December 28, 2013

On non-academic careers

At the History of Science Society 2013 I presented the first results of my historical research on wheat research in India in the 1950s and 1960s. I also attended many academic sessions, but my favorite was one called, ‘Happiness Beyond the Professoriate.’

As I get closer to defending my dissertation and graduation (in 2015), I’m seeking a job in policy, non-profit work, non-tenure track at a university (such as with extension), or even the private sector. I’ve already informed my advisor and most of my committee about these plans, which I had expressed since starting my PhD. Perhaps because going into my PhD program I was already interested in non-academic jobs, I chose a graduate program and advisor that were more supportive of this choice than a traditional disciplinary academic department.

The session featured a panel of speakers who focused on three things: 1) types of jobs that PhDs can do; 2) how to improve your chances of getting said job; and 3) changing the academic culture that sees non-academic careers are failures. The first and second themes were interesting and helpful, but it was the third point that affected me the most. Like I said, although my academic program and mentors have been supportive of a non-academic career, it’s difficult to escape the general stigma of getting a PhD without going on to an academic job.

I learned a lot in this session, and I’m going to report the main points here.

1) On non-academic jobs that PhD’s can do, there are many! The ones discussed were policy, consulting, museum jobs, university administration, editing and publishing, and professional associations. Many of the panelists stressed going to your university’s career counseling program, even if it’s outside your department or aimed at undergraduates.

2) One of the panelists had experience in hiring people with PhDs for non-academic jobs, and gave us some advice from that perspective. To him, PhDs can be a risky hire for several reasons. They might see non-academic jobs as “Plan B” and not have their heart in it, or might be stuck in the academic headspace of their dissertation. They might not be able to synthesize and communicate information quickly and concisely. And they can sometimes act like they’re the smartest person in the room.

In order to contrast these faults (real or perceived), PhDs can do a variety of things to make their application more successful. One way is to be able to explain, quickly and in lay-man’s terms, why you did your dissertation but why you’re moving on from academia. Some of the panelists mentioned the website, Versatile PhD, as a good resource. I agree, as I've browsed the discussion boards and the panel topics.

The other thing stressed by the panelists is to have non-academic work experience on your resume. They recommended doing internships or jobs while still in grad school, that shows your potential employer that you have skills and experience relevant to the workforce. One of the panelists recommended completing an “individual development plan” to assess what skills you have and what you need to work on. This seems like a good idea for anyone to do, because even you go into academia, organization and communication skills are very important.

May 10, 2013

Why I love social media

Other than a smattering of AIM and email throughout high school, I dropped headfirst into social media when I started college in 2005. Online blogs, Facebook, and the like helped me keep in touch with new and old friends.

When I started blogging about academic and environmental issues in 2008, I started following other blogs related to my interests. When I went to Bangladesh (also in 2008), I got more into blogging and found myself closely following several development-related blogs.

At some point I got on the Google Reader* and Twitter bandwagons, which are both more or less a constant stream of information. I miss Google Reader's more social functions (sharing posts and commenting on what others' posted), and I haven't really found an adequate replacement. Of course, no one can ever replace Arijit as my number one social and environmental justice-related news source. Arijit, as some of you know, was a huge proponent of social media and I miss him dearly for this and other reasons.

I feel that I've only recently begun to utilize Twitter as a networking tool in a more professional sense. The fun thing about Twitter is that you can tweet anyone, from professors to the secretary of state, and hope for a response. It's led to some interesting research connections for me, and it gives a more personal spin on professional networking! Twitter also functions as a mini newsfeed, although it can be overwhelming at times (the other night it was full of tweets on drones... thanks FutureTense).

But back to blogs! Although about half the blogs I follow are "fluff" related to recipes and whatnot, the other half are mostly academic blogs. Keeping up my my blog roll over the past few years has helped me tremendously with four main points:

1) I made my institutional contact with Bioversity International through a blog written by my supervisor in India. Remembering the pain I went through to find a research contact in India, I couldn't believe that Bioversity was working on my topic of interest and was willing to work with me. You never know what kind of opportunities might show up!

