Biomedicine: The English Literature of the Sciences?

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.


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"most of the alumni we have outside of academia were hired to do things that we never specifically taught them"

Such as what....

So far it sounds as if evidence of problem solving ability is applicable to anyone who graduated after majoring in science.

So, I assume you're referring to something else...

A learned ability-- such as a skill, like ability to communicate

Or, something else-- like personality, likeability, charisma....

Maybe this depends on the definition of academia. I find it hard to believe that the only road to travel once getting your shiny PhD in a biomedical type program is teaching at a university. Surely major research hospitals, pharma labs, federal/state/charity funded research organizations, the FDA and other regulatory bodies all need people with these skills, yes?

Are those all considered academia? I can see where some might be-- research hospitals, research labs, etc may be on similar models and have tight links with academia-- but they're probably academia in about the same measure that working physics at NIST or Argonne are academia.

The bit about self-taught skills is a tough issue, though. There's a delicate balance between letting your mentees suffer through something for their own good, vs just neglecting them, not to mention just abusing them.

By John Novak (not verified) on 02 Apr 2011 #permalink

There is this absurd idea that graduating with a PhD will mean that you are going to be doing lab work the rest of your career. I know almost no professors who spend time doing any of the menial things they did in grad school. Really, you want to spend the rest of your life pushing flies? Most academics are administrators, spending much of their time writing grants and managing the lab. Some even teach a bit. Those who are still in the lab are rarely doing what they did 5 years ago (especially in biomedicine), let alone what they wrote their thesis on. But it is precisely the skills that you have to teach yourself to get through a PhD that are valuable. Sure, it might be nice if they were taught more formally, but the PhD is fundamentally about independence, and to me that is its most valuable asset.

@ John Novak: I am in the physical sciences, but from reading all the biomed blogs, it looks like their perception of academic success differs from those in the physical sciences. First, academic success in the biomed means being a well NIH-funded PI of your own lab at a large R1 school. I think there is generally way less classroom teaching involved (on average) than in the physical sciences, i.e. a successful academic scientist is not necessarily a Herr Professor; there are plenty of PI's who teach in the classroom only minimally or not at all (I think DrugMonkey has a position like that, it doesn't involve undergrad teaching). In my understanding, even biomed faculty salaries are largely soft-money based, not like the hard-money salaries typically paid to physical sciences faculty (I remember Comrade PhysioProf commenting somewhere that, when biomed faculty go on sabbatical, it's a big change because their salary for once does get covered on hard-money funds). It is my impression that the dependence on external funding is greater in the biomed than what we see in the physical sciences.

This is my view based on blog education. I am sure there are some of Chad's biomed readers who can provide corrections and more details.

From an uninformed, neutral perspective as a pure mathematician...

It seems one of the main differences is that biomedical research requires a lot of semi-skilled labor for actually collecting data.

In experimental physics, there is frequently a lot of work involved in figuring out how to set up apparatus so that data can actually be generated, but once the apparatus is built, there is rarely a huge amount of work involved in actually measuring results.

Possibly what is exploitative in the biomedical fields is that students spend so much time purely conducting experiments and measuring the results for raw data. In contrast, it seems that in the physical sciences, even the experimentalists spend most of their time designing experiments and analyzing data, which are tasks that are perhaps more likely to lead to transferable skills.

By quasihumanist (not verified) on 03 Apr 2011 #permalink

I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that most advisors are in positions where it is necessary, or at least desirable, to actively discourage students from taking teaching assistantships, or going to meetings, or establishing new collaborations, or running meetings, or serving on committees, or being part of the GSA, or sometimes even things like reading or even *writing papers*... all because they take away from generating data.

When you are a grad student in biomedicine, you are there because people got grants and they need a pair of hands.

There are exceptions, but I think the culture is very much dominated by the 'producing data in the lab is the only thing that counts as work and you need to be doing 60-80 hours a week of it to be a good student'.
Which isn't to say professors don't think it would be *nice* if you developed other skills. Just that it's not a wise way for a student to spend the professor's resources (i.e. the student's time, which is always the professor's resource first and foremost).

JM@1 observes:
"most of the alumni we have outside of academia were hired to do things that we never specifically taught them"
Such as what....

Such as what he wrote in the sentence you only half quoted:

"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."

To which I would add "the ability to learn a new skill in a wholly unrelated field of physics rather quickly" if you happen to think generalized problem solving does not include learning about the problem in the first place. It isn't all that remarkable that someone who designed a beam line for charged particles can also figure out non-linear optics.

Further, one difference between physics and many other lab sciences is that we use differential equations a lot along with home-brew computer programs. That approach is important in fields as wide-ranging as engineering and economics.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 03 Apr 2011 #permalink

Chad, the basic flaw in that comment you analyzed is that, in the end, you teach everything to yourself. The better you are at that, the more employable you are in the long run in technical areas that evolve quickly.

In my experience, students who see all of school as form of rote training -- like being taught arithmetic -- have no idea what awaits them in the real world (or even in graduate school). The same goes for the idiots who seem to think that what 18 year olds picked up about consumer electronics will suffice for the next 50 years of their life. They are as nuts as the people who thought it was enough to be an "assembly line native" or a "key punch native" in the 60s.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 03 Apr 2011 #permalink

Hi Chad - you misread my post. That may be my fault for not expressing myself more clearly, but the alternative interpretation you posit never crossed my mind when I was writing the post, so I didn't anticipate a need to clarify my statement. I hope this helps.

Obviously, you're right that there are many skills that you must pick up for yourself, regardless of your field. The problem is not that biologists have to teach those skills to themselves - everyone does - but that for many biology theses, those self-taught skills may be the most transferable skills they develop. Many biology thesis projects are so hyperspecialized that the projects do not provide opportunities to develop generally transferable skills. This is by no means true of all biomedical research - the fact that coding, stats, data mining, modeling etc. have biomedical applications is exactly why I think more grad students should get to delve into them. It's not like they're not relevant, and they're highly transferable. But I think the wetlab work is largely rote, not transferable, and not relevant to most jobs outside academia.

Anyway, where a student gains most of her transferable skills from her non-thesis work, and her thesis work teaches her a lot of skills she can't use outside academia, I hope you'll agree that is unfortunate. Particularly if the whole reason she went for a biology PhD in the first place rather than an English PhD, which she also considered, was because everyone told her biology was relevant, practical, and transferable to more careers. Not that this is about me, of course. ;)