What have you learned?

Apr 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Recently there has been some talk  in the blogosphere that PhD students in biomedical fields are a particularly unhappy bunch. One of the reasons given is the claim that as part of their PhD training, students in life sciences acquire no transferable skills, and if they fail to land an academic position, then they are left with bupkes (ie. nothing). That the training is so specialized that it can only be used within the context of biomedical research, and to go further it can only be applied to the research that is going on in the lab where the training is received. In contrast to other scientific disciplines, students in life sciences do not acquire more generalizable skills such as high-level math or programming. Moreover, due to the rapid progress of science, that these skills will even become obsolete within a few years as new techniques are developed.

Frankly, I think this is all a bunch of hoo-haa. While I agree that in graduate school you do learn some pretty obscure techniques and become the world's expert in one  little corner of the scientific literature, if someone thinks that getting a PhD is solely about getting technical skills then they are completely missing the point of graduate school and should not be getting a PhD. Going to graduate school is not about learning techniques, but about learning to think and problem-solve like a scientist. Learning to identify and tackle an important scientific question and to design experiments to answer that question. To evaluate the data from those experiments  and draw appropriate conclusions. To learn to test hypotheses. Even to learn to develop new techniques to answer those questions if available techniques are not sufficient. Furthermore, one goes to graduate school to learn to evaluate the scientific literature, to find holes and identify important questions. You are also learning to write coherently, to put together a logical argument and to be prepared to defend it. And I'm not saying this is an easy process, and it is often frustrating. However these problem-solving skills are definitely transferrable and applicable beyond biomedical sciences.

In my lab, most of the techniques, even the more difficult, ones can be learned by a motivated undergrad or by a lab tech, there's nothing special about a PhD student (or even a postdoc) that allows them to perform these difficult techniques. What's different about the grad students and postdocs, is that they are also thinking about the whole project, and carrying it to completion from start to finish. This ability to complete a large-scale project is also a very transferable skill.

Apparently many complaints from grad students also stem from the feeling that their PI's discourage them from pursuing difficult projects, that they are usually pigeonholed into doing one specific technique for the lab and that's all they do for their PhD. Also, that they are often discouraged from gaining additional skills that come with a PhD, such as teaching, outreach or public speaking. If this is the case, then you are in the wrong lab or graduate program. This has to do more to do with bad mentoring rather than with an inherent problem with getting a PhD in life science.

So my advice to students who feel like their PhD is a waste of time is to think about the broader picture, don't let yourself be pigeonholed, make sure you get your own project, and if your mentor discourages from any of these things, then find a new one. If you are thinking of joining a lab talk to the other students, see what kinds of projects they are doing and how happy a ship a given lab is. What you shouldn't do is pick a lab because you want to learn a specific technique, then you will likely end up with a single, soon to be obsolete skill.

I'm curious to hear from my readers. If you are a grad student or postdoc, what has your experience been like? Do you feel you have not acquired any skills that you could use outside of academia? For PI's, how do you view your students, as specialists or generalists? Do you encourage them from acquiring further skills outside the lab such as teaching or participating in science outreach?

Dr. Frankenstein acquires some non-trasferable skills.

8 responses so far

  • brooksphd says:

    nice post. So many postdocs don't realise how talented they are, and get very despondent. Part of this is, IMHO, also because they're blinkered to the truth of the job market and are fighting mightily to get their own lab. When this doesn't pan out, the despair and fear of a "wasted" career is staring them in the face.

    Once you cross this mental rubicon you can see how talented you are with so many gifts employers want and need.

  • I'm a first year postdoc, and I don't know that I would say I've acquired a lot of skills from my PhD or postdoc thus far that would be transferable, but I think I've certainly honed them. I think the ability to be a self-starter, problem solver and designer of experiments has to already be there to some extent prior to embarking on a successful scientific career, and the training process more or less hones those skills as opposed to producing them. Of course, there are other skills such as public speaking and writing that I think are more "acquired" skills that some students get more than others depending on their experience. Nonetheless, such skill sets would certainly be an asset beyond science and someone who is a strong problem solver would likely figure out a way to leverage these skills outside of the research environment.

  • chall says:

    I wrote something accordingly on lablit.com/forums where the links you have were also referred to. I think it is much more about "not knowing how to sell the PhD/post doc person as transferrable skills" than the actual "not having the skills". That said, I guess it is partly because I find the PhD being much more than techniques (maybe even more like "knowing when to use what in order to answer this question I think is relevant"), and post-docing is even more about other stuff.

    It's just hard to make it sound/look good on paper (CV) I guess - if you don't work on it [from that different point of view]. Not to mention that it is less "careery" to have "PHD student" instead of Manager or what have you.

    As a last comment, I personally think that the most valuable thing imho from my PhD time was that I did finish it - even after those horrific times when things didn't work and you needed to dig deeper and get through with it. And I see that in many of my peers too, the persuing aspect and not giving in ... then again, I might be slightly romantic in my views still?

  • Lil says:

    Many of us feel the effect of the imposter syndrome. I, too, am no exception and had took the skills I learned for granted, until I worked on a non-science related temp job last year to fill the time gap before the start of my first postdoc position. I was thriving in the new work environment (which I have zero education and training in) thanks to the transferable skills that I have acquired, so much so I made a convincing old-timer instead of a newbie, even to others who work in the field. The experience also makes me more appreciative of skills that I've acquired and to be more confident in what I can achieve. I cannot thank my mentor enough for helping me develop and hone these skills.

  • Bashir says:

    I think folks in my area tend to learn plenty of transferable skills.
    Skills gained or greatly improved:

    -Writing
    -Coding
    -Stats knowledge
    -Public speaking
    -Management

  • Katharine says:

    I find it intensely depressing that current circumstances actually necessitate this discussion for anybody.

    • drugmonkey says:

      Circumstances have nearly always necessitated this discussion. as far as I can tell the expansion of the US academia in late 60s through mid 70s, and concomitant jobs-for-everyone environment was a unique episode in time and space....

  • d man says:

    Getting a life science PhD (from Johns Hopkins) was the biggest mistake of my life. It doesn't matter whether you get some transferable skills. The point is that life science PhDs are used for cheap labor and they have no opportunity to advance doing what they are trained to do : research. You would have developed more transferable skills that were more relevant to your future job if you just started working in the private sector after college. There is no reason for academia to train 10 more people doing research than there are research jobs available to them, and then claim that the other nine got transferable skills that will help them do something completely unrelated. I could have sat on the toilet for six years reading the Economist and obtained some transferable skills :
    # 1) Ability to manage a project (Taking a dump) from start to finish,
    #2) Ability to manage a budget (# of toilet paper squares left versus desired number of wipes),
    #3) Knowing a whole lot about something thats not relevant to my job (all those Economist articles I read),
    #4) Motivation to see a project through to the end (just keep bearing down until its time to flush)

    All principle investigators should stop taking advantage of young intelligent people when you know that its a bad career move for them. Then ohhhhh they develop transferable skills, yeah straight to the unemployment line because they are 30 years old and never learned anything useful.

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