The project of being a grown-up scientist (part 2).

In my earlier post, I described the feeling I had as I started my graduate training in chemistry that there was a huge pile of knowledge I would need to acquire to make the transition from science student to grown-up scientist. I should make it clear (in response to JSinger's comment that I seemed to be reserving the "grown-up" designation for principal investigators) that the student versus grown-up chasm was one that I thought of primarily in terms of how much I felt I'd have to learn by the time the Ph.D. hit my hand in order not to feel like a total impostor representing myself as a chemist. This was the biggest, scariest to-do list I had ever imagined, but I also couldn't imagine that it was possible to be a successful academic chemist without being to put check marks next to most of the items on it. There were some grad students in the cohorts a few years ahead of me who seemed to be making good progress with that to-do list. And, there were some PIs who clearly hadn't done so well with it ... but none of them were "successful" in the way I wanted to be (although some were officially quite successful in terms of funding and publications).
For all the talk of extended sojourns in grad school or postdoctoral positions infantilizing trainees, I wouldn't want to claim that trainees are intellectually or emotionally immature. But that kind of maturity isn't what's at the heart of being a scientific grown-up. Rather, it's about a certain kind of facility in navigating your professional environment -- from the lab or the field, to the hunt for funding, to the communication of your results and insights to other scientists, to the other sorts of interpersonal negotiations that make the science happen. It's being a full member of a professional community, taking your responsibilities to that community seriously, and being invested in the direction that community goes and how well it functions.
I wanted all that -- plus, to get my experiments to work, so I could actually write a dissertation and get my degree in a reasonable number of years. But it didn't take long at all to discover that most advisors don't talk with their trainees about the arcane knowledge the grown-ups seem to have. Obviously, this would make getting that knowledge much harder.
Why aren't there regular discussions between advisor and advisee about how to be a grown-up scientist?


