Becoming a grown up scientist.

Dr. Janet Stemwedel is a philosopher at San Jose State who also happens to have earned her PhD in physical chemistry, which means she has some significant street cred when discussing science. Her blog is known as Adventures in Ethics and Science, and recently she began a series on being a grown up scientist. Part 1 identifies some of the many things that professional scientists must do that graduate students are not taught, or may not even be aware of, while they are in training.

Of course, what I discovered is that there is a great deal more one needs to learn than just how to be creative, have good insights, design reasonable experiments, present reasonable data, and write clear scientific papers. (Even this much is quite a lot to learn, and some of it — like scientific creativity — is pretty hard to teach.)

Grown-up chemists also seemed to know how to write effective grant proposals, how to manage (and even mentor) graduate students, postdocs, and technicians, how to nurture productive and mutually beneficial relationships with other chemists in their sub-specialty, how to stay on top of the literature and discern which newly described results or techniques were most important (at least with respect to their own research area), how to be fair and constructive peer reviewers and how to respond effectively to referee reports on their own manuscripts, how to work within departmental politics and the politics of their discipline.

They knew how to tell when an experiment was done, when the data was good, when there was a finding that merited a paper to announce it. They knew how to work out authorship on the papers. They knew who, in their field of research, would be the hardest to convince of the new result. They knew which journal would be the best place to submit a particular manuscript and which meeting would be the best venue to present pre-publication results. And, they could conceive of three distinct follow-up projects to build on the new results.

Plus, they (at least, the grown-up chemists I was looking to as role models) seemed to know which chemists in the community were good people to talk to, collaborate with, or argue with (in the best sense of argument, where each side makes its best case and then presents its best criticisms of the other side). And they seemed to have identified the chemists around whom you’d want to watch your back.

Grown-up chemists had a huge body of unwritten knowledge to draw upon, it seemed. But hardly any of it seemed to be the focus of our graduate training — at least, not explicitly.

I must say I agree totally — there is a tremendous difference between being a grad student and being a professional academic scientist, but it’s probably the case that most of us do not realize that until we are faculty. I certainly had a profound new respect (in addition to an already considerable amount) for my former advisors when I became a professor myself.

Part 2 of Janet’s series will ask “Why don’t most advisors talk about the things grad students most want to learn from them?”. I am looking forward to the rest of her posts, and I recommend them to both students and advisors as the basis for discussion and thought.

One thought on “Becoming a grown up scientist.

  1. I had the (mixed?) pleasure of judging at a public school science fair a couple of weeks ago. Talking to 11- to 13-year-olds amid the try-this-at-home science projects (including two token baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes), I suddenly felt a huge distance from my childhood, and theirs. It made me realize just how long a road it has been to become even a lowly undergraduate biology student on the cusp of graduation. Still, I feel like the debutante, making my first venture into doing “real” science, and the outer limits of the scientific galaxies in the academic universe seem light years away…

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