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.
Daniel Tix graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Ph.D. in Plant Biology; the focus of his research was in ecological restoration and plant community dynamics. He is currently working at a consulting firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he specializes in wetland ecology, ecological restoration, and botanical surveys. Dan’s clients are primarily mining and energy companies that are seeking permits for new or on-going projects. Before they can begin a project, he will help them identify the wetlands on their site and determine if protected species will be affected. He identifies these natural features and acquires permits from local, state, and federal agencies if needed. If wetlands are affected by the projects, he will restore wetlands to mitigate lost wetlands. Dan has been working in this field for about 5 years, and before that he planned ecological restoration projects for a non-profit and taught as an adjunct faculty at a local university.
I am currently working as a wetland scientist providing consulting services to mining and energy companies to assist with environmental permitting. Our clients primarily hire us for our technical and regulatory expertise, but our project management skills are critical, especially for our large projects. In graduate school, I received considerable training in ecology and plant sciences, but no training regarding law and regulations related to natural resources. Also, my graduate school program did not provide formal training in project management and did not promote this as an important skill to develop. I feel the education I received in graduate school was excellent, though the coursework I was offered and the training I received was limited to a very narrow scope. My graduate program did not cover some of the important skills or provide me with all of the background that helps scientists excel in this field.
Natural resources science drives regulations
Many scientists in natural resources fields work in regulatory permitting; they either work for companies to acquire permits or for agencies that develop and implement regulatory policy. Such scientists must understand the science, but they must also be knowledgeable in the law pertaining to natural resources. Graduate school programs generally focus specifically on the science; law school programs focus on the law; but there are few programs that offer an education in both fields even though they overlap for so many scientists. During graduate school I studied many of the important and controversial issues concerning natural resources (global warming, genetically-modified organisms, pollution, etc.) but I was not taught about the laws that regulate these issues, many of which are consistently challenged by industry, non-profit advocacy groups, and in the public sector.
Laws protecting natural resources should be understood at a basic level by all scientists in the field so that they can play leading roles in shaping policy and implementing the regulations. Now that I have worked in a field that has required me to learn about the laws pertaining to natural resources, it is frustrating to read articles that dispute or support major industrial projects when the authors provide no basis in existing law. Regulatory policy is an important component of natural resources sciences because the science that drives the regulations must be sound in order to survive future legitimate challenges in courts and in public opinion. Natural science programs that provide additional training in law are going to train PhD graduates to be better able to face important issues in our society.
Project management skills should be better developed in graduate schools
Project management skills are developed in graduate schools through thesis projects and graduate assistantships. PhD students working on projects often manage complex budgets; delegate tasks to other scientists and technicians; and must synthesize information from many separate sources. In doing so, they develop project management skills that are highly valued in all professional fields, but are generally overlooked by the students and by employers hiring PhD graduates.
I value my graduate school experience and was fortunate to have an advisor and other committed faculty members who supported and challenged me. My coursework provided me with important background for research into plant ecology and ecological restoration. Completion of my thesis challenged me to manage my own project, design experiments, accurately present my findings, and face sharp criticism from respected scientists. In doing so, I developed skills to manage projects, but I undervalued this experience and I allowed employers to overlook the experiences I had managing budgets, people, and time.
Graduate schools can do a better job of supporting students who manage projects by providing formal project management training. In the current system, advisors play an important role in guiding students through their projects, but often are unable to provide assistance in all aspects of the project. Formal training in project management may include regular semester-long courses or just workshops in communication and delegation, budgeting, software systems, use of databases, etc. PhD graduates would then be able to flaunt their formal training and would better recognize the value their management experience brings to their career.