One factor might be that a lot of graduate students (at least at the beginning) aren't even thinking about being grown-up scientists. They just want to do science. This is understandable. Remember those high school teachers who recommended extracurricular activities over after school jobs by saying, "You'll have the whole rest of your life to work"? Getting an extended chance to wallow in research (without having to worry to hard about how it was funded of where it might be going) can be play of the best sort for the scientist in training. If undergraduate science training is primarily focused on learning knowledge (and how to apply it to solving problems), then learning how to make new knowledge by way of research is the next logical step. Moreover, it's a step that could conceivably fill up the four to eight years of your graduate program.
I have my impostor complex to thank for my awareness from the very beginning of just how much I didn't know that I would need to know in order to be an independent and successful academic chemist. Of course, that same impostor complex made it terrifying to ask questions. As the new grad student in the lab, fearful that your advisor and your department will figure out that you're not actually smart enough to be in the program, you do not want to ask a stupid question. Even questions about experimental technique, or about the computer code that runs your data collection devices, or about where to get lab supplies or lab notebooks, risk exposing you. Screwing up your courage to ask these questions is a major accomplishment. (Mostly, you figure out which grad students in the lab to ask, until you feel confident enough about which questions it's reasonable to ask the boss.)
Even with an impostor complex, one does eventually figure out how to ask the boss questions. But you tend to stick to practical things: Of these 5 articles you dropped on my desk, which should I read first? Given the issues I have setting up this reaction system with the pumps we have, would it be better to buy more expensive pumps or shift to this related (but easier to manage) reaction system instead? Would the thing I stumbled on last week be useful to my labmate currently struggling to get her system to behave? Do we have enough data to publish? Even when the practical questions have a subtext about how to be a grown-up scientist, there never seems to be a good moment to ask, "How do I get from where I am to being a grown-up scientist?"
It's a question I never heard anyone voice in my graduate lab -- even with a cohesive and cooperative group of trainees and a PI who was serious about mentoring (and a kind person to boot).
Was no one asking the question because the answer was obvious to everyone else but me? (No.)
Would asking the question have been an indication that one's focus had wandered from one's project, that one was thinking "big picture" at a moment when attending to the minutiae of the scientific questions was what was needed to make the research successful and finish the dissertation? Possibly. But given that we weren't envisioning the thesis-defense as a Logan's Run-style Carousel that would be the last finish-line in a scientific career, it seemed important to know how to handle the next phase of our scientific life cycle.
Still, many of us didn't know how to ask the questions effectively. And I suspect that a good number of our contemporaries didn't realize that they wanted good advice on how to be grown-up scientists until they found themselves in positions where they were expected to be grown-up scientists -- which means they weren't asking the questions, either.
It's hard to fault PIs for not answering questions that trainees don't manage to ask. But I think there is a barrier to sharing this information that comes from the advisor's side of the relationship.
Some advisors don't know how to mentor. Mentoring on how to be a good mentor seems to be in short supply, and even good mentors may be more focused on transmitting the information most relevant to addressing the day-to-day details of your research as a trainee. (Short term, this is great, but in the long run it may leave gaps in your training as a researcher.)
Some advisors aren't conscious of how or where they learned what they learned. Being immersed in the activities and interactions of the grown-up scientist day in and day out, they may not have a chance to reflect on whether the knowledge and skills they're using on a daily basis are important to transmit to trainees, or how they might be transmitted.
Some advisors may see grant writing and manuscript reviewing as drudgery -- much less fun than actually doing science -- and thus try to spare their trainees from the details of how it's done, intending this as a kindness.
Other advisors may be so good with the interpersonal dynamics of successful collaboration and mutually productive competition that they don't recognize any part of what they're doing in these activities as teachable skills.
It's not uncommon for advisors to assume that their trainees (at least, the sharp ones) will pick up all they need to know simply by watching how the boss does things. But how can you tell what to watch? Which part of what the boss does is necessary for success, and which part is a style choice? And how to you "watch" judgments the boss is making in his head?
I've noted before that training situations can be very isolating. In many programs, you choose a research advisor early and you hunker down in the lab for the next N years until you're done. Given this set up, you might only ever see one grown-up scientist up close for any significant period of time. If you're allowed out of the lab long enough to maintain friendships with trainees in other labs, you might hear tales about how radically different these other labs are. What if those PIs are the right ones to observe from the point of view of discovering how to be a grown-up scientist? How could you tell?
Quite possibly, there's an issue here about the extent to which graduate programs are really structured to train grown-up scientists (as opposed to being structured to do lots of research with a relatively cheap work force). What trainees get out of these graduate programs should tell us something about what scientists in these fields think requires instruction.
Until fairly recently, it was assumed that you didn't need to instruct scientific trainees in ethics -- that those who weren't already evil would be able to work out the right thing to do. That approach was not terribly realistic.* Maybe those engaged in serious efforts to train new scientists need to take an inventory of other skills or bits of know-how that trainees are assumed to pick up naturally simply in virtue of being thrust into a particular kind of environment. Are trainees reliably picking them up? What are the consequences if they don't? And is there any way to transmit them more effectively?
Coming up: Why being a grown-up scientist matters, and strategies for getting there.
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*Instruction here shouldn't be read as a gloss for coursework. Most of the instruction that stuck with me was mentoring by a labmate or by my advisor, whereas what I learned in my coursework seemed pretty disconnected from the activity of doing science. Coursework can be effective, but it's no substitute for hands-on training.

Comments are off for this post

  • N. Beckloff says:

    You raised an excellent point. There tons of subtle nuances that cannot be transmitted unless someone makes a point to. There are situations you never consider until you come across them, things that a mentor probably has.
    The art of mentoring is just that, an art, something that takes experience to learn and its not just science. A good mentor should also teach a host of skills needed by scientists including networking, organization, job hunting etc. With the reduction in face time this becomes especially important in the technologically fast paced world of today where communication between a PI and student can primarily be done using email.

  • John Fleck says:

    As a professional science spectator (a science journalist), one of the most pleasant experiences for me is when the grownup scientist hands me off to the grad student to explain the work in question. This is often of great use to me, because the grad student is usually closer in time and understanding to me - an outsider to the paradigm. But it occurs to me that it is also may be a valuable experience for the student, in practicing one of these key grownup scientist skills - communicating about the work to the outside world.

  • Propter Doc says:

    This is a wonderful post and raises many issues surrounding how the current system may be failing graduates and trainees.
    I'm still a postdoc so my opportunities for mentoring have been few to date, but the one piece of advice I'd give to a student at any level is to adopt a professional mind set from the beginning. Simple things, like being respectful of people's time, not coming in hungover to a group meeting, generally acting like a grown up over a student earn far more respect than the student who acts like a fresher. It is a small detail but trying to act like a grown up opens doors for you.

