March 2010

Plus the Secret Handshake


apprentice |ah-pren-tiss|, noun
a person who is learning a trade from a skilled employer, having agreed to work for a fixed period at low wages

postdoc |pohst-dock|, noun
a person doing the sam­e thing, only for lower wages

grad student |gr-add stoo-dent|, noun
a person doing the same thing for almost no wages at all

Pres-MessWhen I was a graduate student at Oxford University, 40 years ago, I learned how to crystallize proteins, collect X-ray diffraction data, program computers and solve protein crystal structures. When I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique in Paris, I learned how to stabilize proteins in solution at subzero temperatures and perform kinetic analysis of enzyme reactions under conditions that could trap productive intermediates.

Then, I went to Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit as an instructor in the biochemistry department— my first independent position. I taught courses, wrote grant applications, prepared budgets, wrote papers, sat on various committees and advised graduate and medical students. Once I had more than two students working with me, I hardly ever collected my own data, set up crystallizations or carried out kinetic analyses with my own hands. Note the monumental disconnect between what I was trained to do and what I actually had to do to run a lab.

I’ve remarked before that, once I became a practicing scientist, I realized I had taken all of the wrong courses as a student. Although I started out as a classical literature major, because I was interested in science, I took math, physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, biophysics and so on. I should have taken business administration, elocution, basic accounting, creative writing, speed-reading, politics, sociology and abnormal psychology. Now that I’m chair of a department, I really wish I’d taken abnormal psychology.

Getting one’s doctoral degree is a watershed moment in the life of a scientist. It indicates that a certain level of training has been successfully attained and that one is qualified to engage the subject at a much more advanced level. In the biochemistry department at Brandeis University, we have a nice custom: At the mini-commencement when our graduate students receive their doctoral degrees, after they have come up to the platform and have been handed the degree, they do not return to their seats in the auditorium; rather, they are seated up on the platform with the attending faculty members, symbolically welcoming them as colleagues in the profession. It always has reminded me of the ceremony at which a medieval craftsman was admitted into a guild.

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The other big change from now compared to then is that there was selectivity in who would become an apprentice/journeyman... such that the market would never be saturated with too many craftsmen at any given time. Now that's something that we need to return to.


Actually, women *were* in guilds in the Middle Ages. Not commonly, and not typically independently unless they were widows (google "femme sole"), but nonetheless. Other than that, the analogy makes several excellent points. The "Survival skills and ethics" programs (originated by Michael Zigmond at University of Pittsburgh) are the best implementation of teaching non-bench skills that I've seen. I think there's a growing awareness of this issue, and some efforts to make workshops available on things like grantwriting (I suspect it's comparatively easy to convince people of the value of that). That said, certain extraordinarily practically things (like navigating politics of a department) are *hard* to put into a nice workshop. Rebecca Weinberg, Penn State University


Identified the problem adequately but the solution (a two week course) leaves a lot to be desired. Another option would be to demand that the senior scientists and the faculty do what they are trained for: labwork (as in the industry) where the students are also working and learning. Writing papers should be a collaborative effort between authors (including students to learn writing skills). Just like the craftsman's workshop. For the guild analogy to work, the Universities need to go back to what they are for: centers for learning and teaching. This would require de-bureaucratizing academia and stop pretending that the Universities should aim to or can become businesses (they can only teach it). The funders of science (mainly the government) should understand that they get great value out of the money spent but also that because of the process of research there is an inherent 'wasted' effort (that no amount of management can 'monetize'). ASBMB member


I think Greg has brought up an important point about how we are training our graduate students. Frankly, in the current world of Madison Avenue science, I think it is clear that our students should have considerable training in the Schools of Business where they can learn about managing financial matters, people, grants, as well as, of course, the research. Clearly, the training in ethics and responsible research can be done well within the departments or programs, as occurs in most universities, but true business management is not taught to any of our students. A pseudo MBA seems quite appropriate in this climate. Dave Ballou, University of Michigan


Greg, I do the same thing in my "Methods" class, but soon will break it out into a "Ethics" class. Responsible conduct of research certainly extends to writing about it and talking about it. So, glad to see my ideas on a course in that area are similar to your colleagues. The guild idea is correct, at one time we even had the secret handshake thing going on in the Department. Anyhow, it is critical for faculty to understand that we are training people, that they are not merely a pair of hands in the lab. Critical thinking, is well critical in the training process and cannot be done in the absence of the faculty member's guidance. This takes time, time is precious, but should we not take the time to train our students and PDF? If not, than that individual needs to ask just how good of a science citizen (or guild member) are they? Eric Eric J. Murphy Associate Professor



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