[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.