St. Louis Sports Online

Eric Niederhoffer 

St. Louis SportsOnline

columnist & principal photographer

Jobs Program: Appearances are Everything 20 March 2000

Everybody loves excellence on the playing field, ice, court and even in the classroom, but do we really appreciate what it takes to be a top performer?

When it comes to comparisons, sports and science provide an endless list of topics for me to address (see Kissin' Cousins: Science and Sports).

In this installment, I prefer to comment on the concept of equating jobs programs for professional athletes and science graduate students.

Major league baseball, professional basketball and football, ice hockey, and soccer are team sports that depend of the steady influx of talent to offer live entertainment to fans. These fans pay anywhere from $10 to $100+ for the chance to watch their favorite team in action. But a team is no better than its individual players. For under certain situations, any one player may be called upon for a contribution to the team.

But have you ever experienced your favorite team performing as a group of nonprofessionals? Maybe there were a few players who were having their typical game, while the rest of the team just couldn't get their act together. Maybe you were disappointed and ranted to your buddies or mate about the state of professional sports. Maybe you thought that you could do better.

Over the course of a season or a couple of seasons, the performance of any one specific professional team comes down to how well management is able to package its players. How well the team can form around a core group of well-skilled athletes sprinkled with some less than stellar players. Of course the trick is to not have too many of these latter people around because more often than not, their skills level doesn't provide a value-added advantage and won't get you to the playoffs or that championship ring and trophy.

But if you're an owner, the key to your success is to field a team and that may require the use of lower skilled players simply because there are not enough players with great talent to go around. Such are the complaints of expansion by MLB and other sports leagues.

Thus to be successful, one needs to balance the pool of available talent with costs. Some clubs are very successful at this. Just look at the New York Yankees! The Chicago Bulls of the past! (2000 Cardinals?)

So how does science fit into this discussion?

Probably few people have thought much of the process of educating graduate students in the science departments of our colleges and universities. The reason is fairly simple; you never see these people because their work is non entertaining, purely academic. But the process is similar to putting together a successful sports team.

A successful graduate program needs faculty to teach (less these days it seems) and perform research (also called scholarly activity), and I almost forgot, contribute to the service activities of individual campuses. A successful graduate program also needs students, those people who will carry out laboratory experiments designed by faculty in the pursuit of knowledge that one day may prove useful.

Management of students (and faculty at some level) is an important component. Management skills vary just as it does in professional sports, although there tends to be less frequent turnover in academe. But these skills are just as important as those in sports because there lies a diverse array of skills among graduate students, not unlike those found with athletes, which need appropriate management.

But unlike sports, few outsiders (fans) exist to evaluate the quality of graduate programs. Instead we have accreditation bodies that collect information and present judgments. So management is important to package graduate programs into neat boxes to be sold when necessary.

So if you're a faculty member or part of the management team, your interest is to assemble departments and programs around talented faculty and talented students. There are high- and low-skilled faculty and as well as high- and low-skilled students because there has been the equivalence of expansion in academe.

Thus to be successful, a balance must exist that considers costs and the available pool of talent. Some programs are quite successful, especially when it comes to attracting talent. Other programs find it necessary to search for talent. Successful programs are well known, consider those at Harvard, Washington University, and Berkeley.

So another way of looking at sports and science would be as jobs programs for people with similar interests and diverse skills levels. An appropriate combination of skills and management can keep each going as long as the product doesn't appear to change too much.

Selected Archived Columns: The Academic

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