Tag Archives: Graduate students in science

IT’S NOT SO EASY TO CONDUCT SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AMIDST NATIONAL TURMOIL! 

 

International awareness of Venezuela in 2017 is needed! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
International awareness of Venezuela in 2017 is needed!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Everyone knows that science and research now are active in almost every country all over the world.  Many graduate students in science, and very many doctoral scientists employed to conduct research here, were born in foreign countries; thus, science and research in the U.S. have a distinctively global character.  These facts commonly lead to a false assumption that scientific research is proceeding and progressing nicely everywhere.  Actually, history shows different examples where events completely outside science can disrupt the practice and progress of research!

This dispatch considers the present situation for professional scientists and science students in Venezuela.  I bring this up because many academic scientists in  the U.S. and other Western countries complain loudly about the recurring shortage of money for support of their research, but fail to see that faculty scientists at certain foreign universities now must struggle just to get enough food to eat; that situation completely overwhelms all the many ‘normal problems’ in today’s academic research!

Brief background about Venezuela! 

Venezuela is an independent constitutional republic of some 31 million people located on the Northern edge of the South American continent.  It is nominally a rich country due to its very large deposits of oil and other natural resources; despite the recent political conflicts, some gasoline produced from Venezuelan oil is widely sold here in the U.S.  Venezuela has several universities and big hospitals in its largest city, Caracas.  Its current national leader, Nicholás Maduro, is a socialist who has responded to increasing economic difficulties (hyperinflation) and popular disapproval of current government policies by imposing dictatorial rule, capital controls, and political repression.

A university scientist describes how the current turmoil in Venezuela affects  research and teaching in its universities! 

Faculty scientists in the U.S. often remain blissfully unaware that their own career misgivings are minuscule compared to scientists in certain other countries that are seized with such a great turmoil that daily life descends into a struggle only to eat and survive.  Venezuela now is the prime example of such an unfortunate situation.

Prof. Benjamin Scharifker courageously has just authored a dramatic description of current university science in Venezuela, “Science struggles on in my ravaged country”, published within the May 11, 2017, issue of Nature (volume 545, page 135).  He is an Emeritus Professor continuing to conduct research at the Simón Bolívar University, and also serving as a Rector at the private Metropolitan University; both institutions are located in Caracas.

He describes the present difficult situation in graphic detail and with heartfelt anguish.  A sampling of quotations from his published report includes: “concomitant shortages of food and medicine”, “annual inflation rate in excess of 500%”, “A full professor makes much less than US$100 a month”, “we did not have running water in the laboratory”,  “the brain drain in Venezuela is staggering”, and, “How do we cope?  We don’t; we just try to survive.”  Most reading his story have never personally encountered the extreme situation described by Dr. Scharifker, and probably cannot readily believe or even imagine that any faculty scientists and science students could be facing this in 2017!

The large crisis in Venezuela soon probably will advance to cause the shutdown of universities and all their activities for teaching, scientific research, and other scholarly pursuits, despite the determination of students and faculty to carry on no matter what happens.  Nevertheless, a large number of university faculty and graduate students already have left Venezuela in order to be able to continue conducting their research and education; this brain drain is very sad, since I know that Venezuela previously has produced some renowned research scientists!  Prof. Scharifker comments that he hopes there will not be further bloodshed of university students in their public demonstrations and protests!

What are the main messages for scientists in the West? 

This situation in Venezuela is gory!  Let us hope that it does not spread to any other countries!  Many of us who sincerely complain about the decayed and degenerated current condition of scientific research at our universities, must recognize that our own troubled situation is drastically better than what our fellow scientists and students in Venezuela must face every day!

Science never exists in a vacuum, but always takes place within some social and political context.  Scientific research can be corrupted either internally (e.g., by scientists and science companies with dishonesty or greed) or externally (e.g., by economics, politics, or society).  Scientists everywhere should simultaneously be citizens, and so must take part in national and local disputes, governmental issues, and politics; just because we are always busy with researching and teaching is no reason to avoid participating personally in these areas.

In turn, science and research interact with the external milieu to produce some changes that help everyone (e.g., advanced technology, better education, improved public health and safety, innovative new concepts, new medical and dental therapies, the internet, etc.).  Thus, science and society usefully interact with each other!

Concluding discussion! 

From my viewpoint, I believe the following conclusions are warranted.  (1) Scientists are privileged people who should actively accept their simultaneous role as citizens in their country!  (2) Complainers about not enough money for research, or counterproductive policies in modern academia, must recognize that everything could get very much worse!  (3) Let us give our fellow faculty scientists and science students in Venezuela our hopes for their better future!

