Broaden Your Horizons While Pursuing Your Doctorate—You Will Be Glad You Did

For this posting, I had promised to include some commentary on ACTION.

image credit: ComiCONNMitch via Wikimedia Commons

image credit: ComiCONNMitch via Wikimedia Commons

What can someone pursuing a doctorate in the biosciences DO during that time to widen the possibilities of employment in the future? In general, the process of obtaining the doctorate has been criticized for taking too long and not doing enough to prepare students for what they will do when they graduate. Considering these criticisms, it seems wrong to create additional check-boxes on the student to-do list leading up to graduation. Therefore, these things are not in addition to what is already expected, but are instead the same things that are already happening re-focused.

When it comes to synthesizing knowledge, try to branch out. Seminars, symposia and journal clubs are a good opportunity to learn a bit about various areas of research on your campus. In my research, one person told me –  “a lot of times those seminars perpetuate non-synthetic thinking – they’re sort of just a boring presentation by whoever they could grab because they needed somebody that week” – try to branch out, do some peer-only clubs, attend events in areas different than your own and invite conversation with diverse people.

image credit: Field of Dreams, Dyersville IA. JoeyBLS via Wikimedia Commons

image credit: Field of Dreams, Dyersville IA. JoeyBLS via Wikimedia Commons

Today, students must be grounded in the nature of blended scientific disciplines (i.e., they must be interdisciplinary) compared to times past. However, many institutions do not do a good job of supporting interdisciplinary efforts and it is difficult to find mentors who model an interdisciplinary approach. In order to create interdisciplinary meanings, integrated workspaces go a long way toward encouraging interdisciplinary approaches and actions. The “synergistic” effect of ideas coming from multiple individuals focused on different aspects of the same problem can lead to more creative approaches to research. However, this isn’t the field of dreams— if you build it, you still need to model it and work to achieve it! Collaboration efforts must also be modeled and encouraged by mentors, programs and disciplines. These efforts need to be recognized and awarded so that they become a part of the fabric of a program, department and ultimately institution.

In a similar manner, encouraging and rewarding students who act as stewards is important— stewardship is necessary in order to 1) maintain and grow various scientific fields, 2) allow others outside of a given field to understand the work that is achieved within it and 3) garner support for this work. If these efforts were formally incorporated into doctoral programs, we would really be getting somewhere. As it stands, primarily NSF and NIH funded research requires outreach efforts (one of the major ways in which stewardship occurs).

Branching out further from acting as stewards, students must also understand how science is intertwined with the world; in this respect, small changes to what is expected of students and elements of the student experience can lead to better understandings about the impact of research on global challenges. Responsibility for helping students make connections between their scientific research and global problems falls on the shoulders of departments, programs and mentors. Encouraging students to think in broad and varied lenses, to join professional and academic societies and to try to relate their work to the world around them is important.Research goals may be basic or applied or some combination thereof— regardless, there are larger and wider frames that bear considering. One student I spoke with in doing an interview recalls a professor of hers saying “In a recent poll, 100% of people surveyed were interested in breathing, and miraculously that same 100% were also interested in eating”— but the questions scientists seek answers to go well beyond this.

When it comes to accepting the inherent complexity of science and being prepared for non-consensus, consider this – just because somebody said it doesn’t mean it’s a fact.The process of shifting from novice to expert involves some heady thinking. Activities that might help a student advance in his or her abilities to think deeply about findings include applying for some student-driven grant funding—dig into the research, write up a proposal, submit it on your own and see what happens. Similarly, celebrate the milestones—don’t try to achieve a  solution all at once! Move the pile of rocks one stone at a time and with each stone, do a little dance. Lastly, realize that the result of graduate work is not revolutionary. Teaching and mentoring are valuable contributions to the field and should be viewed as such. As students guide others learning, they themselves develop a greater understanding of their research and its context and contribute in significant ways. The recognition of scientific revolution is realizing that the parts may be greater than the whole. Take time to reflect and work through the data, to process information—learning and discovery are iterative processes. Expertise should be scaffolded to provide the right amount of support and challenge. One PI said of her students –  One mentor said: “we don’t break it down in our training programs for them very well, so we don’t scaffold, we don’t build it up for them, we don’t help them develop… and then naturally they get lost in the minutiae and they have a hard time seeing the bigger picture”— so the challenge rests with the institutional aspects of programs as well as the student. But I’m willing to bet it’s the student who is reading this post—so I say to you, branch out! Get a panel of experts from diverse areas to serve on your committee. Make sure that you take time to think about your work and how it is important. Work with other students and make peer connections. Break out of your lab once in a while! You’ll be happy you did.

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Amy Prevost

Director, Scientific Courses at BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute
Amy Prevost received her doctorate from UW-Madison in 2012 in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. Amy is a program director at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute), a non-profit located on the Promega campus in Fitchburg, Wis., where she coordinates scientific programs for adult learners. She is also a project manager on a grant aimed at understanding student success in advanced manufacturing programs at two-year colleges with the Center on Education Research at UW Madison. Amy’s primary areas of interest in educational research include understanding educational pathways in STEM programs, improving student outcomes at the post-secondary and graduate levels – including access to careers, and trying to map elements of doctoral programs that contribute to students’ abilities to transfer knowledge.

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