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
When 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.