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.

The guild system began more than 1,000 years ago. It had two functions: to protect the exclusive right of only certain people to make a living in a skilled trade and to pass on those skills to select members of the next generation, thereby ensuring the survival of the guild.

A guild was made up of experts in their craft, so-called master craftsmen. Before a new employee could rise to the level of mastery, he— they were always men in the Middle Ages— had to go through a two-tier schooling period during which he first was called an apprentice. After this period, he could rise to the level of journeyman. Apprentices, who worked exclusively under a particular master, typically would not learn more than the most basic techniques until they were trusted by their peers to keep the guild’s or company’s secrets— which, in some guilds, included a secret handshake, thereby enabling members to identify each other.

Coat of ArmsAfter being employed by a master for several years, and after producing a qualifying piece of work, the apprentice was promoted to the rank of journeyman and was given documents (letters from his master and/or the guild itself) that certified him as a journeyman and entitled him to travel to other towns and countries to learn more of the art. Journeymen were able to work for other masters, unlike apprentices, and generally were paid by the day. After several years of such experience, a journeyman could be received as a master craftsman (although, in some guilds, this step could be made straight from apprenticeship). This typically would require the approval of all masters of a guild and the production of a so-called masterpiece, which would illustrate the abilities of the aspiring master craftsman.

Sound familiar? The apprentice stage is a close analogy to the graduate student period of an aspiring scientist. The qualifying piece of work allowing passage into journeyman (postdoctoral) status would be, of course, the doctoral thesis. And, aren’t today’s postdocs almost perfect examples of journeymen? They frequently spend several years with one master and then several more with another, hoping to produce a masterpiece: a high-profile paper (or papers) that establishes him or her as a rising star and earns him or her the modern equivalent of master craftsman status— a good job that, ideally, will allow him or her to work on his or her own ideas.

The problem is that some time during the past half-century, a disconnect developed between what our apprentices and journeymen are learning and the set of skills they actually need to succeed when they set out on their own. This disconnect occurred because the old model of the individual scientist working with perhaps one apprentice and a technical assistant, doing much of the work with his or her own hands, ceased to be valid in academia (though it continues, to some extent, in industry). We continued to train our students in how to carry out good experiments and interpret data, but we often neglect an equally important skill set: namely, the ability to write well, to manage people effectively and to formulate problems in a way that makes them fundable.

Some mentors, to be sure, make it their business to give their students experience and guidance in these things, and some graduate programs even include formal instruction in some of them, but the basic attitude often seems to be that one is supposed to acquire these abilities by osmosis. That works for some people, but not for all.

One difficulty is that students and postdocs usually don’t take advantage of opportunities for such instruction when they are offered; this is particularly true of postdocs, who frequently have no organization to arrange formal tutoring in practical matters, and are so absorbed in their work and the business of finding jobs that they rank that sort of help fairly low on their priority lists.

My Brandeis colleague Dagmar Ringe hit upon one way of solving this problem a few years ago, and her solution is worth general consideration. Every biochemistry department that receives funding for students from the National Institutes of Health is required to offer— and the students are required to take— a course in the responsible conduct of research. This course, which we refer to around here as “The Ethics Course,” covers such topics as conflict of interest, fraud, disclosure and so forth. Dagmar added, at the end of the course, a couple of weeks of practical workshops on how to give a talk, how to write a paper, how to write a grant, how to manage a group, how to teach a course and so forth. And, the beauty of this idea is not only that there is a captive audience of exactly those who need this information the most; it’s also that new federal regulations are coming that will require all students and postdocs receiving federal funding of any kind— training grants, support from individual research grants and fellowships, regardless of the agency (National Science Foundation, NIH, U.S. Department of Energy, etc.)— to take the ethics course. This makes that course the perfect vehicle for ensuring that all of our trainees receive the kind of practical instruction that they will need in almost any scientific career they undertake.

It shouldn’t be hard to find senior scientists in any department who are very good at one of these things and can teach the skills effectively, and a couple of weeks of instruction of, say, three to six hours a week should be enough to impart basic tools, although more elaborate programs certainly could be devised, involving practice talks and writing with critical feedback, for example. The emphasis should be less on how it is done than the fact that it is done, for everyone.

You see, we are a guild, actually, and the apprentice/journeyman system, when properly carried out, is still a superb way for young people to learn the tools of the trade. I hope teaching those tools— including the practical, maybe even mundane skills needed to function as a practicing scientist in this highly competitive environment— become routine in graduate student and postdoctoral training in biochemistry at every institution.

Interested in professional development?
We will have several events geared toward the education and development of young scientists at the ASBMB annual meeting in April.

I sure wish I had received instruction like that, instead of being left to stumble my way along by trial and error— mostly error. Because one thing I am completely convinced of is that effective communication, people-management skills and so on, are crafts, not arts, and can be learned, like any other crafts. Different people have different levels of talent for these things, of course, but the basics are accessible to anyone. As I said, I know that many places already do something of the kind, at least for some topics, but it ought to be as much a part of any advanced education as the qualifying exam, thesis or ethics course.

And, if anyone knows what the secret handshake is, I would appreciate them telling me, because I never was taught that either.

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