 

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UNTAUGHT LESSONS ARE LEARNED IN GRADUATE SCHOOL! 

 

Graduate schools teach much about science and research outside of classes! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Graduate schools teach much about science and research outside of classes! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Earning a doctoral degree in science is required in order to become a professional research scientist.  Typically, the long period of learning about science and research in graduate school takes 3-10 years, and is followed by intensive research experience as a semi-independent postdoctoral fellow for several more years.  Much of what is learned is not in textbooks, but instead comes from personal observations, disagreements, trying to solve problems, and work experience.  Brief stories by scientists about their individual experiences in graduate school often appear in the “Working Life” section of Science, and nicely illustrate some important unspoken lessons for graduate students; here, I discuss several stressful issues raised in 2 informative essays recently published by young scientists [1,2].

Realizations about science by a new Assistant Professor! 

“Three lessons rarely taught” by Dr. Piotr Wasylczyk [1] describes important concepts about research work and the traditional academic career, that he learned during his extensive education.  His mentors advised him to have fun doing research and even to regard research instruments as special toys for adults to play with.  That philosophy is increasingly hard to maintain due to the demanding pressures generated by the business aspects of trying to be successful as a university scientist.  Dr. Wasylczyk states with sincerity, “Talking to other scientists, both young and mature, I see how difficult it can be to enjoy research.”  This shocking realization is true, but contradicts the advice given by his mentors about having fun doing science; I predict he might later join many other university scientists who are dismayed and distressed with their disgusting job problems (see: “Why are University Scientists Increasingly Upset with Their Job?  Part II.” ).

A third piece of advice Dr. Wasylczyk received is very fundamental, and he is determined to pass this insight on to his own graduate students: “Taking risks is the essence of research.”  Most non-scientists and beginning scientists do not understand that research always is chancy, experiments sometimes do not produce the data expected, and results in the lab cannot be guaranteed.  By taking chances, research still is able to advance and produce important new knowledge; this reality is very different from the gospel that research success always comes to those who follow ‘the scientific method’, as taught to all students in secondary schools and colleges.

Realizations about money in science by a current graduate student! 

“Show us the money” is an article by Andy Tay [2] describing his mental and emotional responses to suddenly being notified by his thesis advisor in graduate school that cessation of a research grant means he must make some major changes.  While trying to overcome this unexpected interruption in his research training he discovered several new realizations about becoming a research scientist: (1) he had previously received little instruction about the very strong role of money in scientific research (see: “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” ), (2) any changes in research grant status can negatively affect many persons besides the grant-holder (i.e., graduate students, post-docs, and research technicians), and (3) when research grant sponsorship of graduate students is disrupted, this unanticipated crisis event often forces making big changes in career paths and plans.  To his credit, Tay talked to other graduate students and found that “I’m not the only student whose training has faced potential disruption because of an adviser’s changing funding situation.”  That is very true, but is rarely recognized or discussed until this problem suddenly happens!

By going down the traditional pathway to becoming a faculty scientist, Tay will later encounter even larger problems with money.  Almost everything in a university science career now depends upon money, and the scientist with the most money from research grants is labeled to be the best.  Finding the truth or making a truly breakthrough discovery now matters much less than getting many research grant dollars.  Thus, research grants are both good and bad (see: “Research Grants Cause Both Joy and Despair for University Scientists!” )!  My own belief is that the conversion of university science into a business where profits are the true end necessarily distorts science, perverts research, and encourages corruption; this atmosphere of degeneration is literally destroying scientific research in modern universities (see:  “Could  Science and Research Now be  Dying?” ).

Discussion! 

I encourage all current and future graduate students to read and study these 2 short dispatches [1,2]!  Graduate students must be made much more aware of the challenges they will face in their careers, and of the fact that scientific research at universities has changed from what it is supposed to be.  Andy Tay should be given much praise for organizing local meetings with other graduate students to discuss these issues.  Postdoctoral research associates, who are a few years further along this career pathway, now are organizing discussions and proposals for dealing with several large problems in their education and status as young professional scientists [3].  Graduate students and postdocs can see that scientists researching in universities now are trapped into being business people chasing money, and good research is increasingly difficult within the destructive atmosphere now prevailing in many educational institutions.

Concluding remarks! 

The essays by a new faculty member, Dr. Piotr Wasylczyk, and a beginning graduate student, Andy Tay, will help stimulate the badly needed revisions in graduate school education for scientists.  I hope that they will continue spreading the word about these issues, and wish both of them much good luck in their further research efforts!

 

[1]  Wasylczyk, P., June 10, 2016.  Three lessons rarely taughtScience  352:1358.  science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6291/1358.full .

