the diversity consultant Jane Hyun, who wrote a book called Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. It’s racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking. It’s simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and “pumping the iron of math” is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things.
Wesley Yang talks about an organization called LEAP which runs leadership training programs for Asian and Pacific Americans, and quotes its CEO J.D. Hokoyama: 
Aspiring Asian leaders had to become aware of “the relationship between values, behaviors, and perceptions.” He offered the example of Asians who don’t speak up at meetings. “So let’s say I go to meetings with you and I notice you never say anything. And I ask myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder why you’re not saying anything. Maybe it’s because you don’t know what we’re talking about. That would be a good reason for not saying anything. Or maybe it’s because you’re not even interested in the subject matter. Or maybe you think the conversation is beneath you.’ So here I’m thinking, because you never say anything at meetings, that you’re either dumb, you don’t care, or you’re arrogant. When maybe it’s because you were taught when you were growing up that when the boss is talking, what are you supposed to be doing? Listening.”
This certainly struck a chord with me. I cannot count how many times over the years I have heard faculty colleagues comment negatively on Asian Ph.D. students that keep really quiet in class and in research meetings. Their complaint is that this not only makes it hard to gauge what they are understanding and what they are not, but also feels unfair in an academic environment because they are depriving the group of the benefit of their own ideas. I know of at least one colleague who prefers not to take on quiet Asian students in his group for this reason.

Tigers - pay attention! It's not enough to do well on paper. You have to find your voice and learn to be more participative and assertive. You will be more likely to be perceived to be helpful to others and to have leadership qualities, which will open up more opportunities for you in the future.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Photo from Summerhill Photographers

, founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill, is an unusual school that everyone should know about. It provides complete freedom to the children in what, how, and when they learn. It has been a great inspiration to the small number of similar schools around the world.
Quoting from its website:

Today, all over the world, education is moving towards more and more testing, more examinations and more qualifications. It seems to be a modern trend that assessment and qualification define education. 
If society were to treat any other group of people the way it treats its children, it would be considered a violation of human rights. But for most of the world's children this is the normal expectation from parents, school and the society in which we live. 
Today many educationalists and families are becoming uneasy with this restrictive environment. They are beginning to look for alternative answers to mainstream schooling. 
One of these answers is democratic or ‘free' schooling. There are many models of democratic schools in all corners of the globe, from Israel to Japan, from New Zealand and Thailand to the United States. 
The oldest and most famous of these schools is Summerhill, on the east coast of England.

Here are a few videos about this school:

It really is still ahead of its time. 

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Motivation and the Ph.D.

Recently, a couple of my colleagues sent around the following three articles to the faculty mailing list:

These are all criticisms of the modern Ph.D. system. The authors make two key points in common:
  • Ph.D.'s take too long.
  • There are few jobs for Ph.D.'s that relate to their research training.

On the face of it, it is hard to disagree with these articles, but there's more to the Ph.D. than these points would suggest. I'll limit my thoughts to the Ph.D. in engineering, which is what I'm most familiar with. The situation is quite different from field to field. While the duration of the Ph.D. is very long in the humanities (routinely taking 10-12 years), it is much shorter in many domains of engineering (4-6 years is the norm).

Nearly all engineering Ph.D.'s do get a job after graduation, but the quality and research-orientation of those jobs shows high variance. I recognize that a good number of the students who did their Ph.D. under my guidance are now in jobs they were sufficiently qualified to do after their masters (perhaps even undergrad!) Not only is there a great paucity of tenure-track academic positions, there are also relatively few industrial research jobs these days, as many companies have laid off their internal groups doing basic "blue skies" research. In my own area of communication networks, aside from a few examples like Microsoft Research and Qualcomm, it's hard to find a large industrial research group in the U.S. (There are more opportunities in the rest of the world, though, for students willing to move to places like China or India). 

Nevertheless, I think there is something deeply valuable about the Ph.D. process, that is not accounted for in the discussion in these articles. It is (or, at least, should be) a far more autonomous learning process than the undergrad or masters degrees because of the focus on independent research. Students are challenged to develop their critical thinking abilities and gain confidence in their ability to reason from first principles. By going in depth, they reach the very boundaries of knowledge, and in many cases for the first time in their lives, help contribute something new to human knowledge. And some students even find a way to balance this depth with  breadth acquired by attending a wide range of talks and courses in fields outside their main focus area. Despite its length, I think a Ph.D. in a high quality engineering program is not a waste of time. 

