Monday, August 30, 2010

Category Schmategory

It appears that a number of people dislike the categorization of STEM into hard and soft STEM and I understand their reasons. Additionally, if I were a guy, there is an obvious reason why I would never want to be known as "soft." But it seems people dislike being categorized altogether.

I think we all like to think we are unique, snowflake-like researchers who totally escape all categorization. We bridge multiple fields, we do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, all in our own unique way. There is no chance that there is anyone quite as awesome, versatile, and interdisciplinary as we are, right? But, alas, who can ever really evaluate us in all our unique interdisciplinary glory?

Let's try the following scenario: You are up for tenure. Your department colleagues want to promote you. But, there is usually at least one additional step, where a committee composed of members of different departments is supposed to evaluate your case and often this is who really decides your destiny. These committees usually have different department compositions in different years. Bear in mind that a representative of your department cannot vote (even if there is one on the committee) and neither can any of your close collaborators that happen to be on the committee.

So, which departments are likely to yield a representative that will be able to adequately assess your tenure dossier? In particular, which department's representatives will be most appreciative of the research metrics such as your publication record (e.g. publication quality, publication rate, relevant journals) and your funding record, without entirely relying on the information in the external evaluation letters? If you comment on this, please state what your field is and list 3-5 such departments, whose representatives are likely to fully appreciate your awesome record and if necessary be able to champion your case to the rest of the committee.

If thoughts of a tenure decision leave you drenched in sweat (e.g. because you don't want to live through it again or because it's coming up soon), you can consider a similar scenario where you are up for an Excellence in Research university award, as to be determined by a committee of 5 people. Which 3-5 departments are those whose representatives you woul ideally want on the committee to ensure full appreciation of your research awesomeness?

While each of us may well be a unique, snowflake-like researcher who totally escapes all categorization, it's not a bad idea to sometimes think which other fields we can easily (or not so easily) make a bridge to. This is important when we are evaluated for tenure and promotion, when we seek new funding, when we think of new research directions, when we start collaborations. (Or when someone on the internet invites us to take a poll about where our discipline belongs.) Sometimes the best new research directions come precisely from realizing that another field is sufficiently different from ours that some well-known techniques from our field may enable some very exciting breakthroughs in the other field.

Different categorizations emphasize different common aspects, no more and no less: with some fields we share the same scientific journals and/or the sources of funding; with some others we may share the same poor representation of women or minorities among faculty and students; with many more we get grouped into colleges and schools, according to tradition, or politics, or disciplinary similarities. Finally, there are many aspects all academics share, such as our teaching and service missions, and that's why we are all grouped into universities.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

My 3 would be chemical engineering, materials science, and bioengineering.
Also, IMO, bioengineering is more closely related to the other engineering disciplines than it is to biology. Although some funding sources are similar to biology, bioengineers tend to have 2-yr postdocs, do lots of computational work, have more industry collaborations, and have dept politics more similar to other engineering disciplines.
Finally, I agree with some others that "hard" and "soft" does not equate "non-bio" and "bio"; e.g., polymer physics, polymer chemistry, and soft condensed matter physics would be considered "hard" by your initial definition, which is confusing, since they deal with soft materials.

GMP said...

Finally, I agree with some others that "hard" and "soft" does not equate "non-bio" and "bio"; e.g., polymer physics, polymer chemistry, and soft condensed matter physics would be considered "hard" by your initial definition, which is confusing, since they deal with soft materials

Agreed. It's not an ideal categorization.

Thanks for the information about bioengineering. Is there a bioengineering dept at your university? [not at mine; there is chem and bio eng (they are very strongly on the chem eng side) and biomed eng].

Theorists/computational scientists do seem to sometimes feel they don't belong into these categories. I personally think of experiment/theory/computation as different types of tools people use to address problems in their disciplines. I personally am a theory/computation person so I really don't touch anything but a computer, but experiements in my field deal with hard materials system and the field is physics/engineering. So I consider my field physics/engineering and my tools to be theoretical/computational.

FatBigot said...

By this definition, wet chemistry is "soft", as is high temperature metallurgy

I always thought that the hard/soft split was to do with the precision with which predictions from theory could be tested.

GMP said...

FatBigot, perhaps look at this link?

I think a lot of people use soft STEM to casually refer to biological/life sciences (and occasionally for a few select other fields such as liquid crystals or polymer science or soft matter physics). I have certainly heard it many times and never thought there was anything derogatory about it (as biochem belle says "hard machines/squishy organisms" contrast between the extremes is easy to grasp). Honestly, I never thought I would have to defend this hard/soft terminology which I didn't invent and which people (me included) pick up along the way; but apparently it comes with all sorts of baggage, and it seems even people who seem to think "soft=bad" think it for different reasons. One thing is certain: scientists seem to have a long and creative history of putting each other down (from all sides).

Anonymous said...

"One thing is certain: scientists seem to have a long and creative history of putting each other down (from all sides).

That comment brought this to mind, even us 'hard' STEMs can't get along...

One thing is certain: scientists seem to have a long and creative history of putting each other down (from all sides).

Anonymous said...

Whoops: I meant to put a link to this comic...

http://www.fotolog.com/breakfast_cereal/39417030

OverEngineered said...

There are many different types of biomedical engineers. Some are close to biologists, but most biomedical engineers use techniques developed in other fields of engineering and apply them to biological problems. Some examples that come to mind are using principles of mechanical and materials engineering to build and evaluate artificial joints, using ideas from signal processing and systems analysis to evaluate and categorize biomedical signals, and building new ways to image tissues on all scales from cellular to noninvasive human measurements using applications of physical principles. It seems sort of wacky to me that you'd classify someone who works on analyzing stress and strain on a human joint in the same category as a biologist but someone who analyzes stress and strain on a physical system as a true "engineer," especially if both do mainly computational or theoretical work!

GMP said...

@OverEngineered: There are many different types of biomedical engineers.

I am sure that's true. Trust me, I have nothing against biomedical engineers; I am sure there are some who are more on the biologisy side and then there are those consider themselves, like what you describe, more on the non-bio engineering side.

There are 8 categories you can vote on, and you can vote for as many of the 8 as you see fit.
It appears you can simply put your specialty as both bio and non-bio (e.g. mechanical) engineer.

GMP said...

Anon at 5:08 and 5:09: thanks for the link to the comic! It was hilarious!!

David said...

Gross categorization is a rough technique, suitable for 'soft' thinkers. It lacks the subtlety of a spectral characterization.

Anonymous said...

Hard sciences are any that can can have a number assigned to it and be reproduced every instance. Soft sciences like psycology, sociology, and political science,are based on wishfull thinking and political correctness, and are for the soft headed.