Graduate students are not professional scientists. Discuss.

[Note: This post was inspired by a comment on this earlier post]

The title of this post is sure to upset lots of readers. Before you react, let me put the statement into context. “Professional”, in the sense I intend it, refers to having a “profession” — as in, a career. “Scientist”, in the sense I am using it, means someone who is engaged in scientific research, regularly publishes in peer-reviewed journals, is supported through peer-reviewed grants*, and has a long-term career trajectory along these lines. Both terms can be defined much more broadly (professional = you get paid for it, scientist = anyone who does an experiment), but that isn’t useful in my opinion.

So what are graduate students, then? They are scientists in training, assuming they are planning to go on in science. Otherwise, they are people who want some more advanced experience in science but not a career science. There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking at it this way. One is not a chef in culinary school, nor a lawyer in law school, nor a medical doctor in medical school. Graduate school is an apprenticeship as much as anything.

Graduate students do most of the day-to-day research in science, no question. Many students are self-funded with scholarships (their stipend, anyway — not equipment or travel or reagents). A significant portion of them come up with quite independent research and get by with minimal guidance. I was one of those — I never received a paycheck from my adviser, I published several single-author papers, and I did not need regular supervision. But I was not a professional scientist at that time, I was a scientist in training.

I did not realize just how much more there is to being a scientist until I started as a junior professor. Suddenly I had a totally new respect for my former advisers. Writing grants, supervising students, developing courses, serving on committees, reviewing manuscripts, editing theses, coming up with or at least guiding and facilitating research projects by a group of students, and all the other things that profs do is miles away from the good old days of graduate school or postdocdom.

Graduate students are critical to the scientific endeavour. But they are still in training and hopefully are aware that they have a lot to learn before they can head out on their own. :)

Of course, I welcome comments — I suspect a lot of grad students will disagree, but again, take my claims in their proper context.

See also Postdocs always overestimate their intellectual contributions by Drug Monkey a couple of years ago for another interesting, if contentious, discussion. And Why would advisors encourage students to publish? here at Genomicron for more about my very positive view of graduate students and their contributions.

* People really hate this one. Fine — take it off the list if you disagree strongly (e.g., because it excludes industry scientists). That won’t suddenly alter the conclusion given what this post is trying to say, namely that graduate students are scientists in training but that they have not yet taken up a career or profession in science.

UPDATE: One of the major distinctions that is important is that graduate students have research projects, professional scientists (in my terminology) have research programs. Maybe there are better terms, since “professional” seems to annoy many people?

UPDATE: I probably shouldn’t have cited DrugMonkey’s post, since apparently he thinks this post is “idiotic” and that I have been “dancing around” the issues. Nevermind that he draws clear distinctions between PIs and postdocs and his otherwise irrelevant re-post linking to this one clearly describes grad students as “in training”. Oh, and the only description he provides of himself is as “an NIH-funded biomedical research scientist”. Oh well.

COMMENTS ARE NOW CLOSED ON THIS POST. Any further discussion will be continued here.

36 comments to Graduate students are not professional scientists. Discuss.

  • I sort of agree and disagree. Obviously there is a lot of training involved in grad school, and a lot of what grad students do is simply implementing the research plans thought up by the mentor. But there is a difference between grad school and professional school. Nobody would want a med student to operate on them or a law student to defend them in court (and in fact neither is actually legal), as everyone understands they are not ready to practice what they are learning.
    But science grad students *do* practice science. Some really good grad students even write papers without their mentor’s help. The classic case is the Meselson–Stahl paper on DNA replication, as both Meselson and Stahl were grad students at the time.
    And how to classify amateur scientists that actually publish papers in peer reviewed journals as part of their hobby without any grad school at all? Not too many in biology today, but such hobbyists still play a non-trivial position astronomy and mathematics today.

  • “Amateur scientists” works fine for the situation you describe in the second part.