2) Keeping up with current news and publications regarding agricultural adaptation to climate change. Blogs are a million times faster than academic journals, so often you'll see research that's in progress. It helps me know who's working with who (in academia and out), what are the current paradigms, and even to download papers and news articles directly related to my research. Although I rely on a variety of blogs for this, the most info-packed and frequently updated is the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

3) Linking with people outside my field and getting a broader scope of academia. I follow a few blogs in agricultural economics, geography, and political science because although I'm a mostly qualitative researchers, these are the fields that often look at questions of development, climate change, and agriculture. It has broadened my horizons to get another perspective on these topics as well as to learn some particulars of each discipline.

4) Professional advice. Reading blogs by people currently in academia or with policy experience gives me a better perspective of the potential careers I am facing. In particular I've been following the posts from Duck of Minerva on the academic-policy nexus, general grad student advice from GradHacker, and lately this great blog on "alt-ac" careers, From PhD to life.

*In case you're wondering, I switched from Reader to Feedly and I'm liking it so far!

April 24, 2013

Is environmentalism women's work?

Ellen Swallow Richards

In an Earth Day-themed op-ed, historian Nancy Unger writes for CNN a piece titled "When helping Earth was women's work." As a topic of interest for both academic interest, I had high expectations for an insightful piece connecting environmental history with contemporary debates. But after a first and subsequent reads, her point is lost and surprised at the lack of clarity in an article aimed at the public. I'd like to propose an alternative narrative about women's involvement in Progressive Era environmental and conservation movements and what it means for today's environmental science and politics.

Although today's most prominent climate change advocates are politically liberal men, women played an important role in the development modern environmental protection in America. At a time when the conservation and preservation of America's parks and wilderness was deemed a man's job due to the "frailty" of women, women became active in urban sanitation and environmental health projects. We now call this period the Progressive Era, the 1880s to 1920s, when a new set of social and scientific practices drastically changed America's urban landscapes for the improvement of human health.

Because I study the history of science, an important Progressive Era scientist was Ellen Swallow Richards (1842­­—1911), the first woman to attend MIT in 1871. Richards was a pragmatic-minded scientist, using science to improve public health issues from sanitation, nutrition, and the home and urban environment. This is a very different kind of "environmentalism" than we might ascribe to Teddy Roosevelt and Henry David Thoreau. Richards sharply focused on improving household efficiency and environmental sanitation, or in her words, “the larger household, the city” (Stage, 1997:30). Richards, however, is best known for founding the field of Home Economics.

Richards was also possibly the first scientist to introduce the word "ecology" into the American scientific discourse. She defined "Oekology" as “the science of teaching people how to live” safely in their environment, and specifically the built environment (Clarke, 1973:117). For most of her life she used science to advocate new ways of examine the environment and society, and to empower women as guardians of home health and practitioners of efficiency. Richards saw home efficiency as a way of bringing women out of their supposed frail health, as well as preventing the transmission of newly-discovered bacterial diseases. Among Richards' great scientific legacy include her training of Boston's first team of sanitary engineers and laying the groundwork for public health reform, as well as leading Boston's Pure Food Movement, nation's first laws in this area.

Her contemporary urban reformers of Richards included Jane Addams and Alice Hamilton, part of the Settlement House Movement for urban sanitation and workers’ rights. The echoes of Ellen Swallow Richards’ work can be seen in modern environmental leaders, such as Rachel Carson, Lois Gibbs, Majora Carter, Peggy Shephard, and Grace Lee Boggs. But despite Richards’ challenges as a woman scientist in a very male-dominate academy, she was no feminist, and would hardly describe protecting the environment as "women's work." Rather than falling back on stereotypes of Mother Earth, we should learn from Richards' pragmatic view of human and environmental health. While Richards was a Progressive Era reformer, she wasn’t a radical and was determined to improve human and environmental conditions through very practical means. Today's environmental leaders could learn from Richards' dedication to working within the system of existing societal values of efficiency, self-reliance, and protection of the home and urban environments.

Unfortunately, Unger's point about transcending partisan politics for environmental protection is lost in what many might view as a feminist view that essentially positions women as environmental protectors. I'm not sure if this was her point, but my argument here is that women do have a great legacy of environmental protection, and in particular we should consider the contributions of women like Ellen Swallow Richards to improving the public health of a great city like Boston. Richards wasn't a conservative and wasn't a radical, but she channeled her ideals into the pragmatic fields of sanitation science, nutrition, and home economics. Perhaps instead of arguing over climate models today, we could find a similar way of addressing our country's energy future and creating a new vision of sustainability.

