Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Things no one teaches you as part of your training.

Over the last couple of months I've been reflecting about some aspects of being an academic physicist, particularly what skills are important and what aspects of the job are never explicitly taught.  The training system that has evolved in the post-WWII US research universities is one that, when it works well, instills critical thinking, experimental or calculational design, and a large amount of (often rather narrow) scientific expertise.  Ancillary to this, doctoral students often (but not always) get indirect training in written and oral communications through the various papers and theses they write and the presentations that are made at conferences and dissertation defenses.  Often students gain some teaching experience, though many times this is in the form of the kind of TA work (running a lab section, grading problem sets) that is a far cry from actually planning out and lecturing a course.  Sometimes in the course of graduate or postdoctoral work, scholars are taught a bit about mentoring of younger students, but this is almost entirely informal.

However, there are many critical skills (relevant to eventual careers in both academia and industry) that get by-passed.   I'm not sure how you would actually teach these things in practice, and setting up courses to do so would widely be viewed as a waste of student time.  Still, it's interesting how much of being a good faculty member (or valued employee with managerial responsibilities) is never taught; it's just assumed that you pick this stuff up along the way somehow, or you are innately skilled.  Examples:
  • Managing students.  This includes: motivating students; determining what level of guidance is best suited to a particular student to instill independence and creativity yet avoid either aimless floundering or complete micromanagement; how to deal with personal, physical health or mental health problems; how to assess whether a student really has strong potential or an affinity for a particular project or set of skills.
  • Managing money.  No one ever tells you how to run a research group's finances.  No one ever explicitly sits you down and explains how the university's finances really work, what indirect costs really mean, how to deal with unanticipated financial issues, how to write a budget justification, how to stretch money as far as possible, how to negotiate with vendors, how the university accounting system works, how much responsibility to delegate to students/postdocs, how you may interact with the office of research accounting, how to do effort reporting.
  • Working with colleagues within the department and the university.  (actually, my department does a decent job at this through faculty mentoring, but most of that was put in place after I had been promoted already.)  How does university decision making work, what can the chair do, what do the deans do, what does the provost do.  Why are there so many university committees?  Do any of them do anything useful?  Are they just a refuge for people with too much free time, who like to argue for hours about whether "could" or "should" is the appropriate language for a policy?
  • Writing.  The only way people learn to write all of the really critical documents (papers, grant proposals, white papers, little blurbs for the department web page, group websites, etc.) is by doing.
  • Teaching.  At the modern research university, there is an assumption that you can pick up teaching.  This is widely considered insulting by serious education professionals, though there is truth to it - most people who are highly successful, communicative, organized scientists tend to be pretty good in the classroom, since good teaching requires good communications and organization capabilities (though also considerably more).
  • Time management.  No one teaches you how to budget your time, but if you can't do it reasonably well, you're really in trouble.  (For example, I should be writing three other things right now....)
Thoughts?  Anyone have any other examples of things we're expected to know but are never taught?  Suggested solutions to this problem?


Joel Kelly said...

I'm just a postdoc, but I did come across two resources that might help with this:

1. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute publishes a free resource on starting your lab, called Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. It's mostly geared towards the life sciences, but I think there is quite a bit of overlap.

2. The book Survival Skills For Scientists came out of a popular graduate-level class taught by the author. My university has a free electronic version to read.

Douglas Natelson said...

Thanks, Joel. Some of this stuff is also in the famous "A PhD is not Enough", but I like the materials you've linked quite a bit. Better about running a lab as opposed to the book I mentioned, which is more about how to get a job.

Gautam Menon said...

I can recommend the resources on Uri Alon's web-page:, under Materials for Nurturing Scientists. He gives a remarkably inspiring talk (accompanied by music in his guitar) on the sorts of things beginning PI's should know but don't and, in fact, wind up learning the hard way.

Anonymous said...

What about setting up a lab? If you did your PhD w/ a young PI, you learn how to set up a lab (identifying right equipment, etc) but if you did not, you won't learn these skills

Heumpje said...

I was extremely lucky in my first postdoc job: I was hired to as acting groupleader. My mentor has been director of the institute for the last couple of years and he decided it would help him and me if I would take care of the day to day running of the group. At first he left choosing the scientific things to me, but over time he introduced most if not all topics you mention to me. He added responsibilities bit by bit and sends FYI emails with documents related to funding and administrative stuff that he sends out. We do a lot of synchrotron work for which proposals need to be written -> my job from day 1. In some sense my postdoc was a second Ph.D but the topic was 'being an effective groupleader'.

This is of course impossible to do in a group with many postdocs (i am the only one in our group), but some of the things can still be applied in larger groups.

Anonymous said...

I found that the best way to learn those things is to ask people. For example I never realized that when dealing with vendors, it was customary to negotiate a rebate. If you do not know this (and the vendor will not tell you), then you will naively pay the overblown price.

Regarding the management of money, same remark. Sometime it seems you cannot save money that has not been used in your grant. A bit of talking with other researcher and you realize that the administration is open to some flexibility (nobody wants to lose money)