Some suggestions

In my previous post, I pointed out that thesis advisers and degree programs should be providing training in aspects of being a scientist beyond benchwork. I also said I would provide ideas for how to do that.

How the degree program can help

First and foremost, let’s tell students early on that they need more than good “hands” to make it in the world of science. I agree that, after a certain period of time, this should become obvious to anyone with half a brain and any observational skills whatsoever. But, instead of waiting for students to figure it out on their own, why don’t we tell them right off the bat what reality is?

For first year students:

In my first year of grad school, I had classes on various scientific subjects. I also took one ethics class (although, to be honest, I’m not sure the program would have provided that had it not been required by NIH), and I was required to attend a lunchtime seminar series in which each of the faculty in the program presented their research to us. This was supposed to help us in choosing a lab and just give us an idea of the kind of research that was going on at our institution. Sometimes, these talks were very boring, but mostly they were useful.

I’d very much like to see another seminar series added to the roster.* The first seminar in the series should be Reality Check. The faculty should sit down with the students and tell them all of the dirty little secrets about science that all of us thought scientists were above until we actually started training to be scientists. Science is not a meritocracy. Fame matters. Quantity of publications matters. Who you know matters. Appearance matters. Gender matters. In short, right away students should be told, bluntly, that scientists are just like every other professionals in the world, that science is like any other profession in the world and you ignore that to your peril. Forget letting them figure it out on their own. Just come right out and say it. Give students the chance to start preparing for those aspects of science when they first start the program.

The rest of the seminar series would be about all of those aspects of science that aren’t research. Each could be led by faculty who are particularly good at that aspect. Get the Howard Hughes Investigator to talk to students about writing successful grant applications. Get the department chair to talk about networking. And so on.

For more senior students:

Give the students specific opportunities to practice some of these skills. Have formal dinners to practice networking skills (to make this have slightly more realism, have the dinner with faculty from a different department, that is, people that the students may not know very well). Require every student to invite a seminar speaker. Require every student to apply for some sort of fellowship (regardless of whether you think they are truly competitive for that fellowship; the idea is to give them some experience in applying for funding).

What PIs can do

When I was a waitress, in very nearly every job I had, I had to do what was called shadowing. When I first started, I was assigned to another waitress and had to follow her around. Then, after doing that a couple of nights, she had to follow me around and help me out if necessary. Likewise, I suggest that you include your students in the nitty-gritty of being a scientist. Bring a student along if you are taking a speaker to lunch. If it’s a more senior student, have them make the arrangements for lunch. Give your junior students copies of your grant applications to read. Ask your senior students to write sections of your grant applications. Show your junior students how to review a paper for a journal. Get your senior students to review the paper and discuss it with you. Ask your students what they thought of a particular faculty candidate. Express your opinions about a particular faculty candidate.

And, for the love of God, take them with you to scientific conferences and spend some time introducing them to people. I love my adviser to death but the man goes to ground when he’s at a conference. It is, of course, my job then to ask him to introduce me to a specific person.** Which I do. And he does. But then he disappears again.

These are only a few suggestions, touching on only a few aspects of being a successful scientist. I’m sure that faculty know better than I what one needs to be successful in science. All I ask is that they share this information with their students in a more systematic way.

What the students can do

If your adviser does not include you in these important aspects of Science, then ask her to. Ask if you can help review a paper. Ask to see her grants (especially ones you are contributing data for). Ask to write a section of the next grant. Ask if you can tag along when she takes the speaker to lunch. Ask if there is a way for students to invite a speaker and if there isn’t, ask if your adviser will do it on your behalf and allow you to arrange the details.

Ultimately, the person who cares the most about your training is you. You are the person most affected by poor training. Sure, it hurts your adviser to a certain degree but it hurts you a lot. So take charge. Don’t let them get away with a half-assed attempt at training you. Make them do their jobs. Nobody else is going to do this for you.

[Edited to add:  PhysioProf points out in the comments that I misinterpreted his comment to Drugmonkey’s post.  I’m glad he made the effort to clarify.  It goes to show that there are advisers out there who are not as unreasonable as we students seem to think they are.  However, I am leaving the following section as is because (1) I have heard many students complain about something that their adviser is not doing and when I ask if they have talked to their advisers about this, the answer is almost always no and (2) if I changed it then Physioprof’s comment to this post make no sense and I do not like to delete comments.]

