The project of being a grown-up scientist (part 1).

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?

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I'm looking forward to the rest of this series. As an undergrad student, I feel like I'm simply paying my university for a piece of paper that is supposed to stand as a proxy of my intelligence. The question of "How do I become a grown-up scientist" has never been addressed in any course I've ever taken or by any advisor I've ever had, and I've actually received more discouraging remarks than positive ones when I've shown an interest in "getting my hands dirty." Maybe it's because I'm not a good fit for the department I'm presently in, but it's nearly inconceivable to me how I'm ever going to be able to become a professional scientist. I'll be looking forward to your treatment of the issue.

I am too looking forward to your continuation. And I'm 60, and I still don't know the half of it!

I'm looking forward to the rest of this series as well. As a sophomore Chemistry student (about to transfer as well) I've got lots to think about: grad school immediately after my B.A., or job first? Academic career or commercial? Etc etc.

So any peeks into the process of becoming a "grown up scientist" will be getting my attention.

Wow. This looks likely to be an awesome set of articles. I'm just applying to grad programs, and have been, lately, very overwhelmed with just how much the "real grownup scientists" in my world know, about all of this.

The main style around here could best be described as 'sink or swim'. None of these things are ever directly addressed; one is expected to pick it up from the atmosphere. A lot of the politics stuff I had to learn from mentors; the rest, the hard way. I agree that this is a terribly neglected aspect of grad school.

Wondering if any of the commenters went to grad schools where this was formally addressed? Not just that your lab was okay, but it was systematic.


I'm going to point all my colleagues to these posts. I sure wish someone had put these ideas in my head when I was starting out.

I rather suspect that the situation is similar to the perceived infinite wisdom and infallibility of parents as seen from their children on one hand, and the reality of stumbling through adult life clueless, anxious and constantly making things up as you go along on the other.

Some of it was explicitly taught in one institution I know. The training was open only to women in an attempt to redress past biases in the field.

By hip hip array (not verified) on 05 Feb 2008 #permalink

I'm now in my third graduate program (like Dr. Free-Ride, I can't seem to stay away).

Grad program #1 offered no formal departmental training, but my advisor offered a lot, though she tried to shield us from some uglier realities (such as our department head stalking and threatening her, and another professor stealing her data...egads). It only covered about half of your list, but it was a big help.

Grad program #2 had a formal intro seminar that walked through some of the more obvious topics (how to write a grant proposal, give a presentation, etc.) in a general way, but they also explicitly forbade students from participating in reviewing articles (for journals), any discussions of finances (including the students' own grant funding - talk about awkward), and only allowed post-docs to oversee undergraduate students (ie - MS and PhD students could not - the reason given was that they didn't have time or skills to do so safely).

Grad program #3 has no formal rules or programs of any sort at the department level. My advisor, however, has been quite good about including other students and me in discussions of this sort, in lab meetings and in the lab/office.

It seems a program of lab meetings + a journal club would cover 90% of your topic list. I wish more departments had them. I've sadly never been in a department with a journal club, and my current lab is the first I've been in that even holds lab meetings. Sometimes I've crashed other departments' journal clubs for a few weeks, just to learn some things. I even started my own once, but without either a requirement of some sort or a REALLY dedicated group of students, it faded quickly as soon as people got busy with their work.

Looking forward to post #2

It's refreshing (and disturbing) to see that philosophy is not the only discipline with a stark contrast between what we learn in the classroom versus what we are expected to do as (1) graduate students and (2) as "professional" philosophers. During comp exams a few of us questioned one of the advisers, basically venting our frustrations that "None of our training has prepared us for what we are now doing." His response "During the testing process we just hope that some of you can rise to the challenge and figure it out." This is graduate education? Figure it out on you own? Like a previous post said, I'm paying for a piece of paper. For the education I received, I could have just as easily gotten a library card and a seat at the local coffee shop. I too look forward to continuations on this theme.

My grad school adviser used to drive us nuts by coming into the lab and saying things like "I haven't heard back from this grant proposal and I can't decide whether to call the program officer. What are your thoughts?" Most of us looked at him like he was daft. He's the boss, shouldn't he know?

Sometime around my fourth year I realized that--DUH--he knew perfectly well what to do, he was just trying to expose us to the decision making process. He wasn't a perfect adviser by any means but I've learned that he's better than many.

As a grad student, I never cease to be amazed at the phenomenal work-load that my supervisors consistently have on the go and the relative ease with which they seem to get through it all with. I get stressed out just trying to multi-task my lab work with my readings for class! I eagerly await the rest of this series!

1) I get the sense in which you're using the term, but given the way grad students and postdocs are kept in a state of juvenilized "traineeship" through their mid-30's I have to cringe at your reserving "grown-up" for PI's.

2) In my experience, it's a very rare grad student, or even postdoc, who is interested in learning the fine points of being a lab head. (Dirty little secret: the large majority of grad students and postdocs couldn't possibly cut it as PI's and are not being trained to be PI's.)

3) On the other hand, learning to think in terms of publications and long-term strategies, and learning to publish should be something that grad students (certainly postdocs) should expect from any half-decent mentor. (Dirty little secret: the large majority of grad students and postdocs couldn't care less, so their advisors don't bother and instead develop the ones who do.)

Burgeoning social scientists may want to look for the book, "The Compleat Academic" edited by John Darley, Mark Zanna, and Henry Roediger, published by the American Psychological Association. It addresses many of the points you mentioned (e.g., writing grants, supervising students, departmental politics).

In the geosciences, there are NSF-funded workshops that try to address the lack of that sort of preparation in grad school:

Preparing for a Career in the Geosciences and Early Career Faculty. The programs didn't start until I was already too far along in a tenure-track job, but boy, I've really wished I could have gone through one or both of them.

The Council on Undergraduate Research tries to provide that kind of assistance to new faculty at PUIs, too.

I'm not sure I'd want to be taught a lot of these things in grad school. They're absolutely important, but I'd think I'd rather figure them out on my own. If I wanted to take courses called things like "Networking 101" or "How to Get the Most Out of Your Collaborations" I would've have gone to business school instead. More importantly, I think science as a discipline would be ruined if we started teaching these sorts of things in a structured manner. The best a supervisor can do is provide a good example and let you get involved as you go.

Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but I'm currently 18 months into my postdoc and feeling a lot less worried about this sort of thing. There's a lot to learn, but the impression I had a few years ago - that you know nothing of it until you became a professor, and then you have to know everything - no longer seems correct. I think the learning process is more gradual (and in the beginning more unconscious) than people fear. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

Hope this won't be perceived as too self-promotional. But Science Careers (including its previous incarnation as Science's Next Wave) has been asking and answering these questions for 12 years now. Science Careers is a publication of AAAS and Science magazine. If you (and especially your readers) aren't familiar with Science Careers you (and they) should definitely check it out.

Jim Austin, Editor