Students in School of Natural Science burdened with inferior advising
As I read the umpteenth article about improving leadership among Rice undergraduates last year, I actually laughed out loud. Once again, a person touting student leadership mentioned many engineering clubs, yet apparently no other academic organizations came to mind. As someone who was in the other half of non-engineering science, it made me wonder why natural science majors were always lumped together when it seems like the Wiess School of Natural Sciences tried so hard to not be at all like engineering.
The George R. Brown School of Engineering has offices that provide advice on communications, leadership, international experiences and interactions with professionals. Likewise, the Schools of Humanities and Social Sciences provide many leadership opportunities in their academic units and have encouraged strong student ties to campus research centers like the Baker Institute. The School of Natural Sciences has no counterparts to these programs, and there seems to be a mindset that these resources are useless for people who are going to graduate school to become researchers. While some could argue these skills are irrelevant to the process of scientific research, they are still vital for professional success.
Being a great scientist today means more than just being good at research. Findings are meaningless if researchers cannot effectively communicate them to their colleagues. It is also important to be able to reach out to the broader public, which financially supports most research. This ability is something the National Science Foundation considers in research grants, so even if some professors question outreach efforts, they can at least appreciate how developing these skills will be useful for students' careers. And at a university where many bemoan the public's poor understanding of science, it seems only fitting that we should be involved in the process of making our community more scientifically literate. Who better to teach science to the public than students who recently struggled through it? Is teaching others not the best way to learn? The problem is that there are virtually no opportunities for students to do this.
Communication is also an important aspect of teamwork. As research becomes increasingly collaborative, more scientists must be able to work together in a technical setting, and we need technical leaders to help organize these efforts. Except for purely theoretical work, the line between engineering and science research seems to be increasingly blurred, so we should probably understand what it is like to work with people from other disciplines. In a similar vein, the increasingly international nature of research means science students should be competent in cross-cultural communication.
The lack of opportunities is glaring when you see that the School of Natural Sciences seems to encourage professors to become involved in similar activities. Numerous science professors proudly offer their expertise to the media on relevant stories. I have heard people boast that it is hard to tell the difference between some of our science and engineering professors. Many professors hold appointments in multiple departments, in recognition of the interdisciplinary nature of their work, and several work with international collaborators.
Even worse, though, is the fact that a future other than the bachelor's-to-doctorate-to-postdoc-to-professor-to-tenure track seems unthinkable in Rice's attitude toward science majors. The one exception seems to be professors' winks and nods to the existence of our large pre-med population. I have several science major friends who were not sure whether they wanted to go to graduate school but also did not seem to know what they could do with just a science bachelor's that actually utilized their skill set. Sure, many Rice graduates go into consulting, but you can do that with any major. It also seems unrealistic to assume that everyone going to graduate school will become a professor, especially when leading publications like "Nature" point out that universities produce far more doctorates than available professor positions.
This also is not meant as a critique of professors, as many do try to work with students. The problem is with the broader view in the advising system and the poor assistance other resources at Rice provide to natural science students. We are told scientific engineers are marketable to companies, but at every career fair I attended, that translated into companies wanting engineering undergrads or science grad students. The Baker Institute stresses the importance of scientists to government, but most of the science policy program is focused exclusively on health policy or biomedical research. Programs from the Center for Civic Engagement focus mainly on health and the environment, though the Center for Civic Research and Design also supports some engineering projects.
I do not know the solutions to all these problems or whether other people even consider these issues as problematic. However, something seems off when I know so many intelligent people who feel they did not get much help planning for life after Rice. By writing about my experience, I hope to help create a dialogue about what science students want from their time at Rice. Rice tries hard to respond to students' concerns, so I think if people voice a demand for change, it will happen. Last year, I spoke with the Office of International Programs about confusing advice for science majors regarding study abroad, and the staff came up with new programs and resources to market specifically to science majors. If just one student can help improve advising, imagine what a whole school could do. One student improved study abroad offerings; a whole school can reform academic advising.
Matthew Diasio is a Sid Richardson graduate, class of 2012.
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