Works cited:

Clarke, Robert, 1973. Ellen Swallow: The Woman Who Founded Ecology. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company.

Stage, Sarah, 1997. Ellen Richards and the Social Significance of the Home Economics Movement. In Rethinking Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession. Sarah Stage and Virginia Vincenti, eds. Pp. 17-33. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Further reading:

Cravens, Hamilton, 1990. Establishing the Science of Nutrition at the USDA: Ellen Swallow Richards and Her Allies. Agricultural History 64(2):122-133.

Hunt, Caroline, 1918 [reprint]. The Life of Ellen H. Richards. Boston: Whitcomb & Barrows.
Hynes, H. Patricia, 1985. Ellen Swallow, Lois Gibbs, and Rachel Carson: Catalysts of the American Environmental Movement. Women’s Studies Int. Forum 8(4):291-298.

Melosi, Martin, 2008. The Sanitary City: Environmental Sciences in Urban America from Colonial Times to Present: Abridged Edition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Mitman, Gregg, 2005. In Search of Health: Landscape and Disease in American Environmental History. Environmental History 10(2):184-210.

Rossiter, Margaret, 1982. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Taylor, Dorceta, 2002. Race, Class, Gender, and American Environmentalism. United States Department of Agriculture.

March 25, 2013

Things I've learned about field research

About half-way into my time in India, I feel like I am making pretty good progress on my research. To estimate, I'd say I'm about 50% done with my field research (interviews with scientists, farmers, policy-makers) and maybe 50% or slightly less done with my historical research (part of that is because I plan on continuing my archival research back in the US, but also I feel accomplished because I've collected a lot of documents from the archives and online so far).

Since I'm thinking in numbers, something that keeps popping up in my head lately is that I feel like my research is maybe 80-90% "good," if that makes sense. The missing 10-20% is due to mistakes on my part-- including lack of preparation, forgetfulness, oversights, etc.-- and uncontrollable factors-- barriers to fieldwork, data, etc. I think part of writing my dissertation will be carefully screening for these errors and missteps and taking them into account.

I've been deeply engaged in my fieldwork for about a solid month now, and if I could go back in time and warn myself/congratulate myself, here's what I would say:

-Narrow your research question down. Cannot stress this enough.

-Have a good local institutional contact. Meet them before deciding for sure. You may be desperate, but don't settle for things like people not responding to your emails in a timely fashion. (In my case, things have worked out very well with my host institution.)

-Prepare as much as possible before going to your fieldsite. Test your interview questions, have them translated, know what sources you're looking for. Anticipate what types of analysis you will do and how your methods will answer your questions and be amenable to analysis.

-Understand some of the local cultural context, especially with regards to interpersonal communication.

-Have a very specific set of requirements for what you want to accomplish during your fieldwork; one that you can communicate with others. In my case, this means clarifying: what type of scientists I want to talk to; what exact books/reports I'm looking for; how many farmers I want to talk to; etc. People cannot psychic-ly know what you need. Be open to suggestions and negotiations with your local hosts, but firm about why you want to do certain things.

-Related, don't be afraid to ask for things. Things which I've had to ask for, which seem stupid to me but otherwise I would have no other way of getting, and eventually I have mostly gotten over the awkwardness: bottled water, please make the food less spicy, please no more aloo parathas for breakfast, hygiene products, money, etc. Relevant article about asking for things and being an introvert.

-Make a budget. Try your darndest to get someone else to pay for it.

-Take notes, edit notes, back-up notes, read notes often.

-Network. Don't be afraid to talk to people. Talk to the big-wigs. Talk to the maid.

-Be patient! Be flexible. Take what you perceive as set-backs in stride. Have faith in people who are helping you. Do not lose your calm.

I'm sure I have many more lessons left to learn! Also if anyone reading this has any agricultural research/India specific questions about fieldwork preparation, I have a whole host of answers. Rule number one being: bring your own toilet paper, a hat, and bug spray.

March 1, 2013

When housewives and food policy get mixed up

Oh my god you guys, what did I just read? I'll tell you: a New York Times article about how women doing less housework leads to obesity. Really??? Really.

