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.
Amanda is beginning her sixth year as a graduate student in the Astrophysics/Cosmology Theory group at Case Western Reserve University. In September she will begin a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, while also travelling to CERN to work with her advisor, Prof. Glenn D. Starkman. You can find Amanda on Twitter @mandaYoho.
When I was first asked the question “If you made a list of things to add/change about PhD training then what would they include?” via twitter, I found myself instantly drawn to the experiences during my graduate career that I have been most grateful for, and as it turns out, are not at all required by my program (see the initial exchange in storify form here). I am fortunate enough to have an advisor who is himself engaged and encourages similar pursuits in his students, and I believe this is why I have been able to set a foundation of knowledge that will complement the development of my ability to do science as a researcher. I recognize that this is a privileged position to be in — many other students may not hit the supportive-advisor jackpot in that respect — and because of such I think it would benefit graduate students to have programs with institutional knowledge of professional development outside of classroom learning, rather than relying on each individual advisor to fully develop their students’ career skills. Some of the following would certainly be easier to sneak into the culture of the department while others would undoubtedly be met with resistance.
1.) Develop scientific public speaking skills: One of the best institutions at my department is our weekly CERCA Friday seminar series. Professors, post docs, and graduate students in particle/astrophysics/cosmology theory and experiment groups are expected to give a talk (1/yr for profs/post docs, 2/yr for grads) and everyone in the audience is encouraged to ask questions. The setting is purposely kept informal — we order in pizza for lunch and the atmosphere is light. It’s also accepted that after you’ve given a talk, your advisor will stop by with feedback about your content and style. I have noticed when attending conferences with talks by graduate students from other universities, ours tend to be among some of the best. I attribute that almost entirely to our “early and often” exposure to public speaking in an academic setting, where we feel comfortable enough to make mistakes and learn from them.
2.) Outreach opportunities: There are lots reasons why scientists should be doing public outreach, check out these blog posts: Science Cafés are great. At least, I think so, Why Geeks Need a Manifesto and Science has a PR Solution, some of which go beyond just doing a service for science. Doing outreach requires one to think about their audience; how they will learn, what will be engaging, and how to section a topic into digestible bits that are appropriate for the audience’s knowledge level. These are not unrelated to one’s ability to be an exceptional teacher. Over the past 5 years I have had the opportunity to volunteer with a Science is Fun Family Day that had middle-schoolers building towers and playing with hydrogen fuel-cell toy cars, the USA Science & Engineering Festival where I blew up balloons to explain the expansion of the universe to 3-20+ year olds, and a viral marketing campaign aimed at acclimating science-averse teens to what they would consider nerdy pursuits. All of these experiences have provided me with knowledge about my style of teaching that I will take into future classrooms.
3.) Management and organizational skills: Science often requires faculty researchers to be thrust into managerial positions where they are responsible for large budgets and directing collaborators, or are expected to serve as a chair of their department or sit on a university committee. Future faculty will need to know how to focus conversations and how to get the most out of the time and effort of everyone involved in the meeting. These are universal skills. They will help in group meetings and they will help business meetings. There is no downside to learning them, and none of the regular requirements of a Ph.D. program will help develop them. I was able to establish and expand upon this skill set while serving on the executive committee of the Graduate Student Senate (link to pdf to come shortly) at my university for two years as the College of Arts & Sciences Executive and for one year as the Activities Committee Chair. Not everyone has the ability or desire to join an organization like GSS, but there can be intra departmental opportunities available as well — I was able to organize the CERCA seminars for two years, co-organize a conference hosted at my university, and I serve as chair of the graduate student recruitment committee for the physics department. Perhaps experiences like these need not be woven into the requirements for obtaining a PhD degree, but they definitely should not be discouraged (which they often are) by mentors. While students may not at that precise moment be producing science results, they are absolutely developing skills that will help them in future scientific careers when they must run labs or sit on university committees. Think of it as an early investment for the future of productive, efficient scientists.
From the purely curricular standpoint, these experiences are valued less than traditional classroom learning. We are given no incentive to take on any number of tasks outside of research once our coursework has ended. In fact, many students (perhaps by extension of their own mentor’s feelings) see them as unnecessary and a distraction from doing what they consider the real work that will get them a job. This sentiment is one that I encountered regularly as a member of the Graduate Student Senate where it was a yearly struggle to recruit new members (Even when we attempted to persuade them with free food every meeting! That is how strong the aversion to participating in organizations outside of the lab at a research university can be for graduate students).
These extra commitments don’t come at the cost of scientific output. By the time I hopefully graduate next August (hopefully…) I will have published several research papers, attended conferences, and given talks about my work. Could I have done more without the added responsibilities? Probably yes. Would I have wanted to? Absolutely not. I now have a broader sense of who I am and what I want to contribute to the physics community. I feel as if I have a skill set that will serve me well in the research arena where I have to collaborate and communicate with others, not only in my department, but across my university. And if I find myself looking for a future career outside of academia, I will be better prepared for it.