At August 20th’s SoNYC discussion, which this month is held in collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences, we’re going to be focusing on science PhDs. Does the current PhD system need revamping to better equip researchers to continue in academia or to pursue other careers after graduating? In our latest series of guest posts on Soapbox Science, we’ll hear from a variety of contributors about how the current system works, where the gaps are, which additional skills they think PhD courses should incorporate and what their personal experiences have been. Follow and join in the conversations online using #PhDelta and share your thoughts in the comment threads on the blog posts too.
Audrey Richard graduated with a PhD in molecular and cell biology a few months ago in France. She owes the little oncolytic virus she was working on for that. She finds herself complaining quite often about her PhD training but in truth, while thinking that it could improve for next students indeed, she enjoyed it very much.
Currently, she’s trying to conclude as nicely as possible everything related to her thesis (well, she’s writing papers) while discovering the joy of sci blogging thanks to nature.com. The months and years to come will hopefully involve a postdoc but most importantly virology.
Friday, December 9th 2011 wasn’t necessarily the best day of my PhD training but it was the last one. It all ended after four years, two months and nine days which is, to tell you the truth, much too long in the opinion of most French grad schools. Over here, in life sciences at least, you are actually expected to complete your training in three years at most and you won’t be allowed to have your defence unless you have published as a first author. So inevitably, every now and then things don’t run smoothly and some of us (Maybe many of us… Alright, MOST of us) don’t meet the conditions when those three years come to an end. However, if we can find a fellowship for an ultimate year, most of the time grad schools will allow us to pursue our training and, while PhD students very rarely take care of “genuine” research grant proposals in France, trying to get a fellowship is quite common. Given that mastering this kind of writing can be important for PhD students and definitely is for those pursuing their career in research (which is not the one and only path -see Marcus’ and Jerry’s stories), what are your options in handling the challenge – hopefully with success – when you have zero experience?
The magic recipe to write a successful proposal…
… does not exist unfortunately, Dr Obvious tells us very positively. However, if you do a basic Google search, you’ll find plenty of guides to writing grant proposals or fellowship applications which seem to imply that there are some rules to follow. For instance, have a look at this “How to write compelling fellowship applications” guide from Columbia University. How tantalizing is that? Now let’s have a closer look and take a few samples: “Capture the reviewers’ attention. Pose your research question or hypothesis succinctly, forcefully, and provocatively” or “Be original and innovative, methodologically and conceptually.” This is very, very true. Who wouldn’t want to be original and innovative when it comes to convincing reviewers that they should fund your work? However, I tend to believe that this is definitely not specific enough to be genuinely useful. What I understand from those guides is that the best way to write a compelling application is to write a compelling application. The truth is, if you are at that point when you Google search how you should write a fellowship application just as I did back then, don’t lie to yourself: you are certainly quite lost, just as I was. In all fairness, there is nonetheless, in my opinion, at least one online source for some sound, helpful pieces of advice, which happens to be right here, on Soapbox Science. “Write in the first person”, “Use dialog instead of narration when introducing your topic”, “Don’t use jargon.” As well as being relevant, these suggestions are actually understandable and can be easily applied. They won’t solve all problems, but they can certainly help you to polish your application by spotting – and fixing – the remaining little imperfections that might make the difference in turning your average application into a great one.
No man’s knowledge can go beyond his experience.
When it comes to writing successful proposals (and many other things), a textbook will never do a better teaching job than either practice or the experience of those who have already been there and done that. Therefore, most of you will probably very naturally and justifiably ask your PI for guidance. As far as I’m concerned, I had three different PIs, successively and erratically, during my PhD (I’m not some kind of lab black widow; they are all fine in case you are wondering) but I can’t say that any of them was truly my mentor. Fortunately, a lab is full of experienced people who don’t mind lending a hand. I turned to a collaborator I was already working with on a research project, who was willing to help me. The previous year his PhD student had been able to get the same fellowship I was targeting, so even though it wasn’t the absolute key to success, it seemed as if he knew how to convince this specific funding body. After I had drafted my application, we discussed and improved it step by step. A lab is also full of reviewers in disguise, so any concerns or doubts your colleagues may have when reading your application are likely to be raised by the actual committee as well. Being helped with proofreading and feedback also allows you to step aside for a moment, clear your mind and take a fresh look at your own work.
Writing grants 101.
One of the few things that I am sure of in the whole process of writing a proposal is that nobody wants to do it like I did: at the very last minute. I strongly recommend that you anticipate your writing tasks. Attending some formal courses on how to write grant proposals before you actually have to do it should make the task easier and buy you some peace of mind. For me, I didn’t even know these kind of workshops existed until recently because such a specific training wasn’t in the program of my grad school during most of my PhD. In fact, there weren’t many courses in their program until 2010‑2011 when they decided to rethink it all. Now, PhD students in Lille can attend a range of workshops aimed at developing their [what I also recently learnt in an interesting piece on naturejobs.com are referred to as] soft skills, including writing grants. The current discussion regarding PhDs’ skills, however, goes further than just learning to write grants. Should PhD training focus more on acquiring soft skills in a formal setting in order to diversify learning? I am not so sure. As these types of courses didn’t exist when I was in training, I can’t help wondering: did I miss something important?
Work it harder Make it better Do it faster… makes us stronger?
My initial reaction was to wonder if my “regular” training might have not been enough after all. A little bit of anxiety ensued, but then I read a tweet from Heather (who also wrote for this series): “Why do a lot of people seem to think that you can’t develop additional skills and have a successful PhD?” Though it may depend on what one refers to as “additional skills”, can you actually have a successful PhD at all without developing a broad range of valuable skills in the first place (which was Amanda’s point, also in this series and see Jeanne’s post for context)?
This very series asks whether the PhD system is in need of revamping “to better equip researchers to continue in academia or to pursue other careers after graduating”. The training is already quite demanding – is it worth further improving your academic skills in anticipation knowing that the tenure positions barely exist to begin with? Is there a point in running after new skills by attending workshops and courses? Will an employer really value these sporadic additions if we are not even able to first acknowledge the variety and quality of the skills we spend entire years mastering?
Current discussions may imply that the PhD training is not enough. If it’s so hard for us to find a job outside academia perhaps it’s because we don’t know how to promote the skills we already have. That’s why I believe we don’t necessarily need further diversification of skills during the PhD . What we do need to be able to do is to promote those skills we have learnt during the process. If you are a PhD and don’t even realize that you are more than a lab bench worker, a slides maker and a lecturer, then indeed, you won’t ever convince anybody that you can leave academia. I’m not saying that additional training has no value. It’s a good thing for those who wish to develop skills, such as writing grants, to have the opportunity to do so. But I believe it should apply to those skills you are expected to develop during the PhD training, rather than brand new ones – improvement rather than diversification. One useful skill we could be encouraged to develop in grad school is self‑awareness in learning to make the best of ourselves and keep positive. Everything is obviously not perfect as it is, but I think it is the PhD system which is in need of revamping, not the PhD students.