First, let's ignore that the study the article cites, published in PLOS ONE, is based on research funded by the Coca-Cola company. Let's also ignore this entire article in the Sunday Times, a adaptation from the new book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," which completely explains why a soda company might be interested in, say, shifting the blame for obesity from soda and junk food to an easy target: women's declining caloric expenditures in housework and increased participation in the workplace. And let's also ignore other research that shows that even though women's heavy labor and drudgery of the "golden years" have decreased, there are now increased expectations and societal norms about keeping a spotless house and the perfect body.

I suspect some bunkery. I don't disagree that lifestyle changes have an impact on our overall health; but what I do question is the reductionist connections between housework, energy expenditures, and obesity. But as someone who keeps up with the food policy literature, it seems to me that the overall "food environment" plays more of a role in obesity. Consider what might have been on the shelves of a 1960s housewife: probably a lot of ingredients, some pre-packaged mixes, etc., but certainly less snack foods than you might find in a modern home. Also consider: the study finds that a modern working woman burns 132 kcal less each day than a 1960s housewife. Certainly, a decrease in caloric expenditure can add up and result in weight gain if you keep all other factors constant. But do you think it even compares to the impact of snacking at work; office birthday cakes; Starbucks; and the ever-increasing medley of high-calorie snacks that are marketed towards exactly this segment of the working population?

This article troubles me for two main reasons: 1) the implicit value-judgement that women's increased participation in the workforce is responsible for an increase in obesity, and 2) the corporate incentive to deflect critiques away from high-calorie sodas and snacks and onto other issues, such as decrease in physical activity or framing obesity as an issue of  "self control" and individual responsibility. Or in this case, the not-so-hidden message that if women got back in the kitchen, we'd all be healthy and happy like in the good-ol-days.

February 27, 2013

Fieldwork in Bihar, once again

I spent the past 9 days in the state of Bihar to complete the first leg of my fieldwork in India. Now, I'm doing what I would call "fieldwork-lite (TM)," i.e. I am by no means calling my work ethnography or anthropology. But, a more positive way to put it is that I'm getting a "snapshot" perspective of different actors in India's agricultural research system. So I spent the week divided up into visiting Bioversity's field sites (first 2 days; more about their field trials here from my previous visit); interviewing agricultural scientists from the regional research station and university; visiting CIMMYT's field trials for climate adaptation; interviewing farmers; and, in a true act of participatory research, drinking beer and arguing about science with agricultural scientists. So all in all I was very pleased with the progress I have made this week, and I had a good time and some wonderful hosts at the guesthouse I stayed at. It was a nice change to be able to walk outside and smell things growing, rather than things decaying.

I don't really want to say too much about my interviews because they are confidential, but what I will say is that I think the scientist interviews went well; I learned a lot, and I think I have some good qualitative data that I can draw from for my analysis. I got a diversity of opinions and hit on some "controversial" topics, which to a social scientist is always fun. The farmer interviews were more challenging, for a variety of reasons, but I'm still glad that I did them. It was especially interesting to me that the farmers who I interviewed were pretty marginal-- they were growing fairly old seeds that were released in say 1977 or 1995 (but still modern varieties)-- and they had no contact with agricultural extension. I read this article today and I would say it definitely applies; they don't have access to any scientific consultants and are extremely resource-poor. Although they have grown the Green Revolution wheats, they adopt only parts of the technology packages.

This week and next I plan on clocking some time in the library so that I can start to get more serious about my historical work. Although the interviews are important, I think that the majority of my data will come from my archival sources. I have a lot of ideas brewing, but I will need something solid to base my research on.

February 19, 2013

Drinking the Kool-Aid while attempting to be an unbiased researcher

I realized today that I’ve spend the past week and a half drinking the Bioversity Kool-Aid; meaning that I’ve been surrounded by great ideas like “custodian farmers”; researchers who are really interested in “farmer first” technologies, networks, and access to resources; and in the past few days, getting a chance to talk to farmers who are involved in Bioversity’s projects here in India. Which is all great, especially considering that Bioversity’s mission aligns with my own ideological commitments. But this is something my academic committee has pushed me to think about: how will I deal with my own pro-farmer, pro-local biases when conducting my research?

