Romeo and Juliet – in academia?

The internet is like a giant self-help handbook, and generally I read sections on “Why life sucks for a young scientists and what you can do about it”, “How to manage terrible PIs” and “How not to fail in a system that has failed you”. Last month, however, I came across a couple of really interesting posts from a new chapter, probably titled “This is how things look like from the other side”. First, I stumbled across a post from the Raj lab (Is My PI out to get me?), arguing that PIs actually do care, and try to make decisions that are – at least in the long run – in the interest of their students (even if we might not appreciate it now). Next, Dr Isis complained (Trainee-Level Fuckery of the Worst Kind…) about students who apply double standards regarding the supervision they expect from their PIs, and the supervision they supply to their own students. And finally, this entry on Scientific B-Sides (Managing Upwards Works! Until it Doesn’t) described the expectations of a PI towards his students/postdocs in a functional supervisor-student relationship: primarily that they should show initiative and be pro-active.

Then, last week, I attended a big reunion at my alma mater, talked to a bunch of people – and encountered a similar discrepancy between students/postdocs and PIs in real life. Students told me, how their supervisors did not give them with proper guidance (“She says she’s giving me academic freedom to develop my ideas – I think she just doesn’t care”) – young PIs complained how the standard had dropped (“When I started my PhD I spent 6 months in the library, trying to find an interesting problem to persue. If I told my students to do this today, there’d be a riot.”). Students complained that they did not receive any training, two PIs told me they had fired PhD students, because “he was really smart – but didn’t know how to hold a pipet/work at the bench”.

Juliet's balcony in Verona. Picture by gerry.scappaticci via flickr.

Juliet’s balcony in Verona. Picture by gerry.scappaticci via flickr.

So, all this got me thinking: there is clearly a discrepancy between how PIs and students/postdocs perceive the current system. But why? Sure, students might lack the experience to understand that the hard way (“forced” upon them by their mentors) is the better way in the long run. Also, everybody is keen to blame “the other side” when things go bad. But could there be more to it? What if it’s a bit of the Romeo and Juliet plot: we have the superficial storyline, the conflict between the families (the PI and the student) – but in reality it’s a conflict between generations.

The academic system is changing. I need only look at the biology program from my old university: in the past 15 years there have been 2 major overhauls in the curriculum. Students who finished two years ahead of me, or 5 years after me, had a completely different training from the one I got. Primarily, this meant an increasing number of students per year, a decreasing number of practicals, and more standardized written examinations. The net result was the churning out of students with a degree equivalent to mine on paper, but much less lab experience, and little know-how on presenting and discussing concepts verbally and concisely. From what I hear, the trend is similar elsewhere, too. Moreover, students can now start a PhD after only 3 years of bachelor studies, close to zero lab work, not to mention zero experience in developing a project of their own.

These students subsequently enroll in a PhD program, which often push students to complete their degree in 3-5 years. This wouldn’t be a problem, if students would receive the rigorous training their mentors had. But in the absence of such a rigorous education, this “learning curve” needs to be integrated into a PhD. How do you identify and formalize an interesting problem? How do you structure a project from scratch? How do you manage failure? How do you develop a project with an integrated backup plan? How do you trouble-shoot an experiment? These skills are often simply not taught at uni any more. The way out: PhD students get pre-packaged, pre-developed projects, meaning they don’t need to develop these skills at all, and leave with a PhD degree, but unable to work independently. Or maybe students get a mentor who takes mentoring seriously, meaning either a “never-ending” 7-8 year PhD, or the students do finish in the assigned 3-4 years, but need to complete their PhD work as a postdoc in the same lab – which in turn looks bad on a CV…

Thing is, most PIs are vaguely aware of these problems, but don’t really understand their full extent. In Is My PI out to get me?, it is pointed out that junior PIs are often better mentors, despite more career pressure. I agree, and I think the primary reason is that young mentors are more aware of the level of training (or non-training) of students, and are thus better at adjusting their mentoring. Similarly, over at Scientific B-sides it’s statedI don’t want anybody to […] come in and say ‘I got a problem, please figure it out for me’. I want them to come in with a plan, be organized and make the most of the time we spend together.” This sounds great, and normally I’d completely agree. However, recently I’ve worked with students who were great at reading papers and coming up with ideas, but they were terrible at turning those seeds of an idea into an actual tangible and accessible experimental design. Similarly, I was shocked when discussing with a PhD student in my lab, who is really bright, but seemed stuck in his project. It turned out that he was having problems de-bugging his PCR, because it’s such a standard technique noone had bothered to explain the details. For him, until then, it was a black box that just worked. In such scenarios, students will actually come to me and say “I’ve got a problem. And I don’t know which corner of the problem to grab first. Can you help me figure it out.” And I can’t really blame them for doing so (though, I have become expert at asking politely “have you tried looking on the internet?” 😉

Assuming the greater problem is a generation gap – what can we do about it?

Together, hand in hand. Picture by Christian via flickr.

Together, hand in hand. Picture by Christian via flickr.

First of all, it’s important for PIs understand the depth of this problem: it means that you can only approximately rely on your previous experience with other students (even from the same institution – take, for example, the regular curriculum changes at my old uni). However, it is equally important for students not to view themselves as passive players in this game: sure, we got a worse education in some sense, but that’s a bad excuse for not listening to advice (like: “that sounds like a risky project” means “make sure you have a plan B”). It’s also a bad excuse for complaining without constructive criticism. The least we can do is identify the problem: be open about things we don’t know, clarify with our mentors what their expectations are, and tell them when we think we have shortcomings regarding some of these expectations due to our training. With a bit of work on both sides we can probably avoid the tragic ending of the “star-crossed” lovers.

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2 thoughts on “Romeo and Juliet – in academia?

  1. Nice article. I started ‘a PhD after only 3 years of bachelor studies’, however half of these 3 years I spend at the bench. So I felt well prepared for lab work, but did lack considerable experience in developing a project.

  2. Thanks for the kind words! And yes, I know there are some great, practice-oriented bachelor programs out there (sometimes I have the feeling the students I work with have had exposure to more methods than me ;). Unfortunately the opposite is also true: at my old uni the bachelor is really just a way to discourage as many students as possible to continue with a master, by making them cram shitloads of theory – and almost no practicals. Because degrees, experiences and expectations are really diverse, it’s a lot of work (on the behalf of the tutor and also the student) to fine tune the training: how much hands-on vs project development vs soft skills training is needed, will be different for every student. Something I haven’t discussed, is that it’s probably not just a generation thing (your PI might have no clue what kind of training you’ve had because the curriculum has changed), but also a mobility thing, since an increasing number of students will do a PhD abroad, so in the same lab might it’s increasingly likely to have 2 PhD students with totally different experiences.

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