  • Noumena says:

    /delurk
    I'm a philosophy grad student, and I think every point you make in this post applies equally well to any Ph.D. programme in any discipline. I and my fellow philosophy grads have wondered out loud a lot about why our self-esteem is always so shot -- what you call an `imposter complex' -- and I think your explanation is exactly right. Possibly things are even more anxious in philosophy, because our job market is so much tighter than the job market for, say, chemistry Ph.D.s.
    /relurk

  • JSinger says:

    I should make it clear (in response to JSinger's comment that I seemed to be reserving the "grown-up" designation for principal investigators) that the student versus grown-up chasm was one that I thought of primarily in terms of how much I felt I'd have to learn by the time the Ph.D. hit my hand in order not to feel like a total impostor representing myself as a chemist.
    I did understand what you meant, but still thought the term demeaning and destructive, and indicative of how academic research lacks any notion of a healthy career track below the t-t professor level. That said, your student and postdoc respondents don't seem offended, so no need for me to get agitated on their behalf.
    Quite possibly, there's an issue here about the extent to which graduate programs are really structured to train grown-up scientists (as opposed to being structured to do lots of research with a relatively cheap work force).
    Well, yeah. That was the other two-thirds of my point the other day.
    Incidentally, the scheme another commenter mentioned on that post, where professional development is only explicitly taught to women strikes me as brain-damaged, even by academic standards. Is the goal to "redress past biases" by deliberately denying male trainees valuable information? Or to avoid giving them the invaluable advantage of getting advice twice?!?

  • Dave says:

    Reading this post felt like reading a checklist in of itself. "Have I experienced this? Check. Have I questioned this about myself? Check. What the hell am I going to do? Check."
    Excellent post - you have captured the essence of the ill-prepared, under advised, and timid graduate student (who consequently lacks confidence - i.e. most of us starting out).
    I have to say, however, that once you do start noticing grown-up scientist qualities about yourself, its akin to the mid-pubescent self discovering body hair in funny places, "Whoa - I didn't know I could do that." Moreover, hair never ceases to show up as you age. I look forward to your third installment!

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I went into the Zoology PhD feeling a little green as I had been in geology up through the MS. I soon found that I was comptitive in some areas, whilst defficient in others. I was fortunate to be in a department such that if you went in at 9:00 PM you would find half the graduate students and a third of the faculty in their labs. My major professor suggested to me that I work in an area where I already knew quite a bit, and came up with support for travel, etc as I needed it. I did my dissertaion basically on my own, and it could have been better. However, I became a very independent worker as a result. So when I got a professor job, I was able to start some various research immediately, using equipment and supplies from my teaching lab. I have noticed colleagues better educated, smarter, and harder working than me, but unknown outside the department. In a couple of instances they were people who showed great promise and were heavily mentored on the way to the PhD. I think they were simply lost out on their own.
    Basically use your head and figure out how the kind of person you want to be operates. You may have more role models at one institution or another. If there is no one, you best move on. Join your professional societies; many have student rates. Attend lectures and go to meetings as much as you can. Don't turn up your nose at your state academy.
    Emeritus Professor rambling. Hope there is some substance.

  • msphd says:

    Great posts. Where are the other two? Can't wait!
    Here is my theory in a nutshell. It has to do with role models and mentor matching.
    I have noticed that the people I have seen do well were
    a) exactly like their mentor (found a good match)
    b) good at pretending to be like/became like their mentor (I call this kissing ass, but there's more to it than that)
    c) very manipulative of a relatively clueless mentor.
    For those of us who can't find a mentor who is actually like us already (mostly minorities with little representation in the sciences), and who are not good at acting or manipulating, it is not clear how to get shown along the path.
    I have tried asking how to get on the path. I am pretty good at asking. I know where my weaknesses are. I just can't figure out how to fix them without sacrificing too much of myself.
    The 'unsuccessful' scientists I've met tend to be the most self-reflective (perhaps because they've wondered, at length, about their failures). They can't really tell me what to do, because they really don't know. I've found that their advice is usually the opposite of whatever they tried, and also most often wrong.
    The 'successful' scientists tend to be blissfully unaware of which factors matter, and/or of the opinion that you either have it or you don't. You are born with it, or not, and it can't be taught. A bad attitude, you might say, for an academic, but I see it a lot. Either way, the most they can tell you is what worked for them, if they even know that. But again, unless you are exactly like them, this kind of advice is often no help.
    If you have solutions, I'd love to know what they are.