GRADUATE SCHOOL EDUCATION OF SCIENTISTS: WHAT IS WRONG TODAY?

             Before professional scientists find a job, they typically spend 3-8 years in graduate school earning their doctoral degree, followed by at least 2 more years with advanced practical training in conducting research experiments as a postdoctoral fellow.  This long training of research scientists then continues with self-education for the rest of their professional career, regardless of whether they are employed in universities, industry, hospitals, or elsewhere.  It is amazing to realize that there now are several major gaps and inadequacies in the current scheme for the advanced education of modern scientists, particularly those working as university faculty.  

           

            Graduate schools are not sites for vocational education, but rather they deal with background knowledge, techniques, history, interactions, and theory.  Nevertheless, if any employment involves complex activities A, B, and C, then is it not reasonable that education and preparatory training should give practical instruction in all of these activities?  If the employment activities shift or are enlarged to involve A, B, C, and also D, then does it not follow that instruction about D should be added to the teaching and training?  Why is the education of scientists an exception to these expectations?  University scientists now are not receiving education about several key aspects of their profession.  Being educated just about science and how to do research is not enough!

 

            Doctoral scientists starting work at industrial research and development centers do receive instructions about the business of their employer, how to handle financial matters involved with their work (e.g., planning, purchasing, repairs), the format for research proposals to be submitted to company administrators, procedures for regulatory compliance, deadlines, etc. Their educational situation seems quite different from that of their counterparts working as faculty at universities.  

    

            Although scientific research in academic institutions now is just a business (see my earlier post on “What Is the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?” in the Scientists category), there are not any courses on business subjects given to young scientists during their training at graduate schools; after finding a job, they mostly receive only minimal instructions about business matters from their new employer.  Another of the very biggest practical problems facing today’s academic scientists is the management of time; although there are good academic courses on the principles and practice of time management, these are not being offered to graduate students specializing in science.  Even the general principles for the good design of research experiments, including constructing the research questions and designing adequate controls, mostly are taught only by example rather than as a systematic coverage of theory and practice.  Almost all research scientists of necessity use statistics for evaluation of their experimental results; a course on statistics usually is only an elective offering, and many graduate students in science mistakenly choose to not take this.

           

            Another large practical problem for scientists working at universities concerns how to deal with the research grant system.  This large topic about business usually is not covered by any organized coursework, but rather is dealt with on the spot after a job finally is landed.  Much unnecessary loss of time by the young faculty member often results from use of this trial and error approach; it would be much better if the nature of “specific aims” and other special and very important cryptic terms used in research grant applications were taught in a course of instruction, rather than learning about these from the criticisms of reviewers evaluating their very first grant application.  It also still is unusual for graduate students in science to receive didactic instruction on the professional ethics of scientific research, the relationships between the different branches of science, and the important place of engineering in the modern science enterprise. 

 

            Many of these deficiencies could be corrected easily once theimportance of the missing topics are recognized and accepted. The several gaps in graduate education of scientists occur very generally.  Whether these gaps are filled by formal coursework or by tutorial instruction is not important.  Some of the needed additional instruction will necessitate employing non-scientist teachers for instruction.  Other status quo difficulties concern the fact that these missing subjects all are “non-traditional”, whereas universities training graduate students in science are almost always strictly very traditional in their educational approaches.  Thus, current education for scientists in training simply plods along and graduate students are not being taught about the major job problems they will encounter later when working in their new job. 

 

            Some of the needed new instruction will demand use of a new format in order to do justice to their subjects.  Such new courses should be offered by 2-3 different teachers, so that the full range of topics and subtopics can be given in an effective manner. It is obvious to me that a new course about money matters in a modern university faculty job would be better if given by a group including an experienced faculty scientist who has had good success in dealing with the research grant system, and a faculty teacher from a business school; this course also would benefit from participation by a professional ethicist.  Getting all 3 types of educators to work coordinately in one course would be truly wonderful, but that would be quite an unconventional undertaking.  Some of the missing educational offerings might become easier if they are given as intensive short courses (i.e., 3-5 weeks), rather than as the usual textbook-based courses lasting several months.  This change in format also will provide a better opportunity for having valuable discussion sessions about practical questions with several experienced faculty research scientists (i.e., from different departments, working in different disciplines, coming from different graduate schools, and having different degrees of status).

 

I believe that these additional efforts to improve graduate school education will help all young scientists to deal more successfully and less painfully with their new job responsibilities and the problems in trying to be a good professional scientist.  It then will no longer be necessary to waste so much time figuring out the nature of these job problems, and trying to learn from the traditional trial and error approach. 


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