Intensive Sequestered Science Courses

Jul 10 2008 Published by under Careerism

Dr. A at RESEARCHERS recently discussed having taken an intensive two-week science course where the students and faculty are sequestered in some locale (frequently quite lovely) for at least several weeks of intensive didactic and practical instruction in a particular field/subfield:

In attempts to decode the complexity that is statistical genetics, I enrolled in a 2 week workshop that just ended. That is two weeks I will never get back. Two weeks out of my absurdly crowded schedule. The thing with these types of courses.. is that they cannot possibly cater to everyone. Half of us have a good biology background, the other half were statisticians. Meaning I had to keep my mind from wondering during the derivation of every blood equation (see doodles) and sift through the masses of information to dig out what I need and basically work on grasping that stuff every evening. Needless to say my brain is full. It hurts. I have chi squared distributions oozing out of my pores. Gross.
How useful are such workshops? How much professional development should one be doing? How do you weigh the trade off? I was out of the lab for 2 weeks during a very busy time. Was it worth it? I'm not sure yet.


I have taken three sequestered multi-week field-specific courses during my career. Two as a grad student, and one as a post-doc. These were the kind where you go away to a laboratory in some nice place and stay there with all the faculty and students of the course for as few as three weeks and as many as eight weeks, depending on the course. In the United States, the two most prominent venues for these courses in the biological sciences are held during the summer at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (in Cold Spring Harbor, NY) and at the Marine Biological Laboratory (in Woods Hole, MA).
Taking these courses has been incredibly influential in my career. For one thing, they exposed me to a wide array of new methodological and conceptual approaches that have greatly influenced my science.
Much more importantly, however, have been the professional networking connections I have made. For example, some of the people who I will be asking to write promotion/tenure letters for me I first met years ago at these courses. Some of my best "science friends" are people I met at these courses.
Student and faculty alumni of these courses form subnetworks within particular fields that have a huge influence on career development and advancement. I urge all trainees to take advantage of these courses when available. It is an absolutely outstanding use of your time from a cost-benefit perspective.
Any PI who tells a trainee that these courses are a "waste of time" and that the trainee's time is better spent "at the bench" in the PI's lab is not putting the trainee's best interests first.

5 responses so far

  • Arlenna says:

    It was a FASEB meeting like this where I met my extremely helpful and generous outside mentor who helped secure my K99 award. Aside from just the scientific collaboration she has helped me with, she has also helped me incredibly in the strategic aspects and by supporting me for a few job applications. The meeting itself was also just so much fun, making some great friends and contacts (my kinase camp friends), and the experience contributed to expanding my understanding of the field such that the content and depth of my research directions improved considerably.

  • I couldn't agree with you more strongly about the value of these workshops. As a trainee, there is simple value in just getting out of Dodge and away from the doldrums and politics of your home base. And being able to concentrate on new techniques and conceptual approaches can only help to strengthen your science, now and in the future. But I also concur that the networking opportunities available small, intensive, residential workshops are unparalleled. The ability to interact closely with more senior scientists who themselves are away from their own bullshit and getting back in touch with why they do science is of value to both the trainee and the workshop faculty.
    No wonder that PP notes the strength of the connections he cultivated from his past experiences. I'm another beneficiary of such interactions with senior scientists who have continued to serve as mentors (yes, mid-career scientists still need mentors). These people have become friends and invaluable sources of wisdom throughout my career.
    A close second-place to residential lab workshops are small summer meetings like the Gordon Research Conferences. They were inexpensive enough for me to take all of my graduate students and postdoc even during the lean days. The focused interactions of everyone attending the same sessions, the living together, and the drinking together at evening poster sessions while shooting pool and singing British drinking songs at the piano also cultivate long-term relationships that will serve you for the rest of your career.
    I haven't yet read Dr A's post but I want to ask how much he/she put into seeking out mentoring opportunities during the downtime. One can only get what they put into it. But it's there for the taking if one is so motivated.
    All good mentors will support their trainees in participating in such programs. If you know in advance that they don't, I'd think twice about joining their laboratory.

  • pinus says:

    I hit up a CSHL course a few years back, the material was okay, but meeting and interacting with the other participants and the senior people who gave lectures was really key to some of my successes.
    I was hoping to hit another one this summer but I didn't get signed up in time. Not sure that the 1st year of having a lab is going to be a good time to go away for a few weeks to learn XYZ.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Not sure that the 1st year of having a lab is going to be a good time to go away for a few weeks to learn XYZ.

    It's definitely not. You need to be in your fucking lab as much as humanly possible until you have a critical mass of trainees with their own momentum.

  • pinus says:

    you are assuming that I already don't have 2 R01s and an army of postdocs all ready to start simultaneously!
    oh shit...I don't...
    Indeed, that is exactly what I was thinking...try to have a few nice little meetings/courses before I make the switch. alas, it didn't pan out that way.

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