    Chefs in training can cook (supervised) in restaurants.  Last week my wife was examined by a med student who was training with our doc. Law firms have interns involved in legal cases. There’s more to it than surgery or courtroom, just as there is more to science — and grad students do some parts just as others in training do.

  • The slippery bit is that word “professional.” I don’t know where the dividing line between “professional” and everything else is. It’s surely not as cut and dried the old definition they used for the Olympics; if you get paid, you’re a professional.
    I’ve written a little about the flip-side, namely not the point at which you enter professional science, but at what point (if ever) you stop being a professional scientist:

  • B Harpur

    I still can’t agree, but it seems for more semantic reasons than anything. The use of the word professional is what is causing problem. A graduate student is one who is looking for more in-depth scientific training in order to become what you are calling a professional. They are in training but they are still working, and likely planning on working, in the scientific field. I don’t think the length of time matters, they are for that period a professional scientist.Graduate students are not professionals of the same level as their trainers, like carpenters. The trades provide a better nomenclature. A master/journeyman carpenter trains an apprentice, both are professional carpenters. You compared scientists to lawyers or doctors and maybe this was a poor choice unless you want to revise your definition of “professional”. I will fully agree that a lawyer and a doctor are not professional until they have “Esq” or “MD” behind their names, but I don’t think this is the same for a professional scientist. You don’t need “MSc” or “PhD” behind your name to be a professional scientist. A master maybe. A professional scientist is one that is engaged in research, publishes, is funded, and pans on a scientific career. If I am not mistaken, this applies to most grad students.

    I realize this is entirely semantic, but I think the correct choice of words here is really the issue.

    • Graduate students do science, that is not at issue. Are they “professional scientists”? No, not under any meaningful definition. Why? Because they are NOT funded in the same way (scholarships are not peer-reviewed, they only pay for stipends, etc. — believe me, I have written NSERC scholarship applications, postdoc applications, and proper grants, and there is absolutely no comparison). If you’re an apprentice carpenter, you are not a professional — you are training in someone else’s shop. Most graduate students publish little if anything until the latter part of their programs (so you can’t be a professional scientist just for showing up on the first day of grad school). The great majority of graduate students will NOT go on to become faculty (do the math).

      Another question — do you really want to be a “professional scientist” if all it takes is registration in grad school to earn the title? :-)

      Assuming that you are a grad student right now, maybe even a top student, self-funded (stipend, not lab/reagent/equipment/etc.) I will make a prediction. If you do go on in science beyond graduate school, through postdoc, and land a faculty position, you will look back and realize just how different grad school is from professional science. That was certainly my experience, and I had 3 publications as an undergrad, 15 by the end of my PhD, two NSERC scholarships, an NSERC postdoc, and the top NSERC postdoc prize in Canada. But looking back, I still was just in training for a scientific career.

    • One of the other major criteria, which continues to be relevant into the early part of tenure-track positions, is demonstrating independence. Grad students can be “independent” within the safe confines of their program and adviser’s lab, but it’s not the same as developing an independent research program.

      I’m fine with a different term if “professional” bothers you, but let’s be honest that there are massive differences between what grad students do and what advisers do.

  • I really don’t understand the point of this post. Why are you trying to make this distinction between scientist and professional scientist? What does it matter? Advisers are already seen as superior, so why try to beat down graduate students even more? Did a graduate student refer to themselves as a professional scientist and that bothered you? I know what a scientist. It is someone that does science. I don’t think professional adds any additional meaning and is just an embellished title.
    How about this as a counter argument? Advisers aren’t really scientists because they don’t actually do the science themselves. They could be considered “professional administrators”. They write grants to bring in funding and then depend on grad students and post-docs to actually translate that into real scientific results.

    • I think you’re missing the point entirely if you think this is “beating down” graduate students. (And definitely go read this if you think that is my attitude).

      This post was inspired by a comment on a previous post which argued that graduate students *are* “professional scientists”. So, I thought I would open the discussion.

      Finally, I think your understanding of what advisers do is way off.