[2]  Tay, A., June 17, 2016.  Show us the money.  Science  352:1486.

[3]  McDowell, G., 2016.  Postdocs driving change: the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) meeting 2015.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.ascb.org/postdocs-driving-change-the-national-postdoctoral-association-npa-meeting-2015/ .

 

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SOME Q&A JUST FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS IN SCIENCE!

 

Graduate Students in Science Must be Very Clever!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Graduate Students in Science Must Always be Very Clever!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Although each different graduate school has its own special flavor, they all provide specialized knowledge in a given field of science, and, organized 1:1 instruction about how to conduct research experiments and be a scientist.  Typically, graduate students learn a lot from courses and laboratory work, assemble and defend  a doctoral thesis, and, produce one or more research publications.  Graduate school usually is followed by intensive semi-independent research as a postdoctoral fellow.

This article is only for graduate students in science!  It uses a question and answer format to advise you about how to handle some common problematic situations in graduate school.  Further information and other opinions certainly should be sought from your fellow students, your official advisor, and any of your course instructors.   My advice is based upon my own experiences and observations as a graduate student and later as a faculty researcher and teacher.  I hope all of this will prove interesting and useful to you!

Why do I have to take yet more courses in graduate school?  I want to learn how to do research!    

Graduate school training provides a number of useful features needed by all research scientists: (1) classroom courses instill in-depth knowledge and advanced understanding about one or several areas of science; (2) laboratory courses provide detailed knowledge about research approaches and methods; (3) coursework with library and internet studies, and making oral presentations, give experience in explaining your research  and answering questions.  These are directly related to what you will do later, no matter where you will be employed.  Any advanced course including critical analysis of research investigations will increase your own skills with design of experiments, picking adequate controls, and drawing valid conclusions from a given set of experimental data.  You will learn the practice of doing good lab research when you begin work in the lab of your thesis advisor.  Being a scientist is more than just performing experiments!

I’m not good with math!  Why must I take a statistics course?  

I strongly recommend that all graduate students should take a course in applied statistics because it will help deal with experimental design and data analysis.  You don’t have to become an expert, but you almost certainly will need to know how to use the basic concepts and procedures.  

How should I pick my thesis advisor? 

Ideally, you have enrolled in a graduate school because you already picked one or several faculty scientists you want to train you.  If your choice is still open, then the following general criteria seem most important.  The best thesis advisor has: (1) a successful research career in the special field you are most interested in, (2) an active research grant (and preferably, this has been renewed), (3) a good record for training and placing graduate students (and postdocs), (4) ambition to excel in the special field of interest, and (5) room for you to work in their lab.  Discuss any questions or concerns with your selected professor before you begin.

What do research rotations accomplish?  It seems like a waste of time to me! 

Most of your research experience in grad school comes under the supervision of your thesis advisor.  Picking this person is an extremely important task that will follow you for the rest of your career.  Most schools require a rotation through the laboratories of at least 3 different professors; to be meaningful, each rotation should extend for 1-2 months.  Via these rotations, new grad students will learn what each supervisor is like, what research questions are being attacked in their lab, what instruments and methods are in use, what staff (technicians, postdocs, collaborators, and other students) are working in each lab, and, what each supervisor expects from their graduate student colleagues.  After these  rotations, the student should be able to decide who they want to study with; the faculty use this experience to evaluate students with regard to interest, level of energy, intelligence, aptitude to learn and acquire skills, and, mentality.  The rotations also provide initial entries into your list of methods and instruments you know how to use, so they are valuable even if you already know which professor you will select.

What do I do if there is no professor working on my main subject of interest?

First, admit that you have made a mistake!  You should have seen whether there were suitable mentors before you enrolled in any school.  Second, decide if you are willing to make some changes in your main interests so that you can work with faculty that are available.  Third, if not, then apply to transfer into another department or a different graduate school having one or more faculty scientists working in your area of interest.

What should my doctoral thesis accomplish? 

Successfully completing and defending a graduate school thesis is taken as proof that you are qualified to be a scientific investigator, a teacher of science, and an expert on some aspect of modern science. The findings from your experimental studies show what you can do in research, and are the first basis to establish your reputation as a professional scientist.  Any good thesis will provide you with one or more publications in professional science journals, and might also result in your obtaining a patent.  Successful defense of your thesis entitles you to be hired in a number of different employment situations.

My thesis advisor just had his grant renewal turned down, so I must hurry up to finish my project!  But, I only have worked on it for one year!  Help! 