Finally, I would like to address something that PhysioProf said in the comments of Drugmonkey’s post.

PhysioProf says:

The shit DrugMonkey is talking about ain’t that frigging complicated. It’s not like quantum chemistry or something. A small investment of effort goes a long way.

My husband is an astrophysicist (stick with me here, I do have a point). He is, quite literally, a rocket scientist. In the early days of our marriage, when some gift-giving occasion rolled around I would start dropping hints about what I would like to get. I would say things like, “You know, I really liked the earrings so-and-so gave me for Christmas. Every time I wear them, I think of her.” Or, “So-and-so’s husband took her to Snooty Restaurant for their anniversary.” And every time, he would not get me the jewelry or not take me to Snooty Restaurant. And I thought, “He’s a smart guy, he should figure this out. After all, it’s not rocket science. If he really cared, he would pay more attention.” For his part, my husband could not understand why I was sometimes disappointed with the gifts he gave me. They were perfectly lovely gifts. They were on my amazon wish list (he knows better to try to get creative after a disastrous instance in which my college diploma was shellacked) and yet I was not happy with them.

Finally, I gave up on the hints. Recently, I have flat-out just told him what I want. Here are two examples:

“I know that we are celebrating my birthday late because you will be out of town but if flowers or candy or something from you does not show up in lab on my birthday I will be upset.”

“I have run out of Chanel No. 5. When I was getting low, I asked for some for Valentine’s Day, but you got me something else. I then asked you for some for my birthday but you got me something else. Both of these were lovely gifts and I appreciate them. However, if you do not get me Chanel No. 5 for Christmas, I am going to go out and buy it for myself, now that I am completely out of it. So, you can either have that expense incorporated into what we normally spend for Christmas gifts, or it can be an extra expense to figure into the budget. Your choice.”

I got flowers on my birthday. I got Chanel No. 5 for Christmas. I was happy. My husband was happy that I was happy. In short, things have been much smoother now that I have decided to just come right out and ask what I want from him and tell him what I think he needs to know. The man is brilliant in many aspects of science. He does a lot of math in which there are no numbers whatsoever. Likewise, he is a terrific husband in many, many ways. But he is clueless when it comes to giving gifts.

Being straightforward about expectations is helpful for any relationship and the adviser-trainee one is no exception. Trainees, you think your advisers should know that they should be teaching you how to write grants. Advisers, you think your students should just know that they should go to seminars or that if you think out loud about a particular problem you are experiencing they should just know that this is your way of training them.

Screw that.

Just come right out and say, “Hey, I’m going to be writing lots of grants in my future, so I would like some advice on how to do so.” Or, “I notice that you haven’t been going to seminars. Attending seminars is an important part of your scientific training and I expect you to attend more in the future.”

There is merit to forcing students to figure some things out for themselves. However, I cannot see any sense in watching someone consistently do something wrong and not at least tell them that this is something that needs to be fixed.


*Do not, I beg you, ask me why I don’t suggest this to The Powers That Be. I have. They do not think this is the sort of thing that I should be focusing on at this stage in my career. *sigh*

**Yes, I know I could introduce myself, but sometimes I don’t even know what this person looks like. And don’t tell me to look them up on their departmental website because I happen to know that the pictures of faculty on our departmental website are old. In one case, a certain professor has a full head of hair in his photo and I happen to know that he has not even had half a head of hair for the last 8 years.


5 thoughts on “Some suggestions

  1. Pingback: My 2 cents « I Love Science, Really

  2. Yeah. You hit it square on the head here. None of this stuff should be at the expense of research. What do I mean? OK, I’ve seen a PI lets students ‘assist’ with grant writing, lets them conceptulize and write a whole damn grant with some input. Thats not fair, that takes too much time and is too much responsibility. Other students write reviews for papers and the PI puts there name to it. It is a timesink and done in the name of professional development when it actually covers for the PI being too busy.
    There is a fine line betwen prof. dev. and abuse.
    One program at my uni has students write a grant application on a new project that they think up as course work. It is great.

    And with regard to your husband and gifts, well, I now do it too. I make sure my expectations are well known. And encourage him to do the same…but generally if I’m happy, he’s happy. They are so sweet!

  3. Just to clarify your interpretation of what I wrote.

    My point was not even close to the idea that a trainee should be able to figure this stuff out on her own. My point was that, once the particular stuff that DrugMonkey was talking about is explained to a trainee, it should not be difficult to implement.

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