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Category: Scientists

Why Scientific Training Urgently Needs Reform

Posted in Biotech, Careers, Education, and Scientists

PhD degrees were originally granted to train students to conduct research in a specific field of study.  Postdoctoral fellowships were instituted to help the PhD graduate go deeper into an area of research, under the mentorship of a senior investigator.  In life and biomedical science, universities and medical schools considered their job done when competent, scholarly experimentalists graduated from their programs.  These young scientists had the credentials to conduct research in a university, medical school, or research-based company.

Compared to today, research was fairly simple and cheap. Much of the work was done by small, highly specialized groups. Publishing one’s findings was a fairly straighforward enterprise, and peer review was far easier. Funding was increasingly available for graduates at universities and industry, thanks to the growth in government sponsorship of research and the booming knowledge economy.

Enter the world of Big Science. In this brave new world, postdocs and doctoral students are increasingly viewed as cheap labor by Principal Investigators, who have little incentive to do proper mentoring – not just scientific mentoring, but teaching all of the skills required to succeed as a Principal Investigator. Consequently, young scientists emerge from their training woefully unprepared for their careers.

What exactly do Principal Investigators do today?  Many spend the majority of their time doing work that has little to do with actual bench science.  They write grant proposals and articles, and they oversee people, projects and budgets.  They review articles and grant proposals, give presentations, and make various efforts to obtain a piece of the shrinking research funding pie.  Good scientific results often come from interdisciplinary teams working with highly specialized equipment and techniques. Senior PIs, didn’t grow up in this world.  It’s no wonder that PhDs and postdocs don’t get the preparation they need.  The teachers were never taught.

In fact, successful PIs in academia, like their counterparts in industry, need to be good leaders, managers, writers and speakers.  They need to interact and communicate not just with others in their own subspecialty, but across multiple disciplines. These are not auxiliary skills that can be adequately addressed by a few optional seminars and workshops, or by reading books and manuals.  It’s at the heart of the profession.  Learning these skills should become part of the core curriculum at graduate school and should be enhanced at the postdoctoral level by attentive PIs.  Students, postdocs, and faculty need to have this professional training considered in grading, evaluations and promotions.

Why isn’t such training taking place now?  PIs, along with deans and other administrators, often see few or no incentives for implementing such changes. Success in science is largely measured by the ability to get grants and publish in top-tier journals.

Meanwhile, PhD’s in the life and biomedical sciences are finishing their programs with dismal academic job prospects; only about 30% of postdocs get positions in academia. And many of these job seekers lack the skills required to step into projects in industry.  When they finish, they should be qualified to manage every aspect of a lab, either as a PI in academia or as a project manager in industry.  Vast sums of money are wasted in training cadres of unemployable scientists at a time when jobs are scarce in the Academy and Industry desperately needs good science managers.

A courageous university could see opportunity in this sad situation.  An institution that grooms its postgraduates and postdocs to be highly employable, successful leaders, managers and scientific team-builders could attract better students and enjoy more substantial support from industry. It could pioneer the transformation of the curriculum and laboratory into an environment that trains scientists as full professionals, not just experimentalists. Accordingly, this school would have great bragging rights, which attracts additional funding.

Initiating these needed reforms would not be easy.   The changes need to take place from the Presidents and Deans on down.  PhD candidates and postdocs also need to pressure their institutions from the bottom up, insisting that they get the full training they need to succeed in their profession.  Investing in this type of reform, which would entail fundamental changes in expectations about PIs and their lab members, is a courageous choice, one that would improve the productivity of our universities, medical schools, pharmaceutical companies and the national economy.


Is Your Lab Filled with Students or Scholars?

Posted in Careers, Leadership, Productivity, and Scientists

If you are the PI of a research lab, you probably have one or more people in your lab who want to be PIs but will never make it. Whether they are PhD candidates or postdocs, they don’t have what it takes, even though you may not be able to put your finger on what they lack. So how do you address it?

First, you need to recognize the difference between a student and a scholar. Most people who major in science as undergraduates love to learn about nature and are enamored about the process of scientific investigation. They had discovered at a young age that scientists ask and answer questions that open the doors to mysteries — everyday mysteries about bugs and plants they see in the yard, as well as the mysteries of the universe. That passion for learning about nature, and the tools that science provides, can turn a young man or woman into a great student of nature. Scientific training, for the most part, prepares people to become knowledgeable students, not scholars. In fact, scholarship isn’t even expected at most institutions until midway into a PhD program. In contrast, only the most aggressive scholars will become successful scientists, particularly in academia. Few students of science have either the capacity or interest to become even mediocre scientific scholars.

