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Month: April 2011

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.