bioephemera

Wow – my post about unhappy bio grad students is getting massive traffic. (Hi SlashDotters and StumbleUpon-ers!) Mike the Mad Biologist, my original inspiration, has responded here and here to all the buzz.

I pretty much said everything I wanted to say in the original post, and I don’t pretend to have an explanation or cure for this problem. But I see that there’s been some snarkiness on the intertubez (shocking!!!) while I was away watching the developments in the Myriad appeal. So I want to clarify two points.


First, let me emphasize that I’m not saying graduate students in other fields don’t also have a bad time. If I did make such a sweeping assertion, several of my best friends (who quit history/classics careers before and after obtaining PhDs) would smack me on the head and say, “HEY! At least YOU got paid enough to live on!” I hear you, humanities grad students. The point Chad Orzel makes about differential research funding within academia is also well-taken. However, my post was focused on the many graduates who, for lack of funding, faculty positions, or interest, leave academia and seek other opportunities. I think Mike is right that once outside academia, too many biologists don’t possess generalizable technical skills (like programming, stats, EE, etc.) that transfer effectively to new careers. They instead find themselves experts in esoteric wetlab methodologies – techniques aren’t broadly applicable outside a narrow slice of science.

Second, Chad completely missed my point when I said that many of the most useful skills I obtained in my academic career, I developed for myself, on my own. Here’s Chad, responding to me:

Jessica writes:

This is something I’ve tried to explain many times to nonscientists: most of the esoteric techniques I mastered during my thesis aren’t useful outside a Drosophila lab. They’re not transferable to any other field of biology, let alone any other scientific or nonscientific profession. Those skills I picked up on my own – speaking, writing, teaching, how to think about problems and dig into the literature unaided, how to handle severe setbacks, find ways to motivate myself – those are all transferable to virtually any career. But you have to teach those to yourself.

I’m not qualified to say whether or not it’s really true that biomedical lab skills are utterly devoid of other applications. If so, it doesn’t speak particularly well for the discipline, though I suppose that’s useful information to have what with prospective student days coming up– I can use this to advise all those eager-beaver future bio majors that they’d be better off majoring in physics.

First nitpick – I didn’t say biomedical lab skills in general are devoid of broader application. But yes, as a PhD student I spent literally hundreds of hours honing skills I will never use again, such as dissecting individual axons out of a fruit fly embryo. That’s not the sort of thing I put at the top of my resume today. It’s true that I also learned other skills that were more generalizable, such as standard chemistry and genetic lab techniques. On the other hand, I wasn’t given the opportunity to learn – in fact, I was sometimes discouraged from learning – other broadly useful skills like programming. “Generalizable” is contextual – it could mean “generalizable” to other areas of biology academia, or to private sector jobs, or to non-science jobs – but I think/hope we can all agree that skills like programming, handling large datasets, or stats are useful in a broad swath of jobs both inside and outside science. And put bluntly, some thesis projects give you more opportunities to develop those skills than others.

Back to Chad:

That last sentence, though, is a puzzler– the emphasis is in the original, by the way– not because I doubt that those are self-taught skills in the biomedical sciences, but because it seems to suggest that they’re not self-taught in other sciences. That is, if not being taught those is supposed to be a unique problem for the biomedical sciences, that would require other disciplines to be actively teaching those skills. Which isn’t happening at any university I’ve been associated with.

Second nitpick: that’s not what I said. I agree that the skills I mention (self-starting, critical thinking, communications, etc.) are generally self-taught; as I said, you have to teach those to yourself. The reason I emphasized that line in the original post was not to suggest that other graduate programs affirmatively taught those skills (“hey physics kids! Time for literature searching class!”), but to emphasize something starker: that the most valuable, transferable, monetizable, practical, reusable skills I got out of my PhD experience were all self-taught. That’s bad. Wasn’t I supposed to get other valuable stuff out of graduate school too?

The point is this: a graduate program won’t affirmatively teach you every skill you’ll need in your career. That’s asking far too much. But you should be able to look back and think “hey, that sucked, but at least I was given a rare opportunity to build a strong foundation in ________.” Chad misread my indictment of biology graduate programs: I’m not complaining that I was forced to teach things to myself that are spoon-fed to students in other fields. I’m complaining that the skills I taught myself are the most useful things I got out of it. Maybe if I were a physicist, for example, I’d have also gotten mathematical expertise I could leverage into an i-banking job. Even though I’d still have had to teach myself the list of things I mentioned, I would have been better off on the post-grad job market. (Though maybe not, given what happened to i-banking.) My point is that I would have not only learned those critical thinking skills I taught myself, I would have also learned transferable professional skills directly from my graduate work. Double win!

In addition to being highly subjective and anecdotal (other biology PhDs may have very different experiences and views than I do), this is a discussion without many fixed points of reference. For one thing, talking about formal instruction (what Chad calls “directly taught”) with relation to graduate work is problematic. Graduate work is mostly self-driven and informal. But there are opportunities or paths of learning that graduate programs, as institutions, affirmatively encourage students to follow – such as acquiring highly specific technical skills from a postdoc mentor to obtain publishable data. There are other paths that graduate programs may neglect or actively discourage, such as developing pedagogical and communications skills. In my experience of biology graduate work, often the path to completing your thesis may not also provide many opportunities to develop skills that are broadly transferable. In those fields where thesis work directly builds skills widely recognized as valuable, you are in very good shape to leave academia and strike out into i-banking or science policy or venture capital or whatever it is you find yourself trying next. But if your thesis work is esoteric, and your skills are not broadly applicable or obviously relevant, you must have the initiative to seek out other learning opportunities on your own, and the mettle to take those paths despite discouragement.

While I’d love for graduate programs in biology AND physics to bless the paths that develop writing, teaching, and speaking experience – the types of skills I went out and got for myself – that’s another conversation/mission. I’d also love for science graduate programs to affirmatively encourage interdisciplinary collaborations with non-scientists, and to encourage research that leads to public goods like cures for neglected diseases, but alas, I can’t have everything I want. The point is that you should at least be prepared to get a job afterward – and not just a faculty job in a very specialized topic.

In sum, I think encouraging young people to enter STEM careers without giving them a clear sense of their real chances of attaining a faculty position, and without providing opportunities to get the skills needed to go into other types of positions, is irresponsible. (Yes, Chad, I did tend to steer my eager-beaver undergrad advisees away from biology PhD programs – a choice which should serve as evidence of my immense frustration with my chosen field). Biology is almost universally portrayed as a highly useful, practical, and transferable field of science – an impression bolstered by constant mainstream media attention to biomedical developments, political credit-claiming and (as Chad noted) massive shots of research funding. Nonetheless, I’d hazard a guess that students in fields generally thought to be less “relevant,” like (to pick on my boyfriend) astrophysics, end up with a better shot at jobs post-science, simply because their skills are more readily transferable. There is a real disconnect between the perception of biology programs and the outcomes I’ve personally seen. That disconnect bothers me.

Nitpicks aside, all this conversation is a very good thing. It’s not easy to define these issues, and the gross generalizations we have to make are unsatisfying (especially for scientists!) But the more we talk about it, the more I hope current grad students will proactively seek out opportunities they may not be getting in their thesis work. I know it’s not fair; you already have enough to do just to publish, and finish, and survive. But you have to think about what skills will stand you in good stead after graduate school, and seek out paths to develop them. Make a pest of yourself if you have to; I wish I’d done a better job of that myself.

Good luck.