  • I should have been more clear in my last comment that I was speaking tongue in cheek with respect to advisers not being scientists.
    My problem is that “professional” does not add any information with respect to science. If person x tells me they are a scientist and person y is a professional scientist I would not think they do anything different. I might think that the professional scientist is a bit high on themselves, but that is all.

    • Well, again, I was only trying to indicate that some bloggers are scientists in the sense of PIs, whereas many others are students, journalists, or whatever. Lots of science bloggers, not so many scientist-bloggers as in PI-level-scientist-bloggers. I don’t think professional scientist is a common term anyway — so we can just use grad student, postdoc, PI, etc., though it’s rather clunky.


        Well, again, I was only trying to indicate that some bloggers are scientists in the sense of PIs, whereas many others are students, journalists, or whatever.Lots of science bloggers, not so many scientist-bloggers as in PI-level-scientist-bloggers.I don’t think professional scientist is a common term anyway — so we can just use grad student, postdoc, PI, etc., though it’s rather clunky.

        Sure you can argue that journalist type science bloggers are different than those bloggers that actually do science. But I completely disagree that PI science blogs require a separate “professional” classification, while grad students that blog are grouped into “journalists, or whatever”. Yes, grad student science blogs will have different perspectives from PI blogs, but viewing one as better or more “professional” is ludicrous and arrogant.

        • “Yes, grad student science blogs will have different perspectives from PI blogs, but viewing one as better or more “professional” is ludicrous and arrogant.”

          What I think is much more arrogant is the suggestion that graduate students and PIs are equally knowledgeable about science.  So, someone who has spent, say, a year or two in grad school is as qualified to talk about the process of science or the details of a discipline as someone who has written and reviewed dozens of papers, written grants, supervised graduate students, etc.?

          I really don’t have a vested interest in who calls themselves what. I was pointing out, in response to the NYT article, that very few blogs are written by practicing scientists (I used the word “professional” to indicate PIs, but obviously that really upsets some people).  Most are by people who are not running a research lab. The author of the article seemed to be surprised that science blogs weren’t about science/by scientists, and I was indicating that this isn’t so surprising since most science blogs are not written by, shall we say, scientists who are already established? (Insert any term here that doesn’t offend you — it matters little to me what we call them).


    • I don’t know about you, but when I was a grad student I said I was a PhD student.  When I was a postdoc I said I was a postdoc. Now I say I’m a scientist, but perhaps I restrict the term more than others. :-)


        I don’t know about you, but when I was a grad student I said I was a PhD student.  When I was a postdoc I said I was a postdoc. Now I say I’m a scientist, but perhaps I restrict the term more than others.

        I’m a post-doc and I tell people I am a scientist. I would have a serious problem with someone telling me I wasn’t.

  • In my view, grad students, and anyone else doing benchwork of any sort, are practicing scientists, even if in training. Whether they are professional… well, I always thought ‘professional’ meant ‘getting paid to do it’.
    The problem I find with your definition of scientist being a PI is that it links the term ‘scientist’ (which the public perceives as “people who actually do science”) to academic titles, which are not necessarily indicative of quality or intelligence. I’ve read papers by established PIs that would make an undergrad blush. I think what matters more than title is how close the author is to the bench, figuratively speaking. People like Dawkins, despite him having been a ‘proper’ PI in the past, do not make the cut for being ‘practicing scientists’, in my view (in agreement with Zen Faulkes’ post), as they have been removed from the bench (or field) for decades. In this view, Dawkins is no more deserving of the ‘practicing scientist’ title than Random Blogging Grad Student. He’s a practicing science WRITER, as you would probably argue. I’ve definitely felt more like a scientist when running experiments, etc, than I do now in my writing job, even though my current job is a bit more intellectually demanding and requires lots of reading and thinking about scientific literature.
    Lastly, I think this argument is rather pointless. Yes, students, PIs, writers, etc offer differing perspectives on the subject, and that diversity must be appreciated. But science is a *collaborative* effort. Even a science writer CAN make a contribution to science by bringing up a long-forgotten work of the past, or inspiring a different view of thinking. Science is not confined to the bench – often, a paradigm shift caused by a re-analysis is necessary to view extant data in a different light. I think Gould’s “Wonderful Life” illustrates an example of that very nicely. It is unnecessarily divisive to run around sorting out who’s actually doing the science and who isn’t. I vaguely recall reading in IGA how genetic mapping was initially conceived and developed by someone as an undergrad, so the contributions to science are not necessarily limited to people with titles.
    If one limits the term ‘scientist’ to only those who successfully attain faculty positions, it will then sadly follow that much of science is not done by scientists. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most contributors would never get the opportunity to become scientists, considering the success rate is supposedly something like 1/200 entering grad students (source: academic rumour mill — very reliable, I know). It doesn’t make my day any better to think that I’ll probably never make it to being a ‘scientist’…

