Thursday’s post about the troubles of biomedical scientists drew a response from Mad Mike saying that, no, biomedical science Ph.D.’s really don’t have any career options outside of academia, and pointing to Jessica Palmer’s post on the same subject for corroboration. 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.
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.
In fact, several of those skills– how to think about problems and dig into the literature unaided, how to handle severe setbacks, and how to find ways to motivate yourself– are more or less by definition self-taught. There aren’t any universally effective ways of doing any of those. Literature searching comes closest, but even that tends to be idiosyncratic, and there’s no way to understand how to handle setbacks or self-motivate until you are faced with setbacks and the need to self-motivate.
And believe me, none of these things are directly taught in physics graduate programs, any more than they’re directly taught in biomedical science graduate programs. In fact, the lack of direct instruction in speaking and teaching is one of the most commonly cited deficiencies of physics graduate education. These complaints are not unique to the biomedical sciences, not by a long shot.
In fact, they’re not unique to the sciences, period. It’s particularly appropriate that this Inside Higher Ed column on transferable skills crossed my RSS reader the same week at this biomedical business, because it gives a very similar list of self-taught skills that are common to more or less all academics, regardless of discipline. The exact mix of skills will vary– the sciences are arguably a little shorter on the “people skills” side– but I’d be fairly comfortable saying that anyone who has made it through graduate school has roughly that collection of skills.
And scientists, regardless of discipline, should have a bit more than that, namely practice in solving problems through careful and systematic investigation. Everybody does this at some level, but it ought to be second nature to a scientist. Making repeated measurements, with controls as appropriate, isolating specific factors of interest, analyzing the results quantitatively– these are things that are common to all sciences, regardless of field. These are also the skills, more than any specific familiarity with lab techniques or computer code, that make physical scientists employable outside of academia.
Those skills ought to be common to all sciences. Yes, you’re more likely to find a job in industry where experience with laser optics will come in handy than one where knowing how to extract DNA from fruit flies will, but it’s not that often that specific lab techniques are the deciding factor. The standard line in physics is that it prepares you for any job, because it teaches you how to solve problems. And while I know of specific cases where students were hired into industry jobs because of specific skills, most of the alumni we have outside of academia were hired to do things that we never specifically taught them, but because their physics background gave them generalized problem-solving skills.
I’ve always felt that saying that about physics was slightly cheesey, because really, all science and engineering disciplines could make the same claim. If that’s not true, though…. Well, there’s always IHE’s list of transferable skills for English majors.