Thursday, February 10, 2005

How big a bum am I?

I got a Ph.D. in chemistry, funded in large part by the taxpayers. I am not, however, a practicing chemist. So, the burning question of the day is whether this means I'm falling down on my duties to society. Let's start filling in the balance-sheet:

I didn't pay any tuition for my graduate classwork ... but the university was paid (by the fellowship support) for numerous units that weren't actually classes (e.g., for research, teaching, and seminar). I won't broach the subject of whether every course I took was actually worth the money the university exacted for it.

I got training on very expensive equipment ... but I also did a lot of work on that very expensive equipment. A lot of work. And I brought a research project or two to completion and shared that knowledge through journal publications.

I got paid a graduate stipend for the work I did in the lab and teaching ... but the hourly wage equivalent was a step above sweatshop (maybe even if you include the taxpayer's contribution to my tuition). And, one hopes, I made a real contribuition to the undergraduate education of the students I TA'd. Also, I may have failed a pre-med or two who would, if allowed to become a med student, have killed someone.

My training equipped me to conduct serious research in physical chemistry ... my temperament, maybe not so much. Also, no part of me was terribly interested in the amount of grant-writing and lab administration that would have been required of me as a principal investigator. (Plus, it didn't seem fair that I probably would have had to delay or skip having kids altogether to survive academic chemistry.)

Plausibly, I could have been a chemist in industry ... although I might have had to lie about having a Ph.D., since it's harder to get an industry job with a Ph.D. sometimes than with an M.S. And I don't really like the culture of industry. And I might have ended up spending more time solving the shareholders' problems than solving society's problems.

Possibly I'm making more of a contribution to society -- even from the point of view of its scientific needs -- as a philosopher than I would have been making as a chemist. For example, I'm helping broaden the general understanding of science among the citizenry (in my philosophy of science course -- and in the cable broadcasts of the lectures that innocent bystanders might encounter while channel surfing). I'm pushing scientific understanding of the methods of science just a little bit further in my research in the philosophy of chemistry. And, I'm participating in the training of fresh scientists on issues of responsible conduct of research.

So maybe the taxpayers don't need to come after me for not being a scientist. They'll have to find some other good reason.


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