I’m writing this post (and the posts following it, so the bites are of reasonable size) at the urging of Bill Hooker, with whom I’ve talked about these issues in real life.
The idea of becoming a grown-up in the scientific community is a thread that runs through a lot of my posts (and also guides my thinking as I teach my “Ethics in Science” class), but it turns out I hadn’t written a proper post to explain the idea. This set of posts will at least serve as a first attempt.
When I started graduate school in chemistry a hundred years ago (give or take), I was acutely aware of the chasm between learning about chemistry in the classroom (the progression of models of various chemical phenomena, the kinds of problem-solving you could do with various models), even doing chemistry in the student laboratory (setting up reactions, making measurements, analyzing results), and actually being a chemist.
I figured that graduate school was supposed to teach me how to be a real live, grown-up chemist, someone who would know how to come up with a good question, figure out an experimental approach to answering it, get good results, figure out what those results mean, and contribute to the shared body of knowledge the chemists were building.
Of course, what I discovered is that there is a great deal more one needs to learn than just how to be creative, have good insights, design reasonable experiments, present reasonable data, and write clear scientific papers. (Even this much is quite a lot to learn, and some of it — like scientific creativity — is pretty hard to teach.)
Grown-up chemists also seemed to know how to write effective grant proposals, how to manage (and even mentor) graduate students, postdocs, and technicians, how to nurture productive and mutually beneficial relationships with other chemists in their sub-specialty, how to stay on top of the literature and discern which newly described results or techniques were most important (at least with respect to their own research area), how to be fair and constructive peer reviewers and how to respond effectively to referee reports on their own manuscripts, how to work within departmental politics and the politics of their discipline.
They knew how to tell when an experiment was done, when the data was good, when there was a finding that merited a paper to announce it. They knew how to work out authorship on the papers. They knew who, in their field of research, would be the hardest to convince of the new result. They knew which journal would be the best place to submit a particular manuscript and which meeting would be the best venue to present pre-publication results. And, they could conceive of three distinct follow-up projects to build on the new results.
Plus, they (at least, the grown-up chemists I was looking to as role models) seemed to know which chemists in the community were good people to talk to, collaborate with, or argue with (in the best sense of argument, where each side makes its best case and then presents its best criticisms of the other side). And they seemed to have identified the chemists around whom you’d want to watch your back.
Grown-up chemists had a huge body of unwritten knowledge to draw upon, it seemed. But hardly any of it seemed to be the focus of our graduate training — at least, not explicitly.
We learned an awful lot about how to use the lab equipment (because some of it was expensive and it was important not to break it). We got a lot of advice on what kind of data to collect and what sorts of analyses of the data might be useful. Some grad students even received instruction on how to keep lab notebooks in their particular lab. But there were great swathes of knowledge that most advisors seemed never to address directly — and usually, these were the bits that you couldn’t find out from the labmates a few years ahead of you or from the most detailed lab notebook on the lab bookshelf.
They were the bits about how to move past the student stage of development, past the postdoc stage of development, to the point where you could really say that you were capable of steering your own scientific course, exercising your judgment as a full member of your professional community, and being taken seriously as part of that community.
That’s the place we graduate students knew we had to get to. The question was how to get that know-how the grown-ups in the community already had.
Coming up: Why don’t most advisors talk about the things grad students most want to learn from them?