You indeed have a difficult problem!  You must first discuss all possible options with your thesis advisor.  In some cases, there might be another professor working in a similar or related area who will let you continue your current research within their lab.  In other cases, you might have to move into some other area of interest, and then find a new thesis advisor.  Yet other possibilities include moving into a different department at the same graduate school, or transferring into another school.  Depending on all the logistics and the time limitations, it might be good to use what you already have done to first acquire a Master’s Degree with your present advisor.

I am half way to completing my doctoral thesis; how soon should I start looking for a postdoctoral position and for a job? 

I recommend starting both today!  You can never begin too early with these tasks!  At science meetings, observe what other scientists are working on, who is researching in your area(s) of interest, and who gives invited presentations.  Go up to some and ask a good question; if you have a poster, you can invite them to view it.  Take a look at the job openings displayed at science meetings, and, start deciding what kind of employment and which locations appeal to you.  Everything you do as a graduate student says what you are; this will be fully inspected when you later apply for a postdoctoral position or a job.

I have been a grad student for 6 years, and my thesis advisor wants me to do still  more work.  Maybe I will never be able to finish!  What can I do? 

This is a common problem!  Students always want to finish graduate school and start being a Postdoc as soon as possible, but thesis advisors want them to do a very complete and excellent job with their thesis research.  The goals of both parties are natural and good.  I know several grad students who finished only after 10 years of work!

I offer the following advice.  Above all else, try to maintain good relations with your thesis advisor, and recognize that this person knows more than you do about science and careers in science.  Discuss all with him or her, and try to get an explicit list of exactly what you still need to accomplish; then, get to work and monitor your own progress every month.  If that only produces more problems, then discuss your situation with one or more members of your thesis advisory committee.  I cannot say anything further because I do not know if you are wasting time, fully understand what is needed to get a doctoral degree, are getting good results from your experiments, etc.; your thesis committee should know all of this, so ask for advice from them.

Concluding remarks.   

Almost all graduate students encounter some perplexing situation(s) in graduate school.  Handling those challenges is part of your advanced education!  You do not have to take my advice, but you should carefully consider how and why your views disagree with my recommendations.  It often is valuable to discuss everything with a trusted faculty scientist or another graduate student (i.e., one attending a different school).  Good luck!

 

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WHAT IS MISSING IN TODAY’S EDUCATION OF STUDENT SCIENTISTS ?

            All universities have individual differences and special features in their graduate school programs for instructing student scientists working to earn a Ph.D.  Nevertheless, during this advanced education leading to a thesis defense, certain aspects of useful and needed instruction commonly are missing. My belief is that these absences often  result in practical difficulties for later research activities by scientists working in universities.

 

            The long extent of graduate student education in science (e.g., 4-8 years) is necessary to prepare them to become doctoral researchers and scholars.  Three very primary problems arise during any career as a research scientist working in a university: (1) managing  time, (2) dealing with the research grant system, and, (3) avoiding any corruption.  It seems very surprising that there is not any course work and little special attention currently being given to address these very important practical difficulties. 

 

An intense course in time management would be eminently useful for professional scientists in any branch of science.  Another course of instruction or a series of directed discussions about the organization of the current research grant system and how to deal with it would be immensely helpful to all new faculty scientists.   The number of courses available concerning integrity and ethics in scientific research now is rising; this instruction certainly is badly needed, but must be expanded even further; in addition, there needs to be better recognition that all professional scientists must accept that there can be absolutely no dishonesty at all within science.  General instruction about standards of ethics in science is very important and should commence at a very early age; ideally, this will start long before any actual choice of a career in science has been made. 

 

            Some of the classical subjects for instructing graduate students in science now continue to be  offered, but are taken only infrequently.  These include the history of science, inter-relationships and differences between the major branches of science, the key laboratory experiments which gave rise to famous findings and new concepts, and, general requirements for the design of good experiments and valid controls.  A solid course in the use of applied statistics for analyzing experimental data is frequently available, but many graduate students in science choose to not take such; this seems surprising, since most faculty scientists performing experimental research will readily admit that statistics is vitally useful for their data analysis. 

 

            In addition to coursework, several other valuable and useful subjects can be covered in semi-formal discussion sessions.  These include: how to select a postdoctoral position and mentor, what types of jobs are available for science doctorates, how to find a good job,  how to get promoted, how to self-evaluate your progress and reputation as a research scientist, special features of working on scientific research within industry, and, the role of engineering research and development in the modern science enterprise.  These sessions are likely to be much better if 3-5  faculty researchers working in different areas of science are present, such that several aspects of each topic within the different branches and disciplines of modern science will be brought forward. 

 

            Improving pre-doctoral education in all branches of science will produce a big payoff.  Better pre-doctoral science education will make for better scientific researchers! 

 

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