in Learning

Learning to Become a (Life) Scientist – A Guide for Graduate Students: Overview

This is the first post in a series of posts about learning how to become a life scientist


Do-it-yourself Education

Having spent time both in med school and grad school, I’ve found a lot of contrasts.

As far as professional education goes, medical school is quite linear. There are myriad hurdles to jump over, but there is no uncertainty about what those hurdles are. They are laid out for you nicely by your school. Take exams – check. Go to lab – check. Show up to the clinic – check. Don’t hurt anybody – check. With a few exceptions, there aren’t a whole lot of points where you the student need to make a plan of your own. If you do X, Y and Z, you’ll become a doctor.

Graduate school (and by that I mean, getting a PhD in a biomedical discipline) is an entirely different animal. The course is much less defined. Sure, there are some specific requirements, like classes, teaching responsibilities and the like. But everything else is on you. Some of the decisions you need to make are obvious, like picking a lab to work in and identifying a project to do. Beyond that though, you’re on your own. Which is why there can be such a variety of PhD experiences, from the stellar to the miserable.

Part of the problem is that even the goal of a PhD is nebulous. In general, most people’s stated goal is to learn the things necessary to become a competent, independent biomedical scientist, usually in an academic or industrial setting. But what are those things one should learn? What knowedlege, skills and attitudes should one acquire to become a full-fledged life scientist?

That’s the question that prompted this series. I submit that there are clear and identifiable things that one needs to learn and do to become a life scientist, but they are not at all obvious to the graduate student who is just starting out (and perhaps not even to more senior students and post-docs too.) I think the general assumption of graduate education in the biomedical sciences is that if you make it through the journey, you’ll pick up things you need to know by osmosis. That may well be true for some things, but I think this is suboptimal way to learn. If you’re not clear about what you’re aiming for, your training plan may be lacking in many important aspects and you won’t even know it. And if you count on those around you to show you the way, you’re at the mercy of their priorities, which you may not share.

This is where getting a PhD differs from other professional training: You’ve got to come up with you’re own curriculum and make sure you’re learning all the things you need to know. Nobody else will do this for you.

To be fair, you will get some guidance from your PhD advisor, your thesis committee and your peers, but this is limited to just certain aspects of your training. They’ll make sure you’re going through the obvious motions – doing experiments, producing results, publishing papers – but the other components required to become a well-rounded scientist are on you.

This realization that we are responsible for our own learning can terrifying at first, but ultimately I think the freedom to drive one’s own course is an amazing thing. However, I think some explicit guidance early in one’s PhD training, would make it more awesome and less scary. And hence, this series of posts.

What you should learn depends on what you want to do

OK. So we’re on our own. But what should we learn? How do we design our own personal curriculum? Well, I’d like to share how I’ve done this for myself. I don’t claim it’s comprehensive or uniquely correct, but I think it’s better than just showing up in PhD-land and being pushed hither and yon by its caprices.

For me, the guiding principle for designing my training plan has been the following:

What I want to learn depends on what I want to do. If I identify the specific things I need to do, this will tell me what I need to learn

Some people call this principle ‘competency-based learning’, to emphasize that ultimately, it’s what you can do that matters, not how much time you put in or what titles you possess. I think that this philosophy is largely on the mark. And so does Google apparently.

So, in order to come up with my own curriculum for grad school, I thought about what my life would look like as a professional scientist. What activities and functions would I need to carry out.

Here is my list:

  1. Selecting a problem or question
  2. Planning to get answers (with experiments)
  3. Executing (experiments)
  4. Analyzing data
  5. Communicating my science
  6. Working with and managing others
  7. Managing myself
  8. Learning stuff
  9. Coming up with new ideas
  10. Promoting my work and myself

What’s to come

With this list in hand, over the course of this series, I plan to go one by one through each of the above key activities of the professional life scientist. For each one, I will elaborate on the specific competencies involved in each of the activities, and I will share the resources (books, tools, websites, etc.) that I’ve found to help me develop these competencies. I don’t profess to have mastered any of these things yet, but I hope to be broadly capable in carrying out these different functions by the time I’m done with my PhD.

If you think there are some glaring omissions in this list, I invite you to say so in the comments below. What do you think?

  • Alexander Chamessian

    A test comment

  • Allison G

    Hey Alex,

    I am really looking forward to hearing what you have to say. I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a blog about the graduate school process for a little over a year now, but never quite got to the point of feeling like I knew all of what I wanted to say. Hearing about your thoughts and occasionally interjecting some of my own will be a nice compromise for my commitment phobic state!

    About your list…

    Do your headings (#5,6, or 10) include the concept of holistically engaging in your (scientific) community? I completely agree with the concepts that you need to be able to effectively communicate your work, work productively with others and promote yourself and your work. In addition to that, I think my keeping (at least superficially) informed of others’ work, making an effort to converse with them about their work and engaging them in small collaborative efforts has been incredibly useful. It has assisted me in building a team of scientists, professors, post docs and fellow grad students within and outside of my home institution that are supportive of or invested in my success and I in theirs.

    I’d be really interested to hear your take on how engaging with others and promotion/support of their work assists you in furthering your self-promotion. The ability to confidently engage with others in my field and come away with or give good advice and information and acquire new, useful contacts is definitely something I had to work at improving as I progressed through my PhD.

  • Alexander Chamessian

    Hey Allison,
    Thanks so much for checking out the blog and for your kind words. I’m encouraged to keep going forward.

    Re: blog phobia. Every time you put yourself out there, there is the worry that you’re going to be criticized or really wrong about something. i struggle with that at times. but also I realize that, if I’m humble and circumspect about my pronouncements, who can hold me at fault? My opinions are my own. Many will disagree. But I think when you offer up some kind of practical guidance coupled with personal experience, people generally find that useful. Dont’ be afraid to start your own blog if you’re interested. It’s a nice outlet from the lab, and a great way to keep track of your own thoughts. Of course, you’re always welcome to chime in here. And if you ever want to guest post, let me know.

    Re: the list.

    There are a lot of ways one can ‘engage’. It depends on what you mean. If that means keeping abreast of all the developments in your field (and perhaps outside too), that’s one kind of engagement. Then there is the forming of a personal network through real relationships with other scientists. That’s also engagement, but of a different kind. People might call that networking, if we were in B-school. I think that all matters, and in 2014, there are a lot of ways to do both these things. I’ll be writing about both. Technology helps. Things like social media and new ways of transmitting scientific information (open source pubs, etc.) will change the landscape, and I think our generation is poised to embrace that change. I think one of the biggest problems is not being overwhelmed by how much new information there is to digest. That’s the issue of our day. Once it was not having enough info. Now it’s too much. Managing that is something I’ll talk about too.

    If you have some very specific things though that you think I should address, let me know. Thanks for your support.

    • Allison G

      I think I combined the two, as keeping abreast of one’s field can be done through forming real relationships with other scientists who are working in the field. But it definitely also involves a separate, personal, keeping abreast of literature, etc. I think it’ll be great to discuss both. Managing the amount of information out there is a tall task. And, as much as the word ‘networking’ makes me cringe (and has me picturing a room full of self-important people awkwardly schmoozing to further themselves without regard for others), I suppose it truly can be a term used for developing a positive and thoughtful personal network/community.