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Overcoming The Bad Habits You Learned in Grad School

The National Science Board--one of the pillars of the academic research establishment--has just released a report entitled " The Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate and Postdoctoral Education." As you might guess, their recommendations are unremarkable and thoroughly status quo. "The Ph.D.," they opine, "is and should remain a research degree." When asked how they rationalize producing over 25,000 research-trained Ph.D.s each year when most go on to nonresearch careers, the report blithely explains that:

"Ph.D. recipients have broadly applicable skills; and the problem-solving abilities they acquire enrich their capacities in teaching, research and management positions."

This insouciant mantra is now a stock rationalization articulated by advisers, department chairs, and deans who see no need to reduce Ph.D. production or significantly modify Ph.D. training programs. In short, Don't Worry, Be Happy: A Ph.D. can get a job anywhere!

The sad fact is that most advisers, department chairs, and deans have no idea what is really required to make Ph.D. students not only marketable but successful in other careers besides research science. It is true that a Ph.D. education CAN teach a broad range of transferable skills. However, Ph.D. training, as it stands today, also teaches a number of habits and beliefs that are not only detrimental to success in the outside world but can even hinder your success (not to mention happiness) in science. Succeeding in science for our generation requires not only brains but business acumen, good people skills, and vision. And it is in these latter categories that the Ph.D. education falls short.

Fortunately, you are a reader of the Next Wave, in which we can not only discuss the problem but think about solutions. Even if you are out of graduate school, you can still learn to recognize the weaknesses of a Ph.D. and how to compensate for them.

Weakness #1: No Training in Business Acumen

Because so many academics eschew the private sector (and thrive off of a semisocialist system of government grants), few of their students get meaningful exposure to life in the real world. Furthermore, grad school can reinforce behavior that is detrimental to success, either in science or beyond. Two examples (that I have learned the hard way) are: risk aversion and a failure to understand the value of time.

Risk aversion is more than just the tendency to avoid risk; it is the inability to weigh risk and reward and a failure to recognize when prudent risk taking is needed. Part of the source of risk aversion in scientists may be that the career of science can be very attractive to risk-averse people! From a college grad's perspective, a science career can seem a very secure pathway--hard work seems to be rewarded with tenure and security. Once in grad school, many students find that the financially stressed, competitive world of research science actually promotes intellectual conservatism and risk aversion. Research groups make safe, incremental research steps because that is the only way to get funding. Few PIs can get grants nowadays for proposing a wacky idea outside their subdiscipline. And students learn this lesson fully. Have you ever seen someone try a daring new project for their thesis, fail to make it work, and still get a Ph.D.?

A failure to understand the value of time is a second business skill that is critical in the outside world but an utterly alien concept in graduate school. Most of this stems from the fact that academia is an environment steeped in penury. Not only are most graduate students paid little more than the minimum wage, but PIs are often forced to pinch pennies to ridiculous degrees. In this environment, it can seem sensible to spend a week of some grad student's time to build or repair a device that would cost only a few hundred dollars. Once one is out in the real world, one learns that in many cases the time spent pinching pennies simply does not pay off. In the working world, people's time is much more expensive, and decisions and actions lose their value the longer they are delayed. Graduate school teaches one to be careful and meticulous. In the outside world, decisions often must be made with insufficient data because of time constraints.

So what can a young scientist do to combat Risk Aversion and Poor Investment of Time? I think step #1 is simply to recognize it. There's little more one can do in graduate school. Once you're out in the big bad world, having an honest discussion with your supervisor or boss about these issues may help a lot. Having a more experienced mentor watching your decision-making and pointing out where these bad habits crop up can help you learn these lessons without suffering the consequences.

Weakness #2: Poor People Skills

It is truly ironic that so many professors--hired to communicate and deal with people on a daily basis--have such piss-poor people skills. Again, this may reflect a self-selection effect: Shy, anxious, or obnoxious people may find it hard to get ahead in the outside world, but not so in academia! Not only do graduate students receive no training in dealing with people (many of you will become managers someday--really!), but because of the heavy intellectual bent to graduate school, other forms of intelligence are greatly undervalued. Let's face it: Grad school is a book-smart culture. Sense of humor, tact, joviality, and empathy are all aspects of emotional intelligence that are rarely discussed, never taught, and patently undervalued!

So what do you do if you think you need to develop better people skills? Well, dear reader, it turns out that there are ways you can LEARN this stuff. There are books out there that are wonderfully practical, teaching you how to elicit more positive reactions from people. Are you extremely shy? There's a wonderful international organization called Toast Masters that teaches people to be confident in public and eloquent in speech. I saw one foreign graduate student literally metamorphose in 1 year from awkward and shy to outgoing and confident through active participation in Toast Masters.

Weakness #3: The Vision Thing

As a scientist, you know that insight is often gained by having a breadth of vision and seeing connections that have not been recognized by others. The same is true in the outside world. However, it is startling how infrequently graduate programs try to instill in their students a sense of vision, in their research or in their science. With the risk aversion I described above also comes a narrowness of view that encourages sub-subspecialization. Graduate students are told to focus, focus, focus. "Eliminate those distractions!" " Don't take those outside courses!" "Just get your work done!"

It used to be that departments would invite outside speakers to come share their research results and ideas. In my first 2 years in graduate school, these talks were packed. In later years, when the scramble for money and productivity became more acute, the numbers at these talks declined. Moreover, some advisers not only didn't encourage their students to attend, but they also grumbled about time spent away from the lab. As a result, students learned a nose-to-the-grindstone style of thinking that I find more pervasive in graduate school than ever before.

While success in graduate school does require some focus and diligence, an absence of ANY external stimulation, macroscopic focus, or grand vision can lead to stagnant, derivative research (not to mention a lackluster career). But the record is clear that the outstanding creative minds in our profession have cultivated a degree of breadth, big-picture view, and vision to guide them.

As a graduate student or postdoc, you may have few opportunities to talk to your advisers about the REALLY big issues that are facing science. You should try to encourage discussions of these big issues, not only within your department but also by inviting outside speakers who CAN talk about the big picture. Ask yourself: What are the five biggest issues facing the world today in which science can play a part? What do you know about each of these issues? Some graduate students I have met have developed theme seminars on macroscopic interdisciplinary issues. A few I have heard about are:

  • Colonizing Mars: a two-semester workshop for engineering and science students to develop a plan to colonize the Red Planet

  • The Future of Nuclear Weapons: an interdisciplinary seminar with political science, history, and science graduate students

  • Global Threats: a sciencewide seminar on the present-day hazards facing our planet

  • The Politics of Cloning: a joint seminar between the law school and several science departments to discuss the social, political, and legal implications of emerging cloning technology

Unlearning the Bad Habits

Overcoming the bad habits of graduate school requires proactive behavior on your part; it is unlikely that your graduate or postdoc advisers will be of much help. Recognizing these shortcomings in yourself, and in the behavior of others, is an important first step. Not only will it increase your chances of success and happiness in whatever career you choose, but I think it will improve the effectiveness of research science itself.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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