A student is a person who acquires knowledge. A scholar generates knowledge. In addition to being a great student, a scholar must be obsessed with finding and answering important questions that have never been properly addressed. A scholar must be creative, aggressive, tolerant of personal failure, obsessive, and patient enough to put up with a great deal of frustration. When they fail, they must be willing to understand the root of their failure and accommodate, either by acquiring new skills or bringing people into their labs who can supply such skills. Scholars take risks, sometimes great risks, and the best scholars always have the “killer instinct”: once they identify an important question and a path that is reasonably likely to lead them to the answer, they never give up. Never.

So when you look at people in your lab — and when you look at yourself — ask whether you see a person who is content to learn and add to the known in small ways, or whether you see a relentless explorer: a scholar who needs to create knowledge out of mysteries.

I would argue that it is cruel to let a grad student or postdoc toil in your lab for years, harboring the delusion that they can be scholars, when they don’t show the innate interest and drive to generate new knowledge about important questions. If you humor them or coddle them, you are only setting them up for failure when they attempt to become an independent investigator. Instead of spending years under this delusion, they could be preparing for careers where being a great student of science has tangible rewards. They could make important contributions in industry, where the questions are relatively well defined. They could teach science at different levels, work in science communications, or do other things where they can feed their lifelong love of learning.

So when you see students in your lab who can’t become scholars, don’t mistake your lack of courage for compassion and foster their fantasies. Tell them what you see, and help them to transition to a career where they will succeed. Then find the young scholars who can make better use of your precious lab space. Everyone will win.

Cognitive Bias: A Follow-Up

Posted in Leadership, Productivity, and Scientists

My last post described the problem of cognitive bias on a personal level, especially with respect to self-esteem issues that can be countered with cognitive behavioral techniques.  However, there are a number of general cognitive biases that distort our judgments and decisions.  Some of these biases are so deeply ingrained in our culture that we practice them daily and take them for granted.  Awareness of these biases is a first step to overcoming them.  Here is a list, which I keep by my desk and consult from time to time.  How many of these do you practice?

For Better Decisions, Counter Cognitive Bias

Posted in Leadership, Productivity, and Scientists

In my last post, I encouraged scientists to trust their gut instincts more when making certain types of decisions, for example those involving leading and managing other people.   However, while intuitions can work well when evaluating others, they can be misleading when evaluating one’s self.  Some innate cognitive biases prevent us from forming a clear and realistic picture of what the future will hold if we take a particular course of action, and other biases cause us to overestimate the opinions others have of us.  These biases are documented and explained in psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness.

Gilbert claims that we overrate how well we know ourselves, underestimate our capacity to adapt to both good and bad situations, and fail to consider crucial factors that will play out in the future.   Gilbert blames these illusions on the cognitive limitations of the imagination, which also lead people to believe they differ from others more than they actually do.  According to Gilbert, looking at what makes others happy provides a more reliable indicator of your own potential happiness than imagining yourself in a future situation.  The takeaway message: learn to be more objective about yourself and about the decisions you make concerning your career trajectory. Rely less on your own imagination; instead, study what works for others.

In tandem with this approach, I suggest that you apply rationality in a new and different way when you find that self-doubts and fears interfere with carrying out your decisions. Use reason to challenge semi-conscious, self-destructive thoughts as they spontaneously arise.  For example, a scientist who submitted a paper to a journal several weeks ago might view the lack of response as a sign that the journal didn’t like the paper.  In fact, the journal may simply be delayed by a deluge of submissions.  The remedy in this case is to challenge the little voice that says “I knew it wasn’t good enough.  I can’t meet that journal’s standards.  I’m only fooling myself.” Mentally respond like a clever defense attorney, in effect saying, “What evidence do I have that the paper wasn’t good enough?  Could there be other reasons why I haven’t heard from the editors?  If I was incapable of meeting the journal’s standards, why would my colleagues who have published there encourage me to submit the manuscript?”  Then, instead of worrying, contact the editor and find out why you haven’t received word on your article. By learning to notice and then challenge these self-destructive thoughts, you can diminish their influence and replace them with a more evidence-based point of view.

This method of logically challenging self-destructive thinking is used in cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat depression, but it can have powerful applications off the couch as well.  For more about the theory, its empirical foundations, and how to apply it to your situation, I recommend Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism.

Combining the message of this blog post with the previous one, consider this proposition: you probably don’t trust your intuitions about others as much as you should, and you probably trust your intuitions about yourself more than you should.  You can achieve a better balance between the use of intuition and the use of reason in your judgments by judicious use of methods recommended by Gilbert and Seligman.  Working with a good professional coach can help you jumpstart this process, make changes more quickly, and apply your skills more effectively as a leader and manager.