One of the things I’m studying is the difference between/evolution of the scientific paradigms of “wide adaptation of crops/top-down technology transfer” and “location-specific adaptation/participatory research.” The first approach is dominant in the state-run agricultural organizations; the second (I’m hypothesizing) is more likely to crop up among NGOs and individual researchers. But, is one approach necessarily “better”? My own bias pushes me towards thinking the second approach is better, because it takes into account the local socio-economic as well as environmental conditions of farmers. But from an innovation systems perspective, we probably need some combination of both approaches. The first approach works well for large farmers on productive lands; the second works better for marginal farmers/areas. I think if I’m able to take a more even-handed (or “academically agnostic”) approach to my research, my scholarship will be better. One step I can take to reduce my bias is to be very careful in my interviews, and to carefully consider what my respondents say. In my historical research, I think the best strategy for now is just to document all relevant material, and then sort out my theoretical argument later.

Theoretically, I find the correlation of the “wide adaptation/top-down” approach with a socialized political system extremely interesting. This would require me digging into more political science than I currently have under my belt, but I think it would be really interesting to compare 20th century agricultural development in the US, Soviet Russia, and India. For example, what was the political context; proportion of public vs. private research investment; scientific paradigms; and ultimately the success of agricultural technologies in each of these nation-states during critical periods of agricultural development? Maybe I can find someone already working on this stuff and collaborate…

In other news, baby goats are the cutest things ever and I want one!

February 14, 2013

Custodian farmers and global agro-biodiversity

This week I attended two conferences in Delhi (and have one left to go): one on "custodian farmers" and the other on global agro-biodiversity. My host organization did a large part of the work for the custodian farmers conference, which brought together 20-30 farmers from south and southeast Asia as well as experts in agro-biodiversity. It was interesting, definitely innovative, and somewhat logistically challenging to bring together farmers, some of whom had not travelled before, and who spoke at least 5-6 languages between the group. They each gave a short presentation that was translated by their country's research/NGO partner. Throughout the meeting I learned exactly what a custodian farmer is: someone who actively maintains, conserves, adapts, and shares agricultural biodiversity. Similar to what we might call "early adopters" or innovative farmers, although in some cases they said their communities did not recognize the importance of what they were doing. They have a lot of different motivations for doing this. Many of the farmers (which was a limited sample size, for sure, and only included one lady farmer) seemed to have some intrinsic motivation to conserve different species and varieties of crops. They were also motivated by financial benefit, and were very interested in how they could get more education, technology, and access to markets to make value-added products or to market their rare varieties. The two-day workshop was very interesting to hear about some of the research and policy related to custodian farmers, and we also had some interactive (participatory agricultural research, you could call it) activities with the farmers about what they valued and what suggestions they have to get more people to become custodian farmers.

The next conference was a global consultation on agro-biodiversity, more specifically, plant genetic resources (for a brief background, see my previous posts here and here). I know that at previous conferences on this topic, there's always a lot of strain between the "global north" and the "global south" because the global south contains most of the in-situ (in nature, or on-farm) biodiversity, but the global north has historically housed most of that diversity in seed/gene-banks while southern countries sometimes struggle to build their capacity at collecting and banking different plant (and animal, insect, and microbial!) species/varieties. But attendees at this conference were mostly Indian scientists (India has one of the largest biodiversity collections), country-representatives from the global south, and international research center representatives. So it was interesting to hear the perspectives from this group of people, and for me to talk to a bunch of scientists who I have studied so much about!

January 22, 2013

Quinoa: food fads and fallacies

In an alternate universe, perhaps I am an agricultural economist. Or, maybe my graduate training has prepared me to critically view articles like this recent one about quinoa and why vegans are awful people, as well as the response. For an actual economist's point of view, check out Mark Bellemare's blog.

There is no easy answer to this question. Like determining the greenhouse gas impact of "food miles," without a lot of data it's difficult to determine the net positive or negative effect that rising quinoa prices have on Bolivian farmers. My instinct is that in this case, rising prices might actually be helping farmers. If there are getting consistently high prices for quinoa that they sell, that means that they can actually sell less (or grow less acres) of this high-value export and still make a good profit. A good analog would be basmati rice that's grown in the Punjab region. But in both articles, the problem of quinoa prices for Bolivian farmers is conflated with the impact of globalization. It's true that globalization is changing the price of foods, their availability, and consumer preferences all over the world. Sometimes this can have negative impacts (think Coke, junk food, subsidized grains, and volatile markets), but there are also positive impacts. It's all more complicated than the first article would admit.