Training PhDs to Be Something Other Than Academics: Thoughts on Doctoral Training

To follow up on the economics underlying the training of PhDs, I’ve been meaning to respond to this post by ScienceBlogling DrugMonkey. In it, he writes:

As a student I was a big fan of the breadth exam, either written as closed-book or as oral exam. My rationale was basically what I saw as the continued “value” of me getting a doctorate from the department in question. It was a matter of the reputation gained by other grads from the program conversing with scientists across the field. I wanted them to come across as informed as possible, to as many discussants as possible.
Maturing through the career arc, I care less for this. Mostly because I’ve come to realize nobody that is judging me now gives a rat’s patootie what University or Department of -ology appears on my doctorate. They care about the papers I have published. Period. Full freaking stop.
So if I were dictating a graduate program, I’d be looking to enhance the ability of the students to publish papers. This would pretty much rule out the examination approach.

I agree with DrugMonkey that writing needs to be featured much more than it currently is. No matter what career path you end up on, you will need to write, whether it’s grants, papers, or even blogs!

But this education can’t be restricted to one type of writing. Many departments now encourage, if not require, students to apply for some kind of grant support (of course, universities have a vested interest in this…), which teaches grant writing. Unless your adviser is doing it wrong, you will have some training in research paper writing.
But writing for non-technical audiences matters too. Even as a professional researcher, I would argue that ‘overshooting’ a technical audience is a recurrent problem (and regarding grant writing, you shouldn’t write primarily for the one expert on the panel, you should write for the panel and the funder, whose level of expertise will be lower than yours). Learning to write for less technical audiences is a really important skill, and it’s a good way to keep your career options open.

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2 Responses to Training PhDs to Be Something Other Than Academics: Thoughts on Doctoral Training

  1. Cassidy says:

    True! At least some PIs recognize this: in my first-year advising group, we’ve done a series of talks to the class on our rotation research…the first was formal, with powerpoint. The second was informal chalk talk. The third was supposed to be to a lay audience (and those of us listening were supposed to ask layperson questions). I try as a rule to think about my projects from many angles, and it actually helps me understand the whole thing more fully if I think of how to explain it to someone in the field, someone generally educated in science, someone with no science training, my grandmother and a child.

  2. Jim Thomerson says:

    Cassidy, That is also why, when teaching introductory level courses, the professor learns more than the students. I find it more difficult to lecture at an introductory level on subjects where I am expert than on subjects which are outside my field. I feel like all the stuff in my field is equally important, but I can readily pick out the most important parts when I am not expert. very strange!

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