With respect to jobs, I would like to think that even those of my students who are now in engineering jobs that didn't absolutely need a Ph.D., find that they are better equipped in some ways because of their Ph.D. experience. As for the paucity of academic and research positions, there is a different perspective on this: that the resulting competition may be a good thing. One of the comments posted online by Igor Litvinyuk (who I found to be a faculty member in Physics at Kansas State) on the Nature article "Reform the PhD system" is worth re-posting here in full, as it offers a sharp rebuttal (I should note, however, that I don't share this market-based view entirely): 

Fierce competition for academic positions is the only way to maintain excellence in academia. That's why academia needs more qualified Ph.D.-holding candidates than there are vacancies. Otherwise every Ph.D. graduate would be guaranteed a tenure-track position. It seems like that is what most of the authors and commentators here advocate. But society's interest in having its investments in research to be put into most efficient use by the most qualified people surely makes some extra spending to maintain competition and sustain excellence worthwhile. The populist goal of matching every Ph.D. candidate with a well-compensated satisfying permanent job in academia may seem humane and desirable, but it is not necessarily in the best interest of society as a whole. There is an obvious contradiction in most of the articles here: they claim that Ph.D. overproduction as an established fact, while at the same time stating that unemployment level among Ph.D. holders is lowest of all educational levels. 
So earning a Ph.D. clearly improves everyone's employment prospects. How does it square with the argument that many of those positions do not require a degree and resources are wasted on training people for them? Even if that argument had some merit, those extra costs have to be compared with advantages the society gains from having an excellent merit-based academic research system. Some measure of frustration and disappointment among the less successful contestants who chose to participate in this competitive system is unavoidable and is not unreasonable price to pay. Is it really all that different from other walks of life where competition is the norm, i.e. sports, literature or show business? After all nobody forces people to enter those Ph.D. programs, do they?
So if nobody forces people to enter Ph.D. programs, and many of them don't get research-oriented jobs, why do they enter them? And what influences where they end up after the Ph.D.? Over the years, having observed and interacted with many Ph.D. applicants and students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at USC, I have made the following observations:

  • For many students from international universities (at USC, we get many applicants from Asian countries such as China, India, Iran, South Korea), doing a Ph.D. in the U.S. is primarily a ticket to the U.S. job market in high-tech areas. For most of these students, there is no motivation to stay in academia. They also see relatively little significance in the distinction between a creative research-oriented position, and a regular development/programming position in industry. They are often quite happy at the end of their Ph.D. to land a salaried industry job, regardless of its research content, because it pays well, is relatively stress-free, and guarantees a happy and stable  future in the U.S.

  • Many students who come straight from undergrad or an MS with little prior exposure to a non-academic setting, might be academically strong, but are still unmotivated and unclear about why they are doing a Ph.D. It's where the conveyor-belt of life has brought them, precisely because they were good at school: having been good at school, they specialized in science and mathematics in high school; having been good at high school, they went to engineering school; having been good at engineering school they applied to grad school, so here they are. All their life the schooling system has controlled their destiny and pointed them towards a Ph.D. They get here, and go through the Ph.D. trying to do their best at it. At the end of it though, feeling at least a little burned out by having faithfully followed the system all these years,  all they want to do is finally, finally, enter the "real world" in the form of any decent job that they can land (research-oriented or not).

  • Students who have had prior industry experience and then come for a Ph.D., particularly from within the U.S., are generally more motivated to seek research positions after the Ph.D., than students in the above category. They appreciate and value the intellectual autonomy afforded by a research position as compared to a non-research position.

  • The bar for academic positions is extremely high. Students need to demonstrate not only a rich publication record, but also should have worked on cutting edge topics, should be outspoken, and should have good networking skills to have interacted with faculty and researchers at other places who can refer/recommend them. For this reason, generally only those Ph.D. students that are extremely motivated to go after a tenure-track position from the very beginning figure out how to get them. (Paradoxically, though, given my previous two observations, a good number of those that go on to tenure track faculty positions have never been in industry.)

  • In engineering, another interesting, albeit relatively smaller, category of Ph.D. students are those that go on to found or work at small startup companies. Here again, with their focus on stability and their concerns about visa issues, I rarely see international students venture in this direction. In some cases, this category consists of students following their entrepreneurial faculty advisors; in many others, it's an expression of the great self-confidence and independence needed to be an entrepreneur. I would argue the Ph.D. is helpful for these students by exposing them to the possible opportunities for a high tech start-up.

My observations suggest that the kinds of jobs that Ph.D. students in engineering seek and find after their graduation (and to some extent, even the richness of their experience in graduate school) are very much a function of their individual motivation when they enter the Ph.D. program. This, in turn, depends on several factors, including (1) whether they have had prior exposure to an industry job before coming for the Ph.D., (2) whether they are international students, and (3) their risk-orientation. It would be nice to see these hypotheses investigated  more systematically through quantitative surveys.