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Ramblings of an old codger academic #146: What the graduating student has to look forward to.

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.

I have come back, rather the worse for wear (my elderly liver, despite regenerative medication, really can’t take the pace anymore!) from a celebration for my 200th successful graduate student. The Head of my Department (actually a past grad student of one of my past grad students, or my grand-grad student I guess!) actually pushed the budgetary boat out and we had some very agreeable Canadian Cabernet and a chocolate cake that tasted like it was covered in chocolate from the days when there were still cacao plants. It really was quite a happy celebration, apart from the fact that this newly graduated PhD was heading out into an academic world that is sadly red in tooth and claw. There’s only a month until my 71st birthday, and with luck I’ll be able to retire within the next ten years. I’d retire happy, and live out the rest of my years reading and drinking nice wine, if it wasn’t for my concerns about my old students.

Not having children myself, many of my graduate students have become part of my family – I have many whom I have nurtured through undergraduate, masters, doctorates and even the super doctoral degrees they introduced in response to the glut of unemployed PhDs. Back in the day, there used to be something called tenure, when professors essentially had job security and the academic freedom to study whatever they wanted. What we call a professor in present times was called an “adjunct’ back in the day. As a professor back then most of us only had to teach two classes a semester, not six or seven. And you could basically teach whatever you wanted, without multiple committees scrutinizing and editing your course content for subversive political statements or accounts of the past that did not match with the approved official historical timeline!

Moreover – and rather blissfully – research could be done for simple scientific curiosity. There was no requirement for everything to have a military, pharmaceutical or industrial application. Research proposals didn’t have to be vetted by a panel of assistant deputy sub-Deans to assess their financial profitability, before you could conduct the research. Professors were actually paid by the universities to teach – they didn’t have to raise their own funding first!

Back in the day, the dim state of the current academic job market for even my best and brightest of students made it harder and harder to honestly tell them that pursuing a career in academia was actually a good career choice. It has become progressively worse over the past few decades. Working for environmental corporations is much better than academia, with massive cutthroat competition for funds and patronage, all of them vying to find a decent flagship species to attract supporters; after all, the really good flagship species went extinct decades ago.

I was lucky that during my academic career I didn’t have to lurch for competitive bidding from one short-term military research contract to another. I had some independent savings and sources of revenue – after SeaWorld Entertainment collapsed, my orca conservationist wife got to sell her life rights to Hollywood when “The Blackfish Effect” movie was made. We managed to invest the funds sensibly in renewable energy, carbon sequestration technology, coastal defense stock, and online TV and thus we managed to weather several recessions and bank and corporate collapses over the last few decades. However, good investments could only stretch so far – it subsidized my living costs, provided some small funding for my students and paid the mortgages. But thanks to the most recent pension crash, I don’t have enough to support me in retirement yet… I have no idea how my students are going to be able to cobble together funds for living expenses, let alone research or financial protection in their retirement, unless they knock on the doors of pharmaceutical companies or, heaven forbid, work as researchers for the military-industrial complex.

I used to be what was called a marine zoologist. Now my field is called marine paleozoology – sadly none of the species I studied in my own time in graduate school are extant. I used to cruise on boats counting dolphins, trying to work out ways of trying to conserve dwindling populations, believing naively that policy makers would do the right thing and make a last minute intervention to protect the last few remaining animals. I was even optimistic after the first few populations were extirpated, but as they say, insanity is “repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result”. Eventually saving individual endangered species became a luxury for even niche environmental corporations – it just wasn’t worth the financial cost and, besides, all the extinction was making their members sad. The only species that the ECs were telling the public about were the cute ones that were the furthest from being threatened, as there was some hope that they might persist, but even those are now few and far between.

Sadly, the old days of academic freedom and job security are long gone, yet the universities pressure us to take in more and more graduate students to fill their coffers with student fees (because how else will we pay the ¾ of university staff who are administrators – none of whom are actually bringing any funding in via research or tuition themselves!). I’m increasingly concerned that perhaps I should not be accepting these students when I know that their massive investment in time and debt will ultimately not lead to a career that will pay off that debt, and the skills and training they have gained will not actually be of any use in the few career paths that are now available to them. Like my study species that were extirpated and became extinct one after another, I fear that career choices and prospects for my graduating students are likewise becoming extinct too.

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.

Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) for nearly a decade and also served two terms as the president of the SCB Marine Section. and he's currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society, the Society for Marine Mammalogy and the SCB Contravention Marketing Working Group. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 135 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation and co-edited a book on marine wildlife conflict resolution.

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