    • I think people may be over-analyzing my comments. Grad students and others DO science, we all agree. The rest is dependent on definitions, and I defined the terms as clearly as I could in my particular discussion. My post was in response to a comment on a previous post, not a major claim meant to offend students.  If you know anything about my record as a student and as an adviser, you would not think that I undervalue student contributions.

    • I have to say, I think it’s a bit questionable to complain about my definition of “professional scientist” in general and then to toss in your own which includes anyone working at the bench (volunteers? technicians? undergrads?) and by extension excludes theoretical physicists et al. Bench work is important, but generally it is considered the easiest part of the entire package — the harder parts are the questions, problem-solving, analysis, interpretation, etc. :-)

  • Joe

    in addition to other things that have been previously mentioned, there is, likely unintended, the hint of elitism in your post. Making the distinction as you have between the 2 ‘classes’ of scientists is going to get people fired up no matter what words you use to describe these 2 groups.

    Also, there are some grad students that would fit your definition of professional scientist, as many of them are supported by peer reviewed grants (thinking NSF DDIG’s and the NIH equivalent), publish and review manuscripts, and have a long term career trajectory in science. They may not manage a lab, etc, but there is already a distinguishing term for that, …P.I.

    • I don’t think I established two classes of scientists, I merely pointed out that there are differing levels of experience and expertise (this is also true within faculty, which have ranks too). To suggest that there are not such differences is more problematic in my opinion.

  • In the context of blogging, I don’t think there’s a huge amount of confusion about the level of science that individual writers are practicing.
    Grad students and post-docs blog bout their projects, their PIs, their job prospects; tenure-track people blog about stress; tenured people blog about funding systems, often with some advice for up-and-comers. People who are interested in science have different concerns again. And all of them often do good, journal club style summaries and analyses of papers.
    I think it’s great to have that range subsumed under the category of “science blogger.” They all bring valuable perspectives. Tenured people could use the occasional reminder of how hard they can be to deal with; post-docs can maybe get an insight on why their tenure-track PI seems ready to come apart at the seams; and so on.

    • Quite right. I think the diversity of perspectives in “science blogs” is fantastic. What triggered this whole discussion was this line from the New York Times:

      “[Science blogging, especially at is] not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers”.

      So, I was saying that if she expected most science blogs to be written by professional/practicing/established/whatever, she should realize that they are only a minority of science bloggers.

  • student_X

    I am in agreement with everything you said, except that Graduate School is not an apprenticeship, its indentured servitude. And therefore, graduate students, although not professional scientists, are indeed professional indentured servants with hopes to one day enslave their own students for their own “professional” career. :)

  • Lane

    ”  I did not realize just how much more there is to being a scientist until I started as a junior professor. Suddenly I had a totally new respect for my former advisers. Writing grants, supervising students, developing courses, serving on committees, reviewing manuscripts, editing theses, coming up with or at least guiding and facilitating research projects by a group of students, and all the other things that profs do is miles away from the good old days of graduate school or postdocdom.  ” 

    But this has more to do with being a “professor” than it does to being a “professional scientist”, doesn’t it?  Given the analogies to chefs, M.D.s, and lawyers, the same “fill in the blank” relation could be made to a CEO’s secretary in a corporation marshalling the activities of all the other secretaries. 

