The inestimable Dr. Free-Ride has started a series (Part 1) on scientific careerism in which she is pondering the project of being a grownup scientist. Naturally, YHN likes. However, the first post and teaser title for the second strikes a certain, er, tone:
Grown-up chemists had a huge body of unwritten knowledge to draw upon, it seemed. But hardly any of it seemed to be the focus of our graduate training -- at least, not explicitly.
Coming up: Why don't most advisors talk about the things grad students most want to learn from them?
Coming up below the fold: Why are graduate students and postdocs so aggressively clueless about their careers?
This is about the point in a post where I'd normally link to some disgruntled postdoc blog or another for evidence. I think this issue is mostly self-evident so I'll avoid starting in on some poor blogger. If you really want to know, you can go through the blogroll which is rich in disgruntle-blogs.
Why don't trainees understand that this is a job? Probably the hardest thing to get across to trainees is that science careers are not a meritocracy of how good your "hands" are, how smart you are, how good actual results are, etc. It is a meritocracy at how good you are at a science career! Meaning that all of these aspects are necessary but you also need to treat your career like.....a career. And science careers require all the politics, maneuvering, head's up decision making and self-promoting that other careers require. Being "good at science" is not good enough. This is something that you should have learned in late high school when you were considering what your career might be and therefore what college you should attend (if at all). And you did learn this. So why be in a state of intentional denial once you get to graduate school?
And why, oh why, are they so arrogantly "above it all"? Commenter bayman at AinE&S opines:
"If I wanted to take courses called things like "Networking 101" or "How to Get the Most Out of Your Collaborations" I would've have gone to business school instead. More importantly, I think science as a discipline would be ruined if we started teaching these sorts of things in a structured manner."
This illustrates the idiotic "above the fray" attitude that at root ties back to a notion that science careers are inherently different. They are, but not as much as most people assume. The bayman wants to learn it all on his own. It is possible and most of us are living proof...but still. Comments to this blog suggest that many junior faculty are quite happy to get any help they can as they transition and regret not learning more of this earlier in training.
Why don't trainees listen to what their PI is saying? Learning is not a process of spoon feeding after you leave the undergraduate environment. One of the comments over at AinE&S has the call:
My grad school adviser used to drive us nuts by coming into the lab and saying things like "I haven't heard back from this grant proposal and I can't decide whether to call the program officer. What are your thoughts?" Most of us looked at him like he was daft. He's the boss, shouldn't he know?
Sometime around my fourth year I realized that--DUH--he knew perfectly well what to do, he was just trying to expose us to the decision making process.
Exactly. A lot of the time the PI is indeed going out of her way to show you something about the careerism aspects. When they tell you that you really need to wrap up that paper or really need to get it submitted? The "bear down and run those bloody controls" instruction? You know. When you start complaining about "slave drivers" and "the PI just needs it for a grant deadline, why is he always so last-minute?" You are being shown some career reality, folks.
Why don't trainees pay attention? Chances are over the course of 6 years of grad school and 3-6 yrs of postdoc training, everyone has been in a department during at least one nasty tenure fight. Meaning that you know the players pretty well, understand the objective aspects of the science career in question, etc. And plenty of rumour leaks out too. What about all this tedious bitching about NIH funding? Are you listening? Really listening? Or are you still wrapped in the hubris of thinking that you are going to be such an obviously great scientist that everyone will be prostrating themselves to hire, fund and promote you? Get real and pay attention.
Why don't trainees go to seminar anymore? Used to be that the draw of free food would bring 'em out of the woodwork. Not so much. This may be just trainees where I am at the moment, but even back in my training days I'd see people blowing off seminars, not meeting with the speakers for lunch, etc. Mostly with the excuse that it wasn't "close enough to their area" or some dodge. I was trained to go to all the seminars, even if it didn't seem all that relevant to my work. Admittedly I didn't really get the schmoozing parts of it, even though everyone senior said what a great idea it was to meet-n-greet the speakers. I said to myself "oh, sure, like this guy is going to be of use to me". Well I have a recent vignette. A couple of colleagues and I happened to be chatting with the speaker at the reception when this person remarked "Oh, we're hiring someone in [drug abuse topic X] at my university, know anyone?". So I turned around and saw that not one of our "topic X" postdocs were there in the room! The speaker was mostly a topic Y researcher and any topic X postdocs might have thought "well what can this person do for me, we're not in the same area?". And yet since the speaker's colleagues knew about the trip to our place, where topic X postdocs abound, just maybe they said to the speaker "And can you make sure you mention we're hiring when you are there for your seminar?" Lost opportunity.
Why don't trainees ever ask for help? Since I have a little bit of a local reputation for soapboxing on career issues (imagine!) I do get the odd stop-in for advice from the local postdocs. Still, many times it becomes painfully obvious that people are not seeking enough advice. After-the-fact discussions of unsuccessful application for a RealJob where it comes up "Wait, you applied for an appointment at DepartmentX in which our colleague PI Jones trained and you didn't ask her in advance about DepartmentX and what they are looking for?!!?!!!" Basic, basic, basic grantsmanship issues. The small group of younger PIs may be busy but most of us will always have time for this sort of advice...how did you not find the time seek advice before sending your application?
Wrapping up on this, I'll acknowledge that our training institutions and structures are indeed deficient in communicating "how to be a grown-up scientist", as Dr. Free-Ride puts it. This observation was one of the prime motivators for me starting this blog as it happens. Trainees, however, are not blameless. They really need to wake up and recognize the need to take assertive, proactive control of their own destinies.