March 2010

Plus the Secret Handshake

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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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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