    But most curious is that by your definition, Albert Einstein wasn’t a “professional scientist”, at least when he did his best work.  Let’s see, he published a thesis titled “A new determination of molecular dimensions” in the same year he published papers in diffusion, the photoelectric effect, mass-energy equivalence, and special relativity (really on the electrodynamics of objects in motion) all when was essentially a graduate student at the University of Zurich (but funding himself by his more famous work at the Swiss Patent Office).  Perhaps he was really training Kleiner (his, it is acknowledged, “pro forma” advisor) rather than the other way around. He was a lecturer there (technically, a “docent”) when he made his breakthrough in understanding curvature dynamics — again, a teaching appointment, no specific research grant.  He became a professor — and contractually freed from teaching obligations in 1914 — at Kaiser Wilhelm.  OK, so maybe his first paper as a “professional scientist” was really on the quantitative relation between critical opalescence and Rayleigh scattering.  (And Galileo Galilei originally funded himself by grinding glass lenses and rolling them up into telescopes for Italian wool brokers — to see when their “ships were coming in”.)

    In any case, it would seem that your definition is convoluted with the modern miasmic state of academic science.  In that case, why pretend to prepare your top students for a career in which has they have little likelihood of success?  Perhaps suggest something more useful — like risk arbitrage.   

  • Hi
    Fresh graduates are not be professional in theirs lives. Because if you want to be a professional you should take some experience and this is same example for scientist.

  • Well, you’ve completely and utterly pegged science to academia.  Large numbers of grad students are also employed as part-time help in biotech and pharma companies, in Denmark at least, working alongside the senior scientists.  They are paid for what they do, and contribute to the company’s knowledge.  They are chemists, biologists, bioinformaticians, cheminformaticians.  I think you’ve drawn an artificial and largely indefensible distinction here, which especially fails in a commercial context.

    • “employed as part-time help” =/= professional

      • OK, ket me be a little less terse than you, and present my reasons why I think grad students employed as part time help can be considered professional scientists:

        1. they are remunerated for the work they do
        2. they are sometimes credited in publications and patents
        3. they contribute to the establishment of scientific knowledge in the organization.

        Which of these criteria eliminate them from consideration as professional scientists?

        • Because that is not their profession. Unless of course you want “profession” and “professional” to be so broad that they mean nothing. But you don’t, you want people to assume the narrow sense when you use it in the broad sense.  Otherwise, who cares?

  • Enkidu

    Soooo… if the only true “professional scientist” is a PI, what about those who have a PhD but don’t run their own lab or obtain their own grant money?  I think the PI-only view is very narrow.  As long as you are thinking up your own experiments and wiriting/ publishing papers, ie sharing your knowledge in a professional setting, you are a scientist.  PI or not.

  • ziadax

    You know, here’s my problem with your definition of “professional scientist”. You seem to be saying that those who go on beyond graduate school, get their PhD’s and are PIs in research labs with funding are the “professional scientists”. So what about me? I went to grad school. Got a M.S. in Forensic Science, chemistry specialization, with yes, actual research an actual chemistry field to get it. I now work as a forensic chemist in a state forensic lab, more specifically as a controlled substance examiner. Many of my coworkers stopped at the Bachelor’s degree level. We don’t have the time to do much, if any research – we’re too busy keeping up with casework and court testimony. Much of the forensic literature comes out of case reports or academia, or people in different fields of forensics than I am in (e.g. DNA, toxicology, etc.). Are we not considered by you then to be “professional scientists”? I’m interested to know.

    • To paraphrase, “You know, here’s my problem with your definition. It doesn’t include me.” That’s pretty much been the standard reply. I have closed the comments on this post because it’s not moving forward anymore, but the discussion can continue here.