On May 21st I attended my son’s graduation at UCBerkeley, from the physics department. Nick is a goofy kid. One of the things I love about him, and my daughter, is they leaven their serious/science sides with the circus arts. Cassandra does acro-balance (think Cirque du Soleil) and Nick does Parcour. They both juggle – though Cassandra is the far more practiced juggler (and in fact runs a circus camp in Prescott Arizona during the summer months). And one is studying dark matter and the other teaches middle school science. I definitely have a mother’s bias and tons of pride.

Two things struck me about the graduation.

First:  One of the PhD recipients carried her very young son in her arms as she walked the stage to receive her diploma. The loudest cheers were for her and the wee one. Given that the statistics from Mary Ann Mason et al.’s work indicate a child is a hindrance to a women’s career, particularly in the physical sciences (while, interestingly, leading to slightly higher tenure rates for men), it is interesting that the crowd loved the image and act of this young PhD recipient – an opening of arms or show of love for children and the act of creation, as it were.

The other thing that struck me was the ‘we are kings’ (and perhaps queens) attitude, which was replete in the talks. The department chairs and deans were clear that these students were top dogs, and would achieve greatly, as representatives of the pinnacle of the scientific heap. Even as they mentioned, multiple times, that many of them would not go into physics or astrophysics for careers. A deft way of handling the lack of jobs they face at the professorial level. I currently believe in innovative choices on the job market (you know, like all the physics PhDs that went to Wall Street to work, and the many entrepreneurs currently emerging). But I wonder. Are we moving fast enough in giving grad students the training they will really need for working well with others, in the new flat structures emerging in some of the most innovative and successful start-ups?  Will this end up being the pinnacle of their own careers for many of them?

On the flip side of that, I was also sitting with a new appreciation for the love of knowledge that was so visible to me in the room. These students, especially the PhD recipients, have been through dark times, almost surely (see Uri Alon’s great talk here). And are emerging onto an uncertain job landscape (it’s estimated that a full 60% of current PhD students and post-docs in science will have to leave science for lack of jobs). Yet the pure love of what they get to chew on, think about, understand and explore just shone through. I was in love with it. I could feel the joy. I was renewed in my feeling for ‘pure thought’ and intellectualism. Hmmmm…. something to think about.


This was initially posted on blogger: We are Kings – Graduation day thoughts